Clasping vinyl copies of albums such as Hold Your Fire and Grace Under Pressure, the fans ranged in age from high-school students to fortysomethings. The Canadian rock band has been playing to a similar quotient of teens and adults since the '80s and experienced a renewed interest when it hooked up with alterna-rockers Primus for a tour in the early '90s. And yet the popularity of Lee's in-store appearances, which commenced two days earlier in New Jersey and included stops in Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota, has surprised even Lee.
"I didn't know what to anticipate," the soft-spoken Lee says from Best Buy's back-room offices shortly before making his scheduled appearance. "There's so many appreciative people. I'm shocked. It's made it particularly gratifying. I think a lot of artists look at it as a bit of a drudgery, and I had that image in my head. Having done two of them now, it's not at all an unpleasant way to spend a couple of hours, getting to say a few words to somebody who seems to be intensely appreciative of my band's work."
Lee says the last time he did an in-store appearance was in Cleveland some 25 years ago, when the band came through town as the opening act for Uriah Heep and Manfred Mann. "There were like 12 people there," he recalls.
Rush hasn't been an opening act in years, and as its last tour -- in 1997 -- proved, it doesn't even need an opener to pack an arena. The group has one of the most loyal fan bases in the business and counts as fans such wide-ranging acts as the Stereophonics, Rage Against the Machine (which did a cover of "Working Man" that reportedly didn't make the final cut for its forthcoming album), Metallica, and Mixmaster Mike. And while there are some embarrassing moments in its past -- "I Think I'm Going Bald," for example -- Lee isn't about to admit to them for fear of insulting the faithful.
"Oh yeah, geesh," Lee responds when asked if there were songs he'd rather forget. "What I've learned is that I need to keep those to myself. I had it happen last night, where a kid came up to me and said, 'I heard you don't like the Caress of Steel album.' I don't think it's our best album, and there are moments on it that are kind of weird. He thought it was our best album, and I hate to hurt someone's feelings."
To be honest, there are some "weird" moments on Headache, for which Lee recruited ex-Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron and multi-instrumentalist Ben Mink. Writing lyrics for the first time since the band's first two records, Lee struggles to find provocative themes -- something that was never a problem for Rush's lyricist, drummer Neil Peart, who tends to throw around literary references like a high-school English teacher. "I want to talk, but I haven't got too much to say," Lee sings prophetically in the Headache title track.
Filled with electric violin and synthesizer flourishes, Headache is also frustrating in the way that Rush's work has been since Signals. The group has relied so heavily on synthesizers that often you can hardly hear the work of one of rock's most adept power trios hammering underneath the special effects.
"Synthies [Canadian for synthesizers] expanded our textural abilities and melodic content," Lee maintains. "I think it was important, although I think it's easier to temper their use now. I can understand how a pure rock and roller or a musician just wants to hear guitar, bass, and drums cranked up. And I like doing that, too. I think we've been looking for that balance."
Other than confirming that the group plans to start recording next year, Lee won't say anything about what Rush's next album might sound like. And even though Peart was devastated by the recent deaths of his wife and daughter (from cancer and a car accident, respectively), Lee says that Rush, which has never broken up since forming in 1968 and hasn't changed its lineup since giving original drummer John Rutsey the boot after its first album, will endure.
"We are very synchronous in terms of what we want to do," he says, making a circle with his finger on the table. "Usually bands split up for two reasons: One is money, and the other is musical frustration. We have a free forum for ideas, and if we all don't like it, it doesn't happen. We have never once argued about money. None of us are greedy. And we have a really loyal core of fans. We don't sell like Celine Dion or Matchbox Twenty or one of these pop bands. We have the same thing the Grateful Dead had."