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Closer to the Park: A Pilgrimage Site for Rush Fans in Northern Toronto

Willowdale takes mean, mean pride in local boys Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee with Lee Lifeson Art Park

Despite achieving a level of success matched by few other Canadian rock bands of their era – of any era, really – Rush has never gone in for the kind of self-involved hauteur or veiled sexual menace that one expects from your average rock gods. In interviews and in person, they’ve always come across as, at heart, really just nice suburban boys.

The band’s most recent album, R40 Live, recorded last year at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre over two sold-out nights, has been well-received critically and commercially. But it also may mark the swan song to a career that spans – as the title references – a 40-year career. Shortly after the album was released, the band announced it would no longer be touring.

So there’s a certain symmetry in the fact that, now that the musicians are in their sixties and the band’s trajectory is gradually winding down, the neighbourhood where their journey began should honour them. On a rainy September afternoon, about 300 dedicated fans and neighbours gathered in Willowdale, the leafy Toronto suburb where Rush members Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee grew up, to see their hometown heroes attend the opening of a local park bearing their names.

At the ceremony, Lifeson recalled busking for spare change in the park back in high school. Lee joked, “I remember skipping school with Alex and getting high here.” (They weren’t altogether choirboys, of course.) Lee then turned serious, and praised the notion of a neighbourhood space dedicated to creating art. “Art elevates,” he said. “Art heals.”


Lifeson (left) and Lee at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2010. We'll forgive these guys for writing a song to that *other* Toronto airport

The pair first met in junior high in Willowdale back in the late 1960s; Geddy joined Alex’s fledgling rock band after its very first gig (which at that time included another neighbourhood kid, John Rutsey, who was replaced in 1974 by drummer and lyricist Neil Peart, a line-up that has remained intact ever since). Over four decades and through a series of progressively more ambitious musical periods that started with Led-Zeppelin-style blues-rock and evolved though through anthem and art-rock, the band has racked up an estimated 40 million worldwide album sales, including 14 platinum and three multiplatinum records, and a wall full of Grammys and Junos.

But Rush’s connection with its hometown has never been far from their hearts. Their catalogue includes songs with titles like YYZ, referring to the call letters for Pearson International Airport, and Subdivisions (actually, a less-than-flattering portrait of growing up in neighbourhoods just like this one). Following the SARS crisis of 2003, which crippled the city economically, the band responded by headlining a benefit concert in Downsview Park that attracted over half a million fans from across North America; the concert is credited with helping to restore the city’s reputation as a safe place to visit.

Lee Lifeson Art Park is a big moniker for a little park, about 7,000 square metres (1.7 acres) of grass, mature trees, and winding paths carved out of one end of the larger Willowdale Park, near the corner of Princess Avenue and Gladys Allison Place. Its features include a set of “sound installations” designed by art-architecture team Public Studio, that resemble gramophone horns and can be used to project sound across the park by speaking into a mouthpiece. There’s also a modest bandshell, designed for mainly acoustic performances (out of respect, one infers, to the families in the houses that line the park’s edges). On one side, visible in the distance from Yonge Street, is a concrete and cedar-clad pavilion adorned on its outer face with Paul Raff’s huge mosaic mural of Lee and Lifeson onstage, named Portrait of A Young Artist from Willowdale.

Adam McDowell / Billy

Hey, look! The suburbs have *some* charms to soothe the restless dream of youth!

While it was still not quite finished by the time of the dedication – the future bandshell was little more than a concrete pad sheltered by a canvas roof, and the “sound installations” were in place, but not operating yet – the ceremonies included an acoustic rendition of Subdivisions by Jacob Moon. The mild irony of the song choice appeared not entirely lost on councillor John Filion, who had originally conceived the idea of dedicating the park to the musicians.

“Willowdale isn’t generally thought of as a place that great artists come from,” he told the audience. But Lee and Lifeson came from here, he said, and thus was the park conceived.

Said Lee, “We’re really proud to have come from this community, and have always felt like Torontonians.” Then, with characteristic Willowdale politeness, he apologized for the rain.

Published Wednesday, October 26th 2016

Header image credit: Portrait of A Young Artist from Willowdale, by Paul Raff / Photo by Adam McDowell / Billy



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