Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson presented fellow Canadian musician Tom Cochrane with the SOCAN Cultural Impact Award on Monday night (Oct. 17) for his 1991 enduring hit “Life Is A Highway,” which rose to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1992 and was No. 1 in Canada, winning Juno Awards for single of the year and songwriter.
The anthem, found on Cochrane’s second solo album, Mad Mad World, sold a rare million copies in Canada (a diamond certification), and has, in recent years, racked up more than 1 billion streams, according to SOCAN, the performing rights organization.
Lifeson and Cochrane have been friends for over four decades. “I played with him on occasion and performed ‘Life Is a Highway,’ as well,” Lifeson told some 500 members of the music industry at the private event at Sheridan Centre Toronto Hotel.
“I am a friend, a collaborator, and like many, many others of his millions of fans around the world, I am a huge admirer of his work. Neruda is one of my all-time favorite records,” Lifeson threw in of the 1983 album by Cochrane’s original band Red Rider. “Tom is an amazing artist and songwriter, and with ‘Life Is a Highway,’ he created the perfect analogy of what we all go through. It is a magical blend of music and lyrics with an infectious chorus that sticks with you, and a theme that is inspiring and uplifting. It truly captures our journeys down the highway of life, the high roads, the detours, the dead ends, the U-turns, and especially the fear of running outta gas, the challenges that we all face in order to reach our destinations.”
Lifeson said the song’s “joyous melody” is a hopeful reminder that no matter how many roadblocks life presents, “we will always find a way around them,” adding, “It is the perfect message, especially over the past few years and what we’ve all experienced.”
Among the many covers and adaptations, the song was covered by Rascal Flatts for the 2006 animated movie Cars and by Chris LeDoux for his 1998 album, One Road Man, was used in a now-classic segment of the animated TV series Family Guy, placed in Hollywood films like There Goes The Neighborhood and Cheaper by the Dozen, and more recently in the video game Lego Rock Band (Rascal Flatts’ version).
In 2016, a stretch of highway in Manitoba starting in his hometown of Lynn Lake to the city of Thompson was renamed Tom Cochrane’s Life Is a Highway.
Despite its buoyant, positive vibe, the song was born out of a life-altering humanitarian trip Cochrane took to southeastern Africa with World Vision Canada. Hence the lyric: “From Mozambique to those Memphis nights / The Khyber Pass to Vancouver’s lights / Knock me down and back up again / You’re in my blood, I’m not a lonely man.”
After a video tribute, which touched quite heavily on the inspiration for the song, Cochrane took the stage to accept the award from Lifeson, and dug out his speech, written “old school” on a piece a paper. “Talk about cultural achievement,” he said of Lifeson, calling Rush “one of the top five bands of all time.”
After thanking friends and associates, he said of Rascal Flatts, “What could I say about those guys? Everybody says, ‘That’s horrible, they stole that song from you.’ I said, ‘I wish they’d steal some more songs from me,” he laughs. “And I told [singer] Gary [LeVox] that and they flew us a bunch of writers down to Nashville. I mean such generous guys.”
He then thanked Red Rider and Mad Mad World musician John Webster, who insisted he take “the stupid little poppy demo” called “Love Is a Highway” and develop it into the anthem it is now.
“Indeed, the lyrics in the top line were written in the wee hours of the morning in my little home studio, the shed in Oakville…The lyrics were written in response to a trip to that I had taken to Africa with the humanitarian relief organization, World Vision. They do incredible work and I encourage everybody to support them. In 1989, after witnessing terrible suffering, in particular in war-torn Mozambique, it put deep scars on my psyche and I needed something ‘up’ and positive to pull me out of this funk and this soul searching,” Cochrane explains.
“And so that was what I was going through after that trip. Webby, John Webster, and I had recorded a bed track for ‘Love Is a Highway’ in that shed a few weeks earlier and I couldn’t find the proper words…I woke up that night out of a bit of a dream state and an epiphany occurred to me that we can’t control what happens to us here and there. All we can do is control what’s ahead of us and the people we come in contact with every day… And so, by five in the morning, the song was written, it was done and I felt better for it.”
Since Canada removed all COVID-19 restrictions, Cochrane has been back out on the road — 38 shows to date, with more scheduled in November.
“When we play ‘Life Is a Highway,’ the energy that we get back from the crowd, from the audience, is intense. It’s powerful,” he reflects. “And the joy, the positive electricity, is cathartic and it’s immense. We feel elevated. But more than that, we feel privileged to be up there and very lucky to be the vehicle, excuse the pun, to deliver that energy.”
To cap off the three-hour awards, Lifeson jumped onstage to join musicians Bill Bell, Dala, Davide Direnzo, Molly Johnson, Jeff Jones, Sam Roberts and Julian Taylor on a version of the song.