Rearview Mirror: Burton Cummings Reflects on The Guess Who
Photo credit: Linda C.
Every country has its own seminal band or artist that everyone can look to, lift up, and point to as that which represents their particular nation. Britain has The Beatles and The Stones, the U.S.A. has Elvis and Sinatra, and Canada has The Guess Who. It may be tempting to the average listener to dismiss that statement out of hand, but if you consider that in 1970 The Guess Who outsold The Beatles, they are a group to be reckoned with. But, as the rock and roll hall of fame will tell you, success isn’t measured on album sales alone. Everyone gets it with the aforementioned artists, but to really appreciate the impact that The Guess Who made on popular (and Canadian) culture, one needs to understand what the Canadian musical landscape looked like back then.
In the 1950’s, Canada’s youth watched with rapt attention while Elvis burned up the charts and drove teens wild. Some lucky ones even caught his only non-USA concert ever in Toronto in 1957. They watched again in the 1960’s when the British Invasion was in full swing, waiting for their messiah; the musical landscape at that time was pretty barren. Some may argue that there were plenty of other acts to come out of the north; Buffalo Springfield had Neil Young, Dylan had The Band, and countless others had made their mark. The thing that made The Guess Who so special is that unlike most others, the band stayed put in their country of birth, they put out a staggering stream of hit singles, and they did it all from within Canada.
If you were around then, you couldn’t miss the sound of those singles blasting out of your neighborhood jukebox. Eventually the Canadian government caught on and passed a law stating that all media outlets needed to play a minimum of twenty-five percent Canadian content. Thankfully, no such law was needed for this band. Nobody had to tell anyone to play their hits because they were that good. At one point, one out of every two records sold in Canada was a Guess Who record! In short, they put the country on the musical map and opened the door for all the other artists who stayed and followed at the same time.
Burton Cummings and the Guess Who gave Canadians what it had longed for, for decades; a seat at the big table. No longer would Canada be dismissed as a cultural wasteland and merely a sportsman’s paradise. In a country that’s used to being the quiet one, going about its business without noisily celebrating their successes, The Guess Who was like a 10-year energy drink.
Over the years, the band had a few lineup changes, but the one constant has always been Burton Cummings. Cummings, now a part-time resident of Los Angeles recently sat down with me to spill the beans and set the record straight on some of the stories behind the music. What follows is a frank and often illuminating account of the most successful band in Canada’s history.
I know most probably refer to the period when Bachman was in the group as the “classic” period, but what was your favorite lineup of The Guess Who?
The best lineup was Kurt Winter, Donny MacDougal, Bill Wallace, Gary Peterson and myself. That would have been from Artificial Paradise to Road Food. That would have been four albums in total. Definitely that would have been the best “live” Guess Who lineup, we toured endlessly, about ten months of the year. We were all in our 20’s you know? I was singing five or six nights a week, and we never slept, sleep was never on the list.
What would you say is your favorite Guess Who album?
I’ve always detected a Native Canadian element in your music, imagery, and poems. Is this deliberate?
I have no idea really, but I think the writing was always influenced by where we grew up. Growing up in Winnipeg, we had three AM stations in the 50’s and 60’s all competing for the audience. One of them was clear channel, 50,000 watts. You could hear it for hundreds of miles away in the winter when it was cold. With these three stations competing with each other in a city of 500,000 people, the radio was just on fire, and we were hearing things that they just were not hearing in the rest of Canada. Sunday mornings, this guy on CKY named “PJ the DJ”, Peter Jackson, or maybe it was Dino Corrie, would come on at 10am. No matter how late I’d been up I’d get up Sunday mornings, and they would have HITS AROUND THE WORLD! We would hear Cliff Richard and The Shadows, Billy Fury and The Tornados, Digger Revelle from Australia. We were hearing stuff that the rest of the country was just not hearing. I guarantee that in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver they were just not hearing these things, Winnipeg was really special. So all of those things that came into our heads, that was what shaped the songwriting.
So that was a big influence?
Absolutely! We were hearing a real gumbo of music. There was a huge air force base in Grand Forks North Dakota, about 130 miles south of Winnipeg, just across the American border. Mostly African Americans enlisted there. They would come up to Winnipeg to party, because Winnipeg was the closest big city. They would get a weekend pass and would come up and bring their record with them; James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, tremendous R&B artists that I don’t think they were hearing in the rest of Canada. We were very lucky. Randy and I had heard everything, from Georgie Fame to James Brown to The Rooftop Singers. We heard everything. And that creeps into your writing.
You’ve mentioned that your mother was very supportive of you throughout your career; what were her thoughts on you being one of the most prolific songwriters to come out of Canada?
I don’t think she ever really fathomed that we toured in Australia, that we toured in Japan. We hopped around the world. And then I hopped around a lot with Ringo, from France to Belgium to…? I don’t think she ever got that whole globe-hopping thing and how amazing that really was. I’ll tell you what was great about my mom; when I left high school I had nothing, no money whatsoever. I just had a little band, and we were doing OK. She didn’t freak out when I left school. She came home one day from working at Eaton’s and I said, “by the way, I quit school today,” expecting the roof to cave in, but she was cool about it all. That to me was tremendous, but then she also insisted that I go to work at Eaton’s.
You worked at Eaton’s department store?
Yeah, I worked in the mail department there doing a job that you could train a pigeon to do. There were three bags of mail, and my job was to tell people that it didn’t matter which bag they put the mail in. After about a day of that I made a great big sign that said “PUT ANY MAIL IN ANY BAG”.
Describe life on the road with The Guess Who in the early days.
I was 18 and I had just left the Deverons to join up with the biggest band in Canada. Seven of us spent the whole summer in two hotel rooms, four in one room and three in the other. And we played about four hours a night. I did all the singing, and we drove to every gig, set up our own stuff, and tore down after the gig, and drove back to that same hotel. And we did this that whole summer. That was dues being paid my friend, and it was remarkable that we lived through that, and yet it made us tough. You hear all the time about the Beatles doing this, and performing in The Cavern Club. They say that when The Beatles were in Hamburg they would play for something like eight hours a night, and I believe it.
What really makes the accomplishments of The Guess Who amazing, and a lot of people outside of Canada don’t know this, is that the band achieved all their early successes without the presence of the Canadian content laws.
I spoke out against the hand that fed me. When they brought in that law, at first I was offended and said “what good is it”, and “we’re just a bunch of pussies if we need the government’s help”, so I spoke out against it, and in retrospect it was quite foolish because for decades after it’s enactment it turned out to be the hand that fed me. It basically kept my music on the air and was responsible for me getting more airplay than anyone else in the history of the country.
That law helped create the Canadian recording industry. Without the CRTC [Canadian Ratio-Television Telecommunications Commission] there wouldn’t have been all that money that helped lure all those producers and engineers up, and then before you knew it, Elton John and Rod Stewart were flying to Montreal to record, and then Van Halen and Steven Tyler and people like that were going up to Vancouver to record, and by that time Vancouver had Bryan Adams and Loverboy. You see what that Canadian Content ruling did? The Guess Who didn’t need the help, but it helped all the others who came in our wake so to speak.
So do you think The Guess Who was partially responsible for the creation of the law?
Yes, we were around at a very pivotal time for the Canadian recording industry, and we made a lot of noise, enough for that law to be infused.
That was during the early Trudeau years. Did he have a hand in this?
Pierre did a lot for the artists, he really did. He was a great help to the artistic community. And now his son is our newest Prime Minister.
Did you ever meet him? He was apparently a bit of a rock star in his own way, wasn’t he?
I met him a couple of times, yes. We sat together one night for one of those Juno awards. He was a very nice guy, and he knew a few of my tunes, which was very flattering. You don’t often think that the head of a government knows your music. The last Prime Minister we had, Stephen Harper, he was a bit of a singer and he used to do Share The Land at parties. He would get up and do my song.
Did you talk to him about it?
I sung it for him in front of him and his wife many times, at some huge corporate events. Crazy stuff….
You’ve received just about every award there is in Canada, the Order of Canada, the Juno, and most recently, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. Was that the biggest award for you because it’s you as a solo artist?
Yeah, it’s quite an honor, it’s just about me. It’s got nothing to do with the old guys any more. And what’s cool about this is when I left The Guess Who, I didn’t know where I was gonna go. We got screwed out of millions of dollars, and I didn’t know where all the money was going, and I just decided that I’m gonna put my head down and keep going. I got with Richard Perry who was the hottest producer in North America at the time. It was my very first solo album, and he had just finished working with Barbara Streisand, Carly Simon, The Pointer Sisters, all kinds of acts. I was in the middle of all of this right off the bat. So that’s what this award is about, it’s not about the old days, it’s about from that point on.
What was it like working with Richard Perry?
I did two albums with Richard, what a master he is. He knows from day one what he wants, from the time you start tightening up the tom-tom on the drums, he already knows what the record is going to be.
Did you learn a lot working with him?
After watching him produce my first two albums, I decided to take the plunge and produce myself. I’ve done four or five of them and it’s tough, but I get exactly what I want.
Do you think that over the years it gets tougher to make a really good record?
I tell you what gets harder over the years, it’s coming to grips with “is it finished yet or do I want to make one more change”?
I bet you’ve seen a lot of changes take place in the recording process over the years.
Yeah, I’ve seen it go from tape to computer, and I was there when they first brought in “phantom faders” where you could make a mix, and not have to go through the motions the second time. You could build on that mix because the phantom faders would hold that mix you’d made the first time. We used to have a joke; “If Brian Wilson had had phantom faders, Pet Sounds would be almost finished by now.”
Tell me about the creation of The Guess Who’s live effort, Live at The Paramount.
Well, it was supposed to have been “Live at Carnegie Hall”, but that was the gig that I blew. It turned out to be a pretty good album, and when it came out we were starting to be taken really seriously as a band. Before that they used to lump us in with Ohio Express and Tommy James, which is really funny now because I don’t mind those artists at all. I don’t think back then that they ever really took us seriously as a band. Jann Wenner from Rolling Stone never liked us.
What do you mean it was the gig that you blew?
I had stayed up all night partying, and the next morning didn’t make the gig. They had set up a mobile recording unit and all kinds of stuff, and I stayed up all night doing blow. So that became “Live At The Paramount” instead.
How did Randy Bachman’s conversion to Mormonism affect the dynamic within the band?
It was probably the beginning of the end, although we did go on for three years plus after that, but he did try to take us all to the temple and convert us, it was insane.
So is that why he left the band?
Here it is again, I hear how he “left the band…”
Well, I wasn’t there, so tell me what really happened.
Randy has never let the truth get in the way of a good story, I’ll tell you that. We were touring endlessly in the states on the strength of, what was it? I guess it was American Woman. Yes, it was, because I was trying to play rhythm guitar, we were still a four-piece. It was Kale and Peterson and me and Randy. And Randy says to us one day “Oh my God, I have gall bladder problems, I might be dying, I’ve got to get in the hospital, I’ve got to get home to Winnipeg” and so we recruited this kid from Philadelphia named Bobby Sevelico to play guitar to save us from lawsuits. Bobby finished the tour with us in San Francisco, with me playing rhythm guitar, and I’m not really good enough to do that. We thought Randy was in the hospital and Randy was in Chicago producing a band. So when we got to New York to play the Fillmore East, I found out about all of this and said to Peterson and Kale, “you either go with him or you go with me”. So the three of us went bang bang bang, yada yada yada, and that was it. But Randy never left us, we left him, put it that way. I don’t even really want to dwell on it. I’m not the bitter guy up on the hill.
Any regrets about any of it, your days in The Guess Who?
I get asked this all the time. The only thing I regret is not leaving the group two years earlier. I should have left after “Road Food,” those two years with Troiano were very unhappy for me. It turned into some sort of bullshit fusion band that it never was. At one time we had Mahavishnu as our opening act, and that’s just somebody being stupid. I mean shame on me, I let Domenic Troiano talk me into singing the hits as a medley, so he could have his arrogant fucking jazz solos go on a little longer. None of it made sense to me at the end and I really should have left two years earlier. It was a desperation money machine at the end, the other guys wouldn’t hear of it, and I just said “this is not what I want to do”.
So the other guys just wanted to keep The Guess Who going strictly for the money?
I wasn’t even thirty years old yet, and it was enough already with The Guess Who. We had gone all over the world and played everywhere. I remember us playing this one show in Honolulu where Aerosmith went on before us, and Wolfman Jack emceed the whole thing.
Is that how you wrote “Clap For The Wolfman?” Was it related to that?
No, they had a song they were working on called “Clap For Napoleon” and it was all about the CB radio craze, which was the really popular thing of that time. We were doing the midnight special a lot at the time, and we had gotten really friendly with The Wolfman, and they had a great song (sings the riff), but I just didn’t like what they were singing about so I changed it to be about The Wolfman, and sure enough it became a hit record.
I’ve always wondered about the song “Heartbroken Bopper,” it sounds a lot like “Last Child” by Aerosmith. Did they rip off The Guess Who?
Oh, I don’t know, they were pretty huge already when Bopper came out. I showed up late for the practice and the guys had already worked out the riff, and I just started singing over it. If Aerosmith did steal from it, I don’t hear it. One way or another, it doesn’t matter because I like “Heartbroken Bopper”’s vocal. I can’t do that vocal any more every night, but we’re going to do a rarities show. I’m hoping that we’ll do it at the Imperial Room at The Royal York in Toronto; there’s something very magical about that room. When we do it, we’re going to shoot it with seven cameras. All the songs that I can’t do anymore will be done over a couple of nights for film. It will be songs like “Bopper,” “Hang On To Your Life,” the stuff that I was screaming when I was 21; I can do it once for the cameras. I want to capture this before I’m gone. Look at someone like Robert Plant. He won’t do a Zeppelin reunion because he can’t pull off the vocals any more. I can at least get these out one more time for the cameras.
Are there any other songs you don’t do in your current act?
“Rain Dance.” We’re going to bring that back because we finally have enough guys to do the chant. You need six voices to pull that off, at least two of them to chant “don’t you wanna, don’t you wanna”.
I’ve always been curious about the lyrics to that song. Who were Christopher, the Astronomer, and John with the gun?
There was no Christopher or an astronomer, those were just words I chose to rhyme with “Where’d you get the gun John.” John was my next door neighbor and one day I went over and he was sitting on the steps cleaning his rifle. He was a duck hunter. Kurt came over one day and he was just playing that 1-5 drone on my piano; [don’t you want a rain dance, don’t you wanna rain dance]. I thought it was pretty cool and I had this bit that went [changing just a few things]. I had had that before. That song was finished in about 25 minutes. We just put all those pieces together, had a cold beer, put it on a reel-to-reel, then went to Chicago and made a record of it. Good song, bad record. The drums sound awful, Kale played walking bass and it should have been A-C-D-C eights.
This goes back to one of my earlier questions where I said I detect this kind of Native Canadian element. “Rain Dance” has it more than any of your songs.
Well, don’t forget that the biggest single album of The Guess Who’s career was Share The Land, which was the album that had the Chief of the American Cherokees on the cover. Everybody still thinks I’m native. I just thought that it was a great idea to do that, to put him on the cover. This guy was 81 years old, and we all scampered up a hill for the photo shoot, and he beat us to the top. This guy was crazy; snakes had bitten him something like a hundred times. This guy could bite a snake and kill it, he was 81 and had not a wrinkle on his face. I liked Share The Land, it was a great album. American Woman was a big hit, but that wasn’t a tough band yet. I thought that once Randy was gone and Kurt came in it was more like a band. Kurt and I had been friends, where Randy and I had never been friendly.
Randy was the one who recruited you into the band wasn’t he?
Yeah, they recruited me because Chad Allan was going back into college and they got me because I could scream like Eric Burdon. This was before people were writing their own stuff, you hired people based on who they could do. If you could do Eric Burdon, or Paul McCartney doing “Long Tall Sally” or Mike Smith from The Dave Clark Five, you were a bit of a screamer. Chad Allan was never that.
What’s your current relationship with Randy like?
I haven’t talked to him much for a while. He’s going through an ugly divorce right now. What’s weird is that offers are starting to be talked about for Canada’s 150th anniversary. It’s a big deal for the country. They would love for the 150th anniversary to see Bachman and Cummings on stage together.
Is there going to be another Guess Who reunion?
Oh, God no! Are you kidding? There’s no more Guess Who. There’s now some karaoke band that call themselves The Guess Who. People see them when they get lost on their way to the tilt-a-whirl.
How did Jim Kale end up owning the rights to the name?
Well, I never copyrighted it. Randy and I had already left, Randy had BTO and I was working on my third solo album when Kale phoned us one day in Los Angeles and asked if we minded if he used the name. He had Kurt and Donny with him, so I said to go ahead because Donny is doing me and he sounds like me anyway. We never said “go ahead and copyright the name and make it like a McDonalds franchise”. They just got another lead singer in the past few weeks, I think it’s about the 37th one they’ve had….
What’s really funny is my fans call the venues to complain about the karaoke band, saying “they’re not the Guess Who.” My fans are kind of like Donald Trump fans. Twenty or so fans will get together and repeatedly call the venues and say “you can’t call that karaoke band The Guess Who.”
Well, The Guess Who without Bachman/Cummings is like The Stones without Mick and Keith, isn’t it?
Did you hear “Stripped Companion”? It was even better.
No, I haven’t heard it. We played with The Stones at the SARS festival.
What was that like?
It was just stupid. They had a big chorus line of horn players, and backup singers, and then Justin Timberlake came out to sing “Miss You” with them. People had had just about enough. First of all they had just witnessed AC/DC blowing the lid off of half a million people, and then out comes Mick and he invites Justin Timberlake on the stage, and they’re going “whoo-ooh-hoo-ooh-hoo-ooh-hoo”. Beer bottles started flying and the audience is booing. Very ugly.
I’ve seen the performance; Keith at one point becomes very upset with the audience for throwing things and starts to chastise the audience, then high-fives Timberlake.
It was unbelievable how many people they had performing at this thing, and how many people were in attendance. They had a private train that took us in, it was the only way to get anywhere near it.
Was that one of the biggest concerts you’d ever played?
I think it was. Before then it was the Seattle Pop Festival with about sixty or seventy thousand. That was back in 1969 with Led Zeppelin, The Doors, The Byrds, The Burrito Brothers, Frank Zappa and The Mothers, Alice Cooper, Bo Didley, Chuck Berry, Ike and Tina, The Chicago Transit Authority. That was unbelievable, it took place over three days, and it was better than Woodstock but unfortunately nobody filmed it.
Did you see the movie Almost Famous? There’s a reference in there to The Guess Who as being a “bunch of drunken buffoons”. What was that about?
Cameron Crowe had interviewed us a bunch of times, he was the only one that Jan Wenner would send out to speak with us. Cameron was so young then, he was just a kid. But he did interview us a few times. He was always very nice to us. I think he wrote us fairly well into that movie. He could have used any of a thousand bands, and he chose us, and I’m very flattered by that.
I heard you entered into a karaoke contest a while back and won, tell me about that.
That was quite a long time ago in Tarzana, around 1979 or 1980; I was younger and a bit more adventurous than I am now. I went all by myself to this place, it was a local bar that was having a karaoke night. You had to write out your name on a slip of paper and put it in a bag, and they would draw names and call people up. This contest had a $500 prize, so there were a lot of contestants. And there’s a big sign on the wall that says “NO PROFESSIONALS”. So I had this shirt on that said “Captain America” and when I filled out the slip, I used that as my name. People are getting called up and they’re singing songs that they had no business trying to sing, and then at one point, my name gets drawn and the MC calls “Captain America, you’re up”. So I go up and say to him “hey, you got Mack The Knife”? He says “sure, yeah” and lets it rip. I do the best ever Mack The Knife that the entire Valley has seen in forty years, I get a bit standing ovation, the place is going nuts. They have a few more contestants come up and then the whole thing ends. The MC announces, “Captain America wins it”! I go up on the stage, scoop the winnings, and get the fuck out of there as fast as I could.
Nobody recognized you?
Was The Guess Who ever screwed by their record company?
Oh yeah, sure. We didn’t have as good a manager as we should have, so our percentage was just pathetic, and when he re-negotiated he didn’t bump it up at all. We did 15 or 16 albums for RCA and the royalty percentage was just pathetic from day one, and it’s never really gotten any better. We never really made money on our record sales, but we did make money touring. The main income that The Guess Who had was from touring.
What about as a solo artist? Was the payoff more lucrative?
Well, yes, of course, because I’ve owned all my own material from day one, they never got away from me. Eventually I got control of all the songs from The Guess Who days, they’re all in Shillelagh Music now. With the last few albums I’ve done, I own the masters as well. It takes you decades to get to that point you know?
Do you spend a lot of time on social media interacting with your fans?
Probably more than most artists. I only sleep three or four hours a day, and when I’m not working on my library of music, I do chat with my fans on Facebook. I spend a lot of time on my computer. I would never have interns interact with my followers. I don’t even really like the term “fan” because it seems a bit condescending. I’m certainly willing to call myself a fan of other artists, but I don’t like to call them fans because I would rather talk with somebody than at somebody.
The Guess Who, more than any other band from Canada seems to hold a special place in the minds of Canadian listeners, why do you think this is?
We stayed in Winnipeg, even after we bounced Randy. We went back to Winnipeg and got Greg and Kurt. When Greg got on a plane and went home, we went back to Winnipeg and got Donnie McDougall. We stayed in Canada and kept waving that flag.
I’ve seen you play live, you play keyboards, flute, harmonica, and guitar. Is there any instrument you don’t play? How about drums?
I play the drums too, and had to play drums at one of our gigs. Peterson flew sick one time and almost blew out his eardrums and rather than get sued, we went and did the gig. It was Kale on bass, Bachman on guitar, and me on drums and lead vocal. The only time I got up from the kit all night was to play the keyboard intro to “These Eyes”.
I’d like to decipher your hit songs. Let’s start at the beginning with your first top ten hit, “These Eyes.”
Randy and I wrote it very quickly; I think it took maybe about half an hour.
One of the most iconic rock songs of all times only took a half hour to write?
Yeah. He had some pieces and I had some pieces, and they were both in the key of C, we threw them together and bingo-bango. There it was. I think the best songs happen that way.
Do you find it ironic that Americans miss the blatant put down in “American Woman?”
It was never a put down, that’s a myth. I’ve said it endlessly over the years; I speak in metaphors.
So what did the lyrics in the song mean?
Didn’t the song come about because Randy was playing the riff at a sound check? You just showed up and started rapping the lyrics over the riff?
It was the second show of the night, we were playing at The Broom and Stone, a curling club in Toronto. I was outside bartering with some fuck over some Gene Vincent records that he had that I really wanted to own. We weren’t so big then obviously because we were still doing two shows in a night, it wasn’t exactly Madison Square Garden time. The band couldn’t find me because I’m outside bartering, so they went on without me and started playing that riff. I said to this guy “I gotta get in there, I’m on”, and I jumped on stage and just started singing whatever came into my head. Colored lights can hypnotize, sparkle someone else’s eyes just came flying out, and that’s a great line, that explains the whole thing about being lured into show business. Once upon a time I was going to write an autobiography and call it “Colored Lights Can Hypnotize”.
I think I just came up with a brilliant idea for the title of this article…
That would have been a great title for the piece [laughs].
Hang on to your life. Why are you quoting psalms at the end of it?
I wanted to quote the 23rd psalm, “the lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”. I dialed that up, and the one just previous to it had this whole stanza about “the dust of death”, and I thought, this is meant to be. It was just a way better fit. And we were doing a lot of acid in those days, and the big fear then was the death trip. With acid you go in a big circle, you’re born and then you die. You do enough acid….a circle. That’s why I had to stop doing acid, otherwise I’d be doing it every day. I had at least 100 trips. We got a little carried away with it. One time when we were in Hilo on the big island in Hawaii, Kurt and I took acid and went out in the jungle. It was one of the best days of my life. The leaves on the plants looked like they were the size of my head.
“Coming Down Off The Money Bag.”
Greg Leskiw doing country. I played a little bit of harp in it, but it was all Greg. He was in a band called Wild Rice and that was one of the things that they did before we snagged him up after Randy was bounced.
“Share The Land:” you’ve been accused of being a communist over this song. Even Wikipedia calls it a “communalist anthem”. What were you trying to say in it?
It was banned in Texas and a couple of southern states for having “leftist leanings.” Bernie Sanders is saying far worse things today, all I was saying was we should share the land. We close our shows with that song now. It’s just really meant as an optimistic statement about the future. I love singing it because it’s got a great vocal. I remember us doing a promotional tour for that in 1970 in the U.K. Kurt and I decided to sail back after 3 weeks of whirlpool shit. We were all over Europe, Leskiw was checking all the brothels out, we were having a blast. By this time it was close to Christmas, and I thought to myself, “let’s have an adventure. Let’s sail back”, not even thinking that the North Atlantic in December was probably the worst place in the world to be. We drove from London to Southampton, and then sailed. Eight days at sea, the same route that the Titanic took… There was almost nobody on the boat because nobody would be crazy enough to do this in December. We never saw the sun for eight days. We got so scared; we used ship to shore to call our mommies.
“Moan for you Joe, ” w ho was mock educated, mock well read?
That was more about record industry people than anyone, it was a combination of people who tried to tell us no, or put us down.
“Do You Miss Me Darling,” who did all the harmonies?
Hmmm. Kurt’s singing, Greg’s singing, Peterson’s singing, and I’m singing. I don’t think Kale was singing, we started realizing that Kale’s voice wasn’t really strong. I know for sure it’s Kurt, Greg, and I and we’re at least doubled, maybe tripled. By that time we had more tracks to play with. I like the harmonies too, I was always a harmony guy. “Do you miss me darling” was Kurt’s hook, but I had the “what good is it, if I can’t even sing it to you” part kicking around for a while. One day Kurt picks up his guitar and starts doing his bit in D, and I just thought, “Fucking A, here we go.”
“Stand Tall,” was this meant to be a song of inspiration?
I wrote that song out of pure heartbreak. I was absolutely devastated when my girlfriend married that lawyer. I’ve had unbelievable response to that song. It came out way before the Internet and cellphones, it came out in ’76 in a different world. But since then, I’m still alive, and all of these fans, they’re my age, they’ve caught up to me. When I go on Facebook they talk about Stand Tall thousands and thousands of times. I hear all kinds of stories from my fans who have experienced personal loss or tragedy and tell me “your song brought me through it”. I’m astounded by it. You don’t realize the “trickle-down” effect you have when you write a song and it becomes a hit. I’m sure for people like McCartney and Burt Bacharach, the great writers, I’m sure it’s the same. You just can’t predict it.
“Albert Flasher,” more eclectic lyrics.
Originally it was just a riff I came up with to warm up my hands, that was how it started. I played that riff in Albert Flasher for about two years, and the guy I was living with, Gary McLean from McLean and McLean finally said one day, “why don’t you just put that riff into a song”? I came up with the lyrics while we were doing an interview in a Los Angeles radio station and we were scheduled to leave for Honolulu the next morning. I was talking about the records and American Woman, and the personnel changes, and in the middle of the conversation, the DJ pressed this button on his console that was labeled “Alert Flasher”. I was stoned at the time; I had smoked a little before the interview and when I looked down, I thought, “what a great name for a song!”
Wasn’t the flip side of that single a song called “Broken”?
I never cared much for that song; it was mostly Kurt’s song. Kurt had a habit of coming to me with these great guitar riffs, and all I had to do was sing over them and there we’d have a hit song. Working with Kurt was never like work, it was more like a party. We’d get a big pile of cold beer, and we’d chain smoke a bunch of Rothmans, or Export A’s, or whatever the fuck, and he’d get an acoustic guitar and I would sit at my old upright piano and start singing and playing, and every time by two or three in the morning there were a couple of new songs. It was always a party with me and Kurt. With Troiano it was always all business, with Bachman it was always all business.
That’s one of Randy’s songs. He wrote it but he didn’t have the chops to sing it. “Takin’ Care of Business”, and “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”, on that he’s OK. I added the flute part and changed a few notes around, but it’s Randy’s song. He just never could have sung it the way I did.
I’ve read that a lot of people think this song is about a drug overdose. Reading the lyrics seems to bear this out. Was it?
Those were Randy’s words, so I don’t know.
If Randy wrote them, I doubt it had anything to do with drugs.
Randy had told me that the lyrics were out of a really long Bob Dylan song.
“Guns Guns Guns”
We used to have to come home to Winnipeg by flying from wherever we ended the tour, to Chicago, then Minneapolis, then to Fargo, then Grand Forks, and then Winnipeg, it was the only way to come home. Through the years we watched the hunters come up from the states, up to Manitoba to go hunting. And of course it was in the days before terrorism, and I actually saw this one time, I’m not making this up. The hunters were allowed to bring their rifles onto the commercial planes back then. I was in first class, and I looked up at the cockpit door, and I counted eleven rifles leaned up against the door. If you saw that today it would be on an SNL skit. It just really pissed me off. That’s where the lyric “American hunter, bring ‘em up the north side” came from. They would come up and slaughter our deer. I don’t really like hunters that much, and I don’t like guns either. So that’s what started the idea of writing the song, and then I got more ethereal; “you be the red king, I’ll be the yellow pawn”. There used to be a book of quotes by Mao Tse Tung that people would carry around in the revolution days, and in it there was a quote that said “Power comes out of the barrel of a gun”, and I never forgot that. So the “red king” was supposed to be Mao, and the yellow pawns were his followers. And “Godspeed mother nature”? That speaks for itself.
You know, a love song can last forever. You can write a love song in 1890 and do a version of it in 1960 it’s still okay, but it’s the non-love songs that get corny after a while. For me, “Guns” is not one of those, it’s stood up as a non-love song. As a matter of fact, I liked the song so much; I re-recorded it on “Dream Of A Child” with Jeff “Skunk” Baxter on guitar.
“Running Back to Saskatoon”
The riff is from a group called “Brother” that Kurt was in before he joined us. The song was much slower when he brought it to us, and I always loved the riff. I was traipsing around Europe all by myself, and I was sitting in Orly airport in Paris on my way to visit my sister.
Isn’t that the song “Orly?”
I wrote both songs at the same time. So anyway, I was thinking about Kurt’s riff, and I decided to make it a piano and guitar riff instead of just a guitar riff. Once I knew it was going to be a Cummings/Winter song, I wrote all those lyrics about gas stations and all those little places we used to visit when I was so young in The Guess Who. The road was so new and crazy when I joined the band, I was a young guy. For a while, Bruce Decker from the Deverons was with us, but Randy decided he just wasn’t good enough, so Randy forced me to become a rhythm guitar player as well. All of that went down, it was a remarkable journey.
Bowie. It was about Bowie and the changes he was affecting. Our band was a band that wore the same clothing all day, and then just walked on stage in our dirty daytime clothing. We were never in 16 Magazine and we were never the pretty boys. So then David Bowie came along and changed everything. The music was about 5th on the list of importance after that. I was scared! That’s just a song of fear by me.
“Star Baby” was about a specific female singer that had a bit of a tryst with one of our roadies, and I wrote that through his eyes, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.
“Laughing” was written in about 25 or 30 minutes while we were waiting for the ferry to take us back to Vancouver from Vancouver Island. We got on the boat and before the boat had even left, we had written “Laughing”. He just started playing chords, which are a bit like “Because” by the Dave Clark Five. We were lucky we never got nailed for it. Why am I even saying this?
What were the lyrics about? Is it a love song or a heartbreak song?
Just bullshit really. I was about 19 or 20 at the time, they’re not about real things, I hadn’t had enough time for real heartbreak yet. There are no real things at that age, you’re just bullshitting and trying to be like the great songwriters are. “These Eyes” and “Laughing” aren’t about real people. Randy already had two kids with a third one on the way, and he’s singing about love affairs? It was just bullshit. We were just trying to get on the radio.
That song just conjures up bad memories of a bad point in Guess Who history. I mean, what the hell was I singing? “I had my best duds on, it was a chance worth taking”. Who the hell is that guy? That’s just embarrassing to me.
The live version of “American Woman,” what’s with “watcha gonna do when the roast beef’s gone”?
That was Greg Leskiw, we called him “The Roast Beef” for some strange reason I can’t remember. We used to call McDougall “The Cherokee.”
See? There’s that native reference again…
It’s just another live jam that would happen when we were on the road, and we were on the road all the time. I was exhausted. By the time the album “Number 10” came around in 1973 I was fucking exhausted. You can hear it in the lyrics, I was singing lying down. What happens is the management, and the booking agents, and the promoters see a money machine, and they want to keep it going. That’s what it fell into towards the end. I was just so fed up of the road and staying in Holiday Inn’s, I just wanted to go home and get drunk or get high. That’s why I went solo, I could play all the songs I wanted to play. I’m playing stuff for the guys like “I’m Scared,” one of the greatest songs I ever wrote, and I’m still in The Guess Who and they don’t want to do it, they don’t think it’s any good. Well fuck this, I’m the singer! Excuse me boys, have you got something better? This is not an uncommon story.
You should hear what our drummer says about me! They interviewed Peterson and me, Wallace wouldn’t talk to them, and this was for “Power in the Music” and “Flavours,” the two Troiano albums. Troiano is dead now, so they can’t talk to him. So they talked to me to get my side of it and then they talked to Peterson, and Peterson just seized the opportunity to shit on me in print for that booklet. You can’t believe some of the shit that he said.
There’s a guy who’s name I can’t remember, who writes liner notes for all the re-releases, and to do that he has to talk to the living members of the band. And I remember him saying once that in his thirty years of doing this, he’s never experienced the level of vitriol that surrounds The Guess Who. That’s kind of sad in a way, there’s a level of hate. And what Kale and Peterson did was just horrible.
Did they grab control of the Guess Who name together?
No, Kale got hold of it, and then he sold half the rights to Peterson for a dollar. Then he told some people, not knowing it would get back to me, “I can’t wait until Cummings finds out about this, it’s going to drive him nuts”. You know what man? It doesn’t bother me, because you can see that the people who matter can tell the difference. Those guys who call themselves “The Guess Who” are just a karaoke band.