A fine state of affairs

An interview with Burton Cummings

Burton Cummings talks about his first solo disc in 20 years

Burton Cummings has released his first solo album in almost two decades. ((Sony/BMG))

If someone ever decides to sculpt a Canrock version of Mount Rushmore north of the 49th, Burton Cummings’ noggin will simply have to be included.

After joining the Guess Who at age 18, he helped reel off an impressive series of now classic songs, including American Woman, No Time and These Eyes. By the mid-1970s, however, the bloom was off the rose. (Let’s face it: Clap for the Wolfman is no These Eyes.) Cummings left the band to craft a successful solo career, putting his first-rate voice to work on soaring ballads (Stand Tall, I Will Play A Rhapsody, Timeless Love) and ‘50s-inspired rock tunes (My Own Way to Rock, Fine State of Affairs).


Having spent most of the 21st century doing Guess Who reunion shows and appearing with Randy Bachman as "Bachman-Cummings" (after a conflict with former bandmate Jim Kale, who owns the Guess Who name), Cummings has just released Above the Ground, his first solo album in almost 20 years. The CD is teeming with 19 tracks, chock-full of the sort of autobiographical elements you might expect from a musician who recently entered his seventh decade. The twin spectres of aging and death are creeping into his work, alongside more upbeat, wry observations about life in California (We Just Came from the U.S.A.) and being a non-parent (Junior Won’t Behave).

Cummings spoke to CBCNews.ca about his role in the birth of Canada’s music industry, celebrity obsession in L.A. and why he cringes when he hears American Woman.

Q: It’s been almost 20 years since your last solo album. What compelled you to head backinto the studio?

A: I’d been thinking about doing this album for quite a while and I had some of these songs for years, actually. Just because there weren’t any commercial releases for those years doesn’t mean I wasn’t writing and recording. I started this project when I was 55, which is five years ago, and we were going to call it Double Nickel. And then I never really got back into the studio. But then Randy Bachman needed an operation on his shoulder from carrying a heavy guitar on it for 40 years and I knew there would be a window in early 2008 where we wouldn’t be doing any Bachman-Cummings shows. I thought, You know, this is the perfect time. I’ll bring the musicians down from Toronto to California in January, which never breaks anybody’s heart. And we just had a great time.

Q: A large part of your time over the last 10 years was taken up with the Guess Who reunion and subsequent touring with Randy Bachman. What kind of emotional impact did that reunion have on you?

A: It was remarkable. The best thing about it was that it showed me, point blank, when those huge crowds showed up, that we had really made an impact on people’s lives, and that the songs would be forever in their memories. It was very emotional. And a lot of the old memories came rushing back on stage, from when we were 20 and 21. It was great to have all of us there together again, even though Kurt Winter [the former Guess Who guitarist who passed away in 1997] wasn’t there. That was the only thing that was missing. I would love to have had Randy Bachman, Kurt Winter and Donnie McDougall all together playing guitar. That would’ve been wonderful. But that Guess Who reunion tour was a very emotional thing. I’m so glad they captured it on film that night in Winnipeg with the big storm. It was very dramatic.

Q: There are several songs about personal loss on the new album. The song Richard is about people who’ve drifted out of your life; Kurt’s Song is about Kurt Winter. Was it a conscious decision to explore that theme?

A:  It wasn’t conscious, but I’m turning 61 next month, and when you get to this stage in life, that’s what starts to happen. Various people pass away or they just drift away from you. I didn’t really consciously set out to put that theme in this album, but at 60, I’m not going to be writing teenage love songs anymore. I’m writing more observational stuff about having lived six decades, and I think all that living is creeping its way into the lyrics.

Burton Cummings recorded Above the Ground during a hiatus in the Bachman-Cummings tour. ((Sony/BMG))

Q: The Guess Who song American Woman was highly critical of the U.S. On this album, you have a track called We Just Came from the U.S.A., which isn’t very flattering, either. What inspired that song?

A: Well, it really wasn’t meant to be anti-American. It’s more of an observational song, particularly the bridge: "Cut you open for a nickel/Sew you back up for a dime/For a quarter I can testify someone else did it/And for a dollar do it one more time." That’s kind of a reflection on the O.J. trial, how with money you can almost get away with anything, and now Phil Spector is on trial for murder and who knows where that’ll go? And Robert Blake seems to have beaten that murder rap. So that’s kind of a reflection on how obsessed America is with celebrity and power and money. Don’t get me wrong, I love America. I love the freedoms. I’ve been living in Los Angeles on and off since 1976. It still is a country where anything can happen and Barack Obama has proven that. I just think that the country as a whole is obsessed with celebrity and that’s really what that song is all about.

Q. The Guess Who played such a large role in building the Canadian music industry. What do you think of the way it’s evolved since you started back in Winnipeg?

A: Oh my goodness, in those days we released a lot of singles that bombed, that did very little in the market. And then finally we released a single – this is still before These Eyes [the group’s 1969 breakthrough hit] — and I think it sold 10,000 copies and we broke out the champagne thinking, Boy, we’ve really made it now. Whereas a few years ago, people like Bryan Adams, Alanis Morissette and Shania Twain were selling a million units in Canada alone. A million units is a helluva long way from 10,000 units. I’m proud that perhaps the Guess Who laid some of the foundational building blocks for an industry that was very fledgling when we came along, but is now a huge international industry.

Q. How tough is it to age in this industry?

A: It depends who the artist is. I mean, look at Bob Dylan: he’s just a road rat. He’s out there all the time and still keeps drawing the crowds. There are certain artists who are lucky enough to transcend from one generation to the next and sometimes even to a third generation. I’ve been around so long I think that’s starting to happen, because I see the demographic at the shows, whether it’s Bachman-Cummings or Burton Cummings solo shows, there are people there from 14 years old to well into their sixties, and everything in between. And once you have fans like that, I think they’re fans for life. So, in my case, the music industry and the fan base have been a little bit more forgiving. But in some cases, you have two or three good years and that’s it; nobody hears anything more about you.

Q. What sort of new music do you listen to?

A: I’ve heard Feist, I like some of her stuff. There’s an artist named Charlotte Sometimes who just put an album out in the States and I think it’s tremendous; it sounds like the kind of songs I would write. I also listen to a group called Your Vegas that I like very much. There’s another group called The Stills, and also Spoon is writing some tremendous songs. When people say there’s no good new music coming out these days, that’s just not true.

Q: Robert Plant once called you that "lead singer with one hell of a voice." Do you have a favourite vocal performance of yours?

A: Wow. In my solo career, I always thought I’m Scared was a pretty good vocal. And Break It to Them Gently. As far as Guess Who stuff goes, I still cringe when I hear American Woman, because I never quite nailed the notes. I was trying to be Robert Plant and I never quite had the power. Even in These Eyes there’s a couple of notes that make me cringe, where I’m a little bit flat. But I think maybe I’m a bit more aware of that than the average fan. I really liked No Time. I thought that was a pretty good vocal and there’s a doubled vocal on there, and that was a bit harder than the first few singles we had. From that point on, we started getting taken a bit more seriously as a rock band.

Above the Ground is in stores now.

Greig Dymond writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.