EXCLUSIVE LOST INTERVIEW: Burton Cummings Formerly of The Guess Who

One of my favorite interviews that I've ever done is with Burton Cummings of The Guess Who. The man has got great stories. Unfortunately shortly after doing the interview my computer crashed and I lost everything including this interview. I had emailed it to a couple of people but I couldn't find it, finally almost a year later my sister found it buried in her email. So this interview is a little dated, but it's one of the best interviews I've ever done.

Growing up my dad was a huge The Guess Who fan. If you asked my dad who the best guitarist of all time is he'd say Randy Bachman, the best singer was Burton Cummings and the best piano player wasn't Elton John or Billy Joel, it was Burton Cummings. I've become a fan myself. The stories that Mr. Cummings has are spectacular. You need to hear his story about driving Jim Morrison around all night long the first time he stepped foot in California.

You can visit Burton Cummings at www.burtoncummings.com

Listen to the interview here: 

Bob Zerull (BZ): I’ve been trying to set this interview up for the last three years. I always look at your website, burtoncummings.com, I always get stuck there reading around at blog posts and videos. It’s one of the best websites out there.

Burton Cummings (BC): Thank you. We kind of like it. I have a pretty good internet team that are pretty well up on the  latest developments, and I’ve heard from a lot of people that they really enjoy the site because there is so much there. You know when you have been around as long as I have, there are fans now, followers, that it’s nice to reconnect with. I mean, you know some of the early records of ours were made over 40 years ago. 

BZ: You seemed to really embrace social media from the get go. How did you come across it, and was there any resistance at all?

BC: Well, about 2007, I guess, 2006-2007, I ventured over to MySpace. I had been going into chat rooms a little bit, but I didn’t much care for that. Everybody has aliases and nobody knows who anybody is. I mean it was very weird. So, I went over to MySpace for some reason. I don’t even remember why. I guess somebody had mentioned, you should check out MySpace. It’s kind of neat. I went over there and I met a few people that knew who I was, and one of them kind of induced me into getting a MySpace sight and the next thing I knew I had tons of people. It was a pleasant surprise to me, you know. Tons of people getting a hold of me all of a sudden, and, it is….you know, I’m going to be 66 on New Year’s Eve, so I’ve seen the changes and I remember when we were at our real height as The Guess Who. We were flying and "American Woman" was number one on the billboards, and it was very heady times, and I was very young.And, I remember the big difference. In those days we had a fan club of course, and if the fans or the followers were lucky, they would write in through real mail, and maybe two and a half weeks later, if theywere lucky they would get a picture that was stamped with a rubber stamp autograph, and that was how it worked. Today, I’m an insomniac and I’m up late, and I blog a lot, if I put up something about the life forms at the bottom of the ocean in the middle of the night, two minutes later I got a guy from New Zealand telling me how fascinating that was and blah blah blah. It’s really remarkable, and if you don’t embrace it, you’re just out of the loop, you know. That’s what I think anyway. 

BZ: You’ve got a DVD coming out called, "Ruff: Volume 1." Is that kind of an extension of the site?

C: No, I’ve had a videographer following me for about twelve years now. All the fly on the wall stuff that people don’t usually see, particularly a lot of rehearsals where I turn into an ogre to get what I want out of the band, you know. The stuff that people don’t see, and she’s been capturing all of that. We’re finally amalgamating all of that. We started with tapes a long time ago and then we graduated to hard drives. It’s all zeros and ones now. We have an archive of about thirteen years of digital video. So, we’ve just assembled a bunch of great stuff that we think is pretty interesting. Pretty fascinating. I had just finished reading Pete Townsend’s book before we were doing the final assembly on Volume One, and I was glad I read it just at the time I did because he was describing a lot of stuff from his childhood, and that’s one thing to read it in print, on paper. What we did for some of that stuff… My mother was beaten up by dad when I was very little, about a year old, and he beat her up, and she grabbed me and ran, and I never knew him. We went right back to the house where that happened, and I told the whole story while I’m standing outside the house, and we took the walk in real time from when she grabbed me and it was December  and twenty below, you know, and walked to my grandparents house. We did all this in digital video, and as I said, I had just finished reading Pete Townsend’s book, and I thought we are on to something here because it’s almost like a video book. It’s some pretty interesting stuff, and plus of course, you know there is a lot of live footage shot with seven or eight cameras and multi-track sound, so it’s a pretty good 85 minutes. It’s a really interesting.

BZ: When is it coming out?

BC: Well, we were originally going to have Volume One for Christmas, but now there’s been a bit of delay. We are gonna have, I think three volumes come out in one box in one nice package. We’ve got so much content and Universal MCA said it might even make a better splash for you, rather than just one stand-alone DVD. Creeping into the market might be a better splash for you. You’re established. You’ve got a 40-year plus career, mayb you should come out with a package of three. So, that’s what we are going to do. And, it will be probably early Spring now. 

BZ: Cool! There is something that I have always wondered with those that have long careers, you know, your peak of your popularity with The Guess Who, is it more gratifying now looking back at those moments, or being in those moments?

BC: Well, you know when it happened for me, I was very young. I was much younger than the other guys in The Guess Who when I joined, because I replaced Chad Allen. They had a hit record called “Shakin’ All Over” but that wasn’t me. They covered a thing by Johnny Kid and the Pirates. It was a big record in the states especially, but that wasn’t me. And then that singer went back to university, so there I was. I hadn’t even turned eighteen yet, and they phoned me and asked me to join the band.   So, that was pretty heady for me when we cut “These Eyes,” which was a monster record for us. I was still twenty, so technically I had a gold record before I could have a beer. It’s pretty weird when I think of it now. I enjoyed the initial rush of all those gold records and all of a sudden being on "American Bandstand" with Dick Clark. Winnipeg ain’t exactly New York or San Francisco. You know what I mean? Your dreams become a little more distant. When all that happened for us, it was pretty amazing, but I think I was too young, and in the middle of the eye of the hurricane. I think I was so young I didn’t realize the extent of it all. Now when I look back I wouldn’t change anything but certainly I didn’t realize at the time how big things were. I had no idea.

BZ: Growing up, for whatever reason, my dad would always compare The Guess Who to the Doors and you to Morrison, and even a higher level to Jim Morrison, and he was a Doors fan too. I came across a story on your website about you driving Jim Morrison around and the way you talk about Morrison is similar to the way my dad talked about you and that kind of excited me to know that, at heart, you are still a fan. Can you tell our readers a little bit about that night with Jim Morrison.

BC: It was remarkable. It was the very first night I ever set my foot down on California soil., and we were here to do "American Bandstand" I think, and we got here about 8:30/9:00 at night and we checked into Sleepy Eaze, or whatever, a big league sleep lodge down on Sunset, and the other guys were older than me and they just stayed in their rooms and watched tv. I couldn’t wait to get out and walk down Sunset. I wanted to see Dino’s , where they filled 77 Sunset Strip. I wanted to see the Whiskey. So I walked and walked and walked about four miles to the Whiskey A-Go-Go, it was late. The band was finished up and I looked around and everything was kinda breaking down, and said okay now I’ve seen the Whiskey, and my dream is kind of fulfilled. So, I walk outside and going to head back to the hotel and I hail a cab. And before I get in the cab the guys says, I guess you’re going to the big party too. And, I said yeah, yeah I am. Lets go! So, next thing I know I am in a cab. I had been in LA about a total of three hours in my life, and I’m in a cab going up to Hollywood Hills to some party. So, I say to the guy, “hey look man, I gotta come clean here. I don’t know where you’re taking me, but obviously you’ve taken people here earlier tonight, so do me a favor. I will pay your fare. Stay and wait and let me see if I can get in, and so we did, and long story short, yeah I got in. It was craziness, you know. Naked people in the pool and screaming and yelling and lines of blow everywhere. Just nuts! I didn’t know a soul. I felt so bizarre. I sat down at a little piano way over in the corner of the room and next thing I know there’s a guy sitting next to me, playing a little bit of the top end of the piano. And that just happens to be Morrison. You know, I told this to the other guys in the band the next morning and I don’t really think they believed me.  I don’t think a lot of people believe me, but I spoke to Ray Manzarek before about it, and he said yeah you probably spent more time with Morrison than most of us did. And, I remember the car. The car was a silver GTO with a black corrugated roof, and so Manzarek confirmed that, and so anyways Jim was too drunk to drive. I took the keys and he had two girls with him. The three of them got in the back seat, and I drove him around and I just turned left here, turned right there and drove around for about four hours, until the sun came up. And, I got out in the morning and that was it. And, about a year later, maybe a year and a half later, he was gone. But, it was remarkable. I got to speak to him, or listen to him speak about the Renaissance, and art, and physics, and the universe, and existentialism, and poetry, and you know a pretty…a real thinking guy. A bit of a Renaissance man.  Really very educated. Very eloquent, but drank like nobody I ever saw. And, I have heard that from other people. David Crosby says that Morrison was a miserable drunk. I don’t know. It’s a strange thing because I’ve got a book of poetry coming out, and it’s a disappearing art, poetry. And, Morrison really considered himself a poet, and I think he was trapped in this rockstar’s persona because we all know those stories where he tried to do those lengthy poems during the concerts, and then the fans would just boo. They would boo him down until they got back to “Light My Fire” and stuff. Pretty bizarre, but that was a remarkable experience. I tell this story over and over through the years. A lot of people don’t believe me, but you know what, it doesn’t matter cuz I lived it.

BZ: I love that story. You have that book of poetry coming out, like you said, what is your process of writing poetry versus song lyrics?

BC: It’s funny. If I’m gonna write songs, I’ll sit at a keyboard. Poetry should just stands on its own as words being silently echoing in your head, like it’s a different thing for me completely. I don’t belabor the poetry at all. It comes very quickly. I can type very very quickly. I took typing in high school, so I can do 160/170 words per minute, and piano helps. So, when the thoughts come, I can type them almost as fast as I can speak them or think them, and as far as the poetry goes, I’ll go and read stuff by Keats and Poe, and Kipling, some of the great poets and poetry that I love that is online, and I’ll get influenced by that, but I don’t plagiarize or steal. I just go and get in the mood by reading the greats. And then it really comes quickly. I’ve been writing poetry since grade ten in high school. I like the English language. I like the nuances of the English language. I’ve got a pretty good following online of people who are re-exploring poetry now because of mine. I’ve put up a lot of them. I’ve put up over a hundred of them online. And because of my stuff, a lot of people are saying maybe poetry is not all for sissies, you know. 

BZ: When does the book come out? It’s called “The Writings of B.L. Cummings.”

BC: It will hopefully be around February, around Valentine’s Day. I have about 200 poems to pick from, andI’ve got it down to about 50 now. It has to be only about 50 to be the right size book. So, hopefully by February. I made all the final choices. I want to bind a couple, like a sound check. I want to actually hold them in my hand and see how it feels and how the vibe will be, because it’s very special to me.

BZ: Awesome. You have a busy beginning of 2014. You’re going to be doing your first headline in Vegas.

BC: Yeah, that’s a big deal too. I’m very excited about that because I’ve had to fight that band that called itself The Guess Who, and nobody really knows from month to month who all is in that band anymore. So, I’ve had to fight that, but you know what’s happening now is that people are associating all those songs with my name, and the headlining in Vegas is really going to help that a lot. And, you know what man, I’ve still got my chops. I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. People telling me I sound just like the records, well hell man, some of those records are forty years ago. 

BZ: Is that something you’ve ever had to struggle with? Maintaining your voice? Is it difficult?

BC: Well, people have said, how have you endured with your chops? I think the easiest and the most obvious answer to me is, I sing all the time. Even if I’m not touring, I will sit at the piano or I’ll pick up a guitar, and sing old Western songs or early rock and roll stuff. I sing all the time. And, I finally quit smoking about four years ago. For a singer, I wasn’t too bright. I smoked my whole life. But, I quit smoking tobacco about four years ago. I think that has really helped. It hasn’t changed the sound of my voice, but what it has changed is that it easier now for me now on stage. 

BZ: Does playing a show in Vegas change from your typical show that you take around the country?

BC: It has to be shorter because they don’t want you on too long, They want the people back at the slots, and at the tables. So, they use the talent to draw the crowds, but they don’t let the artist play for very long. I think we have to do only about 60 minutes, where as I’m used to doing a 100 or 110 minutes. But,in the case of Vegas, if it’s only 60 or 65 minutes, I could do that and they would be all hit records. I think it’s a problem that a lot of artists wish they had. I don’t mean that to sound arrogant, but it is kind of funny when I say it. 

BZ: You’re playing a lot of live shows. At this point in your career, how important is it for you to keep creating new music?

BC: Well, I still write new songs all the time, and I had a new album about four years ago., which was 19 songs. All of mine. So, it was like a double album. It’s different now, with the internet and with Napster. When Napster let the genie out of the bottle everything changed. There’s only a half a dozen artists really selling CDs anymore. People download one or two songs at a time usually. It’s different. I still write songs all the time, and I will probably have some new songs to place in movies or television, but I’m not grinding out albums like the old days. And, besides, there are only a handful of artists who have done over thirty albums. If you really start looking around, there are not a lot of us. I’ve done about 32 or 33 albums. I mean, that’s with greatest hits packaging and everything, but still that is an awful lot of recording. 

BZ: Is right now an exciting time for young artists with the music industry the way it is with social media making everything so immediate, or is it scarier? Would you have any interest in being a young artist in this era?

BC: At least they have the internet to launch things, but by the same token, to have any kind of a sustainable income, the young bands have to be able to play live because the days are gone when artists could live on their royalties from selling records. Those days are long gone. That ship has sailed. So, reallyplaying live is so important now. And I also think that for young artists the absolute rule should be that you write your own stuff. Make sure that you are writing your own original stuff because if you don’t and you have a song finding machine, like some big artists have had, then the minute that song finding machine breaks down, you’re done because you’re not controlling your own future by writing your own stuff. So, that to me is the most important thing for young artists to really try and write your own material. You know what, at the end of the day, no one really gives a damn how well you do an Aerosmith song cuz we’ve already got Aerosmith. You know what I mean?

BZ: Speaking of people doing their own, when you hear bands like Pearl Jam or Lenny Kravitz playing your music, how does that make you feel?

BC: As a writer, it is very very complimentary. I’ll tell ya, a neat thing about the Kravitz cover of “American Woman,” it’s one thing to write a love song, and then forty years later the song can be a hit again, because love is a timeless topic. Love songs lyrically were the same in the 1930’s as they are now. Really and truly, overall, love songs. When a song that isn’t a love song, and I’m not saying “American Woman” was political, it never was meant to be. It was just one of those things we jammed, but when a song like that cac surface again, 30 years plus later, that’s a testament to those lyrics not being corny, and not being a love song. To me, when Kravitz covered it, and it became such a monster record… you know the irony is that Lenny writes all his own stuff but the biggest record of his career was “American Woman.” When that happened, to me as the guy who wrote those lyrics and sang those lyrics, that was a very complimentary thing to me because it meant that stream of consciousness words that rolled out of me decades ago hadn’t become corny in 30 years plus. I don’t know if I am making any sense here, but as the writer that is a tremendous feeling. 

Z: Well, that’s all I had. Before I let you go, I wanted to thank you for two of the best, most memorable days of my life due to you. My dad had never seen The  Guess Who with Randy Bachman, and when you guys got back together with Randy and Gary, with that arena tour in 2000 or whatever it was, I had camped out at a local grocery store that had a twenty-four hour ticket master like as if a new iPhone was coming out, even though the internet existed, and I got tickets for me and my dad and my brother, and he had no idea the show was happening or that you guys were back together, and later that day we were driving and an advertisement for the show came on, and my dad, who hates going to live events, concerts, sporting events, he lit up when heard Burton Cummings, Randy Bachman, Gary Peterson, and I was able to show him the tickets, and that will stay with me the rest of my life. That and the actual day of the concert I’ll remember all my life.

BC: Oh man! That’s a great story. Now you make me feel good. Built me up for the day. Thanks so much my man. Very kind words! All right then, take care. 

BYLINE: Bob Zerull is the Managing Editor of Zoiks! Online. He writes pop culture commentary, does interviews with bands, and reviews music and stand-up concerts. He also administers Zoiks! Online's Facebook page. Follow Bob on twitter at bzerull. Email Bob at bob@zoiksonline.com.
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