Issue # 185 - Don Nichol

Don Nichol


Tales from Beyond the Tap by Randy Bachman (Toronto: Penguin, 2014, 323 pp., $18.00).



Randy Bachman’s title is an obvious nod to his CBC Radio show that generated Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap Stories. A spin on Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Café and Spinal Tap (itself a send-up), “Tap” also plays on Bachman’s sobriety which once threatened his career, but saved his life. More on that later. Tales from Beyond the Tap is Bachman’s remarkable life story told chronologically, in the form of responses to fans’ questions. Just as there are people who don’t know that Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings, younger listeners (or those on a wifi-free desert island) may not know that long before Bachman-Turner Overdrive there was a young guitarist who joined some other musicians in Winnipeg who ended up calling themselves by their publicist’s gimmicky moniker, The Guess Who.

   Born in 1943 in Winnipeg, Bachman was the definition of a child prodigy: winning a singing contest at the age of three, studying the violin under the auspices of the Royal Toronto Conservatory from age five. By the time he hit twelve rebellion kicked in. He gave up the attempt to read music, but was blessed with a “phonographic” memory, which enabled him to play any melody he liked without the intermediary of sheet music. Like Lennon and McCartney who wrote hundreds of songs, he never needed to commit melodies to paper — only the lyrics.

      Bachman was just the right age to be bowled over by Elvis when “Heartbreak Hotel” was released in January 1956. He watched the King on black and white television belting out “Hound Dog,” the Leiber and Stoller number recorded by Big Mama Thornton in 1952. One profound experience for the budding guitarist in Winnipeg was meeting Les Paul who pioneered the instrument Bachman made his fortune playing. Paul snuck the underage Bachman into the club where he was performing with his wife Mary Ford and taught him a riff from “How High the Moon” (1951). Decades later Bachman found himself invited on stage by his guitar hero to play the old “Moon” licks. Paul then jammed with his erstwhile pupil on his own 1973 BTO hit, “Takin’ Care of Business.” Sweet doesn’t begin to describe how that moment must have felt for Bachman.

     The spirit of Lenny Breau (1941-84) hovers over “Undun,” to my mind one of the best things The Guess Who ever did. The Breaus moved from Maine to Winnipeg in 1957 where the family country-and-western band performed live on radio. The sixteen-year-old Randy Bachman pedalled his bike all the way to the station where he met Breau who was just two years older. Jazz improvisation got in the way of three-chord strums, so Breau left the family to form his own band, which took him to Toronto in 1962. Before leaving on his meteoric rise to fame, Breau imparted some of his finger-picking secrets to Bachman. The life of Canada’s best jazz guitarist ended tragically: Breau was strangled and dumped in a swimming pool in Los Angeles. His murder has never been solved.

     Bachman explains the origin of “Undun”. The title sprang out at him from the radio: a line in Dylan’s “Ballad in Plain D” went “She was easily undone.” It chimed with the memory of a young woman who overdosed on acid. “It’s what happens when a song practically pours forth straight out of you as if from somewhere else and you’re just the conduit.” Radio off, pen scribbles out six verses to fit “jazzy, Lenny Breau chord pattern,” and presto! Well almost: Bachman presented his lyrics to Burton Cummings who pared them down to fit the 45. Released in 1969 when The Guess Who were at their peak, “Undun” was originally a B-side to “Laughing”; it became a hit when DJs flipped the record over and liked what they heard. At 3 minutes and 26 seconds, it packs a hell of a punch starting with Bachman’s jazz guitar progressions morphing into Cummings’ vocal build-up with impeccable vibrato control, his scat singing followed by a flute solo (remarkable especially as he’d just learned to play), rising to its razor-sharp finale.

     Tales from Beyond the Tap opens with an answer to: “Are there any songs in particular that have changed your life?” As you’d expect for a guy whose ear must have been glued to his transistor radio throughout much of his adolescence, a lot of his choices are from the 1950s: ’55 alone saw Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” Elvis’s “Don’t Be Cruel,” and Bo Diddley’s eponymous, relentless, one-chord hit. Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-a-Lula” (1956) and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” (1957) with its rhythmic guitarist’s “gunny sack” followed. But no Fender-bending Buddy Holly. Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ hit, “Shakin’ All Over,” must have been covered by every garage band in existence from 1960. Chad Allan and the Expressions, which later morphed into The Guess Who after Allan left, covered “Shakin’” which, with the help of Cummings’ vocal prowess and Bachman’s lightning riff, must have had teenage girls fainting in the aisles. Their British counterpart, The Who, covered “Shakin’ All Over” on their Live at Leeds album in 1970. In addition to Les Paul and Chuck Berry, Bachman’s other guitar idol is here: Chet Atkins. The Beach Boys’ “I Get Around” gets a nod, but not a single Beatles’ song. What of the first recorded use of feedback: the opening to “I Feel Fine,” followed by George Harrison’s masterful riff? In the mid to late 1960s the guitar soars to unimagined heights with Jimi Hendrix, Cream with Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin with Jimmy Page….

     Still, the Beatles are mentioned throughout. In fact, at one point Bachman speculates on one of the greatest what ifs in Canadian music: had The Guess Who stayed together, might they have been the next Beatles? Well, maybe, but Bachman’s sobriety (from the night he ran over his own foot with a car and his father rescued, then shamed him) jarred with other band members’ drug habits. A medical emergency and worry about the effects of stardom on family life took Bachman away from the limelight. Other lifestyle differences soon took him away from the band altogether. Besides, Cummings was pretty well lead singer through and through. He was, like his idol Jim Morrison, the star. While Bachman’s time to shine as a lead singer later came with BTO’s chain of hits, I can’t recollect the two harmonizing the way John and Paul did.

     According to one story, “American Woman” came into being while the band was waiting on Cummings to return to the stage. To appease the restless audience, Bachman started playing the iconic intro, the rest of the band followed, and the errant singer came through with improvised lyrics. When the show was over they tried to recall the instant song they’d played and managed to track down a kid who’d captured it on tape. The 1959 Les Paul guitar Bachman recorded it on is now on display in Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In one of the more bizarre twists of the time, The Guess Who were invited to play at the White House, then occupied by Richard Nixon, a couple of months after their biggest hit topped the American Billboard chart with its line, “I don’t need your war machines, I don’t need your ghetto scenes.” Needless to say, a request was made not to play that one, but the band was happy to do the gig anyway.

     Bachman candidly admits he found collaborating with Fred Turner (the “T” in BTO) “difficult,” but they managed to squeeze out at least one hit with “Let It Ride.” In mature hindsight, he sees the dissolution of BTO not unlike that of other bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival (the other main band known for its triple-letter abbreviation). Other band members with less songwriting experience and less talent wanted more album tracks. Understandable, of course, because royalties can still roll in long after the band collapses. When John Fogarty stepped aside and let other band members’ songs go forward, the next album flopped. Great bands don’t always work as democracies.

     For budding songwriters Bachman has many lessons to impart. The Nashville song-mill experience was to him “not organic,” more of “a contrived experience.” As George Harrison missed the pops and hisses of LPs when compared to CDs, Bachman sympathizes: “You can’t push CD to get distortion. There’s no bigness on CD, whereas on tape the track would saturate and affect every sound around it.” A few odd details: “we really became a top-notch cover band — we had to play anything and everything, from Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs. Robinson’ to José Feliciano’s ‘Light My Fire’ along with the Doors’ version as well” (131), as if the original infernal hit (with the added four minutes’ worth of solos on the album) followed the slow dampened lament.

     Randy Bachman has landed the dream job for retirement, broadcasting with guitar in hand, reminiscing about the phenomenally good old days, and taking us behind the scenes where few guitarists have gone before. I don’t know if it’s such a good idea telling readers how he went about lawfully acquiring one of Keith Richards’ guitars from a shop. He’s probably long since forgotten about it, but what if Keef wakes up one morning and says, Oy! Where’s that Gibson I took in for repair? And wouldn’t it be great if Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings, who have put differences aside in the past to play come back gigs, could get over their rift over royalties? As one of my students once said to me, Pay the man already!