Burton Cummings cleans up his act, determined to keep rocking
Burton Cummings poses at Massey Hall in Toronto on Monday, Oct. 22, 2012. (Matthew Sherwood / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Nick Patch, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, October 24, 2012 12:22PM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, October 24, 2012 1:26PM EDT
TORONTO -- With his 65th birthday approaching, Burton Cummings is thinking retirement. Not from music, mind you, but from the hard-partying lifestyle he's dutifully sustained over his 50 years in the music business.
The Winnipeg native says he hasn't had an alcoholic beverage in two or three months, and he quit smoking three years ago to preserve his voice (cigarettes, that is, he notes with a mischievous grin: "I still like Mrs. Green ... once in a while").
And in part because of these prudent lifestyle choices, Cummings is as optimistic as ever he can stay relevant into his golden years.
"I'll be 65 on New Year's Eve -- I can't live like a teenage goofball anymore," an energetic Cummings said in an interview backstage at Toronto's Massey Hall this week.
"I'm not quite ready to move to Lourdes yet ... but I'm pretty clean. I haven't had any alcohol now for months ... for an Irish guy that's a singer in a rock band, that's pretty good.
"And I think I've probably quit everything at the right time," he added. "Because people tell me I sound ... better than I used to."
And as proof, Cummings is releasing the new live disc "Massey Hall" on Tuesday.
Captured over the course of performances at the historic Toronto venue in 2010 and 2011, the disc finds Cummings applying his still-vital pipes to a succession of well-loved Guess Who classics.
While Cummings also incorporated several cuts from his post-1976 solo career -- and two from his most recent collection of new material, 2008's "Above the Ground" -- he rarely waits long before digging back into one of the colossal hits he co-wrote with Randy Bachman, including "These Eyes," "Laughing," "American Woman" and "No Time."
Cummings is as aware as anyone how thoroughly those tunes have been emblazoned into the Canadian psyche after four decades of steady radio rotation -- so he was also aware that his margin for error was virtually non-existent.
"I think we have done the songs justice. That's the thing, man. 'Cause if you're going to do a live album, and it's composed mainly of songs that have been on the radio for decades, it can't be lame. You can't put out something second-rate," he said.
"I was nervous before. I'm not scared now. I think the public's going to like it."
That Cummings still frets about his ability to perform his best-known songs is perhaps surprising, given that these time-worn classics have spent nearly as much time on his lips as that bushy black moustache.
Listening to him dig in here -- trilling sensitively on "These Eyes," hollering confidently on "American Woman" -- it sure sounds like he still relishes playing the hits.
"They don't get stale to me," he agrees. "(Late Guess Who producer) Jack Richardson ... used to say, 'I don't see why he doesn't do more new stuff on stage.' Man, it's hard enough to get a hit record. What's wrong with playing them for the rest of your life?
"And besides that, I could do two and a half hours of hit records. What am I going to do? Shove new stuff down people's throats?"
Still, there are elements of the past that Cummings is unlikely to want to revisit.
He's down on the idea of reuniting again with Bachman, with whom he last shared the stage back in 2009 after years of on-and-off collaboration. Without ruling anything out, Cummings said that with Bachman paired once again with former partner Fred Turner, another reformation was unlikely.
"That's doubtful now, because he's gone back with Fred and they're trying to do that whole BTO thing again," Cummings said. "We had a great four-five years of Bachman-Cummings, and then we were kind of gearing up to go to Vegas and he decided he'd go with Fred. We all lost some time and effort because of that.
"I will always respect Randy. He's an amazing musician and a wonderful player and we wrote great stuff together, but I really think the days of Bachman-Cummings are done. I wish he and Fred the best. There's no bitterness or weirdness, it serves me better now to be Burton by himself."
He was less generous in sizing up former Guess Who mates Jim Kale and Garry Peterson, who own the trademark on the band name and regularly perform gigs under that header with sidemen.
Cummings says he doesn't speak to his former collaborators and "probably never will unless it's with lawyers in a courtroom."
The relationship is so badly damaged that Cummings says if the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland ever saw fit to finally recognize the Guess Who -- a longstanding snub in the eyes of many of the band's fans -- Cummings wouldn't show up for the induction.
"I won't go if it happens," he said. "Just as Axl Rose could not stand up there, there's no way I could stand up there with Peterson and Kale after what they've done to the name ... and the next day, (they) go back to Hattiesburg, Miss., with some other guy on vocals and some other guy on keyboards and guitars. There's no way. So I'll graciously decline.
"What they've done to the name is a disgrace."
Even as Cummings describes his tense relationship with his former bandmates, he doesn't lose the chipper spirit he's carried throughout the interview.
As far as he can see, things are going too well for him to get bogged down in old feuds. He's set to sing O Canada at the Grey Cup in Toronto in November, he plans to release a book of poetry sometime before Valentine's Day under the modified handle B.L. Cummings ("almost sounds British -- literary!") and he's gathered plenty of material for a new solo album in 2010, having written seven or eight "really good" songs as well as close to 200 "of various calibres of excellence and non-excellence."
"I'll be recording till the day I die, for sure," he said.
And as he approaches another birthday, he looks to older icons still capably cruising from gig to gig -- the likes of Gordon Lightfoot, Steve Miller and even Tony Bennett.
"I wanna be one of those guys -- (where) they're not thinking about my birth certificate, they're just thinking about what I'm playing and singing."
And if he can't continue at that level?
Well, he thinks back to a gig he shared with Australian "Jessie's Girl" crooner Rick Springfield. Cummings wasn't necessarily an admirer before that -- "(He's) not exactly Led Zeppelin," he notes -- but was especially vexed when he says he learned that Springfield put in a performance that was heavily "computer-driven."
"Man, I don't ever want to get to that stage," Cummings says, shaking his head. "I would never do it. I would quit long before that.
"I told myself 10 years ago: 'When it gets lame, Burton, that's it. Stay home and watch CNN all day.' But people are telling me I sound as good as ever. So you know what? It's not lame yet.
"So I'm not quitting for a while! Simple as that."