By Mark T. Gould
H It was late afternoon at the nearly deserted “Spin Street,” the compact disc, DVD and poster art store located in the mall area of the Mohegan Sun Casino. Inside, it was almost too quiet, but, soon, a familiar guitar riff made the few patrons in the store start tapping their feet and humming to a familiar tune.
Da-Da-Da-Da, Dut, Duh, Dut. Da-Da-Da-Da-Dut, Duh,Dut.
Within seconds, a woman started to walk out with her purchase, singing merrily, “American Woman, stay away from me…” completely oblivious that she was walking right by the song’s co-writer, Guess Who guitarist and songwriter Randy Bachman, who was browsing in the store a few hours before the band’s headlining show at the casino’s Arena.
“Happens all the time now,” the affable Bachman said, with a laugh. “After shows, I come out, and somebody always asks if I’m with the band. I say ‘they’re inside.’”
Even though he’s clearly a Canadian, and American, musical treasure, it’s now easier for Bachman to get lost in the crowd, particularly when he’s dropped 150 pounds off the big frame that has pushed not only the Guess Who, but Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Brave Belt, and, soon, a solo career highlighted by a DVD and CD release of his “Every Song Tells a Story” personal, career retrospective and a jazz album dedicated to and inspired by his guitar hero, Lenny Breaux.
But, clearly, despite his current, smaller size, Bachman is still best known to US audiences for his huge, powerhouse hits like”Takin’ Care of Business,” “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,” and ‘’Let it Ride,” with BTO; as well as his earlier work, co-writing, with Guess Who keyboardist Burton Cummings, the classics “These Eyes,” “Laughing,” “No Time,” and, of course, “American Woman.”
Chances are, if you haven’t lived under a musical rock for the past 30 years, and you’ve read this story this far, you are humming one of those songs right now.
Which is exactly the point, Bachman said, in an interview in his Mohegan Sun hotel room before the Guess Who rocked out over 3,000 fans in the Arena, resulting in multiple standing ovations from the crowd, many of whom could be heard marveling in surprise over the guitarist’s new, svelte look.
“I learned early on that, when writing a song, you’ve got to sing it in your head first, then play it on the guitar, and then, other people can sing it and remember it,” he said. “If they can’t do that, then they’re not going to buy it. Every song I start has a guitar signature thing, that, the minute you hear it, you know it’s ‘Let It Ride,’ it’s ‘American Woman,’ it’s ‘Laughing.’ It’s that simple thing that I got from Chuck Berry and the Beatles, so that you know the song right away. You just hear that riff, and you know it.”
Yet, despite all the years of acclaim for more than a plateful of classic songs, it took the tragedies of September 11, he said, to force Bachman to give up his one admitted vice, food, and transform himself into a leaner, happier, healthier physical being for the remainder of his career, and for his life.
“I got back together with the Guess Who in August of ’99,” he recalled, “and we were in awe of the audience response, it was remarkable to see three generations in the audience all singing the songs, and I finally realized that, if this was going to go for a couple of months each summer, that I need to get ‘un-couch potatoed,’” he said. “So, I started working out and eating properly, but, like the proverbial yo-yo, I’d take off 40 and put 20 back on.
“Then, 9/11 happened,” he remembered. “We were in New York, and we saw it all first hand. I realized then that there are some things you can control, the way you act, the way you treat the ones you love, your body. So, I made a decision, after 9/11, to control those things. I committed, like last November, to changing my lifestyle.
“Now, when I check into a hotel, like here, instead of going to room service, I’m looking for the gym,” he said.
“Everybody has their vices in life. I don’t smoke, drink or do drugs,” said Bachman, a practicing Mormon. “My vice was food. It was wonderful. Now, it’s still wonderful, but it’s ten percent of what it used to be.
And, he said, it’s a normal extension of the steadfast way he’s maintained his lifestyle for many years, well outside of the cliched realm of the party atmosphere that’s so prevalent in rock and roll circles. And, he said, by design, it’s made him better throughout his career.
“You go in the ring with a guy, and he’s been partying, and you haven’t, well, it’s that way in business, and it’s that way on stage, it gives me an advantage over these guys,” he said, forcefully.”When you go to a party, and your ‘friends’ starting drinking and taking drugs, well, they aren’t your ‘friends.’ When they’re drinking and smoking, and I’m running around like I’m 35… There are guys still fighting bad habits in this band (the Guess Who) and in most bands, but we’re all okay. I’ve been sober for 34 years, and I’ve never smoked and never done a drug. I really have no idea what that (being under the influence of drugs) even feels like.”
The recent, physical change has even transformed him on stage, he said.
“I feel an incredible lightness of being (on stage),” Bachman said. “I feel, sometimes, like I can do a Rudolph Nureyev, leaping up in the middle of a guitar solo, and not come down and hurt my knee or ankle. There’s just no effort at all. I feel like I’ve gained about 15 to 20 years on my life.
And, with all the projects he has planned, Bachman may need that extra time. A self-described “compulsive,” Bachman continues, at the age of 59 on September 27, to work fervently in a number of different musical directions. First, he is finishing a DVD and CD project of “Every Song Tells a Story,” resulting from an intimate series of Canadian shows in which, accompanied only by a guitar, a band, his voice and his memories, he told audiences the stories behind how all those classic songs were written.
“It was a really cool, fun thing that was actually overcoming a fear of performing alone and singing,” he said. “It was a cathartic experience. To see audiences hanging on the every word I said, and liking that just as much as the songs themselves was something.”
Bachman performed the show at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and then at a Canadian benefit, where the show was recorded, in an intimate, relaxed setting.
“We invited family and friends, because it was still unnerving for me,” he recalled. “But, in the front row, just a bit away from me on stage, was my mother, my brother and about 30 guys I’d gone to school with. It was very comforting.”
A Canadian tour in support of the release, scheduled for next spring, has sold out, he said. An American tour after that remains a possibility, he added. Both the DVD and the CD can be ordered from his web site, www.randybachman.com, where, he said, he already has over 8,000 advance orders for the DVD.
Bachman has long had a reputation in the music industry for being a no-nonsense businessman, and with that in mind, he said he finds the use of the Internet, as well as the commercial use of his songs, important facet of his career.
“The web site is like having your own family store, with a bunch of hungry people living nearby,” he said.
“I feel songs are given to me by the ‘God of Music’,” he said. “I don’t know how it happens, but they are meant to be heard, and I’ve been very lucky to make a living at that. If the songs can be used, legitimately, to make money, that’s fine. I will not let them be used for promoting alcohol, tobacco, or X-rated films or anything like that. But, beyond that, if it’s a potato chip or shampoo or Office Depot, use it, pay me, and pay my kids. That’s how I make a living, from writing the songs.”
Bachman is also working on a jazz album, which he said is directly related to his first musical hero and mentor, guitarist Lenny Breaux, to whom the record will be dedicated.
“Jazz has changed,” he said.” I was listening to a new jazz station while on vacation in San Diego. It had the usual Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis classical stuff, but there was some new, keyboardy type things, and I thought, ‘hey, I can do this.’ So, I hired a jazz trio, stand-up bass and drums, went in the studio, and four of the songs locked into such a groove, that is so undeniably cool. I got brave enough to do it, and I’m even braver now. Pardon the expression, but it really rocks. I think there’s a niche for it out there.”
And, if that’s not enough, there’s still the Guess Who, which, after more than 30 years, are still going strong in their fourth year of this reunion.
“I don’t know how far it can go,” Bachman said.”We get tired after every summer. I can see doing this for another 10 years or so, because it’s what I do, whether it’s with them, or with “Every Song,” and probably with the jazz incorporated in there. I can still seeing doing it.”
He even holds the door open to working with Fred Turner again, in Bachman-Turner Overdrive.
“Everything is just that,” Bachman said, nodding in the direction of his hotel room telephone. “It’s just a call away. Remember, I was never going to work with the Guess Who again. It was our version of ‘Hell Freezes Over (the legendary title of the Eagles’ reunion),’ The phone call came, and it was ‘I’ll do it, if you do it.’”
The band came together again to perform four songs at the Pan American Games in Winnipeg in 1999, leading to the more permanent reunion and the recent summer tours.
“First the fear and fright of going out there, and then the high and comfort, and seeing the crowd reaction, to have my children there to see me perform these songs, that they had grown up with, but never seen me perform, it was incredible,” he said, about the first reunion show at the Games.
“When I got off stage, I said to Burton ‘I don’t know how you feel, but the way I feel, if I could bottle this….’ And he said ‘well, we don’t know how to bottle it, but we know how to get it, so let’s keep playing together,’ and we shook hands,” he recalled.
And, for his fans and fans of the Guess Who, Bachman’s reteaming with writing partner and lead singer Cummings has been an important turn of events.
“He’s one of the undeniably top five singers in rock and roll, who just don’t come out and scream,” Bachman said about Cummings. “He can do a ballad that will rip your heart out, and then do a screamer, and back and forth. He’s a really great guy, whom I’ve known since we were kids. I have something with him that is very, very rare, like Lennon-McCartney, Jagger-Richards; we’ve written some incredible songs together. And, it’s still there.”
In between it all, Bachman also found time to co-write his biography, “Takin’ Care of Business,” with noted Canadian rock historian and author John Einarson.
“(John) was a total, incredible, anchoring font of knowledge,” he said. “When we (the Guess Who) want to know something about ourselves, we phone John. He tells us exactly who, what and where, it happened, as well as what we ordered for dinner. He’s a great factual guy, a great researcher, very organized, being a teacher and having been in bands in Winnipeg in the Sixties, I just can’t think of anybody else who could write this from that perspective.”
So, 150 pounds lighter, with numerous projects on the horizon, Bachman sounds, and certainly looks, like he’s ready to go on for a number of years.
“I can still hear my father saying ‘can you make a living at this, why don’t you get a straight job?’” he said. “It’s really gratifying to know that I’m not a drunk, broken down musician playing in a club someplace, like we see on the road, where they can’t walk, they can’t move. We’re all in good shape. I’ve got another 20 to 30 years to go in playing; whether it’s the Guess Who, my own band, “Every Song,” or jazz, that’s what I’ll be doing.”