Hold On, I'm Cummings!

Burton Cummings is either rock's most unsung hero or its most overlooked fugitive pervert

Dreams of a Child (1978)

Bam! You don't have to wait very long for crazy Cummings to shock and outrage you here. In the opening cut "Break it to Them Gently," Burton plays a guy on the lam from the law. We know this because he tells us, "I'm runnin' with a gun and it isn't very fun as a fugitive." Merle Haggard would be jealous.

But that's not the dumb part. In a desperate final moment, he tells us to break the news gently to his family that he's never coming home again. But after three choruses, he's already thinking like a jailbird who's never gonna see conjugal beaver of any nationality. While the band breaks down, Burton starts making weird suggestions on just how to break it to mama and, especially, grandma, the one who always suspected "the boy was wild and bad" in the first place: "You gotta really try to soothe 'em, mmmmm, gotta roll it to my mother, roll it to my grandma." Then the chain-gang chorus chimes in with, "Gotta roll the old lady! She's damn near 80!"

Cummings on the cover of the infamous Woman Love: “Sing us a schlong, you’re the piano man.”
Cummings on the cover of the infamous Woman Love: “Sing us a schlong, you’re the piano man.”
Burton shows that when it comes to bagging a babe, it’s always better to pick paper over plastic.
Scott Enyart
Burton shows that when it comes to bagging a babe, it’s always better to pick paper over plastic.

When John Lennon accused Paul McCartney of making "music for grannies," I don't reckon this is what he had in mind. Special morose footnote: The drummer on this song is former Derek and the Dominos batterer Jim Gordon, who's serving a life sentence for rolling his dear old mama into a permanent dirt nap.

Woman Love (1980)

After three albums on the subsidiary Portrait imprint, Burton signs a contract with parent label Epic after it promises him complete control over his recordings from here on out. Burton should've realized this was the same label that reneged on that very promise to the Clash. Buoyed by a newfound sense of artistic freedom, Burton shaves off his mustache and comes up with an album so bizarre that Epic finds it too disturbing to release for mass consumption.

Convinced this is his masterwork and refusing to alter the rejected recording, Cummings walks away from his newly inked multimillion-dollar deal. The album is too unsavory for American audiences, but the Canadians are not so discriminating. It's released to Maple Leafers exclusively and promptly goes platinum. Like any bruised artist, Cummings bitterly complains that no one at the label "got it." "Over a dozen individuals at Epic told me the same thing . . . it wasn't what they wanted to hear. After about eight refusals, I became so nervous and depressed, I broke out into stress-related sores all over my body," claims Burton in his newly penned liner notes.

My guess is that once word of Burton's nervous condition got around, the rest of the execs nixed the album just to see for themselves what stress-related sores looked like. Mind you, these are the same guys who gave Billy Joel's 1980 New Wave fiasco Glass Houses the green light. So what gives? Delayed reaction to Cummings' decade-old anti- "American Woman" diatribe?

It couldn't have been the music, because Woman Love doesn't sound that dramatically different from the other three albums. Sure, it's got problems, the first one being the opener "Feels All Wrong," in which the instrumental track whirs down 16 times like someone accidentally switching off the turntable while a bunch of burly guys moan "huh?". That's just asking for trouble.

Then you've got some synth sounds that both Styx and Pac Man probably reported lost or stolen. And no matter how fast punk rocker Burton pounds the piano on "Mile a Second," he can't get it to sound like The Dickies.

The bigger problem, methinks, is that he shaved his mustache. Your average Joe couldn't pick ol' Burton out of a police lineup under the best of conditions. Without that lip roofing, even his Northern Lights pals couldn't be expected to recognize him. Clearly this move mystified the board room at Epic. You can picture them scratching their heads, saying, "When did we sign Albert Brooks and why isn't he delivering a comedy album to us?"

Before walking away from his million-dollar deal, do you think Burton considered that maybe, just maybe, it was the Hiroshima of an album cover that nobody at Epic "got"? Here you have Burton pounding away at a phallic, flesh-colored piano aimed straight into the open legs of a 50-foot woman. For the love of Colossus! Flip the cover over and you find Burton missing, the imposing specimen of feminine pulchritude having peeled his satin tour jacket off and used him as a tampon. Sure, Cummings was only anticipating Prince Charles' sick Camilla Parker Bowles fantasy, but this was all heady stuff back in 1980. And not for nothing, any album called Woman Love that contains photos of Burt and said woman with a bag over her head is just asking to spend a couple of decades in the doghouse. "No Sugar Tonight"? No shit!

Now it's 2000, and every CBS suit that gave Burton a rash is gone, the Japanese own Springsteen's masters and Woman Love is finally getting released in America, where people are even more uptight about sex with pianos than they were 20 years ago. But will a record-buying public denied the chance to give Burton a "yea' or "nay' in 1980 seize the opportunity to "get it" now? My guess is the folks who enjoy doing everything in droves will all get together and decide emphatically to "stay a-way-hey."

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