Hold On, I'm Cummings!

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

Sometimes towering insignificance is the very thing that draws the most attention. Take Sony Legacy reissuing not one, but fourBurton Cummings CDs with previously unheard bonus cuts.Burton Cummings?

In rock 'n' roll hero terms, he's Atom Man, the Justice Leaguer who only saved the day by doing something reallydull, like crawling through a keyhole. And bonus cuts? For most people, anything that isn't "These Eyes" or "American Woman" qualifies as a bonus cut.

But that just shows how much you know. If you take this Burton 101 crash course with me, you'll learn lotsa stuff. Did you know our boy Burton was the first Canadian to ever go triple-platinum? That was for solo album number three, Dreams of a Child, a platter that had even fewer hit singles than Rush's 2112 and Joni Mitchell's Don Juan's Restless Daughtercombined!

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.

Rarely has Cummings been given his Guess Who due. He's always had a great banshee wail, made even greater by an apparent touch of Tourette's, something that kicks in whenever there's a free bar of music to ad-lib lyrics over. Who could forget the way he stretched the alphabet soup on the Guess Who's 1972 Live at the Paramountalbum? Rather than merely admonish that darned war machine operating "American Woman" to just "stay away from me-hee," Burton blasted his own verbal bazookas, calling her a litany of names you won't hear repeated during any of Ringo's All-Stars shows when the Burton Cummings sing-along portion of the program comes around: "American bitch! American cunt! American slut! American lesbian!" And yes, even "American beaver!" Cummings knew the show was being taped for a live-album release, and yet, he persisted. Doesn't the word "demographics" mean anything to this guy? Think about all the flak Mick Jagger caught from feminists just for singing "Stupid Girl," and you'll realize how many more musical crimes against women Burton's gotten away with in all these years.

Neighborhoods get to put up posters every time a convicted sex offender moves in next door, but oldies stations can hardly raise a similar red flag before playing a Guess Who record, even though the vinyl pudding is proof that the heart of a rock 'n' roll pervert beats inside this depraved Canuck. Remember such Guess Who near-hits as "Follow Your Daughter Home" and "Albert Flasher"? Of course not. No radio station in its right mind was ever gonna play a record that cheerfully sang the phrase, "It was a workshop boner" over and over again. Or was it "workshop owner"? Jeez, you just can't pin a thing on this slippery feller.

Until now, anyway. While the first three Burton Cummings albums reached the malls and shops without incident, his fourth long player, the suppressed-in-the-U.S. opus Woman Love, is such a monumental cry for help we think you and your neighbors should know about it. To better understand this blight against humanity, perhaps a brief analysis of the three CDs leading up to it might provide some clarity.

Burton Cummings (1976)

One year after Eric Carmen left the Raspberries to be all by his self, Cummings bolted the safe confines of the Guess Who to follow him down that dark and scary "middle of the road." With this album, Cummings ended a five-year feud with former Who-ser Randy Bachman by covering "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet" like the slow, elegant version of Neil Sedaka's "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do." With tasteful stuttering, you n-nn-nnn-never will f-ff-fff-orget! Like Carmen, this album scored Cummings his very own don't-wanna-be-all-by-myself-with-88-keys hit, "Stand Tall." Who could forget this chorus: "Stand tall, don't you fall/FOR GOD'S SAKE, DON'T GO AND DO SOMETHING FOOLISH!!!" Sage advice that went sadly unheeded later on.

My Own Way to Rock(1977)

Enough of that MOR shit, says Burton, who turns the piano stool up to 11 here. But like his previous album, My Own Way to Rock is produced by Richard Perry, whose own "way to rock" means hiring the same session players who made Carly Simon and Ringo Starr records the seismic eruptions they were. Burton's worked up quite a lather on the cover, as the mercifully reduced close-up of his sweaty head on the CD version bears out. Why wasn't this album called My Own Way to Perspire? Maybe if he had pushed that envelope, then Burton would've gotten due props for his secretion breakthrough long before everyone from Olivia Newton-John to Hall & Oates to Richard Simmons ran their runny pores on record sleeves.

Most of the bonus cuts offered on these reissues are understandably album rejects. I mean, how good can you expect a song called "I Do My Vocals On the Boat" to be? But thank heaven for this album's outasite outtake, a live version of "Charlemagne" that proves that all Burton needs is a coliseum of sickos egging him on, and before you know it, it's too late, he's gone too far and lost the sun. In short, he comes "Undun." From out of nowhere he suddenly starts singing, "I could never be Freddie Mercury," and then proudly blurts "'Cause I LIKE YOUNG GIRLS!" This was in 1979, at least a year before Freddie officially adopted his glad-to-be-gay/Fonzie-in-mascara look. (okay, so in the outing rock stars department, Jagger has Cummings handily beat. As early as 1975, Mick's frequent onstage introduction for Billy Preston was "he's staying at the Carlyle and he likes young boys.")

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!"

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."

But just as nations at peace realize they actually do need "war machines" and "ghetto scenes" to keep the economy going, America will continue to turn a blind eye to the insane antics of this singing hockey puck. And that's the real travesty. In an era in which chart-topping albums are conceived by committee, we need more straight shooters like Burton, one man who can look you in the eye and tell it exactly like it is: "You're no good for me, I'm no good for you, I'm gonna look you in the eye and tell you what I'm gonna do."

And then he sings, "You know I'm gonna lee-heave" for another five minutes.

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