Saturday, February 2, 2013

Guess Who

I became reacquainted with the genius of The Guess Who several years ago when I took a “greatest hits” compilation from the library. While I enjoy their music, I have a memory about the Guess Who that goes beyond the music. It’s a small point and personal, but strong.

I was five years old when The Guess Who, a Canadian band, hit it big in the U.S. with the song “These Eyes” off their “Wheatfield Soul” album. It’s a hauntingly passionate song made even more so by Burton Cummings’ voice whose heartbreak seems on the verge of bursting out (as indeed it eventually does). Cummings’ vocal style has a slight feral screech to it, as if he’s trying to keep himself from letting lose in each song (an attempt that usually fails by the end of the songs).

Jim Kale’s bass line is as solid as the vocal in directing the tone. Adding to the subtle mix is the sturdy twang of Randy Bachmann’s guitar and Garry Peterson’s restrained drumming.

Peterson’s drumming is more pronounced in the song “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature” Cummings sounds more disappointed than torn apart that he has no girl to hang with. Where in “These Eyes” he sang the lyrics vindictively, there’s a playful disappointment in “No Sugar” leading one to think that the woman he’s missing isn’t so much a deep lover as much as she is a friend with benefits. By the time the song morphs into “The New Mother Nature,” it’s taken on a whole new dynamic. When Bachman originally presented his “No Sugar Tonight” to the record company it was decided the song was too short, so Cummings’ song “New Mother Nature” was added to it to flesh it, The transition from one song to another is surprisingly smooth, even with the lyrics though it seems apparent that there are two relationship dynamics going on in narrative.

The group had a funk/rock fusion thing going on in “American Woman,” the guitar lick prominent and memorable. It’s a perfect song for throaty vocals. I once had a debate with someone who accused the group of misogyny based on the lyrics of this song. What he didn’t understand was that the song isn’t about an actual American woman but rather about America itself. Released during the Vietnam War, it alluded to America’s imperial tendencies which flared up during the cold war and came to a head in the Vietnam conflict. The lyrics are simple and succinct. Unfortunately, over time, a misunderstanding has developed about the meaning and some Americans have acquired a curious patriotism about a song created by a Canadian rock band that wasn’t allowed to perform it for the U.S. President when they appeared before Nixon in 1970 because of what was considered at the time the song’s anti-American lyrics.

“Undun” is another haunting melody if perhaps lighter than “These Eyes” thanks to a flute swirling around the lyrics. Again, the bass helps forge the path while the drumming lays a consistent foundation to help guide the way. Though Cummings voice is more restrained, the growl does come out a bit later in the song as if to underscore the seriousness of the situation. The arrangement, more gentle then many of their songs, fits the helplessness of the lyrics as the singer recounts the tale of a woman’s hope lost.

The music of the Guess Who could range from fragile to fierce, sometimes in the same song, and they incorporated any number of styles effortlessly. “Wednesday in Your Garden” is one such song that at first seems strange coming from a band capable of producing “American Woman.” It combines that longing pain found in “These Eyes” with a delicate, jazz-feel to the arrangement. And as he sings, Cummings doesn’t sound so much angry as he confused. In “These Eyes” he’s taking an assessment sometime after the affair has ended. In “Garden,” he has no idea what happened, the break up perhaps too recent to see clearly.

By the time I was conscious of music in general, let alone the Guess Who, the group had had a few hits that I’m sure I heard, and enjoyed, often on AM radio even though I was too young to fully appreciate the lyrics or the artistry. Listening to the Greatest Hits compilation years ago, I rediscovered just how great their music was.

As stated earlier, though, I have a deeper appreciation for the group, and it involves not their music but rather their name.

My brother Dennis was nine years older than me. Almost a generation really. I have a lot of strong musical memories of my brother even though I don’t remember him being overly into music. It was his Rolling Stones 8-track tape that the family listened to while driving up to Wisconsin for vacation. The son of an electrician, Dennis displayed his own skill by wiring speakers in the ceilings of the kitchen, the living room and his bedroom which were all connected to the 8-track tape player embedded in his wall. Needless to say, Mom wasn’t overly fond of the upgrade (and yet she allowed it). With the flick of a switch, the music could be played in one or all of the three rooms.

The Turtle, as he liked to be called, standing
in front of the Model T truck he rebuilt 

He had an electric guitar. I don’t remember him ever playing the guitar (though I would guess he did). I just remember the guitar. I also remember myself sitting on his bed earnestly strumming the guitar to one of his Johnny Cash 8-Track tapes and being absolutely certain that the chords I played were the same that Cash was playing (they weren’t).

And then there was the joke. I don’t know if it was a joke that was going around among the big kids like him or one he came up with and patiently bided his time until he found someone gullible to use it on.

He found that person in his little sister. One night he showed me an 8-track tape in his hand and when I asked who the group was, he replied, “Guess Who.”

So I did, my guess being incorrect to which he said, “No, Guess Who.” To which I tried again. After about 10 minutes of this mini-Abbot and Costello bit, he finally released me from my childish frustration and explained that the band’s name was The Guess Who.

It was a corny joke and remains a simple memory, but it sticks out every time I hear the band’s name.

This year my brother would have been 58 if lung cancer hadn’t gotten him first when he was 42. For a variety of reasons (too complicated to visit here), he remains a mystery to me in a number of ways. By the time I was 9 or 10 he was out living on his own, and even before then he spent a good portion of his time working on jobs for my dad’s electrical contracting company. I don’t know what kind of music he was passionate about, if he was passionate about any, nor do I know what movies, TV or books he preferred.

But thanks to feats of genius like him wiring up the house for sound, and moments where he kept a lame joke going for 10 minutes, I have memories that help soften any regret I may have at not getting to know him better when I had the chance.

From the Stone’s “Get off of my Cloud” to Johnny Cash’s “The Orange Blossom Special” to “No Time” by the Guess Who, he remains with me.

Dennis and me so many years ago