Americcan Woman:
The Story of the Guess Who

216 pages,
ISBN: 1550821296

Superman's Song:
The Story of Crash Test Dummies

203 pages,
ISBN: 155082130X

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North End Rock & Roll
by John Goddard

Some of the best pop songs seem to write themselves. In late 1969, after a lengthy American tour, the Guess Who were halfway through a Canadian show when Randy Bachman, the lead guitarist, broke a string. He replaced it on the spot, and while tuning up again he spontaneously began strumming a three-chord power riff to signal he was ready to continue. Garry Peterson, the drummer, jumped into the rhythm, Jim Kale got behind it on bass guitar, and Burton Cummings, the lead singer, broke off a conversation with a fan backstage to rush the microphone and sing the first words that came into his head: "American woman, stay away from me."
"I looked out over all those fresh-looking Canadian girls and sang," he recalls in John Einarson's latest rock biography.
Afterwards, the group reworked the outburst into a song that secured their place in rock history. On May 8th, 1970, "American Woman" became the first record written, performed, and produced by Canadians to hit number one on the U.S. Billboard singles chart. Sales exceeded two and a half million copies worldwide.
"American Woman" also became the title track of an album that rode the Billboard chart for the rest of the year, a period during which the group scored two other hit singles- "No Time" and "Hand Me Down World"-part of a string of five consecutive U.S. hits selling more than one million copies each. Cashbox magazine later reported that the Guess Who had sold more 45 rpm records in 1970 than any other group or single artist in the world.
"I remember standing outside a store in Paris selling our album in the window and looking up and seeing the Eiffel Tower," Burton recalls in the book. "It was all too much. I was just twenty years old and every time I turned around I was getting a gold record."
The Guess Who remain one of Canadian music's greatest success stories-significant especially, Einarson points out, for having maintained their primary residences in Winnipeg, their home town. They became the first chart-topping Canadian act not to move to the United States, stemming the 1960s exodus to the United States by such artists as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, David Clayton-Thomas, and The Band. The Guess Who, writes Einarson, "showed Canadians and the rest of the world that you could sell millions of records and still live at home."
Einarson grew up in Winnipeg and now teaches high school there. He has carved out a niche for himself as a local rock historian, first with Shakin' All Over, a chronicle of the 1960s Winnipeg rock scene (the title taken from a hit by an early configuration of the Guess Who), and later with Neil Young: Don't Be Denied, a biography based on Young's start as a performer in Winnipeg.
He also helped John Kay, the lead singer of Steppenwolf, to write an autobiography that has nothing to do with Winnipeg. More recently, he returned to familiar territory to help mount an exhibit at the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature called "Get Back! A Celebration of Winnipeg Rock".
In all his work, Einarson plays the role of engaging amateur-weak in some areas, strong in others. His writing often lacks texture, and his research can be uneven. In the anecdote about "American Woman", Einarson says that Bachman broke "a D string on his Gibson Les Paul guitar" but he does not give the date or place of the show-details Bachman himself, who kept meticulous records, almost certainly would know.
On the other hand, he clearly enjoys music and enjoys writing about it, and the musicians he writes about give the impression of enjoying his company. Neil Young, who has often said how much he dislikes interviews, invited Einarson to spend a day on the Young ranch in California for Don't Be Denied. In the Guess Who book, Bachman and Cummings, who now barely speak to each other, both become gregarious around him, giving him touching details of the band's early days.
"Every Saturday we would sit down at Burton's mother's house in the North End and write songs, just putting together ideas," Bachman relates in one instance. "We had these little school notebooks and we would scribble down ideas all week and get together on Saturday mornings to share ideas. Granny Kirkpatrick, Burton's grandmother, would make us cookies and 7-Up around one in the afternoon and then we'd go home, change our clothes, and do the gig that night."
The Guess Who had plenty of ups and downs. Einarson traces the band's history from its early days as Chad Allan and the Expressions, to its attempt to cash in on the British Invasion with the awful name change, to such dramatic events as Randy Bachman's departure at the height of its success in mid-1970. The book is a fitting tribute to a group of hit-makers who never quite fulfilled their dream of also becoming respected album musicians.
By comparison, a chronicle of another Winnipeg band by another Winnipeg writer has little to recommend it.
The book is Superman's Song: The Story of Crash Test Dummies, by Stephen Ostick, a former music critic for the Winnipeg Free Press. Perhaps when he started the project, Ostick had reason to believe the Dummies would be rock music's next big thing. Their second album, "God Shuffled His Feet", sold four million copies and attracted three 1995 Grammy nominations.
But now the band has begun to look like one-hit wonders, and Ostick's rush into print with a worshipful account of their rise to stardom appears at best premature, at worst embarrassing. Ostick presents the lead singer, Brad Roberts, in almost god-like terms, reprinting in one of the photo sections such artifacts as "A rough draft of the band's first bio, in Brad Roberts' own handwriting", and "Brad's award winning kindergarten cartoon from Bannatyne school, 1969-70".
Winnipegers can be proud of their contribution to rock history, but let's not get carried away. L

John Goddard, the author of a book on the Lubicon, is now writing a history of Canadian rock and roll. A former inhabitant of Yellowknife and Montreal, he has moved to Toronto. He is notorious for his article on Farley Mowat in the May Saturday Night.


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