Taking Care of Business

A surprisingly sober rock ‘n’ roll memoir

Randy Bachman’s Tales from Beyond the Tap is an atypical rock star memoir. It is not a careening down-and-dirty kiss-and-tell-all (unless you count the story about seeing Tina Turner naked). It is an open-hearted collection of musical memories and opinion from one of Canada’s most beloved elder statesmen. The book reads the way Bachman’s CBC Radio show Vinyl Tap soundsfull of affable anecdotes, career backstories and just enough celebrity name dropping to bruise all of your toes.

It is an engaging read from an old friend with whom most of us in the Great White North grew up. Randy Bachman’s songs with the Guess Who, Brave Belt and Bachman Turner Overdrive—“Taking Care of Business,” “American Woman” and about 120 more gold and platinum singles—were played so often, on so many radio stations across the country, that they are bound within us like musical DNA. The risk, though, is that these songs are all so familiar and ingrained that they might be in danger of being taken for granted, so it is satisfying to see BTO being inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame this year. Songwriters who have achieved as much as Randy Bachman deserve to be celebrated on a Canadian Mount Rushmore.

In this book, the second in his Tap series, he uses a unique memoir structure: he simply answers his fans’ questions. They are keen for information about life on the road, Bachman’s guitars, the gadgets and gizmos, the inner workings of his family, the stars he has met and, of course, the answer to the eternal question about whether he and Burton Cummings will ever work together again—the answer to which is no, not until Cummings “rights the wrong between us,”  before Bachman goes on to reveal a great deal about the publishing woes between them. Can’t wait to read Cummings’s book, methinks.

The fan-question structure allows Bachman to skirt the trials of a chronologically ordered work. Who has not burned through the “when I was two” childhood pages of other artists’ memoirs in search of the juicy heydays—perhaps eager to find out if the legend of the Mars Bar story was really true? (P.S. Marianne Faithful insists it is not.)

It is also fascinating to read Bachman’s opinions on the music business past and present. He is patriotic about CanCon (“gave Canadians hope and an opportunity”), despairing of Modern Radio (“cobwebbing itself to death”), dismissive of digital recording studios (“you can make anyone sound like Celine Dion”) and lamenting the loss of creative packaging (“I used to pore over liner notes like they were some religious artifacts”). Still, he is optimistic about the do-it-yourself approach that advances in technology are bringing as the modern music world rebuilds itself from the wreckage.

He is pragmatic about the career events that lead to bumpy bits with his brothers (“bad blood between siblings is never easily assuaged”) and forthright about the Guess Who (“the sad legacy of the Guess Who is the residue of bitterness and recrimination … everyone feeling as if they’ve been shafted”).

What Bachman’s Tales from Beyond the Tap does not have (and hence, why it is an atypical R’n’R memoir) is the sex and drugs part of rock and roll. Unlike every other legendary music figure blazing a trail in the early days of modern music, Bachman remembers. He was and is sober—eschewing alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and now even coffee for his whole career. The sobriety club is slightly bigger these days with stars such as Eric Clapton and David Bowie both famously bowing out of their dances with the devil late in the game. Still, there are very few internationally known rock stars who claim to have never used alcohol or drugs during their entire career. One notable exception is über Republican guitar slinger Ted Nugent. Still, given that wing nut’s penchant for loincloths, guns and hunting animals trapped between fences, one could argue that he was in a chemically altered state of mind to begin with.

Bachman’s comments on abstinence are also in answer to a fan question. He admits a “predilection for addiction” (he did collect some 380 Gretsch guitars after all) and recalls the moment his sobriety began at a party at Jim Kale’s house in 1966. “I got paralytically drunk … I drove over my own foot,” he writes. When he yelled for help, his father ran to the rescue and “He looked at me, drunk and pathetic … and said ‘I’m ashamed to call you my son,’ I was devastated. That was the last night I ever drank.”

And so, according to the book, while his band mates in Chad Allen and the Reflections or the Guess Who or BTO were out partying after the show, Bachman was doing the accounting, banking, practising the guitar and writing songs. Given the massive success of his hits over the years, not only has that paid off, but it is going to pay off for his seven kids and 26 grandchildren for lifetimes to come.

Many of us had thought his sobriety due to his Mormon faith, but Bachman does not go there in this book, which for me is a shame. I expect it would have added yet another dimension to his already prodigious character and I would have liked to know how a practising Mormon made out on the road.

As Bachman’s fans have aged with him, it is no wonder he eventually gets round to talking unabashedly about his health. We learn that it played a big part in why he left the Guess Who at such an inconceivable time, when “American Woman” was number one and they had just headlined the legendary Fillmore. It seems unthinkable that anyone would walk away from that kind of success in America, but it turns out he was dealing with acute gall bladder problems and needed to get medical help. He rightfully bemoans the lack of a good, experienced manager at the time who might have smoothed out the personalities and kept them together.

Still rockin’ at 70, he is open about his health problems, writing about his gastric bypass—a surgery known as a “miracle cure” performed in 2001 when he weighed 173 kilograms—and perhaps in the “too much information” department we also learn that he is fighting knee replacement surgery now, using a procedure called prolotherapy, which injects your own blood back into the joints. He is careful about diet and exercise, and focuses on living longer, using some of the latest techniques, including a silk parachute suspended by chains in his apartment that he uses to stretch his body but that is often co-opted by the grandkids.

Bachman is currently on the road performing, hosting his long-running radio show on CBC and writing songs, even though he says “the odds of me landing another #1 at my age are slim.” According to him, there is no off button, no retirement in sight, and he wants to live to be a hundred. He has got the energy of a teenager and I expect he might be using these next 30 years to give substance to the answer of the ultimate fan question—What’s next, Randy? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.