Surfing music sites as I do on occasion, I ran into a series of interviews done by ‘The Professor of Rock’. PoR’s site (real name Adam Reader) has quite a back catalog and judging by the five and six digit number of views accumulated by many of his clips, he has been at it for a while. The one that caught my attention enough to demand I spend 20 minutes of my life watching all of it involved The Guess Who. When I was in high school and college, The Guess Who were making waves on the music charts and were all over the AM pop radio shows. Several times it was rumored they were coming to town for a concert at Northern Michigan University, but like similar rumblings about The Doors, it never came to pass. I did get to see Randy Bachman perform with his next mega-band Bachman Turner Overdrive (or BTO for short), but I never had the pleasure of seeing Guess Who lead singer Burton Cummings perform live.
Having read and seen quite a bit about him and the Guess Who in the past, I reasoned that anybody with a handle like the ‘Professor of Rock’ would be able to pull some good stories from Cummings. I wasn’t disappointed. The teaser on this clip stated the PoR was going to focus on a big band of the early 1970s who ‘accidentally’ wrote a hit song on stage. Burton’s explanation of the whole event was both funny and enlightening while filling in some holes in my knowledge about the band with unknown gems about the history of one of my favorite bands.
When Dr. Rock (sorry, Professor of Rock is getting tedious to keep typing in) inquired about the hit song they accidentally wrote on stage came to be, he mentioned the ‘parking lot’ incident at the Stones and Brooms Curling Arena in Brampton, Ontario. Cummings complimented Dr. R for doing his research before going on to explain exactly what happened. Burton said they were starting to get some traction as a band but when this event took place, they were still doing two shows a night at some venues. During the break between shows, he was in the parking lot haggling with a guy who was selling rare 45s and albums. As he was trying to seal the deal on some Gene Vincent disks, he heard the rest of the band starting up back on stage. He told the seller, “Hey, I gotta go,” and he dashed off to join them. They were playing a vamp that you will now hear going off in your head when the title of the song is revealed: American Woman (go ahead, hum it in your mind for a couple of seconds – I will wait for you).
Not knowing what else to do, Burton started tossing out stream of consciousness words to match what the band was playing. In other words, he started singing pretty much whatever popped into his mind. Though he said he did tweak a few of the lyrics when they recorded the song for the album of the same name, what appears on vinyl is, as he stated, “Pretty close to what came out of my mouth that night.” He chuckled because there have been many attempts to ‘explain’ the lyrics over the years, some by members of The Guess Who. “It is always fascinating to hear Jim (Kale) and Garry (Peterson) (the bass player and drummer on the track) explaining what they think the lyrics mean. [Cummings laughs] They have tried to say it was anti-war, the Statue of Liberty was the America Woman and all kinds of nonsense.” There was no deeply thought out theme because Cummings tossed out the lyrics on the spot. The line “We don’t need your war machine, we don’t need your ghetto scenes” and “colored lights can hypnotize, sparkle in someone else’s eyes’ came out of his mouth because he told Dr R, “They rhymed!” “Hey Jim,” Cummings added [still laughing], “Care to explain the lyrics to No Time?”
Even the little guitar lick that introduces the main theme of American Woman was written by Cummings on keyboard, not guitar. “Listen to New Mother Nature on the American Woman album and you will hear the same lick played on keyboard. Randy will deny this, sometimes he forgets these things, but he didn’t write the lick – I showed it to him on keyboard. It’s right there and you don’t even need to hunt for it. He talks about how he ‘wrote’ American Woman and he didn’t even write all the guitar lines, for God’s sake [laughs again].” Burton did give Bachman credit for the little bluesy intro with the scat-like vocals that was added to the song. They liked it enough so the producer used it to bookend the album by tacking that part on at the end also.
Cummings said there are several things that kind of point to where he got the vocal ideas from. He said, “We were touring the States behind These Eyes and Laughing. I noticed American girls grew up faster, or seemed to visually grow up faster. They wore more makeup at an earlier age. They wore sexier clothes at an earlier age. Canada was a little more colloquial, is that the right word? Canada was a little less streamlined. When we came back to Canada, the girls seemed more innocent than the American girls. What came out of my mouth was ‘American Woman, stay away from me, American Woman, won’t you let me be’ but what I was thinking was, “Canadian Woman, I prefer you’. That was my mind set. Not ‘to hell with the Statue of Liberty, American is the great satan’…none of that. It was not political at all.”
The song was not meant to be anti-war or a political statement, but Cummings went on to tell how it became cast in that light: “Viet Nam in 1970 was at a particularly bad point of escalation, so the American people read all that into it. Plus, the soldiers, they loved that. The soldiers who were in the trenches in Viet Nam, that was a big song for them. So how can I put this, it was a very happy accident [that it became such a big hit]. I wasn’t angry, I loved the United States. All of the music that I loved came from the States. I grew up in Winnipeg, sixty miles north of the border and had I been born sixty miles south, I would have been an American growing up in Bismarck, North Dakota.” Essentially, the record buying public read what they wanted into the lyrics and the political overtones ascribed to it were ‘nonsense’ but none-the-less real to them.
To underscore the political nature of the time, then President Nixon’s daughter was a big fan and thus, the Guess Who were invited to perform at the White House. Rumor had it the presidential family had requested them to not perform American Woman but Burton says that is not true. For some reason, their manager asked them not to and in the end, Cummings recognized they made two mistakes. “Yes, we should have played the song and no, we should not have gone to the White House to begin with. Our manager thought that [not playing the song] would work for us and our manager thought it would be a good idea to play the White House. We were crucified in Rolling Stone. The Nixons were not very well liked at the time and playing the White House was a big mistake. We got raked over the coals and Jann Wenner (the publisher of Rolling Stone) never liked us anyway so the heck with him.”
The band happened to be in Milwaukee, Wisconsin the Wednesday the Billboard Top 100 charts were released. They had followed American Woman’s progress up the charts and when it jumped from No 6 to No 3; they thought, “Well….is it possible?…”. When Bachman took the call and heard they had hit No 1, they were all in a circle jumping up and down on a hotel bed – at least until they broke it. “Not only was it No 1, both sides of the record were listed and it stayed at No 1 for three weeks,” Cummings told Dr. Rock. “Whenever we went back to Winnipeg, I made sure I had a copy of Billboard under my arm. I would go to the local pool hall and show my old school friends and say, ‘Hey man, look what’s No 1 in here.’ It was a big deal for us.”
Dr. Rock professed his favorite part of the song is the outro where Cummings sings, “I’m gonna leave you, go, you gotta get away, go go go” which Burton said he still sings everytime they do the song. “We like to do it like the record,” he said, “and you can see people in the audience singing along, mouthing it word for word.” As for the ‘cuss word at the end’,
Cummings again explained it was “Goodbye American Woman, Goodbye American chick” which some heard as (expletive deleted). “No, it was ‘chick’ – of course today you might get in more trouble for using the word ‘chick’ that the other word back then.”
Noting there have been several notable covers done over the years, the one Cummings is the most proud of was done by Lenny Kravitz: “Lenny writes all of his own songs so the irony is, the biggest hit he has up to that point is a cover of American Woman [chuckles]. It took me a few listens to get used to his version. He does it slower but what I really like is the harmony vocals.” Burton recounted Kravitz performing the song on New Year’s Eve (1999 turning to 2000), “Lenny was doing a show broadcast for the big 2K doings and brought out a special guest star to share the vocals with him on American Woman – it was Prince. For whatever reason, it was a hit for Lenny Kravitz in a different era of history and it still makes sense. I am very proud of that because those are my words and to have them be relevant forty years later and to not have it be a love song makes it something very special.”
So where does the ‘Bootlegger’ in the title fit in? As previously mentioned, Cummings was late getting to the stage so he jumped in and added vocals off the top of his head to the riff the band was playing as they waited for him. Cassette tape players were still pretty new at that time and out in the audience, there was a young man with a box the size of a small microwave oven on his shoulders recording the show. The song was a one off jam and it would have been a bit of a trick for Burton to remember the lyrics he created on the spot. Somehow (he does not explain how) they were able to get a copy of the bootlegger’s tape. Once they heard what they had done on stage, they thought ‘Hey, there is a possible song there’. It was a good thing because aside from a few lyrical tweaks, most of the song was laid down just as it had come out live the first time they played it. Without the bootlegger’s tape, the song may have just been forgotten. That truly would have been a shame.
Top Piece Video: Could it be anything else but ‘American Woman’? A spirited live version filmed for TV with a very young Guess Who not that long after the song was created.