Burton Cummings and Me in an Airport in Saskatoon

I wanted to write about Burton Cummings’ post-Guess Who 7 inch masterpiece, ‘Stand Tall,’ a song whose power, when I heard it as a child, made me either want to weep or vomit: the soaring chorus, the crushing desolate-rock-star verses, the long sonorous vocal through the music’s final decay (for fans of Rheostatics, I tried to shadow Burton’s ‘silly human pride’ lyric on the song ‘Saskatchewan’). Instead, I decided to poach a story from my fifth book, ‘The Best Game You Can Name,’ because I can’t express my feelings about Canada’s pre-eminent rock balladeer any better than I did there. The story goes like this: “I encountered Burton Cummings while on tour with the Rheostatics in the early 90’s. We were killing time waiting for our flight in the Saskatoon airport’s cafeteria when the singer and his road manager walked in and sat down at a booth at the opposite end of the room. The manager– young and pony-tailed– drew a laptop from his briefcase and started typing. Burton yawned and reclined against the booth, all quick-darting eyes, thick eyebrows and broad, shaggy moustache. From a distance, he appeared to have the smug, self-satisfied look of a man daring the world to call him a dick. At first, we were thrilled to be in the midst of a bona-fide CanRock legend, but it wasn’t long before his moustache got the best of us and the lovincupexplosion jokes started. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a natural rivalry between musicians– especially in a place with as relatively few bands as Canada– so we fought back the real fear and nervousness of being in his presence by trying to take him down a notch. When our flight was announced, we talked about how we might leave the cafeteria without having to walk past Burton. Guitars slung over our shoulders and looking ever the form of a travelling rock band, we crossed the floor, eyes downcast, and slipped behind him, leaving the cafeteria and forgoing our potential brush with the ‘stache. Crossing the terminal, I walked beside my band-mate, Martin, who sighed: ‘Ahhhh, fame.’ ‘Whaddya mean, ‘Ahhhh, fame?’ I demanded. ‘Well, the poor guy’s probably sitting there thinking, ‘Man, that band walked right past me and didn’t even say hello,’’ he said, shaking his head. It was the first time I’d thought of Burton this way. Instead of imagining him as a pompous, self-absorbed star, I saw him as flawed, wan, vulnerable. And now he was sitting with his road manager having been jilted by a young (well, younger) band who refused to give him his due as the first Canadian musician to reach number one on the Billboard charts, among countless other laurels, including ‘Stand Tall,’ possibly the greatest rock ballad ever recorded. ‘We’re going back,” I told Martin, turning both of us around. Approaching Burton’s table, I said: ‘Hey, Burton, we just wanted to introduce ourselves. We’re Dave and Martin from the Rheostatics. ‘The Rheostatics!?!’ he replied, sounding incredulous. The most we’d expected was that he’d throw out his hand and give us that thirty-percent ‘How ya doin’, man’ rock star treatment, but instead, the Manitoban’s eyes widened as he sunk deeper in his chair. ‘Man, I was just telling MacLean and MacLean the other day about ‘Whale Music’ (our third LP). I was telling him– and I’ll tell you guys now: that’s one of the greatest albums ever made. It’s right up there with ‘Sergeant Pepper,’ he exclaimed, forcing a finger into the air. We were left wordless, not knowing what to do. It was one of the most gratifying moments of my life, the kind of moment where you just want to hang on the scene, standing still so that nothing changes. ‘Are you guys touring?’ he asked, breaking the silence. I mumbled that we were. ‘Me, I just got back from opening a casino in Prince Albert,’ he said, to which we continued nodding. ‘Not the greatest gig in the world, but hey, it’s working for me!’ he told us, winking and firing out a forefinger.

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2 thoughts on “Burton Cummings and Me in an Airport in Saskatoon

    1. I can vouch for the fact that Burton is a huge music fan (which isn’t always the case with some rock stars). His knowledge of the music of his childhood and youth — the ’50s and ’60s — is virtually encyclopedic. When iPods first emerged, he amassed a huge collection of files and often presented his friends with fully loaded iPods as gifts. I wonder if Whale Music was on any of those.

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