In Praise of Burton


By Patrick Friesen

I listened to the little green radio in my parents’ house in rural Manitoba in the 60s. When they were out, I’d bring it into my room and crank up CKY or CKRC. Rock ’n’ roll. I loved most everything coming out of England back then, 1964/65. Each day there’d be a new single, to be followed by the album. In between numbers, I’d often Hear Dino Corey or PJ the DJ announce what groups would be playing at what Winnipeg community clubs, Saturday night dances. Finders Keepers, the Devrons, a group known as Chad Allan and the Expressions. Loved the garage band sound of “Shakin’ All Over,” sounded like four or five guys sitting on wooden boxes in some garage or basement, yelling, singing, playing. Just like rock ’n’ roll.

I knew when Chad Allan and the Expressions became The Guess Who; I had moved to Winnipeg by then, attending university.  They were good, began turning out wonderful songs.  I don’t think I was that taken by “These Eyes” or “Laughing” at the time, though I came to appreciate them later. “No Sugar Tonight,” though, “No Time,” those were immediately accessible great songs. Later came “American Woman,” “Albert Flasher” and “Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon”.

In those years, the rock I heard on the radio, then played ceaselessly on a record player I bought for $19, was as important as anything else happening in the culture.  More important, in fact. I loved the energy, loved the loose, devil-may-care attitude.  For me “Mule Skinner Blues” or “Surfin’ Bird” were as much poetry as anything else.  Poetry, not for the lyrics, but for the sound, instruments and especially vocals.  Folk poetry, in a way, though it doesn’t need a label. Those sound waves guided me out of town toward everything I wanted to experience.

I knew The Guess Who was a very good band, saw them once in Memorial Park on a flat-bed trailer, probably about 1967.  But they were just one of innumerable bands I liked. Nothing special. That is, until I moved to Vancouver in 1996. Sometime in my first year there, I purchased The Best of The Guess Who, both volumes. I was immediately struck by what I heard. It took me right back to Winnipeg. Was this simply nostalgia for my home city?

I don’t think so, not only. I heard something there that I identified with Winnipeg and Manitoba. I think it was that, no matter how professional and polished they’d become, there was still a garage band wildness to the sound. Inherent. And, what I noticed most, was Burton Cumming’s voice.  I knew he had a fabulous voice, but I hadn’t paid close attention; now I heard something within this voice, a reediness perhaps, and a reach that seemed very Manitoban to me. This is poetry. Voice that holds a city, a landscape, and a very deeply personal pain. You can hear that old pain in John Lennon’s voice as well.  It’s all voice, lyrics don’t matter.

And, yet, the lyrics were interesting, often really very good.  In fact, when Cummings went solo, I paid closer attention to his lyrics.  What I remember now is “I’m Scared”.  What a tremendous song, musically and lyrically.  No, it wasn’t Philip Larkin’s “Church Going,” but as lyrics for a pop song, it was outside the ordinary and, important for a song, the music worked well with the lyrics. There was a touch of the grandiose, but that worked with the content. A man’s private fear, riding along with him, hidden, suddenly emerging as he sees a church in New York City, and enters. You have to listen, understand the relationship of the melody, the instruments, and the words. While the lyrics do less, on the whole, than a very good poem on its own, they are enhanced, built on, or defeated, by the music. This is the poetry, this fusion of words and melody. And, always, voice.

There are other songs by Cummings that tell us something about his past, his fears, his hidden abandonment. I suspect “Sour Suite” with The Guess Who is one of them.  A lot of it is hidden; this, often, makes for exceptional art. If you just spill it all out, it hardly ever works. John Lennon’s first solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, is a rare example, and a powerful one, of this working.

Most voices in popular music don’t come from anywhere, even if they have an accent, for example. They might not have been there to begin with, or they’ve been neutralized in the studio. Cummings holds a place and a personal history in his voice.  You can hear it in any phase of his career.

Which brings me to his latest album.  Released in 2008, Above the Ground is an astonishing testament to the endurance and resilience of creativity.  Years after the supposed prime of his career, Cummings produces 19 tracks of wonderful melodies, lyrics, and a great voice. Prodigious. Almost unheard of. And I’m still hearing his personal timbre of loss, confusion, traces of bitterness, and ineffable yearning. The lyrics are as intelligent as ever, the voice still holds everything. There’s a history here, there’s a diary of a kind, and there’s punchy rock interwoven with gorgeous ballad.  For me, there are only two or three songs that don’t click; that’s a damned good percentage of fine songs.  “Any Minor Miracle,” “Ponderlust,” “Kurt’s Song,” “Dream”, “Invisible,” and so on, match the beauty, the intelligence of anything Cummings has ever done.

His lyrics are smart, psychologically acute, and often highly poetic. “In a car, on a freeway/ There’s a priest who’s cryin’, a priest who’s dyin’/ In a graveyard beneath a full moon/ I see a black cat lyin’ with its throat cut” could work on the page, but it works even better within a song, with Cummings’ enunciation and emphasis. The way he sings the last four words of that quote.

“Healing power, like holy water/ Held the kiss of the rich man’s daughter/ Pretty lights they tilt and swirl/ Silent as a pictured girl/ Who saw the light and stole your world/ She took it for her dream.”  I like the kiss and the rich man’s daughter, but even more I love “silent as a pictured girl”. A lot in a few words, with ambiguity to lead us on.

Cummings consistently fuses very fine lyrics like this, with more typical pop song lyrics, melody and instrumentation. And, always, even when he’s singing someone else’s songs, like “Dream of a Child” and “Take One Away,” the voice is poetry; it holds deep story, emotion and intelligence.


Patrick Friesen

Patrick Friesen's last book of poems is Earth's Crude Gravities. His celebrated play, The Shunning, runs at the Manitoba Theatre Centre from Feb. 10 to Mar. 5, 2011.

Copyright 2010 Great Plains Publications/Enfield & Wizenty