Randy Bachman: still in overdrive

Blazing lights veiled the audience from their view, but on stage, the musicians could hear the excited clapping, shouting and whistling that signaled the fans’ keen anticipation. When the Guess Who’s drummer, Garry Peterson, launched into “No Time,” one of the band’s hit songs, the crowd cranked its volume even higher into a sustained, stadium-shaking roar. The big man with the greying beard let loose on guitar.

As he played, Randy Bachman blinked back tears and hoped the television cameras wouldn’t catch him. After nearly 30 years of an on-again, mostly off-again, relationship, Canada’s favourite rock band, which included lead singer Burton Cummings and bass guitarist Jim Kale, was playing at the 1999 Pan American Games closing ceremony in Winnipeg. Putting aside years of acrimony, the band had come full circle to the city where they’d started.

“For the moment,” Bachman says, “we were the Beatles and this was Liverpool and we had gone home. You can go home again.”

The event was all the more poignant for Bachman, then 56, because he had been the odd man out, parting from the group in 1970 when their biggest hit, “American man,” was at the top of the charts in North America. “He was a family man, a Mormon, and that dictated a very strict lifestyle that was contrary to the other guys in the band,” says John Einarson, co-author with Bachman, of Randy Bachman: Takin’ Care of Business (McArthur). In the counterculture era, the musician was a square — no drinking, no smoking, no drugs — and no groupies. As the Guess Who’s popularity soared, that gap widened.

Gulf too wide to bridge
The flashpoint came when Bachman, on leave to recover from gall bladder attacks, went to New York to finalize the release of Axe, a solo album of his guitar music. Touring without him, the furious Guess Who musicians felt he had gone behind their backs to look after his own interests. The gulf was now too wide to bridge. Bachman was out. They would play together again, Bachman said, “When it’s 75 degrees on Jan. 1 at Portage and Main in Winnipeg.”

Years later, he finally understood their anger. He wrote and apologized to the other three, a step that probably made the band’s 1999 reunion possible. “They’ll fight, but when it comes to music, that bond is always there. They’re the most exclusive boys’ club in Canada,” says Einarson.

Four years after the bitter split with the Guess Who, Bachman was back on top with Bachman-Turner Overdrive, with Fred Turner and Bachman brothers Robbie and Tim. It was an opportunity he wouldn’t waste. Bachman had learned from the Guess Who years and made sure BTO money wasn’t squandered. It went into annuities that today provide lifelong income for the musicians. Perhaps not surprisingly, BTO’s biggest hits have become company pep songs, and Bachman frequently performs “Takin’ Care of Business” and “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” to eager sales teams and corporate annual general meetings.

Next page: Life changing decisions

Still in overdrive
Bachman plays guitar as naturally as he breathes, a skill developed as a 16-year-old in Winnipeg under the tutelage of the young guitar genius Lenny Breau. “I went from being an A student to flunking grades 10 and 11,” Bachman laughs, “but those two years allowed me to assimilate 10 years of guitar music.”

He’s also a businessman with publishing, producing and recording interests he manages from his home on a Gulf Island off British Columbia’s coast. Currently, his Guitarchives label has produced six Lenny Breau CDs. “He invented his own guitar style,” says Bachman, “and I was there when he was struggling to do that.” Breau died tragically in Los Angeles in 1984 at age 43. The CDs are sold through www.guitarchives.com with royalties dedicated to Breau’s children.

“I can’t imagine Randy ever retiring. If he can’t be out performing on a stage, he’ll continue to write or produce,” says Einarson. “He’s always been very open about helping other artists. He just has a genuine love of music.”

The musician agrees. “I want to stay active in this business until I drop and the way to do that is to work with young people.” One promising youngster he’s writing and co-producing for is Michael Carey, a 15-year-old country and western singer from Calgary. “He can’t sing about driving, getting drunk or sleeping over — all those country song themes,” he laughs, “even though he sounds like a 30-year-old guy.”

Life-changing decisions
Randy Bachman’s career and, indeed, his life changed as a result of the Guess Who performance that wrapped up the Pan American Games on that August evening in 1999. The fans in the Winnipeg Stadium were high on happiness for, in spite of the lost years, the musicians weren’t going through the motions. The magic was there as they romped through “These Eyes,” “Undun” and their signature, “American Woman.” “I feel like I’m 30,” Bachman told Burton Cummings when they came off the stage. The group’s reconciliation eventually led to the lucrative “Runnin’ Back Thru Canada” tour, a 2001 tour through the United States, a CBC television special and a two-CD live recording. It also forced Bachman to face an important health issue that had plagued his adult life.

Watching her dad perform that summer night, Kezia Bachman, 29, suddenly realized the family risked losing him if he didn’t get his weight under control. “When they started playing, ‘No Time,’ the words to that song hit me,” she said.

Bachman, too, knew he couldn’t sustain a long tour with a back and arches aching from supporting his nearly 380-pound mass. With Kezia’s help, he stuck to a program of sensible eating and exercise and lost nearly 60 pounds. “I was on a really good program,” he acknowledges, “but when 9/11 happened, the band was in New York. We were stuck on a bus and couldn’t fly home. The flights were impossible in September. So,” he says dryly, “we ate our faces off.”

At yearly checkups, the musician was used to hearing he was fat but fit. But after the tour, he was startled when the physician told him he was morbidly obese.

“Doesn’t morbid mean death?” he asked. Then he heard he was headed for diabetes, high blood pressure, aches and pains — or worse. “I felt hopeless and helpless. On stage, I was embarrassed by my size.”

He recalled seeing the daughter of Brian Wilson, his Beach Boys friend, on television talking about the surgical procedure that had helped her lose weight. Bachman tracked down Carnie Wilson’s surgeon and, in November 2001, had surgery that bypassed his stomach and created a four-ounce “stomach” in its stead. “It is not stomach stapling,” he cautions. “The gastric bypass is forever.”

155 pounds lost
With such restricted capacity, Bachman says junk food has lost its appeal. He’s very careful to eat adequately and keep well-hydrated. Every day, he drinks a liquid supplement made from enzymes, whey and soy protein to ensure he receives enough nourishment. To date, Bachman has lost 155 pounds and is at his target of 225. Now that his arms hang straight down without reaching around his spare tire, the guitarist has shoulder and arm problems he’s treating with massage, acupuncture and chiropractic treatments.

“As you age,” he says, “you have to deal with these things. You can let them get worse by being complacent and sitting down more. But I’m fighting that and when you fight it, you do feel better. At least, you’re still in the game.”

Exercise has become a satisfying part of his health recovery routine. He and his wife, Denise McCann, a singer-songwriter with hits of her own (“Tattoo Man” and “I Don’t Want to Forget You”), work out daily with weights and aerobics. “I’ve gone from being Mr. Couch Potato to being the guy who can’t wait to get up in the morning to go to the gym,” he says.

The transformed Bachman not only looks younger, he looks happy and contented with himself. And when the Guess Who were honoured with a Governor General’s Award for Performing Arts in November 2002, Randy Bachman was the slimmest band member on stage.

“When you get to a certain age,” the musician muses, “the trick is [to figure out] how to stay alive to enjoy life on this wonderful earth with the family and kids and all the friends, instead of self-destructing, which a lot of people are doing.”

Between them, Bachman and his wife have eight children: six from his first marriage, as well as Denise’s son and their youngest daughter. Ten of his 14 grandchildren live nearby. They all call him Manta, the first grandchild’s attempt at “Grandpa.”

“When they used to come over, I’d say, ‘Let’s watch a video.’ Now, Denise and I take them on backpacking hikes,” he smiles. “We go along the beach picking up driftwood or shells or go up in the mountains.” The couple makes a point of spending a day with each grandchild on their own. It’s something Bachman enjoys, having missed much of his own children’s early childhood touring with the Guess Who, Brave Belt (which morphed into Bachman-Turner Overdrive) and, later, Ironhorse and Union.

Next page: Takin’ care of ‘us’

In tune with family
The uncommonly attractive Bachman kids all sing and play an instrument, and most write songs but with the exception of Tal (short for Talmage), they don’t want a performer’s life. Occasionally, listening intently at a mixing board while they work at a song in his studio, Bachman will find himself teary-eyed, grateful that “my kids come home to me.” He says, “I don’t care if anyone else ever hears that song. That moment, with me in there recording or helping with a lyric or playing on one of their tracks – it’s the most gratifying thing as a parent.”

But it did seem the whole world was listening to his son Tal’s hit song “She’s So High” in 1999 when Bachman was touring. It was a dreamlike feeling for Bachman Sr., who flashed back to the little kid he’d taught to hit a ball for Little League. “Suddenly, he’s grown and done this thing that everyone is appreciating. It’s a rewarding, wonderful thing,” he says with satisfaction.

Takin’ care of ‘us’
But children do grow up, and now that their youngest has gone off to university, Bachman and Denise are adjusting to this new reality, re-establishing the relationship they began so many years ago. And as many couples discover at this point in life, making changes takes effort.

Denise had creative interests such as singing with a Celtic group called Rosehip Jam. But she says, “Randy was lonely on the road, and I was lonely at home. It wasn’t working for us, so I made the decision that if he travels, I travel with him.” The commitment has paid off professionally as well as personally. They’ve become a songwriting team, even working with artists in Sweden last fall.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Bachman as he approaches his 60th birthday is to learn to share emotions verbally. He has always looked within himself and expressed his feelings in music. The result, he points out, is a very solitary kind of person. 

“Denise is my best friend,” he says, “so day by day, I try open up and share words and feelings, and that’s really hard for an artist. But she’s an artist and singer, too, and understands my point of view.”

The music of our lives
Throughout his nomadic life, he’s become good friends with people he sees infrequently, people such as fellow Winnipegger Neil Young, Eddy Van Halen and Gordon Lightfoot. “As you get older,” he says, “your spare time goes to your children, your grandchildren and your businesses, but when you’re together with your friends, it’s like no time has gone by. With Burton Cummings and the other guys in the Guess Who, it’s like we’re still teenagers back in Winnipeg.” He keeps in touch with Cummings by e-mail, ready to work together on a song if their managers agree.

When the Guess Who gathered with the Governor General at Rideau Hall for the award that honoured the band’s “indelible contribution to Canada’s cultural life,” Bachman mused about the path they’d taken. “We were a bunch of guys driving all over the Prairies, trying to play at dances and make records. It was a sacrifice of a social life and a home life at a certain age. You just kind of set out on the journey.”

The fans’ reception throughout the past three years of the Guess Who tours has amazed the band. “The enthusiasm of the fans has been a celebration of our lives and of Canadian music in general,” says Bachman. “Everybody said our show was like listening to a sound track of their lives.”