As a member of The Guess Who, Randy Bachman was part of the first ever No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 by a Canadian band with “American Woman/No Sugar Tonight,” and then topped the Hot 100 again in 1974 with another band, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, with “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.”
“That’s a pretty rare thing for a recording artist who gets two No. 1s with two different bands,” notes John Einarson,” biographer and music historian, at the start of the new documentary, Bachman, chronicling the life of this 74 year old who is still regularly making music and performing.
Also among the other hits Bachman has written or co-written are “These Eyes,” “No Time,” “New Mother Nature,” “Takin’ Care of Business,” “Let It Ride,” and “Roll On Down The Highway.”
“He was like my biggest influence when I was a kid,” says Neil Young in the film. “Watching him play guitar, he had an amazing sense about the way he played. And the feeling that you got when you listened to him. It was more than just chops.”
Young, who has known Bachman for about 55 years, added, “I hear Randy — when I see him, I hear him, and I feel him.”
The documentary had its world premiere in Toronto at Hot Docs earlier this month and will continue a festival run before airing in Canada on CBC’s Documentary Channel later this year. Incorporating numerous present-day interviews with family, management, and fellow musicians, director John Barnard (2012’s The Sheepdogs Have At It) touches on everything from Bachman’s childhood to his various rock bands — The Guess Who, Brave Belt, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Bachman-Turner — and solo work.
In this interview with Billboard, Bachman, who now lives in Oakville, Ontario, was a classic storyteller, never coming back with a predictable answer. The garrulous musician and radio host talked about his new album, By George By Bachman — Songs of George Harrison; his last all-original studio work, 2015’s Heavy Blues; donating his guitars; Gibson’s financial problems; doctors who over-prescribe; and doing an album with his son, Tal Bachman.
What do you think of seeing your life condensed into an hour and 15 minutes?
Pretty strange. It’s like your dad doing a surprise and inviting out all your friends and showing all your old family home movies of going on vacation and the clothes you wore, and then have all your friends complaining about what a poor playmate you were or what a brat you were [laughs].
Did you give any direction to John Barnard?
No, he gave me direction. He wanted to do a real story. ‘I don’t want the showbiz stuff; obviously, there will be some of that because that’s an outline to follow, but I want to show backstage, off stage, behind the stage, and the guy in the house. If you are watching a movie of, say, Angelina Jolie, do you want to see her glamor shots, or do you want to see her making breakfast for her 12 kids and changing diapers, and show that she’s a real mother and caring person and human being?’ So I said, ‘I would like a bit of both,’ and he said, ‘That’s what we’re gonna do.’
About a minute into the documentary, your son Tal said that you lost your essence and now it’s back. Do you agree with that?
Yeah because I’m near the end, I think, of a 7-year divorce. That hits you over the head or hits you in the face with a shovel every day you wake up and the thing still isn’t resolved. There’s still legal, financial, anger, and regret issues. I saw it said in the documentary, ‘That album [Heavy Blues] reflects how he was feeling inside,’ but I would never sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write a whole album and tell everybody how I’m really thinking or feeling.’ Subconsciously it comes out in a song, and even though I’m not writing specifically about the times they are a changin’ me, I guess it comes out in the music. And I’ve come out of it, or have been coming out of it for three years. Heavy Blues, was a real leap into the unknown for me to write and record a blues album in one week with two unknown female musicians, a great drummer and bass player, and emulate the power trios of the late 60s from England, like Cream and Zeppelin and Hendrix and the Who.
Then to do this George Harrison album was another step out. I’m not really showing my feelings, except in one song, ‘Between Two Mountains,’ although I wrote it to be like George, showing up to a Beatles session between Mount McCartney and Mount Lennon…I wrote that first verse I think with the spirit of George in the room. I was wakened up at three in the morning. I sensed something is in my room so I wake up and I come to the room next to mine, and there’s my typewriter and I sit down and I type these lyrics, ‘between two mountains,’ and I go, ‘Wow this isn’t my normal songwriting style.’ I look at the lyrics and they’re clearly not me; they’re not my thoughts, they’re not in my vocabulary, I’ve never written about this before… it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever written.
So that was my feeling, me going through this final stage of looking for a new companion, looking for a place to live, looking for a new musical direction. It all came out of this George Harrison thing and how spiritual he got near the end of his life, and how spiritual John Lennon and how spiritual The Beatles got, leaving the ‘yeah yeah yeah, we love you, hold your hand thing’ into the ‘Strawberry Fields’ psychedelic thing, and then going into the ‘Give Peace A Chance’, ‘War’s Over If You Want It,’ ‘My Sweet Lord,’ ‘All You Need Is Love,’ ‘Let It Be’ and all that stuff. I went through that similar change.
I had a confrontation with my manager and my lawyer and they’re both Buddhists. I’m having lunch with them and they say, ‘This is your intervention,’ and I go, ‘What? I don’t drink or smoke or do drugs’ and they go, ‘No, but you’re angry and you got this cloud over you everywhere you go. You want to change the past and you can’t change the past. Let it be. All you can do is change yourself and change tomorrow and live in the now.’ So I went through radical change that way and started meditating and doing affirmations everyday, which I thought was silly new age bunk before and suddenly it takes on a whole new meaning in your life.
In the film, you’ve got Paul Shaffer, Neil Young, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Alex Lifeson, Peter Frampton and others talking about your influence. What noted and skilled musician would you want to give treatment to your songs the way you did for George Harrison’s?
Eric Clapton. He was like George’s unborn brother, or bro from a different mo’, as they call it [laughs]. I’ve always thought Eric Clapton was one of the coolest guys. We had very similar lives. He left the Yardbirds when they went very super commercial, went to play the blues; I left the Guess Who when we were No. 1 and if you listen to my solo in ‘American Woman,’ it’s very similar to the solo in ‘I Feel Free.’ I’ve always emulated his playing. Last year I saw Life In 12 Bars, which was his documentary, very similar to mine, involving break ups of love and broken hearts, people passing away, and what transcends it all is your best friend in the world — your guitar. You pick that up and you rock and roll and you play the blues and you soldier on and you help so many other people soldier on with your records.
A key part of your documentary is your morals and ethics. You were Mormon and didn’t drink or do drugs. You referred to yourself as “like a narc” with your bandmates. There is such a long history of artists that have OD’d or taken their own life after battling addiction. Can anything be done?
It loomed over everybody’s head that our first idol, Elvis, died. I have a t-shirt — I’m even wearing it in the documentary when I’m sitting in the studio — and the front is Elvis’ last prescription, and that’s what killed Elvis, the prescription, written by his doctor. And l look at everyone else who has died from prescription drugs from the wrong combination or eating a grapefruit or something with it. Guys who you wouldn’t call dopers, like Glenn Frey, Prince and Whitney Houston, they all had one too many, or they couldn’t control it, but it was all written out by a doctor — doctors who just want money for writing prescriptions. It’s a terrible epidemic. It’s worse than the street drugs because when doctors prescribe something, it’s really pure and made in a chemical lab, where as the street drugs are all bad too because they’re mixed with baking soda or powder, and I don’t understand a lot of it, but to me it’s just frightening. If you’re walking down the street on a sunny day and see a back alley that’s all laden with trash and bottles and guys hanging out, would you walk down that alley? You don’t know if you’d come out of this street alive. Why would you even go down there? Stay on the sunny side. Stay with the traffic, stay with the people, go into a store and don’t go down the shady street. It’s the same thing with life. Why go down this street? All my idols that I grew up idolizing are dying from this.
One of the most fun parts in the doc that deserves its own documentary is when we see your enormous guitar collection. Your face lit up and you have stories about them. Gibson just filed for bankruptcy and guitar sales are on the decline. More kids are likely asking for DJ gear for Christmas than for a 6-string. Does that worry you, the future of the guitar?
No, the guitar is the most popular instrument in the world and always will be.
But sales have gone down. Gibson’s filed for bankruptcy.
Everything goes up and down, Gibson’s made some stupid business decisions. It’s not that Gibson guitars are bad; they’re one of the big three brands in the world. Henry Juszkiewicz, who I know very well, decided to be a super-magnate and buy companies not related to guitars. He bought computer companies. He bought hardware companies. He wanted to be this big conglomerate and please his shareholders, rather than please the people who pleased him, which were the guitar players and buyers. All Gibson has to do and make three guitars — Les Paul, a 335 like BB King plays and a Flying V — and they’d make an absolute fortune. Fender makes three guitars — Telecaster, Stratocaster and a Starcaster — and a bass. That’s all they need to make, and that’s all they do make, and that’s why they’re way in the profits, and because somebody made a bad decision I was stunned when you said the decline of guitar. It’s not the decline the guitar; it’s the decline of one guy who set his dreams way beyond what he should have.
A year ago The Washington Post published a story about the decline in sales.
There used to be three guitar makers, like there used to be three car makers, Fender, Rickenbacker and Gibson period. Suddenly, there’s 50 other guys making their own guitars. Well, of course, they’re going to decline but these other guys are getting a little piece of the market and making a living and that’s good because they’re inventing new guitars, necks, frets, pickups. So if you look at the overall thing, it doesn’t worry me because I don’t make guitars, I buy them.
How many do you have?
Here’s what I always say, if you know how many you have, you don’t have enough.
Geddy Lee is working on a book about his bass collection. Would you ever consider doing a book on your guitars?
There’s a book in the works now. I’m donating my guitar collection, which is about maybe 200 played guitars that I’ve played in the studio, and maybe 200 collector guitars, German Archtops. I already sold 385 Gretsches to Fred Gretsch so he can have his museum in Savannah, Georgia, and those are being donated in June and July of this [year] to the National Music Centre in Calgary. They’ll all be documented. I’ll be going down there. We’ll be filming it, because I was surprised that everybody went a little nuts, when they showed all the cases in that room and the garage in Lethbridge, Alberta; everybody wanted to see in every single case, because every guitar has a story, every one does — I got it from so and so who got it from Stevie Ray Vaughan or something like that. So I’ll be doing a book and a DVD of that, and then the National Library is going to prepare them so they go on tour and they’re going to show them in the national library for six months. They’re going to come here to Burlington to their Arts Center, then to ROM [Royal Ontario Museum] for three months. You can go in and see them and look at them.
When you look at them, especially the German Archtops, every single one is a work of art, made by hand by father, son and grandson, after the war maybe in the early 50s. All these guys used to make symphonic instruments, just that all the symphony houses were blown up in Europe, so these guys who were all trained at the Stradivarius factory in Cremona, Italy, who made all these violins and cellos, they suddenly start making guitars, and these guitars are like Stradivarius; they’re just amazing. All these parts had to be gotten from the black market; there was no wood or metal; all the metal had been used for bullets and army tanks, so these guys are scrounging and buying pieces on the black market, trading. So every guitar is different from the previous one, even made by the same family by the Roger [Rossmeisl] family or Hofner family. So when you look at these it is staggering. I’ve got my own pictures if you look at them, everything is a wow. I mean guys call it guitar porn. You buy the book; you look at it every night and dream about owning one of these guitars. I have got a couple of hundred of them. There will be a book and a DVD and the whole thing.
How do you feel about vinyl making a comeback considering you’ve had a radio show on CBC called Vinyl Tap for so long?
It’s great. My By George album just came out in vinyl. It’s two pieces of vinyl. They’re black and white marble, and they are incredible. I was invited in Calgary to London Drugs, which has a room full of vinyl and turntables and amplifiers and speakers and I go, ‘Wow, am I on drugs? Is this the 70s?’ London Drugs is only in the west of Canada, also Sunrise Records, I think there’s 85 stores. They gave me a full display when you walk in. if you’re coming to town, and you get invited to a record store, to find your CDs and your vinyl, you will show up.
Do you have any thoughts on the CBC destroying all their original archives after they digitize everything?
It’s a shame because, how old are the archives they’re destroying, 30-40-50-60-70 years? Do you know that CDs that you burnt 10 years ago now have nothing on them? Digital information vanishes. It’s gone. In other words. they’re erasing their history.
When I look back at the television shows they have on CBC, Let’s Go [a music show for teens 1964-1968]; they have 70 shows with the Guess Who as the back-up band and the guests were [acts like] Gordon Lightfoot and Anne Murray. That show [Music Hop, 1963-1967] ran in five cities right across Canada for two years. Anne Murray was on the one in Halifax. Alex Trebek was the host that featured Little Caesar and the Consuls, and Grant Smith & The Power, and Mandala, and other greats bands. If they did save that, like BBC did — you can go to BBC’s site now and see the first time Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, were ever on TV on BBC One — this stuff is like gold, and CBC erased it all. For what? They could have had the most incredible archives that could be earning money again.
In the film towards the end, someone in the studio said you’re working on lots of projects. Besides the guitar exhibit and the book and DVD, what else do you have coming?
We have a play in the works called Prairie Town, which is a song Neil Young and I recorded maybe 12 years ago. There’s a video of that out, and the Prairie Town being Winnipeg. That will showcase the music of The Guess Who, Neil Young and Bachman-Turner Overdrive, which was the greatest city to get these kids — who were us — out into the world, who are still out in the world, rocking and rolling and still playing and still making relevant music.
Besides that, there’s the movie Taking Care Of Business, the Guinness Book of World Records, that’s being written right now. My son Tal is joining my band; finally got him to do his own song ‘She’s So High,’ which everybody goes crazy for, and now they’re talking about re-recording it for the women’s movement because the women in the audience don’t sing ‘she’s so high’; they sing ‘we’re so high, we’re high above you,’ but they’re pointing to the men. It’s amazing and Taylor Swift invited Tal on stage to do that song [in 2011]— it’s one of her favorite songs — when she played the BC Dome. So I said to my manager, ‘Why don’t you call Taylor’s manager, see if we can use that clip.’
Tal’s now in my band helping me with the George Harrison stuff, because a lot of them have double slide guitar and harmony, and he’s doing a lot of singing and now he’s singing ‘She’s So High,’ and we’re going to evolve into doing an album called Bachman Bachman, me and him, father and son, which nobody else has really done. Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, everybody who has a son has not been on an equal footing with them. Tal is now at the point where he looks, plays and writes great; he plays guitar, bass, piano, and drums. He started when he was two. You saw those pictures of him in the doc; he was one and two with headphones on sitting at my brother Robbie’s drums at a BTO rehearsal in my mother’s basement. So he’s been around the music, so now he’s been on tour, on stage with me all the time, he’s writing great stuff.
So we’re just going to evolve to doing an album together. It’s going to be really great, swampy rock and roll. It’s going to be heavy Americana rock, like Tom Petty used to put out, like the Traveling Wilburys had because everything now is all dance and computer. Our stuff will be playing live in the studio, like By George and my previous album Heavy Blues, play live, leave the mistakes in and let the people see it like a real performance album.