Cities in Rock 1: Winnipeg

Posted on June 22, 2013 by

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My thirteen-year old texted me yesterday, asking (without any context),

What’s some good classic rock?

The question caught me flatfooted. First of all, Zane has, so far, been a non-discriminating listener, just as happy with Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj as he is with Randy Travis and Green Day. (And, charmingly, my own solo guitar things.) So I didn’t (still don’t) know where the question came from. Second, up until quite recently I would have told you that I hated classic rock — that I made my break with it circa 1980 and never much looked back.

But lately, I have found myself more and more often listening to KQRS, Twin Cities KQ, or, for those of you not blessed to be living in southern Minnesota, also known as the same fucking radio station that pumps out classic rock in every town in the U.S.A.

I’ve learned some things.

  1. My own capacity for nostalgia. I didn’t like most of the tunes they play the first time around, but now… well, now, I still don’t really like them, but rock along anyway. It’s complicated. (Also: they never play the tunes I did like, except “Fool in the Rain,” which is on KQ now more than it was on Q-102 back then.)
  2. Many of those bands, the ones I had some disdain for, could really play. Whatever their other virtues, Lynrd Skynrd was tight. And not nearly as poncy as my darlings of the time, Little Feat.
  3. Foreigner is still crap.

Which brings me to the topic of today’s essay, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, The City of Opportunity. Winnipeg, of course, provided the world with The Guess Who, which in turn provided us with Bachman-Turner Overdrive, the most classic middlebrow classic rock band that ever classic rocked. They perfected the just-edgy-enough-to-remain-perfectly-acceptable niche before it was not quite cool. Built for airplay, but hipper than the Doobie Brothers. A little hipper than the Doobie Brothers. Not that much hipper than the Doobie Brothers.

(I should work a disclaimer in here: I know nothing about what I am writing about here, except having lived through it. No research went into the construction of this essay. Opinions do not necessarily reflect those of management, or even me five minutes from now.)

So, The Guess Who. Larry Coryell once used the phrase “Holiday Inn Outside” to describe a certain kind of jazz player who self-consciously tries to be, you know, “out,” within the constraints of his or her limited palette and the hotel lounge where he or she gigs. That’s The Guess Who to my ears. Trying too hard to be psychedelic within a three-minute AM-radio format. The Big Muff π guitar solos with the odd notes (the odd notes found their way directly into BTO). The 60s-protest sounding lyrics that, examined closely, don’t protest anything.

And still, kinda cool. What really reveals the redeeming qualities of The Guess Who is when you listen to Lenny Kravitz cover “American Woman” to discover that he beats all the life out of it. Whatever they had back then, Lenny Kravitz does not. (Although the borderline-porn video for Kravitz’s “American Woman” is a reasonably good metaphor for what I am trying to get at here. Almost a thing without quite being a thing.)

Bachman-Turner Overdrive aims for, and achieves, that exact same spot between art and mechanical reproduction. Like they would rather be opening for Beefheart, but got stuck playing proms in a cover band in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. They still play “Sad Eyes” for the slow dance, but, you know, odd it up here and there.

Listen, for example, to “Takin’ Care of Business.” Even within the BTO oeuvre, “Takin’ Care of Business” is a banal, half-hearted effort at cynical hit production. I, um, had the album. But still: the structure has multiple, complicated parts. Big, edgy guitar sound. Those strange notes and quarter tones in the guitar solos taken from The Guess Who days. The just-really-out-of-nowhere riff mid-song that constitutes the break. Like all art-rock, it goes on much too long. The lyrics that split the difference between irony and contempt. It sounds, for all the world, like Steve Howe was forced to join the Silver Bullet Band.

“Takin’ Care of Business” is, overall, not unlike listening to Sonny Sharrock when he played with Herbie Mann (a band that also included…Larry Coryell!). Or me, if we get down to cases. This is a group uncomfortable with how square they are.

Winnipeg. In the pantheon of Rock cities, it is right up there with you-could-do-worse. My son wants to listen to some good classic rock? Put BTO on the list.

You are connected to Eunoia Solstice, a web-magazine curated by Jason Quinn Malott, Eric Jenkins, and Stephen McClurg. “Assembly Required” is my twice-monthly column concerning free improvisation, folk music, the apocalypse, and the self in contemporary society. Check out some of the other stuff on offer. Come back soon!

Cities in Rock is mostly a record of associations between music, time, and place — more memoir than musicology. Several authors plan to contribute. Stay tuned!