“Radio was my lifeline as a kid growing up in Winnipeg in the 1950s,” Randy Bachman writes in the introduction of Vinyl Tap Stories. “It connected me with the wider world outside our little prairie city.” For the last few years, the Guess Who guitarist has paid his debt to the dial forward, taking care of business on his CBC Radio show, Vinyl Tap, a weekly session of tour-bus tales and back-stage scuttlebutt. He’s gathered some of the content now in a chatty, readable hardback.
Seems that rock ’n’ roll biographies come out weekly these days, often carry sensational subtitles titles, such as Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock, Sammy Hagar’s blaring chronicle.
Vinyl Tap Stories isn’t that. Take the sex and drugs out of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, and you’re left with Bachman, the Mormon-raised musician whose appetites are not scandalous. This is the guy, we learn, who tried to convince Trooper to change its party-hearty anthem from Raise a Little Hell to Raise a Little Howl.
The book’s 200 or so pages – including suggested playlists and thematic song lists – begin with an autobiography’s early-life beginnings (in this case, young Bachman in Winnipeg), but that’s just setting the stage for the fruitful collection of anecdotes and behind-the-song illuminations that follow.
Bachman, for example, gives no insight into his break from the hugely successful Guess Who in 1970, covering that momentous affair with one slim paragraph: “The four of us had grown apart as people, as bandmates, and as friends, and we had totally different lifestyles. I didn’t party, do drugs, smoke or drink; they all did.”
Tea parties have been known to break up with more drama than that.
What Bachman is selling is context, tasty background nuggets to round out the musical experience. His recall is perhaps unclouded, compared to the more rowdy of his bunch. And he knows people. The dude got his Gretsch guitars from Chet Atkins (the country gentleman himself) and received his Les Pauls from Les Paul personally. Bachman tricked Little Richard into believing the pianist (Mister Tutti Frutti) could finally play piano in the key of A.
The rocker isn’t much of a writer. Manitoba music historian John Einarson, who previously authored a proper Bachman bio and just released Four Strong Winds: Ian & Sylvia, helped transform the radio-told stories into a readable form, but the tone is conversational.
Occasionally, the overuse of personal pronouns makes for clunky reading. For example, here’s a passage on meeting the bubble-happy bandleader Lawrence Welk: “I was invited … because I had some songs. … So I go to their offices. … I’m there … I look outside … I’d never seen anything like it … I was impressed with his building.”
One of the stories doesn’t ring true. As Bachman tells it, in 1965 the Guess Who, thinking they had a spot on The Ed Sullivan Show, drove non-stop from Winnipeg to arrive in New York on the night of the live broadcast, only to find out they weren’t booked. But even if they did have that gig, did the band really think they could just walk onto the biggest television show in the world, with no rehearsal, no sound check, no nothing? Surely they weren’t such rubes.
But that’s nitpicking. The charisma of Bachman’s book isn’t in the details – though there’s plenty of that – it’s in his joy of the telling. Rock ’n’ roll is a crowd thing, and Bachman is all for sharing and broadening the experience.
Brad Wheeler writes about music for The Globe and Mail.