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Cummings bares soul on frank new disc Add to ...

When he's alone, Burton Cummings can become consumed by the past.

He says he ruminates on his fame, the drug-fuelled hippie days, friends that he's lost.

A few years back, such reflective moments might have pulled him into depression, says the legendary rocker. But lately, they've served as musical inspiration, resulting in Cummings's most candid album yet.

Above The Ground is Cummings's first solo release in nearly 20 years, a 19-track opus with remarkably frank lyrics that delve into life in California ("Couldn't face the folks/tired of bein' the butt of jokes"), disillusionment with show business ("I knew someday the music might get evil/I knew some day I'd be a helpless pawn") and the consequences of a life of excess ("Been wakin' up with my nose in the eggs now/And I suppose that I could use a shower").

While many of his rock 'n' roll contemporaries from the 1960s have quit drinking and drugging, the former Guess Who frontman admits he still indulges in both.

"I still drink, I still drink with great gusto, whether it's a problem or not, that's really other people's opinion," Cummings says during a recent interview in a posh hotel lobby.

"I still stay up and I like to smoke a joint and I don't go nuts any more.... I think when you reach a certain age, you have to kind of grow up professionally and personally and I'm kind of trying to stay positive about everything now and focus on the future and this record is a big part of that. I know how lucky I am. Not everybody gets to have a new release at this stage in life."

The comments came just as one of Cummings's former party pals - shock rocker Alice Cooper - happened to walk into the hotel, stopping by to shake hands with his old friend. Cooper has been dry for more than two decades.

Another friend of Cummings, Guess Who guitarist Kurt Winter, had his own bout with substance abuse and died in 1997 of kidney failure.

Still shaken by that death, Cummings wanted to honour his late bandmate on the new album with the track Kurt's Song.

The singer says the new disc marks the first time he's written all material on his own, and he found the experience to be a cathartic one.

"Lyrically, I think it's the strongest album I've ever done because I am not pretending in any way, I am not trying to be anything I'm not," he says.

"The lyrics just deal with having lived now six decades, a reflection back on a very interesting life - ups and downs, triumphs and failures and the title really comes from that old joke: 'Every day above the grass is a good day.' ... I feel pretty ambitious still, for an old codger my age."

By Cummings account, he's "lived 50 lifetimes by most people's standards."

There may be some hyperbole there, but there's no disputing that the Winnipegger is among the most successful rock singers to ever come from Canada.

With the Guess Who, Cummings's soulful voice was at the forefront of a string of international chart-toppers in the '60s and '70s including, American Woman, No Time, No Sugar Tonight, and These Eyes.

Cummings's early solo successes include the '70s rock radio classic Stand Tall, but he hasn't put out his own disc of material since 1990's Plus Signs. More recently, he has reunited with his Guess Who partner Randy Bachman for last year's cover album Jukebox and fan-friendly greatest-hits tours as the Bachman-Cummings Band.

Cummings says he pursued a solo disc when Bachman was sidelined by shoulder trouble last November. While the project gave him a chance to explore guarded parts of his persona, it allowed for some fun, too, such as the album's bizarre tribute to a rollaway bed, called Rollaway. Now 60, Cummings says he's grateful for having led a charmed life overall, but there's been disappointment, too, and he's only recently been able to view darker times as opportunities to grow.

"I think what happened is, five or six years ago I got to a point in my life where I started being more appreciative of what I did have and started worrying less and less, if at all, about what I didn't have," says Cummings, dressed all in black in loose jeans and a long-sleeved shirt thrown over a Doors T-shirt.

"Once I got to that point, life got a little bit less complicated mentally for me and I think that's where I am now and probably where I'll stay."

Cummings says he hopes the disc gives long-time fans a sense of his rocky relationship with stardom and his struggle to remain as artistically honest as he can.

"I've been knocked down a few times career-wise and I've had unbelievably heart-breaking failures - things that I put out that I thought were going to just take the world by storm and they did exactly the opposite," Cummings says of his decades-long music career.

"And I think what makes you strong is getting back up from those times you get knocked down. And every time I was able to do that, I thought, 'OK, this will creep intrinsically into my songwriting,' and I think it has."

Above the Ground comes out Tuesday.

 

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