First, shake the hand - meaty and muscular, with fingers that have carved 10,000 keyboards.
Then, switch on the tape recorder, sit back, and just let him riff. He needs no invitation.
When I say my name, the eyes seem to flinch momentarily through the cigarette haze, because, although we've never met before, Burton Cummings and I share a common history, having occupied the same psychic terrain known as Winnipeg in our formative years. A physical place, too, of course, but mainly a state of mind.
Burton and I roamed the same elm-lined boulevards, cursed the same endless winters, hung out in the same bowling alleys, and listened addictively to the same pop radio stations, the music imprinting itself forever in the fresh Silly Putty of our cerebella. Of course, there's one major difference: I can still recite lots of the old lyrics; Burton started writing his own - and went on to sell upward of 20 million records, entering the pantheon reserved for the royalty of rock music.
Just how deep this personal connection runs is immediately apparent, because it turns out that the object of Burton's first great adolescent crush was my first cousin Karen ("She didn't have any time for me") and that his good friends growing up were two more of my cousins, Mark and Miles.
Of course, you couldn't come of age in the Russian shtetl that was still north Winnipeg in the 1950s and early sixties without associating with Jews, but Burton, nominally a gentile, probably overdid it (not for the last time) when he persuaded Rosh Pina Rabbi Phillip Shnairson to admit him to the synagogue's youth program - "the only goy," he laughs, "to be a member." He attended "more bar mitzvahs than most Jews," can still recite (in Hebrew, no less) the first of the four questions from the Passover Haggadah, and belonged for four years to the Sabras, one of the teen clubs at the Young Men's Hebrew Association on Hargrave Street (about 200 metres from a theatre that now bears his name). "Listen," he says, drawing on a cigarette, "I could daven [pray]by the time I was 12. All my friends were Jews. I found the Anglicans really boring."
The newspaper-delivery route that Burton administered as a boy took him past the Ludwig house on Scotia Avenue, where he would stop to visit his friend Israel, tinkle the ivories on the family's grand piano, and experiment with their reel-to-reel tape recorder, then still a novelty. Ludwig still owns the earliest known tapes of Cummings singing songs by Ray Charles, as well as the Marathons doing Peanut Butter. "I was 13," he says. "My voice hadn't even changed."
And when he made his first professional appearance at 14, as a member of the Deverons, the gig was booked at the Herzlia Academy, then an orthodox shul in the city's south end. The booking agent was an enterprising kid named Lorne Saifer. Now, 47 years later, Saifer is still Burton's manager. His fee back then for the five-member band: $5. "None of them were old enough to drive, so we had to take cabs," remembers Cummings. "We lost money."
This was even before he had started dating a young Jewish girl from the south end, Jan Schneider, who would be his girlfriend for nine years (and very nearly became his wife) - a crucially important period in his personal and musical development. It was for Schneider that he wrote such hits as Stand Tall, Timeless Love and I Will Play a Rhapsody. Indeed, long after she was married to someone else, "I was still writing songs for Jan," he says, "trying to make her think about coming back."
All of this came flooding back a few weeks ago as Burton sat down to talk about his new CD, Above the Ground. It's his first solo album in 19 years, and he has not stinted on content: The disc boasts 19 songs, all new, music and lyrics by Cummings himself. The photo on the cover shows him sitting in a chair with his arms extended, looking not unlike another Winnipegger, the late magician Doug Henning, as if he were levitating an invisible body.
Above the Ground is an apt metaphor. Although the years have taken a toll on him - for the Globe's photographer, he was reluctant to open his jacket to show a Beatles T-shirt, for fear of revealing his ample stomach - Cummings has endured. The title track goes, in part: "Been waking up with my nose in the eggs now, and I suppose that I could use a shower, but I'll never turn the other cheek now, I guess the 'tude is getting dark and sour ... Not a crime to want to kick it alone ... but I have come to know what a real crime is ... to mortify what you don't own."
Turning 61 in December, Cummings says he now feels "a certain freedom" to speak his mind. "I'm not as guarded about my past as I was. I can say what I want. At this point, I'm not hiding. It's not going to have any long-term effects."
Of his drug use during the glory years, for example, he concedes, "I shovelled an awful lot of the white lady up my nose. I did a lot of acid, smoked a lot of great hash, great weed. I barely even lay down till I was about 40. But no needles - I can't get a vaccination without passing out."
Today, he says, he likes an occasional joint "whenever it's offered. I still smoke dope a little bit, not as much as before, because it's a little harder on your throat. And I like Newcastle Brown Ale. So I'm not ready to move to Lourdes quite yet. I've never really denied myself anything and I've never had any serious problems with alcohol or drugs, where I woke up with the shakes. To me, it was just rock 'n' roll party shit, that's all it was.
"I've read the Motley Crüe book," he adds, referring to The Dirt: Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band, "and Jesus, man, compared to them, I was an angel."
Certainly, rock's snack-food diet of cocaine, hash and acid hasn't affected Cummings's memory. He belts out a dozen lines from his starring tenor role in the St. John's High School production of Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore, circa 1963 (he played Ralph), and then sings a few bars of the first song he ever wrote, at 12, So Hard to Explain ("How do you tell the girl you love, the way you feel about her? ... I find it so hard to tell her, so hard to explain.").
Two years of operetta and a few more in the choir at St. Martin's Anglican Church constituted the only formal singing lessons Cummings ever had. "I was taught to sing from here," he says, pointing to his diaphragm, "but I just sing. It helped to be the lead. From an early age, I always said, 'Why try out for the chorus when you can try out for the lead?' "
His gift for piano he owes mainly to his mother, Rhoda, who started him on lessons at the age of 5. He immediately rebelled, making it clear to her that he preferred to play road hockey and football with his friends. But a year later, she forced him back to it. Soon, he figured out that four basic chords - C, A minor, F and G - allowed him to play "80 per cent of the songs on the radio. From that point on, she couldn't drag me away from it. All of a sudden, I became a big hero because I could play Bumble Boogie." The rest is music history.
He was just 19 when he became lead singer of the Guess Who, joining Randy Bachman, Jim Kale and Garry Peterson. They had a decade-long run at the top of the world, producing a steady stream of hits, including These Eyes, No Time, Laughing and (She's Come) Un dun. "Our heroes were the great songwriters of that period, King and Goffin, Lieber and Stoller, Lennon and McCartney, Mann and Weil."
Cummings still retains a close connection to Winnipeg. In addition to the downtown theatre, there's a community centre named for him, he owns a stake in the city's legendary Salisbury House restaurant chain, and he just bought a house in the Tuxedo neighbourhood, with Assiniboine Park as his front yard. He won't disclose the purchase price, but says: "Let's put it this way. Lenny Kravitz paid for it. Thank you, Lenny. Thank you, God." Cummings is referring to the royalties Kravitz paid him for his rerecording of the Bachman-Cummings classic American Woman, the first song by a Canadian rock band to make it to No. 1 on Billboard.
American Woman was a hit in 1970, the same year that Bachman, a Mormon, bailed from the Guess Who, unable to tolerate the rock lifestyle any longer. Cummings carried on for another five years before going solo, soon afterward producing I'm Scared.
The new house has a grand piano in the foyer. In the basement stands the 110-year-old Nordheimer upright on which Cummings has composed for the last 24 years, writing songs with Bachman and the late Kurt Winter, as well as producing such solo hits as Break it to Them Gently and Stand Tall. "I got it for $200 in 1970," he says, "and, touch wood, if I lost everything tomorrow, you would see me on the street with that piano singing for my food. That will never, ever, leave my possession."
Cummings also owns a secluded mountaintop estate near Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles, which he bought in 1976 ("It's worth about 11 times what I paid for it") and what he calls a 10-acre "garden of Eden" in Victoria, facing Mount Baker. These are shared with his wife of 27 years, Cheryl DeLuca, a naturopathic healer, and two dogs: a short-haired collie and a tiny Jack Russell, "the best friends you could ever have." The touring life wasn't conducive to child-raising, and besides, he concedes, "I was too selfish to have kids."
One day, Cummings insists, there will be a book chronicling his story. "I've started it many times, and every time I think I've finished, something else great happens and I figure I have to write about that. But one day, I will. I'm too busy right now."