Taking the Magical Musical History Tour in Winnipeg, Manitoba

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Bucket List Worthy  

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Psychedelic rock glory isn’t, perhaps, the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Winnipeg. But the Guess Who mural that adorns a parking lot wall in the Manitoba capital’s North End will open up your eyes.

The 2007-painted mural is among the most striking sights on the Magical Musical History Tour offered by Heartland Travel and guided by veteran local rock writer John Einarson. It gorgeously pays tribute to six different Guess Who album covers, featuring a blue-faced blonde woman (American Woman) and three giant cans decorated with sheaves of wheat (Canned Wheat), among other things. A silhouette of the 1970s classic rock band appears against a rainbow horizon.

In the 70s, rock music eclipsed even the Bobby Hull-era Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association as the Canadian Prairie province’s most popular product. The Guess Who, starring moustachioed master songwriters Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings, outsold the Beatles and the Rolling Stones worldwide in terms of singles in 1970, according to Cashbox Magazine. Who knew?

“It’s my intent to celebrate that history, not only for the past, but also for the future, to inspire new generations,” says Einarson, who’s written for Mojo, Classic Rock, and Uncut. He’s also put together books and TV documentaries about Bachman, who founded Bachman-Turner Overdrive (“You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet”) in 1973, and arguably the city’s most famous rock royalty, Neil Young.

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Winnipeg rock historian John Einarson. Credit: Lucas Aykroyd

Always armed with colourful anecdotes, Einarson becomes a star himself during this three-hour odyssey through Winnipeg neighbourhoods, conducted in a mini-van with a TV providing key musical clips. Tours kick off at The Forks – a shopping and dining mecca and home of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights – in front of the Travel Manitoba building.

Manitoba has just over one million inhabitants, but its popular musicians have sold more than 100 million records, and Einarson’s smooth recounting of that history combines knowledge and passion.

En route, one hard rock-obsessed guest inquires: “Is there any connection between Van Halen and Winnipeg?” The 1952-born author is all over it: “Bachman-Turner Overdrive opened for Van Halen on the 5150 tour back in 1986. They wanted BTO’s big hits to jack up the crowd, and Randy sang those as per Eddie Van Halen’s request. One night, Randy and Eddie got together and jammed for three hours as therapy after a childhood friend of Eddie’s died. And later, Eddie gave one of his famous striped Kramer guitars to Tal Bachman, Randy’s son, who had a hit with ‘She’s So High.’”

On a lower note, Einarson documents the love-hate relationship between Bachman and Cummings that has curtailed their participation in The Guess Who. Unsurprisingly in the rock world, the enmity stems largely from money. “When ‘These Eyes’ is played on the radio, Burton gets 75 percent of the royalties and Randy gets 25 percent,” Einarson explains.

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Neil Young portrait by Winnipeg artist Larry Rich. Credit: Lucas Aykroyd

During a lunch break with pulled pork sandwiches and French onion soup at Le Garage Café in Winnipeg’s French Quarter, Einarson points out a huge portrait of Neil Young by local artist Larry Rich. The shaggy-haired iconoclast, globally famed for his reedy vocals and feedback-laden guitar on numbers like “Cinnamon Girl” and “Rockin’ In the Free World,” moved to Winnipeg in 1960 when his parents split up.

Global fame can be elusive. At the turn of the 20th century, Winnipeg aspired to become the “Chicago of the North” as a financial and transportation hub via the Canadian Pacific Railway. That didn’t materialize due to World War I and the 1913 opening of the Panama Canal as a trade route.

In a similar vein, a sense of wistful nostalgia creeps into the Magical Musical History Tour, as many of the rock landmarks Einarson describes have fallen by the wayside. For example, the Blue Note Cafe was demolished in 2011 for a parking lot. It’s not widely known that the Winnipeg-spawned Crash Test Dummies (“The Superman Song”) once served as the house band there, and David Bowie and Rod Stewart jammed there when they were in town.

Winnipeg’s rock heyday has admittedly passed. Even the city’s second-tier stars, from Terry Jacks (“Seasons in the Sun”) to Chantal Kreviazuk (“Leaving on a Jet Plane”), got their start in the 20th century.

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152 Bannerman Avenue, where The Guess Who wrote classic hits. Credit: Lucas Aykroyd

But there are humble places to pay homage, like 152 Bannerman Avenue. The simple 1.5-storey house on a leafy side street is where Bachman and Cummings co-wrote “These Eyes” and “No Time,” the Guess Who’s first two million-selling singles. And in 2008, Einarson relates, Bob Dylan, who was in town to play the MTS Centre, made a special point of visiting the amalgamated duplex at 1123 Grosvenor Avenue where Neil Young lived in the early 60s.

Someday, Einarson hopes to unveil a museum entitled the Manitoba Music Experience, where all this history will come alive. For the time being, you can get a little taste with the memorabilia display at the Salisbury House restaurant on the Pembina Highway. Artifacts range from a vintage Rockola jukebox to a Jets-themed electric guitar signed by both Young and Hull. Shelling out $5.50 for a box of the signature chocolate-iced doughnuts is a perfect capper. Winnipeg’s rock history is pretty sweet.

To book the Magical Musical History Tour in Winnipeg ($39/adult), contact Heartland Travel. The writer was a guest of Tourism Winnipeg and Travel Manitoba.

To book a flight have a look at our ongoing travel deals.

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About the Author: Lucas Aykroyd

Lucas Aykroyd is an award-winning Vancouver travel writer and public speaker. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and National Geographic Traveler. To engage his services, visitlucasaykroyd.com.

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