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Great Guess Who divide embodies one of rock’s oldest dilemmas

Any mention of the band the Guess Who makes me smile. And clench my teeth.

I used to get a lot of mileage out a story that was as close as I got to “Almost Famous” meets “This Is Spinal Tap.”

When I was a young college student circa the Iranian hostage crisis, the Guess Who played the Oklahoma State University campus in a show promoted with student activity funds. Already, the name was ironic. The band was early to the trend of having one original member, bassist Jim Kale, carry on with a new lineup.

I was smart enough to point this out in a pre-concert , student-paper album review of their latest LP, “All This for a Song.” I was not smart enough to decline a tour manager’s request to go backstage because “the guys really wanted to meet me.”

Yes, it was a setup. Introduced as “the guy who wrote the review” by the tour manager who had seemed so nice on the phone, I was met with a semi-circle of glares and deadly, stone silence — except for a guitarist who managed to be almost friendly, even though he was on the floor restringing the ax he had ignited with lighter fluid onstage.

The meet-and-greet ended abruptly when one of them explained that what he’d really like to do was “take this beer bottle and shove it down your f—–g throat.”

I was young, unaccustomed to being threatened by rock stars, even phony ones, and outnumbered. I hightailed it out of there.

The Daily O’Collegian diligently reported the concert lost enough student funds that poor Chuck Mangione had to pay the price in a canceled gig. But we weren’t into the first-person thing back then, and the paper’s adviser replaced my breathless account of the encounter with a paragraph that said band members “were bitter” about the review.

The last time I thought of it all was when I read an Atlantic piece about how hard it is for comedians to be politically correct if they want those college gigs now. No talk of lawsuits or “microaggression” then. It was rock ‘n’ roll, man.

So why bring up all this now? Two reasons.

First, there’s the matter of this weekend’s very strange Guess Who coincidence.

Burton Cummings, the band’s lead singer during its peak years, returned to The Orleans Showroom for three shows. In between, the official version of the Guess Who, still anchored by Kale and glory-years drummer Garry Peterson, was booked at the Golden Nugget on Friday.

It seems the college paper adviser wisely chose the word “bitter.” It still comes up today in a chat with the Guess Who’s manager-keyboardist, and in a Winnipeg Free Press story from 2012: “Former Guess Who friends now bitter enemies.”

There have been various Guess Who reunions over the years, but I was told not to look for Cummings to jump on stage and sing a few songs at the Nugget on his night off. “I suspect there will never be a moment when they’re onstage again,” says Cummings’ manager, Lorne Saifer.

Leonard Shaw, who manages Kale and Peterson’s band, agreed last week that Cummings wouldn’t show up Friday without “financial” incentive — unless it was just to heckle his former partners, he adds with a laugh — “and I don’t know how responsive Mr. Kale would be (if he did).”

It turns out that all those years ago, I walked — or was lured — into a feud that would become a recurring theme of doing this job in Las Vegas, a classic-rock nostalgia mecca.

Saifer echoes years of litigation by R&B oldies groups such as the Platters, Coasters and Drifters when he argues the Nugget’s Guess Who is “fraudulent,” deceiving fans who didn’t come to hear the original rhythm section: “The person who wrote and sang those songs is not on that stage.”

(It was Kale who found out “no one had ever registered the (band) name and done the trademark,” Shaw explains, and so he did.)

But the other reason to bring all this up? The death of David Bowie. Hang with me a minute.

On the same weekend of this Guess Who overload, 70-year-old John Fogerty is joyfully stomping through the Creedence Clearwater Revival catalog at The Venetian, even though he has a parallel nuisance: His old band’s bassist and drummer tour touring for 20 years as Creedence Clearwater Revisited.

And elsewhere in town? Another visit by Styx, a group that covers every aspect of these debates: Despite a bitter split with a singer-songwriter who tours separately, Dennis DeYoung, the band has prospered by getting the public to accept a replacement (Lawrence Gowan).

Saifer is speaking of the enemy Guess Who but doesn’t deny “people are still thirsty to hear these songs and recapture a bit of their youth, the soundtrack of their lives.”

Bowie’s death is another reminder that no classic rocker, except for maybe Keith Richards, is immortal. Kale is 72, Peterson is 70, and they flew to most of their 43 dates last year instead of riding a bus 280 days a year as they did at one point. They have 25 shows confirmed this year, six in January.

“Nobody’s here forever,” Shaw says, “but the good news is some music is.”

Amen to that.

Instead of being naive and calling for these guys to bury the hatchet while they still have time, let’s celebrate the songs and the freedom of choice in the information age: You don’t have to rely on a student newspaper if you’re the least bit curious about who is in which band.

But if that old tour manager is still around? I know what I’d like to do with my beer bottle if I ever ran into him again, but he might sue me for microaggression.

Disclosure: The Review-Journal is owned by a limited liability company controlled by the Adelson family, majority owners of Las Vegas Sands Corp., which operates The Venetian.

Read more from Mike Weatherford at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com and follow @Mikeweatherford on Twitter.

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