By PAUL BOREHAM
Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn has lived his life on the road. That’s where “home” is, he says.
It’s no wonder. The 70-year-old musician has spent nearly 50 of those years touring the world – at times in dangerous situations – performing songs from his 31 albums.
“When I first read On the Road (a 1950s novel by Jack Kerouac), it struck a chord. It caught my imagination and I think that has something to do with it,” Cockburn says.
His songs are filled with reflections gleaned from a lifetime going from place to place, always on the move.
But he put the turn signal on and pulled off in 2011 to write his memoir, Rumours of Glory, which was published in 2014 along with a nine-disk box set of his music – a kind of end-of-career project.
The memoir was written in San Francisco, where he lives with his wife, M.J., and four-year-old daughter, Iona. It’s been a long road.
Cockburn was born in Kingston and grew up in Ottawa, where his father was head of diagnostic X-ray at Ottawa Civic Hospital. He has two younger brothers. In his teens, music lessons started with the clarinet and trumpet. But one day, while exploring the attic in his aunt’s house, he found an old guitar with rusting strings. He couldn’t put it down. Elvis Presley and other rock-and-rollers were then grabbing the hearts and minds of teenagers.
“I got a hold of the guitar when I was 14, and the idea that I might be able to do something like that was exciting,” says Cockburn. He adds, with a light chuckle, “Nobody I knew played rock and roll on a trumpet.”
“As I got into it, it also became a refuge from the horrors of teenage life.”
He developed his voice in Nepean High’s choir, and he was exposed to folk music at Camp Ahmek, in Algonquin Park, where he’d gone for several summers, and where he was developing a love for wilderness. In Ottawa he immersed himself in the folk scene that was centred around a small cafe called Le Hibou, or The Owl. All kinds of music was being played, but it was jazz that piqued his interest. He ate it all up and tried to emulate the sounds he loved most.
After high school, his parents, a tad reluctant, agreed to send him to Boston’s Berklee College of Music – a highly-regarded institution – where he was going to learn jazz composition. He left after two semesters, but the experience was a stepping stone. He writes that the decision to leave came with a guiding hand, as if it was meant to be. Something was at play in his life.
Back in Ottawa in 1966, he joined his musical friends in a group called The Children, and while they became the top group in the city, there was a ceiling to playing in small clubs and schools. He was often eating peanut butter sandwiches for supper.
Toronto’s Yorkville district was, at the time, a thriving hub for musicians and Cockburn had no trouble leaving Ottawa for more fertile ground. In 1967 he joined a group who called themselves the Flying Circus (later Olivus), playing psychedelic music. Opening for the Jimi Hendrix trio in Montreal was especially eye-opening for Cockburn.
3’s a Crowd followed, more of a folk group, in 1968, with a final stint taping 26 half-hour episodes of One More Time as the house band for CTV. That was it. He had been thinking of going it alone for some time. The songs he was writing were more suited to a solo performance, just him and the guitar.
His big break came in the summer of 1969 at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto, the largest in the country. Neil Young gave his slot away on main stage due to another engagement and Cockburn filled it with all the songs he’d been writing over the past few years. He was a hit.
Later that year, Bernie Finklestein became his manager. Finklestein started True North Records and produced Cockburn’s first record in 1970. The business relationship remains to this day, with all 31 albums on the True North label.
“The first album was very well received, in a small but important way, and that got things off to a good start. And a lot of that was because of hooking up with Bernie Finklestein, who had a sense of how to present that stuff to people.”
In the 1960s, the prospects for Canadian recording artists were not very hopeful. Cockburn came along just as the landscape was changing.
“A lot of people in Canada were looking around for what we could think of as Canadian music,” he says. Canadian artists, if they wanted to be noticed, had to go to the United States. Gordon Lightfoot is one example. Neil Young is another.
In the early ’70s Canadian content regulations were implemented, requiring radio stations to play a certain amount of Canadian music.
“The radio stations were clamouring to the record companies: ‘Give us some Canadian music to play!’” he says.
Cockburn’s music filled that niche.
Picture a 20-something young man, wearing moccasins, jeans and vest, carrying a bulky guitar case. A shaggy beard surrounds a slightly buck-toothed grin topped by a hillbilly-type hat and eyes peering out of round eyeglasses. That was the look in the early ’70s. Beside him stands a young woman in a long, dark dress. Straight hair hangs down to her breasts, with her moccasins peeking out at the bottom hem.
Cockburn married Kitty Macaulay in 1969, just as his career was taking off. The two set out in their camper, along with their dog, Aroo, across the country, touring. At that time you could pretty well stop anywhere for the night, and they did. Albums followed with mostly acoustic music, with songs depicting mountain scenes from Western Canada and the taste of freedom of being out on the open road.
His lyrics often speak of longing and searching. They read like poetry. “I went up on the mountainside / to see what I could see … I watched the day go down in fire / and sink into the sea” (from Shining Mountain). He grew up in a home that was not particularly religious, but God showed up and started appearing in his music in a big way in 1974.
Thereafter he became known as the Christian singer. He lost some fans and gained others. From the start, his image, and being a public celebrity, bothered him.
“I worried more about the negative effect of stardom than I needed to back in the beginning. That was part of the notion of purity of art,” he says. “But also, based on a realization that when you’re a star you weren’t a human being anymore; that you were talked about as a kind of feature of the landscape. What I discovered was the minute you get up on stage in front of people, they invest you with a kind of fantasy anyway.
“I tried to be a guy who had no image, except for who I was. But I got an image anyway. I got the image of a guy who was trying to have no image,” he says, laughing.
Three albums of Christian-inspired music followed. In 1976 his daughter, Jenny, was born and life on the road became a little harder.
In the latter 1970s Cockburn started bringing in bands to back him up, with drums, bass and some electric guitar. That would expand to include violin and some exotic instruments in the 1980s.
At the close of the decade, his popularity soared with the release of his song, Wondering Where the Lions Are. “Sun’s up, uh-huh, looks okay / The world survives into another day / And I’m thinking about eternity / Some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me / And I’m Wondering Where the Lions Are …”
He relates in his book a recurring nightmare of lions circling the house. They break in and make their way up to his bedroom. “I tried to barricade the door of my room,” he writes. “But the lead lioness shouldered through, jaws dripping. I woke up shaking and sweating.”
One night the lions appeared again, but this time there were “calm, regal, and beautiful.” He started humming the words to his new song the next day while driving around.
Things got a little crazy. A distributor in the United States had him come down to the Philadelphia Zoo and perform the song in front of caged lions – at eight in the morning in January.
He was duped into it, not knowing he was going to be playing the song.
As well, he and his band performed the song on Saturday Night Live, on May 10, 1980. It was a tension-filled experience but he was happy with the way it turned out.
Cockburn was never one to mix politics with his music. But by the start of the 1980s that would change. Every decade, he says, has been the start of a new era in his career and his life. He was divorced in 1980. He moved to Toronto from the Ottawa area, got his ears pierced, and starting putting on makeup – quite an image-change from his earlier days. Now he was wearing leather jackets. He would soon take up target shooting. His image became grittier, angrier, urban.
In 1983, he was invited by OXFAM Canada with another Canadian singer, Nancy White, to witness what was happening in Guatemala, in Central America. Refugees were fleeing north across the border to Mexico from government death squads – sanctioned by the United States, he says.
He was appalled at what he saw and wrote probably his most famous song, If I Had a Rocket Launcher, after seeing the death and suffering caused by government helicopters firing upon the camps from above.
“Here comes the helicopter – second time today / Everybody scatters and hopes it goes away / How many kids they’ve murdered only God can say / If I had a rocket launcher / I’d make somebody pay.” He ups that threat at the end of the song – “Some son of a bitch would die.”
Most of his Christian fans had left by this time and those inflamed by injustices jumped on board.
“A trip to Chili that year went together (with the Central America trip) to finish off any notion that I had been taught as a student that art and politics shouldn’t mix. In Latin America nobody told them that (he laughs). So there were a lot of great songs that were written about political issues and a lot of involvement on the part of artists, and nobody seemed to find that strange.”
Politically-driven albums continued through the 1980s. One interesting tidbit regarding the release of his 1986 album, World of Wonders, was the use of the F-word on the opening song, Call it Democracy. (His mother said to him, “Did you have to use that word?”) The U.S. censors would not allow it. A kerfuffle ensued, and it ended up having warning labels slapped on. It’s the only known song that features the International Monetary Fund and the phrase, “insupportable debt” in it. It’s one of Cockburn’s favourite songs, still pertinent, unfortunately, he writes.
The decade ended with Big Circumstance in 1988, featuring If a Tree Falls, delving into the issue of forest clear-cutting. He was surprised to see ads placed by the Alberta beef growers declaring him and another outspoken singer, k.d. lang, anti-beef. Maybe it’s because of the words: “Take out wildlife at a rate of species every single day / Take out people who’ve lived with this for a hundred thousand years / Inject a billion burgers worth of beef – grain eaters – methane dispensers.”
Cockburn began the ’90s wondering whether he would continue. The creative well ran dry. It returned during a vacation in Arizona. “I love the pounding of hooves / I love engines that roar / I love the wild music of waves on the shore / And the spiral perfection of a hawk when it soars / I love my sweet woman down to the core” (Child of the Wind).
Following the demise of his marriage, relationships followed throughout the 1980s, including one lasting seven years. In the early ’90s he fell for his riding instructor and they leased a small farm north of Milton, Ont. The couple started filling up a small barn with horses, some boarded. Cockburn was back in the country.
The ’90s started with two albums being produced in the U.S. A secret love affair began with a married woman, the only real juicy item in the book, except for perhaps his involvement with guns throughout the ’90s. This woman, whom he calls “Madame X,” shows up in songs throughout the decade.
The Charity of Night from 1996 was particularly well received. It seems to sum up many aspects of his life and career, for instance, the song Pacing the Cage: “Sometimes the best map will not guide you / You can’t see what’s round the bend / Sometimes the road leads through dark places / Sometimes the darkness is your friend.” It’s also the title of a 2013 documentary about his life. Mines of Mozambique details what he saw and felt while on a fact-finding mission to the country with Cooperation Canada Mozambique. Landmines were scattered everywhere from the civil war. His life on the horse farm ended and he moved to Montreal in 2000.
Albums continued through the 2000s, the last being Small Source of Comfort in 2011. He was invited on a trip to Iraq in 2004 and to Afghanistan in 2009. While in Kandahar, a ramp ceremony began, honouring two soldiers who had been killed that day – “One of the saddest and most moving scenes I’ve been privileged to witness,” he writes.
He met M.J. on the Mozambique trip and the relationship flourished sometime after returning from Iraq. The two travelled the world before settling in San Francisco to raise their daughter.
For the moment, Cockburn takes care of things at home while M.J. goes to work. He doesn’t normally listen to his albums, but with a curious young child in tow, that has changed.
“My daughter insists on listening to me on our way to preschool in the morning, in the car, so I do get to hear a lot of myself these days,” he says.
Touring has come in spurts lately because of Iona.
Through the years, Cockburn has received a pile of awards. He appreciates them, but they don’t mean a lot – except one.
“The one that means the most to me is being an Officer in the Order of Canada. It feels like a cementing of a sense of connection with Canada. It’s a concept that I really value. The other stuff is nice.”
As to a legacy: “I don’t think about my legacy at all. I have no control over that. Nobody does.”
This year he is concentrating on putting together some songs for a new album. But he is coming to southern Ontario for some concerts in February, as well as being the main act at Owen Sound’s Summerfolk Festival in August.
The concert schedule can be found at brucecockburn.com.