Friday, 21 August 2015

Rumours of Glory

If you read this blog from time to time you'll know that I'm a big fan of Bruce Cockburn.  So you won't be surprised to hear that I was very excited about the publication of his memoir, Rumours of Glory,  which hit the shelves in late 2014.

I first heard Cockburn in the early 1980s and his music was a revelation to me.  He was the first singer I heard (and still one of a select few) who combined an overt Christian faith with a deep commitment to justice and an immersion in political and social issues.  He is a big name in his native Canada - winner of multiple Juno awards (the equivalent to our ARIAs) and inductee to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.  Elsewhere he has a fairly low profile and a small but devoted following - especially from people like me.

I read Rumours of Glory over the Easter holiday as we travelled around western Victoria and New South Wales.  Among other things, it inspired me to fill some gaps in my collection of Cockburn CDS and I bought myself three - High Winds, White Sky,  In the Falling Dark and Nothing But a Burning Light.  I'll let them help me tell the story.

Bruce Cockburn was born in Ottowa in May 1945, while his father was on military duty in Germany.  His childhood was spent in Ottowa, a standard middle-class suburban family life with his father supporting the family with his job as a radiologist while his mum stayed at home and looked after the kids.  He was a quiet and artsy teenager with a healthy disrespect for the strictures of school curriculum which meant he failed subjects in which he was disinterested.  By the time he finished school he was already an accomplished musician and budding composer but his refusal to take maths seriously disqualified him from most universities.

Wanting to please his parents and at least attempt a university education he enrolled in the Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA to study jazz composition.  He lasted 18 months before realising that actually he wanted to play music, not study it.  He is self-effacing about what he got out of the experience, claiming that he struggled with the discipline of the repetitive practice of jazz scales and the intricacies of the music.  However, the evidence of even his first recorded music suggests that the discipline, even if only partly absorbed, placed him far ahead of most of his contemporaries in musical skill and sophistication.

Be that as it may, he returned to Ottowa at the end of 1965 and began playing and singing in rock bands, firstly in Ottowa and later in Toronto.  None of them became famous although one of them did get to open a show for The Jimi Hendrix Experience.  Cockburn played guitar, sang and wrote songs.  As time passed he realised that the songs of his he liked best sounded better when he played and sang them on his own and so in 1969 he gave up on the bands and launched a solo career.  The rest, as they say, is history.

High Winds, White Sky is the second album of Cockburn's solo career, released in 1971.  In many ways it's not a bad album.  The songs are engaging, his guitar playing is already a cut above his folkie contemporaries, he sings well, he seems to have mastered a number of styles.  However, while all the bits are in place the package doesn't quite hang together.  He has not yet found his voice, in a number of different ways.

For starters his voice is literally different to what it was to become.  He has a natural baritone but in 1971 he was still yielding to fashion and singing in a higher register like everyone else.  As well as this, he has drawn on a number of musical genres - the renaissance-tinged folk music of the likes of Pentangle, the jazz of his Berklee days, the finger-style blues of players like Mississippi John Hurt.  These genres jostle for space, sitting side by side but not really communicating.  He seems unsure of himself and this leads him to do some odd things, like playing "mouth trumpet" on 'Happy Good Morning Blues'.  The bonus tracks even include an attempt at a comic song, 'Elephant Blues', recorded live in 1970.

Cockburn was also yet to find his voice spiritually.  Certainly he was already carving his own path.  His songs are steeped in the mystery and beauty of nature and the brevity of life.  He refused, or perhaps just failed, to play the commercial music game, like by disappearing for long wilderness holidays after an album release instead of touring relentlessly to promote it.  This gave him a kind of cachet as Canadian music's resident mystic.  He was also already married to Kitty and their wedding at St George's Anglican Church in Ottowa was a deeply spiritual experience.

At that moment, when I held Kitty's hand to place her ring, I became aware of a presence standing there with us - invisible to the eye but as solid and obvious as any of the people in the room.  I felt bathed in the figure's energy.  I shivered and said to myself, "Well, I don't know who or what this is, but we're in a Christian church, so it's got to be Jesus".

While Christianity was part of the mix and Cockburn was starting to appreciate a side of the faith he had not experienced in his family's 1950s duty visits to church, he was still uncommitted, still exploring different spiritual pathways.  The album is clearly spiritual but it's unfocused, if anything a kind of nature mysticism best heard on 'Let Us Go Laughing'.



My canoe lies on the water
Evening holds the bones of day
The sun like gold dust slips away
One by one antique stars
Herald the arrival of
Their pale protectress moon

Ragged branches vibrate
Strummed by winds from o'er the hill
Singing tales of ancient days
Far and silent lightning
Stirs the cauldron of the sky
I turn my bow towards the shore

As we grow out of stones
On and on and on
So we'll all go to bones
On and on for many a year

But let us go laughing
Let us go
On and on and on
On and on for many a year

A lot happened between 1971 and 1976, when Cockburn released In the Falling Dark. For a start, he increasingly allowed himself to sing in his natural voice, a warm baritone with a definite Canadian inflection.  This means that all his albums from the mid-1970s onwards are recognisable as soon as he opens his mouth.

The same goes for his music.  It moved from being a slightly awkward pastiche of styles to his own fusion of them, a jazz-influenced version of folk rock with complex finger-style guitar parts.

Spiritually, he also progressed from sampling a smorgasbord of spiritual ideas to a more definite identification as a Christian.  His conversion was born out of personal pain as tensions in his and Kitty's marriage mounted.

I wanted a healthy relationship with Kitty.  It wasn't long before I was begging on my knees, consciously asking Jesus to help me, to fortify my mind and salve my soul, to make me the person he wanted me to be.  I prayed like a child, without reserve.  Suddenly it was there, the same presence I had felt during our wedding ceremony, in the room with me, its energy filling the air.  I felt my heart forced open.  He was there!  And it was definitely he.  A male entity, more fraternal than paternal, radiant with calm power, a saviour showing up to save me because I'd asked.  I made a commitment to Jesus.  From that moment I saw myself as a follower of Christ.

It is important not to misunderstand this conversion.  Cockburn was never an Evangelical.  He never saw Christianity as the only truth, never set out to covert other people to it.  St George's, where he and Kitty were married and continued to attend through the 1970s, was a progressive Anglican church and he learned a form of faith that was humble and open to other traditions.  His view of such things is beautifully illustrated by his tale of a visit to Nepal in the late 1980s.  Prayer flags on every house, little shrines dotted all over the place, one of the most religious countries on earth.  There he chanced to meet an elderly Christian missionary.

The old man told me he had left his teaching job in the Midwest to come to Nepal twenty-five years earlier and bring the gospel to its people....  He proudly told me that he had taught Robert Schuller, of Crystal Cathedral fame, but he was bitter and seemed diminished.  In twenty-five years, he said, he had not made a single convert.  His words were "These people don't want to know God".  

I felt sad for him, as he appeared so oblivious to the spirituality built into the surroundings.  He had spent a quarter of a century wearing cultural blinkers, not seeing, not learning what he might have about the Divine.  If it's true that the attribute of God that is supposed to have the greatest effect on us is love, how can it flower in a soil of censure, tribalism, false pride...fear of the other?  But for Big Circumstance, that could have been me.

This means he did not abandon the lessons he had already learned prior to his commitment.  He continued to see God in nature, to appreciate various traditions, to see himself as a seeker rather than someone who had arrived.  He was quite open to the notion that the Divine who appeared to him as Jesus could appear to others in a different form.

Nonetheless, the songs on In the Falling Dark are clearly Christian.  The title track concludes, "Don't you know that from the first to the last we're all one in the gift of grace?".  In place of generic nature mysticism we have 'Lord of the Starfields', a hymn of praise to the Creator.

Oh Love that fires the sun
Keep me burning.

Perhaps clearest of all is one of the album outtakes, 'Dweller by a Dark Stream', written and recorded at the time but not released until much later.  Set to a simple country-style tune it sets out the idea of salvation in terms any evangelical would be happy with.  Nonetheless, if you listen closely you will see that even here there is a more progressive take on the story, like when he says Jesus "wanted us like you, as choosers not clones", and when, walking through the world, he longs for "a glimpse of your new life unfurled" like a shiny winged insect breaking out of its chrysalis.


It could have been me put the thorns in your crown
Rooted as I am in a violent ground
How many times have I turned your promise down?
Still you pour out your love
Pour out your love

I was a dweller by a dark stream
A crying heart hooked on a dark dream
In my convict soul I saw your love gleam
And you showed me what you've done
Jesus, thank-you joyous Son

You entered a life like ours to give us back our own
You wanted us like you, as choosers not clones
You offered up your flesh and death was overthrown
Now salvation is ours,
Salvation is ours

So when I'm walking this prison camp world
I long for a glimpse of the new life unfurled
The chrysalis cracking and moistened wings uncurl
Like in the vision John saw
The vision John saw

Another thing that is starting to happen on In the Falling Dark, although only in embryonic form, is the growth of Cockburn's social consciousness.  Even as his faith became more focused, he began to see more clearly the things in this world that seemed to pull against this "glimpse of the new life unfurled".  You see it most clearly on 'Gavin's Woodpile',  A series of meditations drawn from his time chopping wood for his brother's fire include, among pieces of nature mysticism from an earlier time, two very concrete images - one of a prisoner doing time, and the other of the catastrophic pollution of the English River in northern Ontario where contamination from a local paper mill poisoned the fish and the local indigenous people who ate them.

...Like the coloured slicks on the English River
Death in the marrow and death in the liver
And some government gambler with his mouth full of steak
Saying, "If you can't eat the fish, fish in some other lake.
To watch a people die - it is no new thing."

And the stack of wood grows higher and higher
And a helpless rage seems to set my brain on fire.

Cockburn didn't attend church regularly after the late 1970s.  He gives a few reasons.  One is that he moved from Ottowa to Toronto and never managed to find a church where he felt at home as he had at St George's.  It's not easy for someone who is both an introvert and a celebrity to just walk into a church, and it's hard for a musician who spends half his life on the road to become part of any stationary community.

However, I suspect that more telling is the fact that he moved to Toronto on his own.  His marriage to Kitty, troubled from the beginning, had ended.  He blames no-one for this but himself, acknowledging that he finds intimacy difficult.  This problem recurred throughout his life and he has had a number of relationships since which have gone the same way despite his best intentions.

He struggled to accept the idea that the vows he and Kitty had made in what he had experienced as the real, tangible presence of Christ could be annulled. His agony is written all over Humans, the album of songs he wrote during this time.  He was dealing, as we all have to eventually, with the problem of suffering.

Then there is the problem that from then on his love life didn't follow conventional Christian lines.  He recounts four other committed relationships as well as one steamy extra-marital affair.  This made for an uneasy relationship with the church.

In the early 1980s he got involved with a group called Jesus People USA, a hip and "alternative" but theologically conservative group based in Chicago.  He visited their church and got to know some of them, and their members attended his concerts and bought his albums.  However, when they eventually twigged that he was not only divorced but "living in sin" they dropped him like a hot potato, stopping their attendance at his concerts and advising members to get rid of his albums as if his marital status changed everything.  Naturally he was not keen to repeat the experience, and his knowledge that some of the people who follow the God of Love can be very unloving pushed him further in the direction of a tolerant, open spirituality.

Other things changed, too.  For one, he became more politically and socially active.  From the early 1980s onwards he started doing documentary projects and awareness raising for organisations like Oxfam.  This included visiting a number of global trouble-spots and observing first hand the plight of refugees, ethnic minorities and other victims of persecution.  He's been doing it ever since, starting with Guatemala in the early 80s and including  Nicaragua, Haiti, Nepal, Afghanistan and Iraq among other places, as well as ongoing support for the aspirations of Canada's first peoples.  All these experiences found their way into his songs by means of what he calls "reportage" - lyrics built from real, concrete scenes, events and images.  The book includes a number of diary extracts which later appear almost word for word as songs.  His songwriting began to take on a new life and vividness as he moved beyond nature mysticism to address suffering, resilience and hope not as theoretical constructs but as things affecting real people in real places.

Musically all this resulted in his moving away from acoustic music in the 1980s towards a more band-oriented electric sound.  He had never really been a folk musician but now not even the marketing department could call him one.  He picked up his electric guitar for the first time in a decade and his songs became louder, more jagged, more challenging.

You can hear some of this on Nothing But a Burning Light,  released in 1991.  In some ways the sound here is a little different from the albums before and after, courtesy of his brief working relationship with producer T-Bone Burnett.  It is more mellow, there is a rich warm keyboard sound prominent in the mix and a group of players a little more soulful than Cockburn's more usual collaborators.  Still it includes the elements - his distinctive vocals, the tight driving rhythm, the intricate and occasionally flashy guitar parts, the space for his collaborators to do their thing.

There is still Christianity here.  'Cry of a Tiny Babe' is a retelling of the Christmas story with a lovely chorus.

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

Other songs reflect this faith and hope, like the opening number, 'A Dream Like Mine'.

Today I dream of how it used to be
Things were different before
The picture shifts to how it's going to be
Balance restored
When you know even for a moment that it's your time
Then you can walk with the power of a thousand generations

The album also includes a rare cover, Blind Willie Johnson's 'Soul of Man', which also supplies the album's title in answer to the question "what is the soul of a man?".

Alongside this is a mix of more earthy stuff.  Tender love songs like 'One of the Best Ones' sit beside two acerbic songs about the uncomfortable history of the treatment of North America's first peoples.  'Kit Carson' deconstructs the legacy of this supposed hero of the Wild West, while 'Indian Wars' highlights how the war Carson fought is still going on today.

It's not breech-loading rifles and wholesale slaughter
It's kickbacks and thugs and diverted water
Treaties get signed and the papers change hands
But they might as well draft these agreements in sand.

You thought it was over but it's just like before.
Will there never be an end to the Indian War?

My favourite, though, is 'Mighty Trucks of Midnight'.


Used to have a town but the factory moved away
Down to Mexico where they work for hardly any pay
Used to have a country but they sold it down the river
Like a repossessed farm auctioned off to the highest bidder

Mighty trucks of midnight moving on
Moving on

Wave a flag, wave the bible, wave your sex or your business degree
Whatever you want - but don't wave that thing at me
The tide of love can leave your prizes scattered
But when you get to the bottom it's the only thing that matters

I believe it's a sin to try and make things last forever
Everything that exists in time runs out of time some day
Got to let go of the things that keep you tethered
Take your place with grace and then be on your way

Mighty trucks of midnight moving on
Moving on

It starts out a bit like a Bruce Springsteen song about America's post-industrial landscape as all the jobs are shifted south across the border, symbolised by the trucks rolling through the night importing cheap manufactures.  However, Cockburn's spirituality allows him to see further and deeper, to question the motives and to point the question back at the protagonists.

Religion, as he suggests, can be one one of many things used to oppress and rob, just as much as nationalism, sex or education.  However, those who are at the top of the heap can find their prizes scattered just as much as those at the bottom.  By the end of the song, the trucks have become a metaphor for a completely different kind of movement, an understanding of the brevity of life which makes our striving for wealth and our fetishisation of the economy seem not just criminal and exploitative but absurd and pointless.  In the end, love is what counts - not the soppy romantic love of the Beatles or their ilk but a costly love that has to be earned and learned.  You have to give up other things to have it.  You have to love actual people, not rob them.

The story continues. Cockburn takes it up to about 2008, but he is still alive and continues to make music.  If you want to know more read the book.  You could even do Bruce a favour and buy it.  Meanwhile, in the spirit of reflecting on a life well lived let me leave you with what is possibly my favourite Cockburn song, 'Strange Waters', from 1996's The Charity of Night.


I've seen a high cairn kissed by holy wind
Seen a mirror pool cut by golden fins
Seen alleys where they hide the truth of cities
The mad whose blessing you must accept without pity

I've stood in airports guarded glass and chrome
Walked rifled roads and landmined loam
Seen a forest in flames right down to the road
Burned in love till I've seen my heart explode

You've been leading me
Beside strange waters

Across the concrete fields of man
Sun ray like a camera pans
Some will run and some will stand
Everything is bullshit but the open hand

You've been leading me
Beside strange waters
Streams of beautiful lights in the night
But where is my pastureland in these dark valleys?
If I loose my grip, will I take flight?

No comments: