By Bruce Cockburn and Greg King
Reviewed by Brian Quincy Newcomb
The best reason to read a musician’s memoir has to start with some familiarity with the music, but it’s not the only reason. Canadian singer/songwriter, Bruce Cockburn has produced 31 albums of music while on a long and evocative musical journey from folk through jazz, rock and various ethnic influences, winning critical approval, modest commercial success and numerous honors in his homeland, including induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. On the US side of the border he’s had a few hits, including “Wondering Where the Lions Are” (1979) and “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” (1984).
But more than a guitarist and singer, Cockburn (pronounced Coe-burn) has been a celebrated poet, a spiritual seeker, and a political activist, traveling the world as a witness to the woes of oppressed indigenous peoples, refugees at risk due to violence and poverty, and ecological conservation, with many of these experiences fueling his creative output. As he writes in the book’s opening Overture, “Since 1966 I have worked as a musician and performing songwriter, making music, making love, making mistakes, making my way across this beautiful and dangerous planet. (p. 1)”
Written with the aid of Greg King, Cockburn tells the story of his life and loves, often connecting his experiences, struggles and insights with the songs that were fueled by those events and emotions. “Music is my diary, my anchor through anguish and joy, a channel for the heart,” he writes (p. 2), and now in this carefully constructed memoir we hear the inner thoughts and inspirations for the songs, whether they be a literary reference, a dream or physical encounter, Cockburn freely pulls back the curtain to reveal the hows and whys of his work as an artist with words and sounds.
Music is my diary, my anchor through anguish and joy, a channel for the heart.
From his early childhood in a home marked by guarded stoicism, the yearning to connect with something greater, larger than life, Cockburn was drawn to music and “a gift for constructing alternate realities.” Influenced by early jazz records and guitarists like Charles Lloyd and Gabor Szabo, Cockburn also read poet masters: “T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Ezra Pound, e.e. cummings, and William Butler Yeats set the literary scene for me.” (p. 26)
Cockburn discloses that he’s an introvert with an imaginative inner life, one that has served him well as an artist, but not always in his intimate relationships with women. Before attending Berklee School of Music, Cockburn made a solo journey to Europe, eliciting numerous encounters that made their way into songs, most notably a reference to a predator in a car on a bridge in Stockholm that made its way into “The Charity of Night.” Cockburn, who writes of having a revolver in his pocket, and as elsewhere sets the stage and shares many of his emotions, yet demurs divulging the details, with the one clarifier: “no shots were fired.”
Cockburn didn’t last long at Berklee, just a few semesters, but was there long enough to explore the folk and jazz scenes in Boston before returning to Canada, where with not much of a plan began working with a number of folk/rock groups—which included a gig opening for Jimi Hendrix—before striking out on his own. A chance meeting with fledgling record label pioneer Bernie Finkelstein put Cockburn in business with the guy who would become his business manager for the length of his career, and the two worked together to put True North Records on the map.
Cockburn’s lyrical works expressed a spiritual aspect from his early pastoral appreciation of nature to more concrete expressions of Christian faith (“All the Diamonds in the World,” 1974), and throughout his created work and his interactions with people in the world, he sees a movement of the Divine: “Our journey is driven by longing… longing is perhaps the overarching human emotion. Longing has to do with God.” (p. 105)
But Cockburn’s relationship with the Divine soon eclipsed the more conservative Christian values that won him fans on albums like “Further Adventures Of” (1978) and “Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws” (1979). Later he accounts how after the divorce he chronicles on his 1980 album, “Humans,” a leader of a religious community cut off ties with him when they learned he was living with his new girlfriend. Cockburn shook off the judgmentalism and didn’t look back.
Our journey is driven by longing… longing is perhaps the overarching human emotion. Longing has to do with God.
While Cockburn’s on again-off again romantic relationships define his personal struggles, it is his larger engagement with the challenges of humans inability to share a decent life on the planet that became more central to his art. 1983’s “The Trouble With Normal” began a trilogy of albums that addressed the political and economic injustice in the disparities between North and South America. While “Trouble” grew out of an awareness that came through “remote observation: TV, books, and magazine articles,” soon Cockburn found himself invited by Oxfam and other relief organizations to visit refugee camps, places of oppression, warfare and ecological deforestation.
“Over my lifetime economic and military actions by the world’s wealthy have come to dominate human life—all life. In Mozambique and Mali, Iraq, Afghanistan and Nepal, Honduras and Spain, Chili and Cambodia, Nicaragua, New Bruunswick and South Dakota, I have seen and felt the human and environmental devastation that short-sighted economic structures, created by the world’s ruling classes, inflict primarily on the poor (though we are all in the crosshairs) and on the wild God-given ecosystems of this beautiful blue-green planet.” (p.146)
Out of these experiences came songs like “Rocket Launcher,” “Nicaragua,” “Santiago Dawn” and perhaps his most incendiary, “Call It Democracy” which earned his “World of Wonders” album one of those explicit language stickers because of his use of the f-word in the lyric. Cockburn first started out primarily as a witness to the scenes of violence, poverty and abuse in the world, but soon came to see that “politics demanded art… if an artist’s job is to distill the human experience into something that can be shared, then the political, as much a part of that experience as God or sex or alienation, deserved to be seen as raw material.” (p. 265)
…if an artist’s job is to distill the human experience into something that can be shared, then the political, as much a part of that experience as God or sex or alienation, deserved to be seen as raw material.
In defense of “Call It Democracy and his poetic use of the popular vulgarism to call out the International Monetary Fund: “I still consider (it) one of the more pertinent songs I’ve written… I think the song does a decent job of poeticizing the highly complex and extremely destructive connivance of international finance, governments and militaries.” (p. 303)
But Cockburn takes umbrage at those who see his art as a mere political tool, a protest song for the sake of propaganda: “It was a personal lament, a cry of spiritual anguish that arose from feeling helpless in the face of endless assaults against people and the land… I have never intended my songs ‘protest’ anything. They are attempts to share observations, both of the world around me and my feelings about what I see.”
And that’s pretty much what you get as you work through this thorough and well-written memoir, a look into the artist’s relationships and failings, his reflections on life and interactions with the world in all its beauty and chaos. In each of his adventures, travelling to some of the more dangerous places on the planet, Cockburn fleshes out the situation as any journalist would, establishing the facts on the ground before expressing his own reaction to the sights, sounds, smells that surround him, the people he meets and the things they share with him.
It’s a long, lush read for any fan of Cockburn’s musical legacy, exploring his working relationship with producer T Bone Burnett, and other musicians and players, his internal life reflecting on life’s meaning and one’s spiritual fulfillment. While he shares about the women in his life—including his relationship with his first daughter, now a grown woman—he gives only enough detail to suggest the outcomes, never does he use his power on the page to blame or discredit others, even as he acknowledges his own downfalls, including an affair with a married woman.
But again, the main reason to read this musician’s memoir is the connection to his long history of recorded work… folk, rock, jazz, world music, often marked by his remarkable acoustic guitar playing and natural way with poetic verse. If you’re only modestly acquainted with Cockburn’s music, they have released a nine-disc companion collection of his music that features all the music referenced in the book. But real fans, will already possess most if not all of this lovely, creative music.
BRIAN Q. NEWCOMB is a freelance writer and the Senior Pastor of David’s United Church of Christ in Dayton, Ohio. He earned a Doctor of Ministry degree at Eden Theological Seminary in 2005, and in the past has contributed, primarily as a music critic, in a variety of publications: Billboard, Paste, The Riverfront Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, CCM Magazine, and currently contributes to the indie music website www.thefirenote.com.