December 17, 2017

IM Book Review: Rumours of Glory – Part 1: My Journey with Bruce

RumoursofGloryRumours of Glory: A Memoir
Bruce Cockburn
Harper and Collins 2014

Over the next several Fridays, I will be delving into Bruce Cockburn’s memoir: Rumours of Glory. For those who do not know Bruce or his music, here is a quick overview taken from the publisher’s summary.

Legendary Canadian singer and songwriter Bruce Cockburn delivers his long-awaited memoir—a chronicle of faith, fear, and activism that is also a lively cultural and musical tour through the late twentieth century.

Award-winning songwriter and pioneering guitarist Bruce Cockburn’s life has been shaped by politics, protest, romance, and spiritual discovery. For more than five decades he has toured the globe, visiting far-flung places such as Guatemala, Mali, Mozambique, Afghanistan, and Nepal, performing and speaking out on diverse issues, from native rights and land mines to the environment and Third World debt. His journeys have been reflected in his music and evolving styles: folk, jazz, blues, rock, and worldbeat. Drawing from his experiences, he continues to create memorable songs about his ever-expanding universe of wonders.

As an artist with thirty-one albums, Cockburn has won numerous awards and the devotion of legions of fans across America and his native Canada, where he is a household name. Yet the man himself has remained a mystery. In his memoir, Cockburn invites us into his private world, sharing his Christian convictions, his personal relationships, and the social and political activism that has defined him and has both invigorated and incited his fans.

This week, by way of introduction, I want to tell the story of my own stories of Bruce. None of these will show up in his memoir, as I have had no personal interaction with him, but nonetheless they are all important to me.

In 1980, while I was in grade 11, I started taking guitar lessons, from a guy by the name of Trevor Toop who was one year older than me. He had been strongly influenced by Bruce’s fingerpicking style, and endeavored to teach it to me. One of the first songs I learned was “Tokyo”, a song that was characteristic of Bruce’s style of keeping the rhythm with his bare thumb on the bass strings. I liked the way his song told a story in such a way that I could imagine being there.

Tokyo

They’re getting prepared to haul a car out of the river
Noise and smoke and concrete seem to be going on forever
Grinding gears and drivers getting high on exhaust
I’m thinking about the water down below and what got lost
Pachinko jingle and space torpedo beams
Comic book violence and escaping steam
Grey suited business men pissing against the wall —
Cut to crumbling guardrail, slow motions car fall
Oh Tokyo — I never can sleep in your arms
Mind keeps on ringing like a fire alarm
Me and all these other dice bouncing around in the cup
Did you have to show me that accident scene
Didn’t I get enough shaking up?
Still I’m gonna miss you…

Bruce Cockburn – Humans 1980

I loved to sing this song, but being pretty straight-laced and conservative, and mindful of my own audience I tended to substitute “pissing” with a two-syllable pronunciation of the word “up”: “u-up”. Five years later when doing the Christian coffee house circuit in Ottawa, I kept the tune but substituted the lyrics from another folk song about the crucifixion.

Just to Think of the Cross

Long long ago in a far away place
Rough rugged timbers were raised to the sky
There hung a man suspended in space
And though He was blameless
They left Him to die

Kurt Kaiser – Natural High 1970

I did that a lot in those days. “Sounds of Silence”, “Pussy Willows, Cattails”, “Blowing in the Wind” all repurposed with Christian lyrics, usually of my own creation.  Some of the songs I sang at the coffee houses were directly from Bruce and needed no substitutions. The one that has stuck with for 35 years was his 1976 song “Lord of the Starfields”. I adopted its refrain as my own prayer: “O love that fires the sun, keep me burning.”

Lord of the Starfields

Lord of the Starfields
Ancient of Days
Universe Maker
Here’s a song in your praise

Wings of the storm cloud
Beginning and end
You make my heart leap
Like a banner in the wind

O love that fires the sun
Keep me burning.

Lord of the Starfields
Sower of life,
Heaven and earth are
Full of your light

Voice of the Nova
Smile of the dew
All of our yearnings
Only comes home to you

O love that fires the sun
keep me burning

Bruce Cockburn – In the Falling Dark 1976

In 1984, I went to my first ever concert. Guess who? Bruce Cockburn of course. It was at Alumni Hall at the University of Western Ontario. Bruce entered the stage wearing shimmery parachute pants, and I thought I had never seen anything so cool in my life. Several friends came along, including my good friend Peter Heath who has shared my life long interest in all thing Cockburn. Eight years later at Peter’s wedding reception, I hosted a game of Jeopardy, which was designed for Peter to win. The categories: “Cryptic Cockburn Song Titles”, “Cockburn Lyrics”, and “Cockburn History”. Some of the questions: “Fine particles and petroleum product”, “This is what the new born moon pushes up”, and “This is the year that Bruce moved to Toronto.” Readers, can any of you get the answers without resorting to Google? Let’s just say that Peter won quite handily. Peter commented to me afterwards, “Most people at the reception had no idea what was going on, and I didn’t care! It was my wedding!”

Over the last 30 years, I have seen Bruce play in many venues. Probably the coolest was at a ski hill north of Ottawa where the fans spread out over the hill with Bruce playing at the bottom.

The second most significant concert was one that didn’t happen. I had a date with my girlfriend Kimberly to see Bruce in Ottawa on February 26, 1989. Bruce fell on his way to the stage and injured his nose. One of his most popular songs at the time began with “If a tree falls in the forest, does anybody hear?” This, of course, sparked the line “If Bruce falls at a concert, does anybody hear?” The answer ultimately was no. The concert was cancelled and rescheduled for a later date. Kimberly and I broke up shortly thereafter.

The most significant concert occurred when the event was rescheduled. I had two tickets… and no date. So I asked another woman, in whom I had an interest, if she would go with me. Her name coincidentally was also Kimberly. We were engaged by the end of the year and married the next summer! This confused more that a few people who didn’t know that I had broken up with the first Kimberly. As a side note, we will be celebrating our 25th anniversary this summer!

There have been so many of Bruce’s songs that I have loved over the years. I spent hours and hours trying to master the instrumental “Foxglove”. I have loved playing and singing “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” over and over again. I even wrote a parody of the song called “Programmers in Dangerous Time” for a Y2K party.

Most of Bruce’s impact on me has not been musical. I have come from a pretty right wing perspective. Peter, mentioned above, once said of me that I was “slightly to the right of Attila the Hun.” In Bruce, I met a thoughtful, compassionate man, who cared for the downtrodden and the underdog. It was totally unlike the capitalistic Christianity that I had grown up in, and he, more than anyone, got me to challenge many of my own underlying assumptions about what it was supposed to look like when following Jesus.

I think Bruce would fit in well at Internet Monk. Earlier this year, during the World Vision fiasco, I happened to listen to an old taped recording of Bruce. Here is what I wrote at that time:

Last week I was listening to one of my old tapes, recorded in 1981 when Bruce Cockburn was doing a solo tour. Parts of the concerts were being played on CBC radio interspersed with segments of an interview. The subject of Christianity came up. I will paraphrase here because it will take too long to find the spot for the direct quote. The interviewer, Ralph Benmergui, asked, “You are a Christian. It must be hard for you with all those TV Evangelists and the like… it must be hard for you to say that you’re not like one of them.” Bruce responded, “Yeah, I used to spend a lot of time apologising for them, but more and more I have come to realise that what they are offering is just bullshit.”

Bruce certainly had a way with words. I will leave you with the lyrics of one of my current favorites, albeit written almost 20 years ago:

Pacing the Cage

Sunset is an angel weeping
Holding out a bloody sword
No matter how I squint I cannot
Make out what it’s pointing toward
Sometimes you feel like you live too long
Days drip slowly on the page
You catch yourself
Pacing the cage

I’ve proven who I am so many times
The magnetic strip’s worn thin
And each time I was someone else
And every one was taken in
Powers chatter in high places
Stir up eddies in the dust of rage
Set me to pacing the cage

I never knew what you all wanted
So I gave you everything
All that I could pillage
All the spells that I could sing
It’s as if the thing were written
In the constitution of the age
Sooner or later you’ll wind up
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
Today these eyes scan bleached-out land
For the coming of the outbound stage
Pacing the cage
Pacing the cage

Bruce Cockburn – Charity of Night 1996

So fellow iMonks. Those of you who are followers of Bruce, what are some of your favorite memories and songs? How has Bruce impacted you? For those who don’t know Bruce, did anything in this post strike you? As we move into the review in the following weeks you will have more of a chance to interact with some of his ideas.

Finally, I will leave you with one of the strangest videos I have ever seen. It is from Bruce Cockburn, of course.

Comments

  1. scrapiron says:

    I’m in a Bruce Cockburn frame of mind at the moment, having just finished listening to Bruce’s Christmas album while cleaning up from New Years festivities. Each year during Advent I make a point of listening to this album at least once. His version of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” changed my whole way of thinking about Christmas many years ago.

    I, too, have made a long journey from a very conservative upbringing and Cockburn has been an inspiration to me along the way, helping me see that the red letters in the Bible actually are there for a reason.

    I have only seen Bruce in concert once, under the Big Top Chatauqua tent in Bayfield, Wisconsin about fifteen years ago, but it was a show to remember. I went with a friend who is a professional jazz musician, and for some reason had never heard of Cockburn. He was blown away by his guitar and comments Bruce made from stage gave me the first ever chance to engage my agnostic friend in a serious conversation about spirituality.

  2. As an art student back in the 70s, i loved listening to Cockburn’s work – such a refreshing sound, such thoughtful and creative lyrics – and a guy who wanted nothing to do with the xtian pop industry. He brought an entirely different perspective that was crucial for me.

    And his choices of instrumentation were often surprising, unusual, and exactly right – still fresh after all this time. (And very much ahead of their time in many ways, anticipating “world music” as well as later collaboration by many classical and folk musicians.)

    I have never heard Cockburn live, though I’d like to. It would be nice to jam with him, too, though i think that’ll have to be in the next life, not this one.

    • I saw him live a couple of years ago. The set list was a little odd (no Wondering Where the Lions Are or Rocket Launcher), but he was really good. Fantastic guitar, he had a sense of humor that doesn’t always come across in his songwriting, and some really interesting arrangements.

  3. Like many Americans, my introduction to BC was “Wondering Where The Lions Are”, the only song to break into the top 40 containing the word, “petroglyphs”, as Bruce is proud of mentioning. I remember turning through the AM dial and happened upon the song on an obscure station with a weak, scratchy signal. This added to the mystique. I bought the album, and found it an odd addition to my otherwise Contemporary Christian music – the only thing any good born-again teenager could listen to. It was always my favorite, with no counterpart; I didn’t own any Mark Heard at the time, which would have been as close as I could get. The entire album was rich, deep, thought-provoking, poetic, and masterfully instrumental – unlike most Christian music at the time, which was more or less schlocky religious propaganda for a captive audience. Highschool turned into college, and there wasn’t a lot of pocket change for records. I didn’t buy another Bruce Cockburn album until “Waiting for a Miracle”, which was a wonderful collection from his entire career up to that point. From then on, I kept up with his albums as they came out, and picked up old stuff as I could afford. When my wife and I went to Japan as missionaries, “Tokyo” was one of our favorite songs, as we really did see gray suited businessmen p_ssing against the wall. Bruce signed with Sony at that time, so he was mentioned in the Japanese newspapers. Needless to say, Bruce’s music is a big part of the soundtrack of my life…along with RUSH. What is it about Canada and great music? Must be something in the water.

    • BTW, “Closer To The Light” was Bruce’s tribute to Mark Heard.

      • I heard that Mark and Bruce were planning a collaboration before Mark died. I haven’t come to that part in the bio yet, but I will see if it gets mentioned.

    • What is it about Canada and great music? Must be something in the water.

      I know what you mean: Bruce Cockburn, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, KD Lang, Stan Rogers…

      I was thinking a few days ago that Canadians sometimes are more perceptive about the US than we are—Joni’s “Woodstock” for example, or Neil Young’s “Ohio.”

      • And Steve Bell and Jacob Moon.
        Crash Test Dummies
        Bare Naked Ladies
        K.D. Lang
        DeadMau5

        Even Gordon Lightfoot is still touring.

        It’s probably those long winters. It’s like what David Grohl said about Seattle: there’s nothing to do while it’s raining but sit in the basement writing songs.

      • Don’t forget Gordon Lightfoot, great Canadian singer, my husband’s favorite

    • What is it about Canada and great music? Must be something in the water.

      I know what you mean: Bruce Cockburn, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, KD Lang, Stan Rogers…

      I was thinking a few days ago that Canadians sometimes are more perceptive about the US than we are—Joni’s “Woodstock” for example, or Neil Young’s “Ohio.”

    • I remember talking to someone at an Inter-Varsity college retreat (gosh! long ago!) about Bruce Cockburn and being informed that he was a “pseudo-Christian”. The comment puzzled me: how could anyone who can write such brilliant and beautiful songs be “pseudo” anything? How is it that the Christianity that generates throw-away, mind-numbing material – be it music, movies, art, or literature – not be pseudo? I was so attracted to Bruce’s music in part that it was an escape from the “god” I saw portrayed in such evangelical tripe. The God I could imagine while listening to Bruce’s music was beautiful, vast, inspiring, just, unpredictable…man, I’m at a loss for words. Bruce is largely why I never quite fit into the conservative christian culture, where I saw things either addressed directly by his prophetic words (e.g. “Gospel of Bondage”) or which just looked dingy in comparison.

      That is not to say I agree with everything about Bruce or think everything he has said and done (some of which is documented in the biography) is wonderful. While I watched the “Pacing the Cage” DVD, I heard him say things which seemed either cruel or self-centered. I think he is real and transparent, which can be startling.

  4. “Seas come, seas go
    Where they stood deserts flow
    Time’s too big to fit in the brain
    Nothing’s too big to fit in my heart”
    – from “To Fit In My Heart” (2006 Album “Life’s Short Call Now”)

  5. I owe a lot to Bruce. About three years into my fundamentalist journey I began working for my friend Bob who had spent years in London Ontario and Nome Alaska. He introduced me to Humans and Dancing in the Dragons Jaws. Those two albums informed my spirituality. They softened its edges. I still fell for the televangelists for some time but always with a grain. Bruce never kept the party line and that emboldened me to do the same. I also play guitar and have learned a number of his songs but never in his fingerpicking style – I fake it. My only disappointing experience with Bruce was a show in Dallas maybe in 2004 or 2005, I don’t recall exactly. I would say that he has always had a beef with the United States, that’s no secret. He doesn’t like the way we treated the Indians, the way we butt in to third world countries and bully them and the way we pollute the planet, among other things. I have no problem with those objections but in between songs it seemed he spent a large portion of time castigating the U.S. in an, how do I say this, unfruitful way. Rather than offering solutions, and remember the vast majority of the audience was partial to his thinking anyway, I mean they are his audience, he seemed to just be saying you guys are a bunch of jerks. As this continued through the evening it wore me out. I began thinking, “What the hell are you doing here then? Why bother coming here?” I mean you do have to know your audience if you are an entertainer. Not that we needed pacification and appeasement because the music does the speaking so give it a rest at some point or just don’t play in the U.S. In the end I chalked it up to just a bad night. Somebody cut him off in traffic. Anyway, despite that evening, I can say that his music, 35 years later, continues to well up in my spirit and occasionally bring tears to my eyes. My wife thinks it’s the only thing on my iPad. That’s not true. There’s some Steely Dan and a few others on there but Bruce does get the most play.
    “I don’t mean to cling to you my friend, it’s just I hate today to have to end,
    Never enough time to spend, I haven’t done enough for this to be the end,
    There must be more… more songs..more warmth..more love..more light…”
    I agree. I think there’s way more.

    • Yes, even when his complaints are legitimate, Cockburn’s far-left politics do sometimes come across as naive. Some of them, such as Nicaragua, are pretty dated now. There’s a reason Dylan moved on from narrowly topical songs pretty quickly.

  6. David Cornwell says:

    Mike, although I’ve heard of Bruce Cockburn, I knew very little about him until your post today. In the mornings I normally turn on some music while working. This morning it has been Cockburn, on Spotify, and the sound and words are so refreshing.

    Also, as the new year begins, I want to say “thanks” for your writing. You are like fresh breeze from the North that blows away the old and stale and encourages taking a deep deep breath. Keep it up.

  7. Mike, while you were “slightly to the right of Attila the Hun” how did you respond to Cockburn’s song “If I had a Rocket Launcher”?

    I was introduced to Bruce Cockburn back in 1987 by a friend who is “somewhat” to the LEFT of Attila the Hun, and this song was one of the most memorable (“Here comes the helicopter/second time today/how many kids they’ve murdered/only God can say”).

    A few years later I met a woman who had encountered those very US-built helicopters while doing relief work in El Salvador in the early 1980s. She swam children across the river into Honduras to escape the attacks, telling them to hold on to her bra straps (and not her neck) so they wouldn’t choke her. She gave me a copy of her book, which is endorsed by Jim Wallis of Sojourners and won some kind of award, but the sticker has since fallen off.

    Yvonne Dilling, In Search of Refuge, Herald Press, 1984.

    Highly recommended, if anyone can find it online. In the meantime, here’s the same story by Bruce Cockburn, in 1980s music-video fashion:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7vCww3j2-w

    • Mike, while you were “slightly to the right of Attila the Hun” how did you respond to Cockburn’s song “If I had a Rocket Launcher”?

      Like many other things I have changed my opinion over the years. Bruce was a major part of that.

  8. Never heard of this Bruce before but Pacing the cage sent chills down my spine. I don’t listen to music that much anymore, preferring quiet more often. Maybe I’ll spend some time looking for a CD. There are many loud noises at my work and my hearing isn’t what it use to be, so my question would be will I hear the lyrics plainly enough because words become comfort to me. If I can’t I might just read it instead till I have them memorized.

  9. Isn’t it true you’ll know a true Bruce Cockburn fan from a non-fan by the way they pronounce his last name?

    Thanks for sharing, Mke Bell. Bruce sounds like he is to you as U2 is to me. I never got too much into him as he seemed too “edgy” when I first heard him (me, as a new Christian), but I bet he’d fit in well with my walk today. Maybe I’ll give him a new listen.

  10. I, too, am reading Rumours of Glory right now. When Bruce’s album “Further Adventures Of”” came my way in 1980, it was a new call. Like so many on this thread have said, his music and lyrics changed everything; woke me up, revolutionized the way I saw God and viewed myself living out faith in this world.

    Also, like many on this thread, I experienced Bruce’s music as a challenging soundtrack as I transitioned from a more conservative Christianity to one with softer edges and a sharper focus on justice. Mark Heard was the other big artistic/theological influence. Both artists have had a lightning bolt influence on me as musicians, poets, mystics, truth-tellers and seers.

  11. Hi Mike,

    I too was at that Ottawa concert in 1989 when Bruce fell and the concert was cancelled. I was there with my girlfriend – but we didn’t break up. We just celebrated our 25th anniversary last month, Thanks for reviving that memory!

    Andrew

  12. John Royse says:

    Don’t forget, Bruce is the house musican of “The Shack”……

    The album “Dart to the Heart”, produced by that good local Ft Worth boy, T. Bone Burnett, is in my top 5 of all time….

  13. I’m a fan of Cockburn. Although, I feel like he isn’t quite consistent enough to be a top-tier all-time-great songwriter (but he is certainly a good one) – sometimes he doesn’t really try with the melodies or the politics are too heavy-handed. And sometimes it feels like he just takes himself too seriously, even though I’ve seen his sense of humor live. A lot of his 80s material has also aged badly, though they sound better live and to be fair plenty of great artists declined in that decade!

    Still, I definitely like him – he can work in a variety of genres and can definitely write a truly great song when he wants too. And he’s one of my very favorite guitarists.

    My reccommended Cockburn albums for those who aren’t familiar:
    Dancing in the Dragons – The peak of his “Christian mystic” phase and probably the most solid overall. Fantastic guitar.
    Humans – Straddles the line between acoustic folk, rock, and reggae. A very cohesive package that is greater than the sum of its parts.
    The Charity of Night – Incorporates some political material, but with just the right amount of subtlety to not overreach. Perhaps a little overlong, but has some of his very best songs and is complex and rich musically.
    Christmas – Maybe the best Christmas album ever, besides Charlie Brown anyway. Great song selection (both standards and more exotic ones, including a few non-English), great arrangements, and great guitar.

  14. Mike…great prompt, by the way. It’s been fun reading other people’s responses. Clearly he’s an artist I wish I’d listened more to back in the day, and clearly an artist I will try out now. Any suggestions from the crowd on an album or two to listen to first?

  15. OldProphet says:

    Is Cockburn a better guitarist than Jeff “skunk” Baxter?

  16. Dana Ames says:

    Mike, I don’t own a single one of his albums, not knowing about him until I was introduced to him by reading another Canadian blogger, Len Hjalmarson. Liked the lyrics immediately.

    A few summers ago I got to see him live nearby in Hopland, California at SolFest, a then-annual celebration of all things solar, especially solar power, which was the power source for the whole event. At the very beginning of a song, the power went out; Bruce just vamped for a few minutes until the mics came on again. He has a very good voice indeed, but the thing that impressed me most about him was his fabulous guitar playing, aided by judicious use of effects pedals. Wow!!! What a sound! I won’t forget that.

    Could you comment on and/or add to Joel’s recommendation list above? Thanks.

    Dana

  17. I’m probably younger than most commenting here, but my dad is a Bruce Cockburn fan and I will say that the song “Lovers In A Dangerous Time” has meant much to me over the years.

    “Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight —
    Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight”

    That last line there has kept me kicking at the darkness in life, in my mind… my heart, in others always in that hope that soon daylight will bleed through… gotten me through some very dark times indeed man.