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July 23, 2006

  • Bruce and Me
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    There is only one musician in the world who will compel me to pencil his new album release date into my diary. One musician who inspires such devotion as to always attend his concerts if he's in a city I'm in (prompting a dilemma this year as he has a concert in Toronto on a Friday in October this year and a concert in Ottawa, where my girlfriend lives and I frequently visit, the next day). One musician who pretty much has title to a third of the space on my iPod Nano.

    I have been a fan of Bruce Cockburn for 19 years. ‘Fan' probably doesn't do it justice. I have been a devoted follower (not quite religious, but serious nonetheless) of Bruce Cockburn. He's my favourite musician, my favourite poet, my favourite guitarist and my favourite cultural critic.

    I have only met Bruce Cockburn three times in my life, and none of those occasions were terribly lengthy encounters. The first time was after a taping he did of Mike Bullard's CTV show in 1999 where I spent the entire time babbling an anecdote I swore I'd always tell him. The second time was after a concert at Convocation Hall in 2002 where I was comparatively more shy, more on that a little later. The third time was after a benefit concert for my church where I was able to get my photo with him. My overriding impression from all three of these encounters was surprise at how short he is (he's 5'5" if that) and how soft-spoken and unassuming he is—in conversation, he always seemed to be more like a high school science teacher than a well-known musician and activist.

    Each of those encounters lasted between 2 and 5 minutes. He'd never remember who I was in a million years. And yet, I'd like to think I've had, if not a relationship, then a correspondence over the past two decades.

    This really came home to me, as it were, when I saw Bruce perform at the Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts last November. (Oakville's my hometown and I've seen many shows at the Oakville Centre; I wasn't about to pass up the opportunity to see my favourite artist there!) I've listened to his music enough that every single song summoned up a particular memory of a time and place when the song he was singing was new to me: "Mighty Trucks of Midnight" – playing the album on tape as a 21 year-old while putting together a leftist student organization's magazine; "Silver Wheels"- hearing it played in concert at the Ontario Place Forum in 1989 when he was recording his second live album (my friend Rob and I took the day off work and snagged front row seats—this was in the day when the Forum had free festival seating—in the early afternoon and sat on the uncomfortable wood bleachers for six hours before the concert started); "The Last Night of the World" – standing outside in the –30 chill on New Years Eve 1999 watching him perform at the huge millennium concert by the Harbourfront (as soon as he finished his set, I waded through thousands of people to get out of there and somewhere warm!);  "If a Tree Falls"- listening to the album Big Circumstance incessantly during the winter of my forgettable year at Bible College; "Put It In Your Heart" – loving it so much when I heard it performed in a concert at Convocation Hall in Toronto that I sought out a bootleg of it and then listened to the song incessantly when it was released on album, which came out mere days before I started a new job.

    Every song of his is now has a story for me that is on top of the story that he's telling. The stories for me are stories of who I was and what I was doing at a particular stage in my life. Often my stories overlaps the stories Bruce Cockburn is telling (I repeatedly listened to "All's Quiet On The Inner City Front", a brilliant song about relational and personal confusion set in Kensington Market, during a time when I was going through much the same thing). Often my story is at a 90 degree angle from the story he tells. On September 11, 2001, after watching all the news I could stand, I played Cockburn's song, "Planet of the Clowns". Not because it was about terrorism or tragedy on a massive scale, but because it best expressed what I was feeling at a visceral level:

    Government by outrage
    Hunger camps and shanty towns
    Dignity and love still holding

    This bluegreen ball in black space
    Filled with beauty even now
    battered and abused and lovely

    And the waves roar on the beach like a squadron of F16's
    Ebb and flow like the better days they say this world has seen

    And yet it's the storytelling that is the reason I love Bruce Cockburn's work so much. For the most part, when Bruce Cockburn sings "I" in his music, he's not singing of some abstract I, the I that's another character removed from the singer. No, Bruce Cockburn is telling his own stories. It's his anger at the Guetamalan army shooting at refugees across the Mexican border when he sings "If I had a rocket launcher, some sonofabitch would die" and it's his joy and contentment when he sings "We're doing okay, down here tonight" and it's other emotions at play when he sings "The heart is a mirror; it throws back the blaze of love / Bathed in that glow it's no secret what I'm thinking of".

    That range of expressed emotion has perplexed several of my friends over the years. I know Christians who are mystified he doesn't sing about Jesus anymore and political types who hate that Cockburn has expressed murderous rage. And yet I'm reminded of what the Catholic writer Henry Nouwen once said when he wrote "For a compassionate man nothing human is alien: no joy and no sorrow, no way of living and no way of dying." His music is honest. It tells his truth: it tells of the places he's been and the journeys he makes with an unflinching honesty and yet with beautiful poetry too.

    The fact that he's one of the greatest guitarists on the planet helps. I've always sort of known this but over the past four or five years I've been hanging out with some massive guitar nerds and I've come to realize how brilliant he is. He employs a complex finger-picking style where he creates the most incredible harmonies off of six strings. His 1979 album Dancing In The Dragons Jaws—which as an album has that unique sound that is like capturing lightning in a bottle, like Kind of Blue or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or Pet Sounds—opens with a song called "Creation Dream" (a song about a dream of Jesus ‘singing the universe into being- dawn before the parting of the waters.') which has the most incredible guitar playing, combining a driving rhythm and a gorgeous melody. And yet there is no overdubbing. It's all one instrument (enhanced by some lovely marimba and percussion). And if that weren't enough it has the most gorgeous poetry:

    Centred on silence
    Counting on nothing
    I saw you standing on the sea
    And everything was
    Dark except for
    Sparks the wind struck from your hair
    Sparks that turned to
    Wings around you
    Angel voices mixed with seabird cries
    Fields of motion
    Surging outward
    Questions that contain their own replies…

    His songs are often full of such evocative poetry that just reaches into me and grabs me and never lets go of my heart. Like the chorus of his 1997 song, "The Charity of Night":

    Wave on wave of life
    Like the great wide ocean's roll
    Haunting hands of memory
    Pluck silver strands of soul
    The damage and the dying done
    The clarity of light
    Gentle bows and glasses raised
    To the charity of night

    Dancing In The Dragon's Jaws  was my first exposure to Bruce Cockburn. It was 1988 and I was in Grade 13. The album was a gift from a friend, a self-styled youth pastor, who thought given my brainier qualities I might appreciate it. And he was right. To this day it would be my desert island disc.

    Cockburn spoke to me back then because Dancing In The Dragon's Jaws is the last of a cycle of albums where Cockburn talked openly about his Christian faith. But what Cockburn did was unique, especially to someone bored and annoyed with ‘contemporary Christian music' at the time: he talked about his faith in vibrant, imaginative, honest ways. The result was meditative rather than evangelistic. It spoke to me not because I was a believer, but because I was a believer who was questioning what I believed and his music and poetry opened up worlds of possibilities I hadn't considered:

    Freighters on the nod on the surface of the bay
    One of these days we're going to sail away,
    going to sail into eternity
    some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me
    And I'm wondering where the lions are…
    I'm wondering where the lions are…

    After a while I got caught up with what Cockburn was doing in the present day. It turned out Cockburn's horizons had expanded. He had urbanized and politicized in the ‘80s. The man who sang of God "O Love that fires the sun keep me burning" was now singing of the IMF "North, south east west / kill the best and by the rest / you spend a buck to make a buck / you really don't give a flying fuck / about the people in misery" I had a number of friends who found this off-putting. Me, I loved it when he sang:

    In the flash of this moment
    You're the best of what we are—
    Don't let them stop you now

    Because hearing him sing about the US oppression of Central America and tell other stories around the globe expanded my own horizons. It forced me to ask questions about my complacency with the world and changed me and helped me to see that I wanted more from my faith than a self-seeking relationship with the divine. I agreed with the sentiment in his song "Where the Death Squad Lives", "It'll never be a perfect world till God declares it that way / But that don't mean there's nothing we can do or say"

    And over the succeeding decades, Bruce has evolved even more, producing music that integrated his causes and his faith against a broader backdrop of his relationships and other concerns. And I like that about him. Human beings are constantly changing, evolving, moving from one place to another, shedding old skins and adopting new ones. And Cockburn is emblematic of that.

    With so many albums over so many decades, I've developed a bit of critical perspective. I used to vigorously defend each release. Now, I see that, like most musicians, he has poor albums (actually I think he's only done one poor one—that's 1993's Dart to the Heart in case you're wondering) good albums, great albums and brilliant albums. His latest album, Life Short Call Now (which I bought the day it came out, as ever!) is one of the good (not great or brilliant) ones. Once a decade Cockburn does an album which does a bunch of disparate songs about disparate places in disparate styles that doesn't really cohere into anything outstanding but has some great individual songs.(See also Further Adventures Of, World of Wonders and Breakfast In New Orleans, Dinner In Timbuktu).  Life Short Call Now is that album for this decade. It didn't set my world alight and I suspect—once I've finished playing it non-stop for about a month or so—I won't be going back to it all that often in the future. And yet, there's still some great songs on it, like "Tell The Universe" which both laments and indicts the Bush administration and "Mystery" which goes from being a campfire song to an anthem in six call-and-respond verses:

    So all you stumblers who believe love rules
    Believe love rules
    Believe love rules
    Come all you stumblers who believe love rules
    Stand up and let it shine

    And if he can still do songs like that, he's okay with me.

    The second time I met Bruce Cockburn was after a performance at Convocation Hall where my friend John wanted to get his guitar autographed. Having babbled my one and only anecdote I wanted to share the last time I met him, I was unbelievably shy. He only came over to talk to me because the usher at Convocation Hall pointed me out. He autographed a T-shirt and I told him how much I loved his new version of "Rumours of Glory". And just before he left I figured out what I wanted to say to him. What I've always wanted to say to him.

    "I just wanted to say thanks…for helping me to become more open-minded."

    He looked at me straight in the eye and smiled and clasped my hand.

    And that was enough for me.


    Posted by graeme | (2) Comments | Permalink

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    bobbi  on  05/11  at  04:56 PM

    Thanks for the great expression of you and Bruce, in many ways it mimics what many of us have felt or are feeling. I know this is coming in very late (4 years!) but with Bruce love, there is never a wrong time.

    Jim  on  05/18  at  12:45 PM

    Actually, I like most of Dart to the Heart, particularly Closer to the Light and the two instrumentals, but also Laugh of Love and All the Ways I want You.  I’d be more inclined to put Life Short in the “poor” category, if I had to.  Not really one song that I’d like to learn on it… and it has one of the few songs in his catalog that is actually painful to listen to - Beautiful Creatures.

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