Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Paradoxical Sojourn: Bruce Cockburn's Rumours of Glory

Back in 1970, when Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn launched his first eponymous solo album, he happily celebrated the virtues of rural life in songs like "Going to the Country" and "Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon." On his album covers, Cockburn was occasionally seen perched under a tree with his acoustic guitar surrounded by a gentle sprinkling of snow, or maybe next to a warm fireplace, as he was on his third record, Sunwheel Dance (1972).His songs were both poetic and spiritual – at times, even mystical – yet richly evocative and intelligent. Bruce Cockburn seemed content to personify the quiet comforts of Canada’s untamed landscape. But then, in the late Seventies, he moved to the urban enclaves of Toronto. Suddenly, rock, reggae, jazz and electronica would not only bring an untamed sound to his music, but add a harder edged political sensibility to his work, which would sometimes be heard as romantically poetic ("Lovers in a Dangerous Time"), stridently controversial ("If I Had a Rocket Launcher") and didactic ("Call it Democracy"). Today his memoir Rumours Of Glory (HarperCollins) — which chronicles of his Christian faith and activism — arrives in stores to join a Cockburn curated 9–disc CD and DVD companion box set of what you might call a musical biography to serve as a soundtrack to the book. The mammoth CD set, released on his career spanning label, True North, also includes a 90–page book featuring rare photos, extensive track information and new liner notes written by Canadian music critic and author Nicholas Jennings. Because the songs aren't necessarily chronological, as in a traditional box-set, Rumours of Glory deftly contrasts the rustic romanticism in in Cockburn’s music with his growing sensuality and political fervour.

Born in Ottawa, Cockburn attended the Boston Berklee College of Music in 1964 where he learned jazz. But when he came back to Canada, he played rock music in various groups like The Children, The Flying Circus and Olivus. Bass player Eugene Martynec had just left the Toronto rock band Kensington Market when he met first met Cockburn. Hearing that promoter Bernie Finkelstein was starting a new label called True North, Martynec immediately proposed Cockburn, who recreated himself as the rural folkie. But even with the acoustic textures of his early records, Rumours of Glory showcases tracks that hint at something tougher like "The Blues Got the World" and "You Don't Have to Play the Horses," originally from Night Vision (1973), with its stark cover that features painter Alex Colville's 1954 painting, "Horse and Train," which was inspired by a couple of lines from poet Roy Campbell ("Against a regiment I oppose a brain/And a dark horse against an armoured train"). The use of electric instruments and synthesizers are employed with delicate precision on songs like "All the Diamonds in the World" (1974's Sun, Salt and Time) and "Silver Wheels" (1976's In the Falling Dark) while the jazz influences could be heard on the lovely chamber instrumental "Rouler Sa Bosse" (from Sun, Salt and Time).

By 1979, Bruce Cockburn started to make music that even had the earmarks of commercial pop on it – like the reggae drenched “Wondering Where the Lions Are” (originally heard on Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws). Within a year, “Wondering Where the Lions Are” had become a hit and reached #21 in the U.S. Billboard Charts. It was on the 1980 release Humans, however, when you could hear an eclectic assortment of musical styles from reggae ("Rumours of Glory," "What About the Bond") to acoustic punk ("Fascist Architecture") despite (or perhaps because) his married life was coming apart. The result of that split would be heard in his first self-produced Inner City Front in 1981, which would kick off with the big band impressionistic hard rock of "You Pay Your Money and You Take Your Chance," which owed much of its poetic spree to Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business." Since he'd also fallen in love, Inner City Front also had its share of romantic songs like the lovely "And We Dance" (which is sadly not included in the CD box), but the politically incendiary tracks "Justice" and "Broken Wheel" do make the cut. The point of including those cuts in the box are perhaps to show that living in the city and observing urban life had not only changed Cockburn’s music, it was also dramatically altering his global perspective which was growing more radical in scope. From here, Cockburn's music never lost its free ranging compass even if the songs grew less elliptical and moved more towards the finger-pointing topicality of protest music. 

Whether it was ecological devastation ("Radium Rain," "If a Tree Falls"), human rights abuses ("Santiago Dawn," "Peggy's Kitchen Window"), corporate crime ("People See Through You," "The Trouble with Normal"), or Indian rights ("A Dream Like Mine"), Cockburn remained musically inventive even if the content became more obvious and less suggestive. Overall, Rumours of Glory remains a remarkable testament to a musical artist who is trying to wed his own spiritual transformation into a skeleton key that makes sense of the material world. In a time when most organized religious groups, especially the fundamentalist extremists, worry about the glory to be found in the next world, and sometimes justify acts of terrorism to arrive there, Cockburn can be heard grappling the follies of a life lived in the present. When he sings in "The Last Night of the World" (from the 1999, Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu) that "I learned as a child not to trust in my body/I've carried that burden through my life/But there's a day when we all have to be pried loose/If this were the last night of the world," he's not dreaming of an afterlife, but of a romantic glass of champagne in this one. 

Bob Dylan transformed himself from an acoustic troubadour into a rock and roller in 1965, and fans booed him across the world for betraying the cause of folk music. When Bruce Cockburn went from being a rural folk artist into an urban and electric rocker in 1981, nobody got upset – even though he began featuring some radically new music. What Rumours of Glory reveals is an artist continually evolving and whose many changes don't so much provoke his audience (as Dylan did), but draw them instead into his paradoxical sojourn for freedom where his spiritual salvation can transform both his art and the world he depicts in it. Rumours of Glory opens the door to a world of those possibilities – both musically and politically – and it's an enduring riddle that Bruce Cockburn continues to try and resolve.

Kevin Courrier is currently doing a lecture series at the Toronto JCC Miles Nadal on The Beatles on Monday evenings at 7pm. Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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