Friday, May 27, 2016

Off the Shelf: Bruce Cockburn's Inner City Front (1981)

Bruce Cockburn, 1972. (Photo: Ron Bull)

In 1970, Bruce Cockburn had launched his first solo album. On it, he happily celebrated the virtues of rural life. In the years to follow, as his records evolved, he even began to introduce jazz (Night Vision) and reggae rhythms (Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws). On his album covers, Cockburn was occasionally seen perched under a tree with his acoustic guitar and surrounded by a gentle sprinkling of snow, or maybe next to a warm fireplace, as he was on his third album, Sunwheel Dance. His songs were both poetic and spiritual – at times, even mystical – as he discovered Christianity, yet they were continuously evocative and sly glimmers of quiet intelligence sparkled through the lyrics. Until 1980, Bruce Cockburn seemed happy to continue personifying the quiet comforts of Canada’s untamed landscape. But then, one day…. he moved to Toronto. After some personal changes in his life, including a divorce, Bruce Cockburn came to the city and his music was transformed dramatically with a record called Inner City Front – the first album he’d produce himself. It was a full-out electric record featuring a full band rather than just some guest musicians. The music within the grooves of Inner City Front was also a hybrid of rock, jazz, electronica and reggae. There was only one ballad – and it was right at the end of the record. Inner City Front had signalled a shift in the life and art of one of Canada’s most original and gifted performers. And the album would provide the groundwork for many of the sophisticated pop songs that Bruce Cockburn would record during the Eighties.

When Bob Dylan had transformed himself from an acoustic troubadour into a rock and roller in 1965, fans booed him across the world for betraying the cause of folk music. But when Bruce Cockburn went from being a rural folk artist into an urban and electric rocker in 1981, nobody in Canada got upset – even though Inner City Front featured some radically new music. Inner City Front did provide a wide range of musical styles heard especially in songs like “You Pay Your Money,” “Radio Shoes,” “Justice” and “Wanna Go Walking.” His eclectic interests, though, were hardly surprising given his musical education.

Born in Ottawa, Bruce Cockburn had attended the Boston Berklee College of Music in 1964 where he learned jazz. He ultimately came back to Canada to play rock music in various groups like The Children, The Flying Circus and Olivus – Olivus even opened for The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream. Cockburn also wrote four songs included on Christopher’s Movie Matinee, an album by 3’s a Crowd, which was released in 1967. But from the first time he signed with Bernie Finkelstein's label, True North, Cockburn became committed to folk music. It took only a few albums, however, before audiences themselves would discover that Bruce Cockburn was more than just a rural folkie. In 1973, on Night Vision, Cockburn cast a darker shadow with his music on songs like “The Blues Got the World” and “You Don’t Have to Play the Horses.” The use of electric instruments and synthesizers also began to find their way onto albums like Sun, Salt and Time and In the Falling Dark. By 1979, Cockburn started to make music that had commercial pop potential like the reggae drenched “Wondering Where the Lions Are” 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 his 1980 release Humans that Bruce Cockburn began combining various musical genres . That year he also started assembling the band that would make the music soon to be heard on Inner City Front. The genesis of that group began with an invitation to the jazz world for violinist Hugh Marsh and reed player Kathryn Moses. Both Marsh and Moses had already been part of Cockburn's group on his Humans album and he soon gathered his regular bass player Dennis Pendrith, keyboard wizard Jon Goldsmith and drummer Bob DeSalle to rehearse new music for an international tour. Out of those rehearsals came the 1981 “Rumours of Glory” tour named after a popular song on Humans. That tour served as a preview of what was to come within the year on Inner City Front. By the time Cockburn had released Inner City Front in 1981, though, his marriage had ended and he’d moved from the Ottawa area to the bohemian enclave of Kensington Market in Toronto. He’d also fallen in love.

Living in the city and observing urban life had not only changed Cockburn’s music it was also significantly altering his perspective. The opening track, “You Pay Your Money And You Take Your Chance,” spoke to the great risk Cockburn was taking in shaping his new life and his new music. The hallmark of Cockburn’s new songwriting style was also its open eclecticism – heard especially in the synthesizer driven “The Strong One.” “The Strong One,” a song about someone who is generous to others but can’t find a shoulder for herself to cry on, clearly showed that Cockburn had been listening to a lot of contemporary rock (such as Gary Numan). The other new element in Bruce’s music was the jazz rock instrumental. Of course, he had recorded jazz inspired instrumentals before, as on Sun, Salt and Time ("Rouler sa Bosse"), but there was nothing quite like “Radio Shoes.” While there had always been a rustic romanticism in Cockburn’s earlier music, on Inner City Front’s “And We Dance,” the sentiments were now sensual. Along with the continually developing musical artistry came a change in Cockburn’s political and spiritual views heard in two songs: “Broken Wheel” and “Justice.” “Justice” was perhaps the first time Cockburn caught the angry – and timely – political stance of reggae. Using Bob Marley as his model, Bruce Cockburn in “Justice” expresses his displeasure, as a deeply religious man, at what was being done in the name of religion. If Cockburn pointed out the critical failings of religious fundamentalism on “Justice,” he was no less critical of himself on “Broken Wheel.” But before Cockburn would become this active player in this new urban world he entered, he would first take full assessment of himself on the album’s concluding track “Loner.”

Bruce Cockburn had begun his solo career in 1970 as just a man with a guitar. But, by 1981, he had a band and he was reaching out to a larger world. The cover photo probably best revealed Cockburn’s intentions. Instead of sitting peacefully under a tree with his acoustic guitar, he is seen in Emilio’s Restaurant, a now-defunct Toronto diner. He’s smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer surrounded by Canadian military men doing likewise. As he stares into the camera, Cockburn situates himself as the political journalist reporting on the turbulent world in front of him. In the coming years, Bruce Cockburn would comfortably mix both electric and acoustic music. His albums would also continue to explore spiritual, social and political issues. Whether it was the plight of the rainforests on Big Circumstance in 1989, or the Iraq War on his 2006 record Life Short Call Now, Bruce Cockburn has remained committed. He didn’t cause a fuss going electric with Inner City Front, but he did have to weather some controversy over the highly charged political song “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” a couple of years later – a song that was unlikely without Inner City Front. Inner City Front had opened the door for a world of possibilities – both musically and politically – that Bruce Cockburn still continues to embrace.

This post has been edited and re-written from a script originally done for a CBC Radio documentary on Bruce Cockburn's Inner City Front for Inside the Music and produced by John Corcelli.

 Kevin 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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