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Cockburn mines music, politics, spiritualism for candid bio

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/11/2014 (1014 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

No surprise, but Bruce Cockburn's thick new memoir is much like the man himself -- thoughtful, earnest and self-aware.

He is not above tooting his own horn, though he tends to do this by quoting his respectful reviews. Like the prototypical Canadian he is, the folk-rock singer-songwriter's default position appears to be self-abasement.

Bruce Cockburn performs on the main stage during Rights Fest at the Forks in September 2014.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Bruce Cockburn performs on the main stage during Rights Fest at the Forks in September 2014.

On his first marriage, to the mother of his first daughter:

"In large part our marriage broke down because I could not open up," he writes. "I remained mired in my childhood psyche, unable to adequately express feelings, to demonstrate or even appreciate the love that simmered in my soul."

Indeed, a major theme in Rumours of Glory is Cockburn's lifelong quest to overcome the "flatlining of emotional content that was the unstated rule in my childhood home."

The other, of course, is his need to understand and express what he calls, over and over in these pages, his "relationship with the Divine."

Cockburn, 69, has enjoyed a great run in Canadian popular music. He has released 31 albums of original material since 1970, including such much-covered songs as If I Had a Rocket Launcher, Where the Lions Are and Lovers in a Dangerous Time. His mantel overflows with Juno Awards. He has won a Governor General's Performing Arts Award and has been made an officer in the Order of Canada.

Creatively and productively, he belongs in the pantheon with Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. Yet, like the Tragically Hip, say, he has never quite succeeded abroad.

Maybe he is just too darned Canadian.

Raised in a comfortable middle-class home in Ottawa, the eldest of three sons, Cockburn relates his life story in chronological fashion. For someone who went on to consume a library of books, he was a dud at academics, barely passing high school and lasting less than a year at Boston's Berklee College of Music.

He did, however, land in Toronto at the right time, in 1967, just as the post-Dylan era of troubadours exploded. He takes his title, by the way, from the well-known song from his 1980 album Humans.

Most popular music biographies focus on the minutiae of recording and touring. Cockburn does this, too, but ventures down many side roads of politics and history.

This is to be expected from a musician who has travelled the world as a social activist, and it gives the book a heft rarely encountered in showbiz memoirs.

Especially impressive are his chapters on Central America, through which he toured regularly in the '80s, often risking life and limb.

Critics have long lauded Cockburn for his guitar playing. But for all his eloquence on the battered shape of his soul, or the social conditions in Pinochet's Chile, he has trouble articulating what separates him from the musical pack.

The best he can do is to describe his playing chops as "a combination of country blues fingerpicking and poorly absorbed jazz training."

He seems to think of himself as more of a word guy. He intersperses the text with the full lyrics of dozens of his songs, illustrating how he distilled them from his personal experiences.

He may be the only male musician to confess to inadequacies between the sheets. "We didn't have much of a sex life," he says about his first wife, Kitty. "I remained too trapped inside myself to be much of a lover."

But he has given his sex life the old college try. A determined serial monogamist, he is now on his fifth or sixth long-term relationship (an exhausted reviewer can lose track), which has produced a second daughter, 35 years younger than his first.

Cockburn has remained much more faithful to his manager, Toronto music mogul Bernie Finkelstein, whom he lauds despite their differing personalities.

He grinds a few axes and gets even with a couple of enemies in the music biz. But as a rule, he is respectful of the many big names with whom he has crossed paths. At one point, he admits to breaking into tears at a restaurant when record producer T Bone Burnett called him a hypocrite.

Cockburn's religiosity may be the only subject that takes up more space here than his feelings of emotional constipation. His parents were garden-variety Protestants, but by his early 20s, he was testing out more fundamentalist waters.

His left-wing political convictions separated him from many of his fellow Christians -- especially U.S. evangelicals -- and over the decades his cosmology has evolved into mystical realms that some might see as indistinguishable from Buddhism or, worse, United Churchdom.

He also has to engage in intellectual gymnastics to square his Christian beliefs with an affair with a married woman he had in Los Angeles in the 1990s. He refers to her as "Madame X," and seems to continue to carry a torch for her.

But to give him credit, Cockburn is unafraid to attempt to express the inexpressible. The one subject he remains mum about is money.

He excuses this by insisting, several times, that art and Mammon inhabit separate temples. But it would be interesting to learn how well he has done financially from his back catalogue and songwriting royalties.

Overall, this is a rewarding read, candid and erudite, even where it is a bit plodding. Does the world need another summary of the events of 9/11?

Nowhere does he acknowledge a ghost writer, so one assumes Cockburn penned every word himself. The book ends in 2004, and one imagines him having spent much of the last decade in his den in San Francisco -- where he resides with his current wife, M.J. Hannett, and their three-year-old daughter -- methodically chipping away at the granite block of his life story.

Rumours of glory? Neither premature nor undeserved.

 

Morley Walker is a former Free Press literary editor and arts columnist.

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History

Updated on Saturday, November 8, 2014 at 7:42 AM CST: Formatting.

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