Bruce Cockburn peels back the protective shell in his memoir
'Rumours of Glory'
By Lou Fancher
If the history of mankind were a song, Bruce Cockburn might have written it.
The Canadian singer-songwriter has been chronicling trees falling, lions roaring, rockets launching and the dangers of love for five decades. With 31 albums having sold more than 7 million copies worldwide and 13 Juno awards and 21 gold-platinum certifications shining on his San Francisco home's shelves, Cockburn has written his memoir, "Rumours of Glory" (HarperOne, $28.99, 544 pages).
Born in 1945 in Ottawa, Canada, Cockburn gained recognition as a masterful acoustic guitarist, soulful lyricist and folk musician. Often writing on spiritual themes and labeled "the Christian singer" in the late '70s, he refused to be typecast. His music broke into mainstream America's consciousness on "Saturday Night Live" in 1980 with a performance of his "Wondering Where the Lions Are." Perpetually seeking novel influences, Cockburn has a 50-year playbook that is a folk-rock-jazz-funk-inspired brew. Captivated by everything from Swedish fiddling to reggae to what he calls "spooky Bartók concertos," he paired his instrumental explorations increasingly with lyrics reflecting his interest in environmental and social unrest.
In an industry prone to categorization, more labels arrived: "nature singer" and "protest songwriter." Referencing over 104 songs, the memoir reads as an encyclopedia of world music, atrocities and activism from the 1960s to 2004. A 117-song, nine-disc companion box set -- including 16 previously unreleased songs and a live, full-length concert on DVD -- has been released by Cockburn's True North Records.
In a life shaped by seismic shifts -- in politics, romance, spirituality, ecological and economic realms -- the 69-year-old, now once again a father, this time to 3-year-old Iona, is unlikely to reverse course. His move to the United States and decision to write the memoir resulted from a collision of opportunity and intrigue. Four years ago, HarperCollins suggested they'd like a "spiritual memoir," a term he says defies definition but fascinated him. Marriage to M.J. Hannett, who landed a job with Homeland Security in San Francisco, and the birth of their daughter grounded him long enough to write more than the 30-line, self-described "short-term phenomena" of his songs.
"It was just the right time," he says in an interview at Berkeley's Hillside Club.
Radiant sunlight splashes across the floor of the club, where he will participate in a Radio KPFA book launch event on Nov. 19, but Cockburn has chosen to sit in the shadows.
His mother, he says, has called his tendency to travel, literally and figuratively, to front lines and flash points of warring countries like Guatemala and Afghanistan a death wish. Words from his memoir, however, cast that seemingly ill-fated impulse in a different light: "We're all in the same foundering boat. It's our scars that unite us."
Ever since Cockburn as a young boy discovered a beat up, no-name guitar with rusty, discolored strings in the attic of his grandmother's home, he has followed a muse that has told him "what doesn't kill you makes for songs." The forces against him, many of his own making, were large. When Cockburn was a teen, his father destroyed a notebook of his first poems -- an act he says annihilated his trust of authority. For most of his life, a "cage of reticence" he deliberately constructed has defined his personal and business relationships -- a handshake and no expectation of his ever needing to phone his manager of 44 years, Bernie Finkelstein, seals their long-term commitment. But he chose a solo, mostly public career, and increasingly used his music to make bold protest against man's inhumanity and destruction of the environment, despite his equal determination to lead what he calls a "covert" life. He is no longer holding back: "Rumours" exposes the folds in his relationships with women, the divine, various causes, music -- and marvelously unpacks his songs like origami laid flat. "You can't write about the spirit without telling true things about yourself," he says. "I don't have secrets that are worth keeping at this point."
The first 100 pages about his childhood flowed, but hitting writer's block and facing deadlines (his usual habit of writing the songs when the inner wind blew meant one song, "Celestial Horses," took 40 years to complete), he enlisted Greg King, a journalist friend as co-writer.
"He came with me on tour," Cockburn says. "On a tour bus, with a third glass of wine and winding down from a show, all kinds of memories come."
The book is more chronological than he first imagined but also more political.
He's glad of the latter, he says, because in a world propelling itself toward "cataclysmic self-destruction and enduring chaos" with nuclear and military escalation, environmental debilitation and income inequality, someone must tell -- and sing and play -- a counterrevolutionary message.