Bruce Cockburn – Rumours of Glory (a Memoir)

Bruce Cockburn, Rumours of GloryHow many lives a can one man live at once? Rumours of Glory traces Bruce Cockburn’s story, detailing his music, faith, poetry, women and activism. It’s a fascinating trail and a valuable read – even for people who disagree with him.

Publisher: HarperOne
526 pages

With raw frankness, Cockburn interweaves faith, humanitarian work, politics, music and poetry into his memoir. He has had such a life that almost getting his head blown off by a rocket launcher and meeting Sir Edmund Hillary each only get a passing paragraph.

The book suggests that the tone of his life was set by the atmosphere at home as he grew up. Love was not shown demonstratively and Cockburn comes across as quite a loner. That can be quite useful, when your job involves moving from town to town every day to perform, and flying from one country to another as a poet (although his PR people wish he was hungrier for publicity and pressing palms).

If you had to sum up Cockburn in a word, ‘reporter’ could be as accurate as ‘songwriter’.   The book reveals his soul-searching – if his visits to international trouble-spots are not for others, then they are merely voyeurism.  Aware of journalism’s limitations, he identifies his purpose as walking through God-opened doorways to serve humanity by making known situations where people are suffering.

The Canadian is all too wary of the thin, easily-blurred line between art and propaganda. “It has to be art,” he insists, describing how he doesn’t write protest songs. Rather, he describes what he sees. However, following a visit to Chile, he realised that the artist’s job is to distil experience – including politics – into a form that can be shared.

It is interesting to note how often he meets up with unsung missionaries working longterm for the benefit of the poor around the world, and with his contacts, he has sometimes arrived in situations before either aid or government agencies.

Sections on his visits to places like Nicaragua and Honduras should be required reading for anyone interested in world politics, whichever side of the fence they come from. American readers might particularly value his grounded and well-informed observations  of the effects of their foreign policy.

But he does make art and the book is loosely wound around over 80 song lyrics, giving the background to what was moving him at the time.

Goons in blackface creeping in the road —
Farm family waiting for the night to explode —
Working the land in an age of terror
You come to see the moon as the bad news bearer
Down where the death squad lives

They cut down people like they cut down trees —
Chop off its head so it will stay on its knees —
The forest shrinks but the earth remains
Slash and burn and it grows again
Down where the death squad lives.

I’ve got friends trying to batter the system down
Fighting the past till the future comes round.
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
Down where the death squad lives

Like some kind of never-ending Easter passion,
From every agony a hero’s fashioned.
Around every evil there gathers love —
Bombs aren’t the only things that fall from above
Down where the death squad lives
down where the death squad lives

Sometimes I feel like there’s a padlock on my soul.
If you opened up my heart you’d find a big black hole
But when the feeling comes through, it comes through strong —
If you think there’s no difference between right and wrong
Just go down where the death squad lives

This world can be better than it is today
You can say I’m a dreamer but that’s okay
Without the could-be and the might-have-been
All you’ve got left is your fragile skin
And that ain’t worth much down where the death squad lives. (1986)

His musical trail is fascinating, both for his own music and the development of the industry as a whole. He recounts seeing Hendrix play, “one of the finest sets of rock and roll ever heard in Montreal” and how the guitarist happened to stand next to him at the after gig party, wanting to avoid the gawkers and just play.  When he picked up an old Strat to jam, Cockburn didn’t have the nerve to get involved – and left while Hendrix was still playing.

Bruce Cockburn and KittyThe dearth of loving expression in his childhood haunts his own family relationships. His first marriage foundered on poor communication. During another marriage, he had an affair that he considered was God’s idea (one of the few times that his judgement seems flawed).

He also, in this brutally honest account,  recalls  being angry at his two-year old daughter, Jenny, when she came into the room with a little plastic Mickey mouse guitar, wanting to play with her Dad. By contrast, he was with Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté twenty years later, when Diabaté’s two-year-old son toddled in, climbed onto his Dad’s lap and started plucking the strings. The contrast and his regret are poignant.

Faith is such a vital thread that it first appears only eleven lines in, where he writes, “Along the way, I found Jesus Christ, then let go of his hand amid the din of disingenuous right wing Christian exploitation” and humbly adds, “I still feel that I… understand little about the Divine.”

Cockburn’s faith suffered from the cultural Christianity he found in North America. Had it been less televangelistic, closer to the solutions than the problems he encountered in his travels, and more respectful of God’s creation, he would have felt less pushed away from his Christian faith as he aimed for integrity in his life.

As he mentioned in my Phantom Tollbooth interview , he never really found a church to replace the one he married in, St. George’s in Toronto, “with its healing services and its congregation half made-up of ex-cons.”

From fascinating brief detours to deep inner musings; from authentic political insight to the struggle to relate his faith to the world around him; from accounts of his musical collaborations to a wealth of poetry fed by witnessing the lives of oppressed people, this book is a rich read, and is keenly recommended for anyone with interests in music, justice, faith, people or politics.

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