Monday, March 09, 2015

Bruce Cockburn: Restless Virtuoso- HIRD

By the Rev. Dr. Ed Hird

While at the local library with my wife, I ran across Bruce Cockburn’s fascinating new autobiography and spiritual memoirs Bruce Cockburn: Rumours of Glory.   A true Canadian icon, Cockburn ironically gets more airtime now on US radios than in Canada.  Until recently, he has been called one of Canada’s best kept secrets.  Over the past five decades, he has released thirty-one albums, selling over seven million copies worldwide, including one million copies in Canada. The New York Times has called Cockburn a virtuoso on guitar.  His accomplishments include 12 Juno Awards and 21 gold/platinum certifications. As well as being a member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame, Cockburn is an Officer of the Order of Canada and recipient of the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement.  He even has his own postage stamp!  It is easy to put famous people up on pedestals, only for them to come crashing down.
Cockburn noted: “What doesn't kill you makes for songs.”  He is very transparent in his memoirs about the ‘cage of reticence’ that he has been trapped in, saying that it took him decades to open up enough to allow another human beyond the courtyard of his heart. Due to the flat lining of emotional content, he bottled up his feelings and failed to connect.  Cockburn commented: “It was almost impossible for me to communicate from the heart, especially if the subject required deep openness....I remained too trapped inside myself...”  Even positive attention could be off-putting to him.  Being terrified of audiences, he initially pretended that they were not there.  Through his music, Cockburn temporarily came out of hiding: “Music is my diary, my anchor through anguish and joy, a channel for the heart.”  His self-described penchant for withdrawal led to several painful relational breakups: “Relationships of the heart though require exposure of the soul.” Being a travelling musician can be very hard on relationships.  In his memoirs, Cockburn notes:
...a long history of failing to communicate our deepest fears, resentments, and longings was at the core of our unraveling....Neither of us would entertain for a moment the notion of going for counseling...I'd leave on tour. My wife would be left in a stew of resentment and loneliness.
There are endless internet interviews with Cockburn about his spirituality.  Few authors are willing to be interviewed in such detail about their spiritual journeys.  Cockburn’s spiritual reflections are very paradoxical, evocative, and nuanced: “Anyone who has spent any time exploring Bruce Cockburn’s music knows what a complex artist he is. He is as spiritual as he is political, and as much a master musician as a lyrical poet.”  He is a free spirit who cannot be boxed in.  Bruce has a strongly developed social conscience and passion for justice that is expressed through his music, particularly in the 1980s. The more interior 1970s led to a more exterior 1980s, focusing on the love of oppressed neighbours in the Global South.   
While raised in the United Church by agnostic parents, his first spiritual encounter occurred while taking communion in St George’s Anglican Church in Ottawa: “it felt like something happened.” He called it a wondrous shiver of contact, of connection.  At his wedding at St George’s, all of a sudden there was someone there “as vivid as I could see them, but I couldn’t seem them, this loving presence...So I started taking Jesus very seriously at that point...that image has never left.” Sadly, in moving to Toronto, Cockburn ‘didn’t find another church that had the same spirit attached to it.”
It has been said that Cockburn has a spiritual GPS in him that doesn’t want to shut off: “I’m trying to get people to be aware of how much more there is to life than just what they see.” There are people who love Bruce Cockburn just for his music," said Mr. Brian Walsh, explaining each has their reasons be it his guitar virtuosity, his lyrics or his political stance. "They don't always get the spirituality.”  Cockburn’s quest for deeper meaning is a lifelong spiritual journey: “I believe that my relationship with God is central to my life. It is the most important thing in my life.” “Eventually, through a series of personal stuff in the early ’70s, I ended up giving myself to Christ and asking for help, and I figured at that point I better start calling myself a Christian,” said Cockburn. “I think a personal relationship with God is what we’re supposed to be after and what God is after. That experience was a very crucial part of discovering and attempting to develop that relationship,” said Cockburn.  The song All The Diamonds was written on the night of Cockburn’s conversion: “When Jesus came into my life, in 1974, he also came into my music.” Only God, said Cockburn can fill that hole inside of us.
 My three favorite Cockburn songs are Lord of the Starfields, All the Diamonds, and Wondering Where the Lions Are.  The autobiography gave a fascinating backdrop to Cockburn’s life and songs, illuminating the rumours of glory.  Bruce is very experimental, experiencing himself into faith and relationship with God.  Then he reflects on it later, sometimes in very confusing and ambiguous ways. 
Cockburn has always been a restless spirit: “I craved adventure. I needed to throw myself into something unknown, travel with only vague destinations, expose myself to the elements, sail the seas.”   He says that a lot of his nomadic rootlessness and constant longing for home comes from mistrust when his father destroyed his first poems: “I have a great deal of mistrust. I have a mistrust of authority. I have a mistrust of things I don’t know intimately.  I have a mistrust that takes the form of “OK, God, I am here for you and you are here for me. But I don’t want to go all the way because you might ask something of me that I am not capable of giving or don’t want to give. So I hold myself back from that piece because of that.  I am working on that piece...”  May Bruce Cockburn may continue to inspire others to seek for home.

The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, Rector, 
St. Simon's Church North Vancouver 
Anglican Mission in Canada 
-an article for the April 2015 Deep Cove Crier


Janis Cox said...

Great article, Ed.
Wonderful to see a little instead of Bruce Cockburn's head.

Peter Black said...

Thanks, Ed, for providing this concise biographical sketch of Bruce Cockburn. I haven't followed his career or music closely. My number one son has, though, and speaks highly of his music and faith, and also his activism.~~+~~

Linda Hall said...

Bruce Cockburn has long been a favorite of mine. i have a number of his albums and have been to several concerts. Thank you for this blog.

Belinda Burston said...

So enjoyed this. Thank you!

Ed Hird+ said...

Thank you for your encouraging comments, Peter and Linda.

Kathleen Gibson said...

I didn't know this about Mr. Cockburn, Ed. Trust you to, as is your habit, bring us to a new view of an old favourite.

Glynis said...

My goodness. I surely did not know much of this 'behind the scenes' interesting part of Bruce Cockburn's life. Sometimes we can sing along with the songs but we don't have a clue about motivation and what makes an artist tick. Great post. Thanks, Ed.

Ed Hird+ said...

Thank you, Kathleen and Glynis, for your kind and thoughtful words.

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