From Bruce Cockburn To Youth-A Very Private Message
From Bruce Cockburn To Youth-A Very Private Message
WHEN BRUCE COCKBURN and his wife Kitty drive about the Canadian country-side and into the cities in their camper-truck, bound for Cockburn’s singing engagements at colleges and in coffeehouses and on television programs, they take as their constant companion a large, bounding, handsome, part-lrish wolfhound mongrel dog. One day not long ago, a man on a street in Toronto stopped to pat the dog and asked his name. Aroo, Cockburn answered. Why do you call him that? the man went on, not sure whether to laugh or to doubt. “Because,” Cockburn said, wearing his customary grave expression, "that’s what he answers to.”
It has been the fate of Cockburn (pronounced Coburn) to find his young career analyzed in terms of Gordon Lightfoot’s more seasoned success. Critics do not quite describe him as the young pretender to the throne of Canadian folk writer-singers that Lightfoot has occupied these last half-dozen years, but they at least make the careful point that Cockburn, who is 25, is traveling in precisely the path laid out earlier by Lightfoot, who is 30. On the surface, the comparison falls into neat place. In the past year, Cockburn has experienced the sudden rush of attention that Lightfoot went through in 1965. His first album is running away in sales, averaging one thousand a
month, a figure for a folk album rivaled in Canada only by Lightfoot’s own. He is a packed-house draw at college concerts, and other singers, including Anne Murray, are hurrying to record his songs. And his fame is creeping beyond the predominantly young folk audience through Goin’ Down The Road, the financially triumphant and award-winning Canadian movie for which Cockburn wrote and sang the evocative sound track.
Still, there is a quality about Cockburn that separates him from Lightfoot, indeed from all other Canadian composers and singers. The quality is privacy, a sense of quiet, exclusive completeness that ex-
ists within his own head. And for this, Cockburn is beginning to speak to an extraordinary number of young people who are, like him, quite simply retreating into their own quiet preserve of thoughts and inclinations. Where Lightfoot, for instance, is social and aggressive, Cockburn is personal and hushed, exploring deeply for perhaps the first time in Canadian song a young man’s inner country. This introspection of his leads him to write lyrics that aren’t always immediately accessible, that demand time and attention bordering on intimacy to grasp. It almost takes Cockburn’s kind of intelligence — quick but thoughtful, slightly eccentric, poetic intelligence — to travel with him into his songs. But more and more young Canadians in his audience are willing to make the trip. To them, Cockburn is a new and special messenger, and the message is privacy.
3 Cockburn’s father is a radiologist in Ottawa, and the home that he and his wife made there for their son Bruce and his two younger brothers is solid, conventional, religious (United Church), loving, athletic and not particularly musical. There is, though, Mr. Cockburn’s piano playing. “He plays by ear in the key of F,” Bruce says. “He does everything with an old-time stride bass, and I used to think it was terribly square when I was a kid. I’d put it down. But now I can hear the good in it and I like the feeling he gets, not the songs, but the feeling.
I like it.”
/ji Bernie Finkelstein of Toron^?to, who became Cockburn’s manager on a handshake a year ago, figures that occasionally in Cockburn’s early career he was beat (Finkelstein’s word). What he means is that club owners, promoters and managers, not understanding Cockburn’s talent, presented him in ways that, at best, canceled out the talent. Finkelstein confesses that at first he, too, missed Cockburn’s appeal, that in fact many people do not initially understand his songs and singing, and that because of the early experiences — being beat — Cockburn is cautious about his career. Gene Mar-
tynec, an exceptionally gifted Toronto guitarist and the producer of Cockburn’s records, agrees that Cockburn is resistant (Martynec’s word) with his music. Martynec says that he himself learned to approach the recording of Cockburn’s songs on soft shoes (more Martynec words) and to concentrate as producer on creating a pure atmosphere in which Cockburn’s music would shine through crystal clear.
The sense of guardedness in Cockburn that Finkelstein’s and Martynec’s experiences express is subliminally constant in any contact with Cockburn. He has erected his personal line of defenses against misunderstanding, and the first is a wall of serenity. For a stranger to talk to Cockburn is, in the beginning, before Cockburn accepts him, rather like communicating with the Dalai Lama: the subject is a cheerful and likable but remote figure.
When all else fails, Cockburn has a talent for simply withdrawing. One day recently, he was in the recording studios of Eastern Sound in Toronto cutting his second album of songs to be released this month. He was working on a tune called Sun Wheel Dance, a spirited, complex instrumental without voice that will be the album’s title number. He had played eight takes of the song, and on each either Martynec or Cockburn had detected tiny imperfections inaudible to all but the fussiest ears. Cockburn was preparing to play it again. “Wait a minute,” he suddenly said to the control booth from inside the studio where he sat alone, "I’m getting boggled.” He slid off his stool, and, in a corner of the studio, stood on his head in a perfect yoga position. It lasted for several minutes. Then he returned and played a matchless take.
[p Cockburn started guitar les(Q) sons at 13 and piano lessons at 17. As an Ottawa teenager, he wrote a young people’s church service and worked in high-school rock bands. But through all his adolescent experiences, he felt no inclination to make his life in music. Then his parents in-
sisted that he get a higher education, and he decided that the least painful route was a course at the respected Berklee School of Music in Boston. Before Berklee he bummed his way to Europe where he lived with six English dope peddlers in Copenhagen, sang at hootenannies for uncomprehending but appreciative Swedes in Stockholm and performed in a threeman street orchestra in Montmartre until Paris police threw him into jail. He spent a couple of semesters at Berklee, not working hard enough but absorbing lessons in composition and theory at his classes and in blues and jazz after classes. He left before graduation to join an Ottawa rock band called Children. "The trouble was that we were enthusiastic but awfully naïve,” says Cockburn. “We didn’t know how to play together or live together and we ended up destroying each other.” After Children, Cockburn worked in a series of bands for three years, the Esquires, Olivus, Flying Circus, 3’s A Crowd. He says, “I went through a lot of aspects and learned about playing in different musical atmospheres. I was always committed to the bands at first, but often I would be the one in the end to break them up by leaving. I was discovering that I had to do my music by myself.”
e Kitty was the girl who sat at the corner table in the Ottawa after-hours club and put a hex on Cockburn. Then they got married. The two events were separated by three years, but anyone watching them together, seeing them fall naturally into affectionate communion in any situation, actually alone together, can’t imagine either of them ever finding any other partner in the world. They are beautiful in each other’s company. Kitty is long-haired and slender, and her body exudes a kind of bony elegance, like a much younger Katharine Hepburn. She has generous features that all click right into place and a hushed way of entering and leaving a room, not at all the sort of girl you would expect to whip up a hex, but that’s the way Cockburn remembers it. “She used to get her boy friend to take
her to a club where I was playing with a group we called the Heavenly Blue, and I was conscious of someone over at the side hexing me, just giving off some feeling. So naturally I began to note who it was — Kitty — and we met.” Kitty, at the time, was poking away at art school and at Carleton University, and then, as she says, she went with Bruce. They’ve been together for four years, married since December 1969, a circumstance that, Kitty points out, amazes many people in their age bracket and business who are atuned to much more ephemeral relationships between the sexes.
The amazement mildly interests Bruce and Kitty.
Jin his conversation and his songs, Cockburn sidesteps clichés, but when he comes to describe the act of song-writing, he falls back on one. It’s a “mysterious process” is what he’s driven to say. “I know how the songs gradually turn over in my mind when I’m working on them, but there’s a very subconscious process going on that I can’t explain. Before I got into song-writing, I didn’t think I had anything to say. But a poet in Ottawa named Bill Hawkins encour-
aged me to try writing. He’s an amazing guy. Once he was named Young Man Of The Year by the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce, and actually he was completely subversive of everything the Chamber of Commerce stood for. I started by writing the music for his lyrics, and then I tried both words and music myself. My first was a rock and roll thing called Baby, You’re Not Leaving Me Out, Baby, I'm Heaving You Out. It was about as terrible as it sounds. But the more I wrote the more I discovered comments I had to make. For three or four years
I found I was really writing two kinds of songs — songs for the different bands I was playing with and songs that were meant just for me. The first were awfully pretentious, but the personal songs sounded much better, and that discovery helped me see I had to be alone in music. I don’t write songs very quickly. I carry notebooks with me and write lines and verses in them all the time about things my head gets into. And sometimes the words sit there for months going through changes. Then,
after a while, it gets necessary to write a song. I feel constipated. I have to get a song down, and usually within two or three days of that feeling I produce a song. This is where the mysterious process comes in — I can’t explain what happens in my head at these stages. What’s even stranger in a way is that sometimes I haven’t any idea what the song is really all about, until I’ve been singing it for months. Sometimes it’s a person from out of an audience who comes up and points out to me what it is I’ve written. When that happens, it stuns me.”
§The association of Cockburn with the Canadian wilderness is lengthy, intimate and, as a recurring theme in many of his songs, crucial to any understanding of his music. He dresses like a splendid survivor of Robin Hood’s merry men, in russet colors and leather jerkins, boot-high moccasins and swirling scarves, and in his moments away from music he and Kitty camp out, stroll in the woods and meet nature up close. “I’m going to the country," he sings in one of his most popular and most happy songs, ‘‘Sunshine smile on me." He first encountered the country as a child visiting
his grandfather’s farm near Ottawa, but it was a boy’s camp in Algonquin Park that “got me into the woods,” he recalls. “One summer I had a job at the camp, the only straight work I’ve ever done. I washed out the giant porridge pot every day. It was disgusting, but it didn’t beat my feelings about being in the woods. If it didn’t, nothing could.” Here is a weird phenomenon: older people who meet Cockburn — people over, say, 40 — expect him to produce the answers to the perplexing, troubling, awful life they’re
stuck with. Maybe it’s the calm he radiates. Maybe it’s his wise and young face. Strangers ask him hard questions. When Cockburn appeared as a guest on the Elwood Glover CBC-TV show from Toronto in the late fall, the questions came, and so did the answers, sort of.
Glover: Do you think there’s any indication that we’re going to have a better life?
Cockburn: I really doubt it. The way things are going, you can’t get any better except in a material way. The machines get bigger all the time and do more things. But people are awfully screwed up despite the machines.
Glover: What Is success to you? Are you successful?
Cockburn: I don’t know. The act of communicating with people is the most important thing and, on the occasions when I communicate, I feel successful.
Glover: But what about
money? You must be doing very well financially now?
Cockburn: Ummm, well, we had to borrow something to get down to Toronto from Ottawa for this show. But I’m not concerned about money.
WA polite voice from out of the slight gloom of the War Memorial Auditorium in Guelph, Ontario, about tenth row centre, asks for a request. “Sing something from your movie,” the voice calls, belonging, you can make out, to a boy in his late teens. “From Goin' Down The Road. If you would.” It’s been the same request for the last six months, and Cockburn, alone on a stool in the spotlight, looks patient. “I’m sorry,” he says into the microphone in a soft and final voice, "I don’t sing those songs. When I wrote them, I wrote them to express the point of view of the people in the movie. It isn’t my point of view. It isn’t me. So, you know,
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