Sunday, September 19, 2010

Becoming Bruce: The Early Life & Work of Bruce Cockburn, by John A. McCurdy

Cover of Bruce Cockburn's May 1970 self-titled debut album.
Becoming Bruce: The Early Life & Work of Bruce Cockburn, by John A. McCurdy, Copyright 2010, an online book self-published at WordPress:

For several years now I've had the distinct impression that both fans as well as the general public have been living with Bruce Cockburn's music these past forty years without understanding it in a conscious way.

With this short book I try to remedy this perceived problem with respect to his early work. It is structured in the following way.
The contents of Chapters 2, 3, and 4, are primarily biographical. A small portion of his biography is also presented in Chapter 6, principally the story of his marriage and earliest known Christian experience. Together, these chapters reconstruct the story of Cockburn's life from his birth in 1945 to his first appearance at Toronto's Massey Hall in spring 1970 as an established solo music artist. Virtually all the biographical material contained in these chapters has been carefully gleaned from interviews Cockburn has given since the late 1960s. As a result, the book present his early biography as he has thus far narrated it. Wherever and whenever appropriate, I let Cockburn speak in his own words. 
Chapter 5 offers an original narrative interpretation of Bruce Cockburn, Cockburn's self-titled debut album, released in spring 1970. (Copies of the album are hard to come by in any format today. However, it is possible to listen to it at the True North Records website, though I must recommend that readers acquire copies of their own.)
My interpretation of Bruce Cockburn rests on a central assumption: that Cockburn carefully arranged and crafted the contents of his debut record to communicate autobiographical initiation narrative. This story, I argue, is one of initiation into an Eco-Christian world view, but one significantly that ushers in a vision not so much of an orthodox as of a pagan Christ. This Eco-Christian vision culminates, as Paul Nonnekes intimated in an earlier 2000 study of Cockburn's lyrics, in an integral vision of earthly and heavenly harmony.
As Cockburn sings in “Spring Song”:
“Seasons turning yet again / The Mother’s breast is full again / As in heaven, so with men / Is now and ever shall be.”
The attainment of an Eco-Christian culture, “Spring Song” insists, lies in shifting the seat of human consciousness from brain to heart. This is achieved by birthing and cultivating what seers and mystics have called ‘the eye of the heart': the fourth energy centre of the human body known otherwise as the heart chakra. Again, as Cockburn sings:
“When we come / When we come again / To celebrate renewal / At the heart / At the heart of us / Our eyes will touch life.”
In forwarding this claim, I wish to challenge the prevailing notion that Cockburn's orthodox Christian material, dominant from 1974 to 1991, stands as the apex of his life work. What I would call the orthodox view regards his eclectic and syncretic early and late works as lacking Christian orthodoxy's imaginative clarity. By contrast, this book aims to show that his eclecticism and syncretism are his longest standing and thus predominant position as an artist. By this measure, his bold though arguably brief orthodox mid-career period ought to be viewed instead as a significant temporary detour rather than as a defining feature of his work.
His adult life and work constitute a passionate inter-cultural quest, initiated in his teens, deepened during his years at Berklee School of Music in Boston in the mid-1960s, and refined and expanded - for the most part - ever since.
One last point. Historically, Cockburn has been an unusually private Canadian icon. As early as 1976 journalist Patricia Holtz remarked as to how intensely shy he was. He cared, she insisted, “an extreme amount about his privacy," while the "whole idea of interviews seems to him like an unnecessary intrusion.” Cockburn's private way of life as a major Canadian artist will soon be challenged though by Cockburn himself. In spring 2010, he announced plans to publish a memoir with publishers HarperOne and HarperCollinsCanada. As he put the matter at a press conference at the time:
“‘... the notion that there should be a book about me has popped up now and then, along with offers to write it … It always seemed too soon, and I’ve felt all along that such a book should be mine to author. When HarperOne expressed their interest, it finally did seem timely ...’”
Further, his long standing manager, Bernie Finkelstein, has also announced the imminent publication of his own memoirs, set for release in the spring of 2012. There is no avoiding the fact that the looming appearance of Bruce's and Bernie's memoirs are virtually certain to alter the way we - myself included - understand the genesis, meaning, and significance of Bruce's early life and work.
In the meantime, I offer my book as a creative and competent reading of Bruce Cockburn's early life and work. Only time will tell if my reading of both will cohere with what Cockburn has to say about himself.


  1. I would argue that his Christian views become less dominant much earlier than 1991. While they never go away, albums like Humans, Dancing in the Dragons Jaw, Stealing Fire, Trouble with Normal, and even Big Circumstance are largely about other things. In Big Circumstance, Shipwrecked at the Stable Door is perhaps the weakest song there. And Gospel of Bondage is almost a reenactment of a crisis of faith.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Jim. The question as to when (and if) Bruce's Christian faith becomes merely one of many strands in his work is a good one. I kept my comments about his post-1970 work to a bare minimum in my book because I want to reserve my judgment on the full nature of this question for the future. But my sense, briefly, would be something like this -

    Bruce's work takes on an explicitly Christian focus by 1974 with "All the Diamonds" - a point that Bruce himself has made several times in the past. It retains this focus for at least the next four years, until Further Adventures of Bruce Cockburn in 1978.

    Following this I would argue that his work remains focused on his Christian faith, it's just that he develops and communicates fresh and sometimes unusual understandings of the faith, beginning with Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws in 1979. On Dancing he explores a new theology and new ways of imagining God/Christ/Spirit. In the 1980s Bruce embraced Liberation Theology and a theology of bodily spirituality, as far as I can tell. There was more of an acceptance that the gospel and the Kingdom have to be worked out by human beings here on earth. This is why I argue that he only starts to question the centrality of Christianity in the 1990s, at which point I sense a stronger interfaith or syncretic approach to the Spirit.

  3. I became acquainted with Bruce through his Stealing Fire album, and it is difficult to see that album as, in any way, "Christian". Yes, you can argue that he was into Liberation Theology, blah, blah, blah and he probably was. Heck, I like the poetry of Ernesto Cardenal (sp). But even an agnostic/Buddhist/atheist like myself has nothing to quibble with in most, if not all, of his output from the late 70's on. I can't listen to "Lord of the Starfields", for example (more because it seems kind of mawkish to me, rather than the explicit Christianity), and there may be a couple of other cuts that I just can't get into. But, for the most part, his "religion" is nothing more (or less) than spiritualism and mysticism, an appreciation of the animating force in the "World of Wonders". It could be deism, except for a handful of songs in the mid-70s.

    My point is not that the Christianity is absent in the 80's. I would merely suggest that you are overstating it to say that it is "dominant" through the 80's. I mean, is "bodily spirituality" (whatever that means) really Christianity?

  4. I hope you take my comments in the vein that they are expressed. I really appreciate that someone has taken the time to write a book about Bruce and to think deeply about his work and share their thoughts with his community of admirers.

  5. Hi Jim,

    Thanks for your comments. I'm still convinced that Christianity remained a dominant force in Bruce's music in the 1980s, though I can see how it is also possible to make a strong argument that the period was more spiritual or mystical than Christian proper. Still, you agree with me that Bruce's work was re-framed by Liberation Theology in this period - and this is my primary basis for claiming that his music remained predominantly Christian, so I don't see that we're actually in disagreement. The notion of a bodily spirituality that grows stronger in Bruce's 1980s work is, I think, strongly influenced by feminism and by a general trend during that period - that effected theology and other forms of knowledge - towards reconceptualizing the human subject in bodily or corporeal terms. I would agree though that a spirituality reaching beyond traditional Christianity begins to reemerge during the 1980s as an undercurrent in his work. My own sense is that this current becomes a key strand by about the mid-1990s. The best analysis of Christian patterning in Bruce's work, from 1974 to the present, comes from Dr. Brian J. Walsh at the University of Toronto:
    Check out some of his books and article when you get a chance.


  6. Well, regardless of the influence of Liberation Theology, your case would be bolstered a bit if there was any evidence of "Theology" in The Trouble With Normal, Stealing Fire, and World of Wonders. Big Circumstance definitely has more songs that delve into Christian subject matter or utilize Christian imagery, including Shipwrecked, The Gospel of Bondage, and The Gift. But these are more than outweighed by the non-religious- If a Tree Falls, Tibetan Side of Town, Radium Rain, Anything Could Happen, Where the Death Squad Lives, Understanding Nothing, I Don't Feel Your Touch. We can agree that Bruce has been a deeply Spiritual person and that he has said on many occasions that he is a Christian. By virtue of that we can assume that his Christian values and knowledge inform his work. But with very few exceptions (Lord of the Starfields, All the Diamonds, Dialog with the Devil perhaps) what references there are to religion are quite unobtrusive and light. I also don't find much explicit Christian content in Inner City Front and Humans.

    I was fairly startled to learn that people consider Dancing in the Dragons Jaw to be a very "Christian" album. First, it is heavily influenced by Charles Williams, who is Christian, but a fairly eccentric example, as much into the Occult as Christianity. To me the album is much more about the varieties of ecstatic, mystical spiritual experience, not always identifiably Christian in content. And while Christian Mysticism exists, just like Liberation Theology it is far outside the "mainstream" of Christian thought, which these days seems to tend towards the "bunch of neo-nazis running hooded through the night" that Bruce describes so well. I tried to find some of Brian Walsh's stuff, but very little is available online and nothing that was specifically about Bruce.

    Perhaps for our own reasons, you seem to want to make more of Bruce's Christianity and I want to make less of it. I don't want to reduce his music "to an Ideology." I think that if it existed, I could probably be a member of the Church according to Bruce, despite my agnosticism.

  7. Hi all,

    Earlier today I was happy to learn that Daniel Keebler, editor of Gavin's Woodpile, the leading Internet source on Bruce Cockburn, has just released all the pre-electronic editions of his newsletter on his website, including all issues released between 1994 and 2003:'s_woodpile_1994_2003.htm. Much of this material is sure to be new to many Cockburn fans. Check it out soon!

  8. I have updated the above post as of November 2011 in light of a recent rewrite of the Introduction to Becoming Bruce.

    - John A. McCurdy