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: http://johnamccurdy.wordpress.com/
For several years now I've formed 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 necessarily understanding his music in a conscious way. In this short book I try to remedy this perceived problem with respect to his early work.
The book is structured in the following way.
The contents of Chapters 2, 3, and 4, are primarily biographical. Together they reconstruct the story of Bruce's life as he himself has told it to so many journalists over the years, from his birth in 1945 to his first appearance as a truly established music artist at Toronto's Massey Hall in the spring of 1970. Virtually all the biographical material contained in these chapters has been carefully gleaned from interviews Bruce has given over the past forty plus years. Consequently, they present Bruce's early life and work as he has thus far offered it to the reading public. Wherever and whenever appropriate, I let Bruce speak for himself. A small portion of his biography is also presented in Chapter 6, principally the story of his marriage and earliest known Christian experience.
Chapter 5 offers an original narrative interpretation of Bruce's first album. (Copies of Bruce's debut are hard to come by today. It's possible to listen to the songs at the True North Records website http://www.truenorthrecords.com/Albums.php?album_id=14, though I must recommend that the reader acquire a copy of his or her own.)
My interpretation of his debut record rests on a central assumption: that Bruce 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 Bruce's lyrics, in an integral vision of earthly and heavenly harmony.
As Bruce 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. As Bruce 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 Bruce'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 Bruce's eclecticism and syncretism were once and are essentially once again his normative position as a music 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.
In short, Bruce Cockburn’s understanding of the human condition, it seems to me, is predominantly eclectic or syncretic. In this sense, his adult life and work constitutes a passionate inter-cultural quest, initiated when he was only in his teens, one that deepened during his years at Berklee School of Music in Boston in the mid-1960s.
One last point. Historically, Bruce has tended to be an unusually private Canadian icon. As early as 1976 journalist Patricia Holtz would point out just how shy he actually was. He cared, she insisted, “an extreme amount about his privacy," while the "whole idea of interviews seems to him like an unnecessary intrusion.” Bruce's private way of life will soon be challenged though by Bruce himself. In spring 2010, Bruce announced that he was planning to write a memoir, to be published in April 2010 by HarperOne and HarperCollinsCanada. As Bruce 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, Bruce's 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 Bruce himself has to say about himself.