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: http://johnamccurdy.wordpress.com/

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 http://www.truenorthrecords.com/Albums.php?album_id=14, 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.