Bruce Cockburn: The Troubador at 67
by Richard Wagamese

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2 March 2013 - The troubadour wanders. Heís a solitary sort and his eye is always on the horizon. Thereís a lot of world to see and a lot of stories to be told in song about its vistas, its nooks and crannies, its recesses and splays of light. The troubadour is drawn to all of them. He inhabits them. They come to inhabit him and the world through song is defined and articulated in the grace of his poetry.

Bruce Cockburn is a modern day troubadour. He has been for 43 years and 37 albums. Now, at 67, heís about to release a DVD featuring documentary and solo performance called Pacing The Cage. The songs are culled from performances off 2009ís Slice O Life CD and he likens the forthcoming DVD to a conversation.

"Itís me, a microphone and several guitars,Ē he said. "The solo thing allows for a greater rapport with the audience. Between takes thereís nothing but me and them and I tend to talk more. I like the solo performance for that Ė that ability to talk with audience with no one to hide behind."

The DVD includes the documentary of the same name done for Vision TV in 2012 along with musical performances. A second DVD, which is entirely a concert film, will feature the performances on the Vision TV version of Pacing The Cage plus many not in the film or on the live album, Slice O Life.

"Those who like the solo thing will love this and those who prefer a band might not enjoy it as much. But the good news is that we can still come back and do a band DVD sometime in the future."

Not surprising. In his career heís moved from the boho acoustic thing of his beginnings, to full band albums, back to philosophical/spiritual musing, to angry rants, only to return to pacific, spiritual wonder again. Those who have followed him through the length and breadth of his recorded career, "some of whom are still alive," will find much to savor. The performances on Pacing the Cage hit signposts all along that journey.

See, heís wandered through Europe, Central America, Japan, Africa and across the U.S and Canada. These days heís found hunkered down in San Francisco with a new wife and a 14-month-old daughter named Iona. Heís been there for varying chunks of time over the last three years. He sounds peaceful, rested and optimistic.

"The city fits me really well in a limited way," he said. ďWhen we were in New York, I really liked it there with its feeling of impending chaos. It had a really dark, almost post-Apocalyptic feel that was inspiring."

"The city of San Francisco though, is an anomaly. Itís this beautiful kind of yuppie enclave surrounded by miles and miles of redneckery. But you donít feel that in the city. Itís just so liberal here and beautiful and Iím sure there is that same aura of impending chaos, but you have to search for it."

When it comes to songwriting he doesnít know how the new atmosphere will inspire him. He hasnít written any songs. Instead, heís in the process of a first draft of a memoir, a kind of writing thatís new to him and presents its own degree of difficulty. He calls it a Ďspiritualí memoir and fans of songs like Mystery from 2004ís Life Short Call Now will be drawn to it.

"The bookís turned into a much bigger project than I thought it would be. When you write a song itís a short-term phenomenon. The flash comes or it doesnít come and if thereís no flash thereís no song."

"But with a book you have to sustain the energy and the focus. The thought process is carried over for a much extended period. Itís challenging for me but as time goes on it becomes a little less so. Itís moving along well now and my deadline for the first draft is the end of July."

While thereís no word on a publication date, beyond a best guess of somewhere over a year, heís confident as youíd expect a prolific songwriter to be. A look back at significant albums in his oeuvre always shows a superb craftsman able to wring telling nuance, truth or vitriolic upset out of a lyric.

"Itís not like Iím writing songs all the time. I write when I get an idea or an inspiration and when I have enough songs to put an album together we go into the studio and create an album."

"But if I write songs over a period of time theyíre going to reflect whatís going on in that period of time. They acquire a kind of dramatic consistency because of that.Ē

Indeed. One need only look back to 1980ís Humans say, or 2003ís Youíve Never Seen Everything to understand the truth of that. While critics have not always been enamored of his caustic, plain spoken, Ďjournalisticí or Ďdocumentaryí style of songwriting, his fans always have been.

Humans has been referred to as his masterpiece with Youíve Never Seen Everything mere steps behind that. The former was typified by gut level honesty about the end of a relationship while the latter was more politically driven. In both cases the songwriting was what provided the impetus for both albums.

What About the Bond from Humans and Trickle Down from Youíve Never Seen Everything are prototypical examples of a probing intellect driving a questing social conscience thatís tempered by a genuine moral and spiritual frankness. Itís whatís taken him on remarkable journeys and whatís brought the troubadour forward in his work.

"I feel as though Iíve lived actually lived several lifetimes in this one. Thereís a line of continuity through everything and even though I feel Iím essentially the same person as I was when I started, Iíve learned an awful lot about a lot of stuff."

"Our failing as human beings is not being able to see the divine energy thatís everywhere all around us. We need to remind ourselves of that. Remind each other."

Spoken like a genuine troubadour. The DVD, Pacing The Cage arrives in early May.

~Reprinted with permission from Richard Wagamese. From the Interview - Bruce Cockburn: The Troubador at 67 on O Canada.

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This page is part of The Cockburn Project, a unique website that exists to document the work of Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Bruce Cockburn. The Project archives self-commentary by Cockburn on his songs and music, and supplements this core part of the website with news, tour dates, and other current information.