5 December 2014 - I doubt Bruce Cockburn has ever even read a rock and roll memoir, so when he opens his own with “this is not your standard rock and roll memoir,” he probably hasn’t a clue. Because such autobiographies come in all tones, rhythms and degrees of disclosure, sensationalism and cocaine residue.
But then, this: Cockburn’s Rumours of Glory is not your standard rock and roll memoir.Nor should it be. Written with help from the American journalist Greg King, the more than 500 pages are candid, unbreezy, opinionated, contextual, political, not always entertaining but always important. These are the accumulations of an intricate and self-aware man. And while one might not hang on to every story or song explanation, nothing jumps out as being extraneous.
Why read Cockburn’s story? Songwriters come and go, but take my advice when I tell you to pay attention to the spiritually seeking, war-zone-visiting, guitar-mastering Canadian ones who hold rocket launchers.
Or the ones who, because monsters were beneath his bed, slept as a child with a toy revolver and a rubber knife under his pillow. And the ones who as adults “kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight” with a left foot, as we learn on page 12, that is two sizes larger than his right. Oh yeah, there’s a lot going on with this guy, and much under the skin of the Ottawa-born son of a radiologist.
I’m told by his longtime manager – Bernie Finkelstein, who is treated in the book with respectful, favourable (if occasionally bristly) appraisal – that Cockburn has a wry sense of humour. There’s not enough of it here. Some of it, though, comes out in an excellent, honest paragraph about his first wife Kitty and her reasonable wish in the mid-70s to have a child with her husband:
“I did not share her enthusiasm for the project, but I believed her and was committed to her, so I went along. … In due course a beautiful baby was born, though it took a day or two for the beauty to shine through. I got in trouble right away for remarking that she looked a bit like Idi Amin. Well, what the hell – she did.”
He goes on to explain that newborns always have the look of old people who are unhappy to be back in the world, but that the look fades. To get himself out of a trouble he then offers the lyrics of a song that explains his love for his offspring, written while she was in utero. The tune is Little Seahorse: “Swimming in a primal sea, heartbeat like a leaf quaking in the breeze… I already love you, and I don’t even know who you are.”
Lyrics are offered throughout, as a way of connecting his music with his life. You might already know that the words to his 1984 hit If I Had a Rocket Launcher came to him in a Mexican hotel room after witnessing atrocities during a visit to a refugee camp in Guatemala. His war-zone journeys are covered in detail here.
You might also know that after he “found Jesus” in 1974, Cockburn’s spiritual notions have made their way into his music. “I have attempted to live my life somewhat in line with his Word, without necessarily taking it as, well, gospel,” Cockburn explains in the book’s forewarning over ture. The word “Divine” is featured more times in Rumours of Glory than any book not written by King James or John Waters.
Cockburn doesn’t consider himself a preacher or a protest singer, but an observer who “paints sonic pictures of what I encounter, feel and think is true.” It’s intense stuff, from an intense artist and human.
Where James Taylor has seen fire and rain, Cockburn has sought it out. As a songwriter and a guitarist, he brings a rocket launcher to a knife fight. Some think his manner is too serious or over-killing or maybe even unfair. But I say styles make the fight – and the rock and roll memoir.
~from Rumours of Glory Bruce Cockburns Memoir by Brad Wheeler - Globe and Mail.