-- Dancing in the Jaws of Change --
Maclean’s magazine, Sept 7, 1981 By Ian Pearson with files from Mark Ablet and Michael Clugston

News Index

Bruce Cockburn - Dancing in the Jaws of Change - Maclean’s Magazine

28 Ocotber 2023 - This article came to the CockburnProject via Murray Harrison, who posted scanned images which were transcribed by John Peregrim - thanks John!

Murray's synopsis of "Dancing in the Jaws of Change" Maclean’s magazine, Sept 7, 1981. - A well written, incisive and comprehensive article on BC’s personal and music direction changes and reflections at the time, his Christian faith, the Canadian music culture and trying to make an international mark, and his young and early adult life. Comments by Bernie, Gene Martynec, Murray Mclauchlan, and band members Hugh Marsh, Dennis Pendrith and Kathryn Moses.

What Bruce Cockburn's fingers are doing to the strings of his electric guitar is registered only as the surging of power meters and the blinking of computerized digits on the hardware of the 24-track recording studio. The mute technology of Toronto's Manta Sound merely whirs and shutters, encoding another piece of electronic information onto the tape, but the humans present on this April night are alert to the important musical transformation at hand. As Cockburn squeezes power chords from the neck of his Fender Stratocaster guitar, his manager, Bernie Finkelstein, glances at engineer Gary Gray and grins. "Folk music, eh?" Gray replies, chuckling, "Yeah, folk music." Indeed, the muscular sound is antipodal to the gentle and delicate tunes that won Cockburn his loyal following. Against the band's chopping rock 'n' roll rhythms, Cockburn's guitar stutters frenetically on a new song called Wanna Go Walking. Murray McLauchlan, fellow survivor of the Canadian singer-songwriter brigade, wanders into the studio and gawks at the spectacle of his intent peer summoning up oceans of noise through the monitors. "Hey kid," chides McLauchlan, "don't hurt yourself."

The tight-lipped resolution on Cockburn's face and the confidence with which he handles his guitar and body suggests he is in little danger of self-injury. He is dressed to defy. The accoutrements of the 36-year-old musician could easily adorn a teen-aged member of a new wave band: his white-flecked mane of red hair combed back into a David Bowie-style ducktail, the black leather jacket and sunglasses, the green khaki army pants and white sneakers, the black t-shirt emblazoned Be-BOP SUX. His new music flaunts a similar toughness. The lyrics examine a dissolute world and the travails of "the numb and confused, the battered and bruised. / the counters of cost, and the star-crossed." The music is loud and fast enough that the onetime master of hushed introspection today exhorts his audience to dance.

The change is substantial since he is, after all, a musician whose image of vulnerability once enclosed him as snugly as the Cowichan sweater and granny glasses that used to be his trade marks. To the generation of Canadians that came of age in the late '60s, Bruce Cockburn was a pure indigenous alternative to popular music: the bearded mystic who crafted fragile melodies on his acoustic guitar and sang with a voice as ephemeral as mist about spirituality and the wonders of going to the country. But unlike other precious dinosaurs of the era whose warm granola-nurtured blood froze up in the chill of the '80s, Cockburn has always been responsive to new ideas, although aloof from the whims of musical fashion.

Whereas his previous changes of direction have been gradual, the breakup of his marriage, a move to the inner city of Toronto and a shaking and reaffirming of his Christian faith have instigated the most radical artistic departure of his career. "There's a sort of struggle that's going on with everyone in their 30s where, as Neil Young says, traveling in the middle of the road is a bore, so it's more interesting to head for the ditch," observes Peter Goddard, popular music critic for the Toronto Star. " I think Cockburn of all people - good old High Anglican Bruce Cockburn - went for the ditch and took his leather jacket with him and suddenly became a very virile, handsome man."

Cockburn's transformation comes at a time when he is enjoying the greatest popular and critical success of his career in Canada, the U.S., Italy and Japan. The release this month of Inner City Front - the product of his April recording sessions and his 11th studio album in as many years - unveils the most accessible music he has ever recorded and should expand that audience. The American breakthrough for Cockburn was his 1979 album, Dancing In the Dragon's Jaws and the infectious hit single Wondering Where the Lions Are. "I heard about eight bars of Lions and I said 'I'll take it,' " recalls Jimmy Penner, president of New York's Millennium Records, the company that licenses Cockburn's records in the U.S. and the U.K. The album sold nearly [?????] copies in the U.S. and 95,000 in Canada, figures that won't rob Rush and REO Speedwagon of their livelihoods, but respectable enough for an artist who sings about eternity when most pop musicians are preoccupied with Saturday night.

The much darker and intellectual 1980 follow-up, Humans, did not fare as well commercially (sales of 80,000 in Canada and 125,000 in the U.S.), but its passion and intelligence did not escape the critics. Rolling Stone called it "feverishly lovely." England's Melody Maker raved, "It's hard to imagine anyone coming across Cockburn for the first time with Humans not being won over to the cause." In Italy, his nine-city tour last May sold out; a 1979 concert in Milan attracted 7,200 fans, much more than any indoor concert he has played in Canada. And the prestigious West German jazz label ECM Records, has been eager to record Cockburn. "I haven't heard any other songwriter who is such a profound guitarist," says Hans Wendl, production co-ordinator of ECM in Munich. "That unique combination makes him so outstanding."

The success is all the more remarkable because Cockburn stayed in Canada, Developing his music to a stature that the world could not help but notice. Although his talent was compared early in his career to compatriots Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, he chose to explore the artistic possibilities of his native country instead of fleeing to California. The exploration included meditations on the wilderness, the incorporation of French lyrics into his songs and cross-country tours during which he would travel in a camper and familiarize himself with the land and the people. Material for his songs came from across the country, from a "shining mountain" in Chilliwack, B.C., to the "goin' down the road" lament of Maritimers (which provided the theme song for the Don Shebib film of the same name). "Bruce came out here and got to know the country," says Edmonton film-maker Tom Radford of the score Cockburn wrote for his film Ernest Brown - Pioneer Photographer. "Even though he was from Ottawa, he was doing the score with as great a knowledge about the West and its landscape as any western composer could have."

The shift in Cockburn's music from the pastoral to the urban reflects the fact that the lives of most Canadians take place on pavement, not on forest floors. Like the works of other artists who are concentrating on urban settings (such as Margaret Atwood's novel Life Before Man, Erika Ritter's play Automatic Pilot and Clay Borris' film Alligator Shoes), Cockburn's Inner City Front may be part of a cultural maturation indicating that Canadians have done enough root-gazing to be confident to build their art out of their daily existence. While not subscribing to any flag-waving nationalism, Cockburn does feel part of a fledgling culture: "What part I have in that culture, I couldn't venture to say, but what seems to be going on in this country is a very slow and only semiconscious development toward a cultural nationhood."

His latest contribution to this culture are the new songs, which are electric, urban and rhythmic where his earlier music was acoustic, bucolic and melodic. The shy naïve bard who would occasionally perform barefoot with his dog, Aroo, curled up onstage beside him now fronts a six piece band which weaves disparate strands of reggae, fusion jazz, folk, rock 'n' roll and new wave into a synthesis that can only be called Bruce Cockburn music. "He draws on so much," explains the violin player, Hugh Marsh. "He listens to really diverse, insanely different musics - from jazz to Ghanaian music - and takes the best of all of them." Inner City Front meshes these elements together more seamlessly than his previous work and the lyrics look outward. His visions of "pine-framed space" and the "harmony of kin" have been supplanted by plaints protesting social injustice and images of back alleys, billboards and fire escapes. "Today was a dog licking crap from the gutter of the street," he sings in Wanna Go Walking. "Tonight is a dancer oscillating on weightless feet."

Aroo might well turn over in his grave but his sentiments would not be shared by the majority of Cockburn fans who openly embraced the new sound on a 42-city Canadian tour last winter. A few detractors could not adjust to the new music as it was presented for the first time. Peter Mautner of Toronto was perturbed enough after Cockburn's Convocation Hall concert to air his complaints on the letters page of The Globe and Mail: "The fundamental approach of most pop performers of limited talent is to turn up the volume, which happened that night." Similarly, Alison Fletcher of Halifax was unimpressed by Cockburn's March concert there: "I like him when he was on his own, but I think his music is commercialized now." But the majority of the fans appreciated the metamorphosis into electric music. Said longtime fan Mitchell Schurman of the same Halifax performance: "I think he's improved. I was always a rock 'n' roll fan, so for him to do that was a nice change."

The "nice change" in Cockburn's music came about only after the painful personal upheaval caused by his marriage breakup. In the spring of 1980, he and his wife Kitty, parted after 10 years of marriage (and a few years together before that). Theirs had borne all the external markings of an idyllic existence; Cockburn's career was successful enough to allow for extensive travel and plenty of time to retreat to their country house near the Rideau River south of Ottawa. Their daughter, Jenny, was born in 1976. But as with most intense relationships, the marriage isolated Cockburn from other people. "I've always been friendly with people when I met them, but there's a difference between being involved with people and just being nice to them," he explains. "I was never involved except with my wife and daughter. By the time Jenny came along, things were already a bit weird." He describes the separation as "a strange, shocking and interesting thing to have happen in your life. I guess it's not so strange for some people, but it was very far from my life. In the end, from a purely selfish perspective, I think it will have been a good thing because there were a lot of things about myself that I let go." He once wrote love songs containing lines such as, "In your heart where the world comes from / there you will find me"; a song on Humans describes his behavior as "fascist architecture of my own design."

Kitty and Jenny repaired to the Yukon, and Cockburn - with his head wrenched out of the star fields - moved to Toronto, relying on friends for support and finding himself astounded by the warmth with which he was treated. "I grew up as a loner without much regard for people at all," he admits. "The last year or so has been a period of a flowering awareness and interest in other people." He landed in the Spadina and College area of downtown Toronto, a neighborhood of hustlers and bohemians where the term "renovation" applies to the spirit instead of houses. The healthy street scene fed his music, as did a return to playing in clubs, backing up such friends as jazz singer Beverly Glenn-Copeland and reggae singer Leroy Sibbles. And he discovered the pleasures of dancing to such modern bands as the Specials and Talking Heads. The awkwardness of body that he displayed when he was shyly hunched over his guitar was replaced by a new physical gracefulness, just as his writing exhibited a new simplicity. "Where some people seem fuzzy, his outlines seem leaner and sharper to me," says Kathryn Moses, who has played flute and reeds for Cockburn since 1976. "It's a process of maturing, of reaching 35. When you're 22, you feel like you're going to live forever and you can carry around all these extra words and feelings and junk. The older you become, the excess just sloughs off. And that's what happened to Bruce."

Cockburn's Christian faith, however, was too strong to be sloughed off. From the beginning, his music explored various forms of spirituality, from Christianity to Taoism. In 1973, he became a committed Christian. His faith has directed his songwriting ever since, although his strident religious imagery has slowly moved to the background of his latest material. "What I am trying to do in my own mind," Cockburn says, "is to take what I know of the world of the spirit and find some place for it in day-to-day life." His Christianity is much more intellectual than the fundamentalism of recent converts such as Bob Dylan and Cliff Richard. Like writers Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, Cockburn uses Christianity as a solid footing against the disintegration of spiritual values in the 20th century. Unlike the bullying proselytizing of Dylan - whose statements like "You're going to have to serve somebody" are offered more as threats than as spiritual options - Cockburn's mustard-seed role is presented by him as, "I've got this information, if you want it, here it is."

Nevertheless, Cockburn's faith has been a liability. "I think his Christianity turned off a lot of people," says Gene Martynec, producer of all Cockburn's albums before Inner City Front (which Cockburn produced himself with Finkelstein's assistance). "Some people the other day asked me about Bruce: 'How do you deal with that?' And I said 'You don't have to. It's just not so evident anymore.' " Friends do not consider Cockburn's religious commitment a barrier in relationships. "The Christianity is there," says bass player Dennis Pendrith, who has backed Cockburn intermittently for 12 years. "He's always willing to talk about it, but he'll never bring it up unless somebody else does. Occasionally when we're traveling, he'll read from the Bible or study, but it's never something he'd push on somebody."

What prevents his religious view from being heavy-handed is the tempering influence of his keen intellect. While many pop musicians read nothing deeper than the Billboard charts, Cockburn's exotic literary influences range from Christian fantasist Charles Williams and earthy French poet Blaise Cendrars to science-fiction writer Samuel Delany. As Robert Christgau wrote in The Village Voice, "Cockburn is like a smart, nice but not especially hip/cool English prof."

Cockburn's faith and his artistic imagination are part of a private world that has been kept separate from his cheerful exterior since childhood. "He talks about himself as a schizophrenic in that he has two worlds that are always fighting for attention," explains Pendrith. "One's a total fantasy world: every once in a while you get glimpses of his perception of a situation and it'll be totally bizarre. He says it's a very constant struggle for him to keep that in the back of his consciousness rather than in the forefront. I think that strangeness about him makes him a great artist." Even though one's first impressions of Cockburn are of a thoroughly open and nice person, when he talks of himself a portrait of a loner emerges. "For me, the lack of involvement with people was a gap in my knowledge that has existed from childhood on," he recalls. That childhood was a normal middle-class upbringing. The eldest of three sons of an Ottawa radiologist, Cockburn was exposed to classical music at an early age. After dabbling indifferently with the trumpet and the clarinet, he settled on the guitar. "I've got this picture of myself when I was 12," he remembers. "I'm standing on my bed as if I was onstage, playing this cardboard guitar that I made. My best friend and I used to fantasize and play these games like we were big rock 'n' roll stars. So obviously what I do now is consistent with what was in my mind then."

A short stint as a street busker in Europe followed high school, then he entered the Berklee School of Music in Boston and studied composition for a year-and-a-half. On his return to Ottawa in 1966, he played what he terms "psychotic rock 'n' roll" with a number of bands. "He was playing electric guitar, spitting blood through his harmonica and singing blues," reminisces Murray McLauchlan. "Bruce in those days was a mean, rotten, aggressive kid. He's mellowed a lot and become a lot more knowledgeable and certainly more measured in his attack on the world. I don't think his ferocity is any the less: Bruce is the kind of person who has ideas about how things should be and uses his art to go out and see if they can't be changed."

Cockburn switched to performing solo in 1969 simply because "everything seemed to go fine when I was playing by myself but it didn't work as well when I was playing with bands." Through Gene Martynec, he linked up with Bernie Finkelstein as manager and in 1979 [sic - should be 1970] the album Bruce Cockburn became the first release of Finkelstein's True North Records. The small scale on which Cockburn worked allowed him to produce the music he wanted instead of catering to record company dictates. "Bruce doesn't feel commercial pressure because he's always been in the black," says Finkelstein. "He's like Woody Allen in a way. While he doesn't make a . . . [missing line] being No. 1, he doesn't spend a lot either."

His fourth album, Night Vision (released in 1973), featured an electric guitar on many of the tracks and was his first album to receive a gold record (sales of 50,000) in Canada. "Night Vision was noticeably more attention-getting than the other albums and that made me a bit nervous," he recalls. "I was afraid of taking that extra step" Instead he settled into the niche of jazz-inflected tranquil music and by the mid-'70s he could easily sell out 2,000-seat auditoriums anywhere in Canada. But his loyal cult following had built-in limitations. The audiences wanted to be placated - but not necessarily challenged - by the music. "I'd be up on stage playing and I'd have no idea of why I was there and felt totally stupid," Cockburn says of the three-year period before he formed the nucleus of his band in 1979. "I'd lost touch with what it felt like to play for people and why they were there. And I also just got bored doing the same thing over and over."

The cure for his artistic ennui was travel. Tours of Japan in 1977 and Italy in 1979 put him back in touch with with audiences who responded to his music not with silent adulation but with singing and dancing. And he was exposed to a world of random violence that was light-years removed from the pleasant house in the country. In 1979, when he was playing near Padua, Italy, a crowd of students started shooting out the windows of the hall. At another Italian concert, the stage was searched for a bomb during a performance. "The audiences were so completely excitable and wild and noisy and crazy," he recalls. "As far as I could tell, everybody seemed happy with these shows. We didn't get killed, which is what happens when they are not happy with the shows."

The jangled world he witnessed seeped into his lyrics. The humans of Humans are paramilitary police and guerrillas; Inner City Front espies "private armies on suburban lawns" and the "hollow darkness in which nations dress." Nowhere is the change more apparent than in two songs written in Japan. Nanzen Ji, written in 1977, is a placid haiku about a temple in Kyoto: "white stone lake / crystal clear / I walk on the voices of nightingales." In stark contrast, 1979's Tokyo is a fragmented collage based on a violent car crash: "Comic book violence and escaping steam / Grey suited business men pissing against the wall / Cut to crumbling guardrail, slow motion car fall."

None of this anxiety is evident as Cockburn listens to the complete playback of Inner City Front for the first time. On a fetching track called And We Dance, Kathryn Moses' flute soars on a melody line so light it threatens to ascend forever. The words echo the contentment displayed by Cockburn as he relishes a rare calm moment in the studio: "We've got this time / We've got this rhythm / Till the whole thing comes apart / Like light through a prism." In a world composed of discordant melodies which resist any unifying rhythms, the prism of Bruce Cockburn's imagination is a wider spectrum than most. And though the shafts of light may be bent by his conflicting planes of congeniality and loneliness, faith and morality, rhythm and melody, the fractured lens remains one of the brightest in the dark shadow known as popular music.

News Index

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.