Chapter 3, Children, Squires, Circuses, Crowds: The Band Years

The Band Years in Ottawa: The Children

Back in Ottawa, Bruce formed a song writing partnership with area poet and musician Bill (William) Hawkins (Caldwell 2002). Playing with the staid local band The Squires while also managing his own pop rock band, The Children, Bill was dynamic. A former recipient of the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce Young Man of the Year award, Bill, Bruce would later remark, remained “‘subversive of everything the Chamber of Commerce stood for’” (Batten 1971a, p. 38). Initially, Bruce restricted himself to writing music to Bill’s lyrics. The process, Nicholas Jennings has argued, tested and strengthened his compositional gifts. In less than a year the two had generated a hundred songs or song ideas (Jennings 1997, p. 132). Eventually though Bill succeeded in persuading Bruce to start writing his own lyrics (Caldwell 2002; Batten 1971a, p. 38). Years later Bruce would maintain that Bill, more than anyone else, had taught him “‘the importance of words’” (Jennings 1997, p. 132).

Backed by Harvey Glatt’s successful Treble Clef talent promotion firm (RPM Music Weekly), Hawkin’s The Children imagined themselves as the new Beatles and enjoyed access to Le Hibou, where they played regular gigs (Kensington Communications Inc., 2002). Bruce would even work a stint as a dishwasher at the club (Helmer 2009).

Shortly after supporting the then popular Canadian band Willows in Montreal, Quebec, and London, Ontario in May 1966, The Children decided to stage a novel and innovative ‘Roots of Rock’ program at Le Hibou. Concurrently, the band also formed a society, “The Children’s Revolutionary Army, A Fan Club with Purpose,” dedicated “to ending the cosmic woe” (Keebler). By June Bruce had joined (Jennings 1997, p. 132) on organ (Yorke 1971, p. 57) and was renting a room from Hawkins in Ottawa at 177 Spark Street (Saturday Night Online 2001).

By July, Canada’s RPM Music Weekly was hailing The Children as Ottawa’s “fastest rising folk-rock group.” It also announced Bill and Bruce’s plan to compose and stage a rock opera (RMP Music Weekly). Later that year the band opened for The Rolling Stones (Jennings 1997, p. 132), a prestigious gig that pointed to rapid music business success.

Beneath the surface both Bill and Bruce had grown ill at ease, however. On the home front Bruce’s parents saw through the hype, anxious at their sons’ seeming lack of direction. “I had no life” at the time, Bruce would later remark. “All I did was smoke hash and write songs.” Socially withdrawn, he took to wandering the streets in the guise of a detached observer and recorder of things (Kensington Market Communications Inc., 2002). Outwardly, members of the band found it increasingly difficult to live and play together amicably. Enthusiastic “but awfully naïve,” Bruce later admitted, The Children “‘ended up destroying each other’” (Batten 1971a, p. 37). On the evening of 11 December things collapsed with finality when Bill abruptly  quit the band in the middle of a supporting set for The Lovin’ Spoonful at Maple Leaf Gardens (Jennings 1997, p. 208). Bruce soon followed.

The Band Years in Ottawa: The Heavenly Blue and The Squires

For Bruce, The Children’s decline and fall would not equate to crash and burn, however, as he remained, at the time, a member of an alternate Ottawa area band known as Heavenly Blue (Keebler 2008). Bruce also put in a short but unsuccessful stint at the time with a third Ottawa area band, The Esquires (Keebler 2008; Canoe.ca). These project would prove mere interludes. Meanwhile, Bruce’s frequent appearances at Le Hibou began to garner the attention of a young Carleton University and art school student named Cathleen. Known ever after in Cockburn lore as ‘Kitty,’ Bruce and Cathleen soon established a strong bond (Batten 1971a, pp. 37-38).

The Band Years in Toronto: The Flying Circus, Olivus, and 3’s A Crowd

In 1967, at twenty-two years of age, Bruce decided to move from Ottawa to Toronto, Ontario, where the Canadian music scene was vibrant. There, he formed a new band (Keebler 2008) that was briefly managed by department store entrepreneur John Craig Eaton. Known as The Flying Circus, the band would explicitly market itself as Canada’s answer to psychedelia (Yorke 1971, p. 57). Alongside Bruce, who played guitar and sang lead vocals, were ex-Tripp member Neil Lillie, and former Bobby Kris & The Imperials players Marty Fisher and Gordon MacBain (Wikipedia). As Nicholas Jennings has noted in his 1997 retrospective Before the Goldrush, The Flying Circus provided Bruce with fresh opportunities “to advance his guitar playing and [to] showcase his song writing” (Jennings 1997, pp. 169-170).

On 1 October, the band took up residence at Le Hibou and followed with a four-night booking at Toronto’s esteemed Riverboat club (Wikipedia). Signed to Harvey Glatt’s Treble Clef management in late 1967, The Flying Circus went on to record The Children songs “Merry Go Round,” “It’s a Dirty Shame,” and “Little Bit Stoned,” as well as early Bruce compositions like “She Wants to Know,” “I’m Leaving You Out,” “Mother,” and “Flying Circus” (Wikipedia). By late 1967, the Toronto-area folk-pop band 3’s A Crowd would release a successful cover of Bruce’s early song, “Bird Without Wings.” The track, along with a version of Bruce’s “The Way She Smiles,” would later appear on their 1968 album Christopher’s Movie Matinee (The Cockburn Project).

Bruce’s unusually plain-spoken ballad, “The Way She Smiles,” adopts as its central subject the warmth and careless abandon of two lovers in bed, echoing, in doing so, the early poetry of seventeenth century English poet John Donne. The fact that the song’s male character and narrator ultimately expresses feelings of physical and emotional doubt, however,  establishes an undertone of irony in the song, however (The Cockburn Project). “This new feeling I’ve had since I met her,” Bruce writes, “Oh tell me, is it love?” Doubts arise as the narrator compares the warmth of his lover with that of the sun. For it’s part, the sun in the song is itself saddened that it isn’t able to shine as intimately for Bruce as a human lover can. Bruce’s human lover-sun lover conceit in “The Way She Smiles” is undoubtedly awkward, yet its comparison of celestial divine love and terrestrial human intimacy marks the advent of tension in his work between the spiritual yearning and earthly desire.

Aside “The Way She Smiles,” only a few of Bruce’s early lyrics have so far been made public. One exception is the lyrics to “Flying Circus,” a Beatles-style theme song Bruce wrote for The Flying Circus (The Cockburn Project). The song makes an opaque yet significant case for the visionary power of night vision, seemingly, as it does, to applaud the era’s rising drug culture while simultaneously condemning its increasingly frenetic pace of life. It makes this case by adopting the perspective of the anxious young artist who remains, at the same time, the type of the lonely young man. But it also do so by deploying the image of an older man with a “black patch on his eye … selling tickets for the Flying Circus ride.” Here, the eye patch imagery operates as a metaphor for the artist’s capacity for perceiving and articulating alternate realities, much as sailors once wore eye patches to preserve their capacity to see while down in the ship’s hull. In the final analysis “Flying Circus” suggests Bruce’s capacity as an artist for ‘night vision’ will depend on long periods of isolation, much like the sailor who abandons society for weeks or months at a time, leaving all behind.

Indeed, in “Bird Without Wings,” another Bruce-penned Flying Circus composition, the song’s narrator laments the loss of a deeply comforting and vow-worthy love. The culprit, “Bird Without Wings” suggests, is an indistinct yet overpowering fear of bonding with another human being. Collapsing his identity as a songwriter with his equidistant identity as a lover, Bruce laments in one of the song’s initial refrains: “I could only feel your music one line at a time.” Here Bruce’s confessed failure to create registers simultaneously as a failure to love.

A Poetic Interlude: Bruce’s 1967 Weed Poems

In fall 1967 Bruce published four poems in Weed, a literary magazine based at the time in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario (The Cockburn Project). Marred as they are by an impulse to conceal rather than reveal, they possess flashes of insight that illuminate the grossly under-documented early development of Bruce’s poetic imagination. Probing ways in which culture imposes control over human bodies, Bruce’s Weed poems draw loosely on themes then prevalent in the hugely popular writings of Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan.

Viewed in this respect, two central conceits or motifs stand out in the poems. The first of these can be called clock time, something that lies at the heart of modern industrial life. The second of these can be called organic time, which continues to define, among other things, the process of human gestation. In Bruce’s Weed poems, organic time is most prominently associated with the fertile female body. This conceit will recur prominently in Bruce’s late 1960s song, “Spring Song,” the second last track Bruce Cockburn, his 1970 debut record.

Though its disparate citation of Catholic culture and Egyptian and Roman mythology fail to cohere, human gestation and bones emerge as central motifs in “The Black Pope’s Brittle Sermon,” Bruce’s first Weed poem. Latin thematics carrys over into Bruce’s second Weed poems, “For ‘The Madison Ave. Boys of the Aegean’,” a work Bruce would tie directly to the writings of American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, famous today for his thesis that language shapes cognition (Wikipedia). This second poem does several things: it meditates on the roots of the Latin word ‘virgin’; it sets up a classical humanist comparison between so-called authentic Greek and so-called false Roman culture; and it compares the trials of writing poetry with the labour of giving birth to a child.

“Ruthie’s Tired Thing,” Bruce’s third Weed poem, holds out the body, specifically the womb and the birthing process, as its central conceit. Otherwise obscure, its miscarriage motif succeeds in communicating a generalized though largely unconscious fear: that modern society rests on physically unsustainable and psychically unstable foundations. Bruce captures a central aspect of this malaise in “The Pauper’s Answer,” the last of his Weed poems, in which organic seasonal change contrasts effectively with the wired and perpetual present of city culture.

Rock and Bluster: The End of the Band Era in Bruce’s Early Career

Intimations that the Flying Circus was on the road to more than its next gig left Bruce feeling oddly restless. Increasingly, Bruce grew sick of rock’s bluster and self-indulgence. The issue of whether to go on would come to a head in April 1968. In that month The Flying Circus, recently renamed Olivus, would open for the Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, the English speaking world’s leading psychedelic rock bands, in Montreal.

After the show Hendrix himself would invite The Flying Circus to a private jam session (Simon 1997). Bruce, however, opted out early. Years later he would vividly recall the fateful evening in a 1997 interview. The moment of decision came, he explained, during the show’s final set, as Bruce, positioned at the side of the stage,  watched Hendrix perform. Fame, he concluded that night, amounted to little more mutual gazing, the rock star gazing at the audience, the audience gazing at the rock star. From that moment, Bruce attests, he swore off the pursuit of fame for fame’s sake (!Music 1997).

One snare remained, however, for no sooner had Bruce parted ways with Olivus, than the venerable 3’s A Crowd had him by the leg (Jennings 1997, p. 200). This last ditch effort to succeed in rock and roll was largely if not solely inspired by the group’s success in securing a roster of fall season appearances on CBC television. When a mere handful of the shoots gained actual airtime (Appel 1968), however, 3’s A Crowd went its three respective separate ways (Jennings 1997, p. 200).

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