Chapter 4, Going Solo

Going Solo

Bruce first attempted to strike out on his own as a solo artist in summer 1968. The move was probably inspired by the fact that he had secured a coveted spot on the New Singer Songwriter roster for the eighth annual Mariposa Folk Festival (McLauchlan 1998, p. 148). As a solo artist, Bruce reckoned, he would be able to travel light, both literally and figuratively, and therefore live off very little, a lifestyle he’d already initiated. As he later put the matter: “‘All I ever thought is I’m going to do this as long as I can, and if I can’t get paid at it, I’ll be a bum doing it’” (Caputo 1995).

Going solo was also, for Bruce, about breaking free from the democratic tensions that plague many music groups (Kensington Market Communications Inc., 2002). “‘Going solo again was so much less complicated’” he would claim (Yorke 1971, p. 57). More importantly, Bruce had by then realized that he preferred the songs he’d written on his own, and also preferred performing them solo (Jennings 1997, p. 170).

The Aspiring Initiate

Shortly before his 11 August Mariposa debut (YorkSpace), Bruce performed on his own at Ottawa’s Le Hibou folk club. Following his performance, journalist Suzanne Appel interviewed him for the Ottawa Citizen newspaper. She began by praising Bruce’s technical abilities as a guitarist, which already set him apart from his peers. Ambitious, she noted, he was also patient and prepared to wait “for the big break.” Meanwhile, she added, he remained focused on building his “reputation as a writer.” His unflagging efforts were then paying off: prominent American folk artists like Judy Collins and Tom Rush were showing interest in his work.

Appel was not all praise though. In her article she expressed forthright concern over the  introspective intensity of Bruce’s lyrics and dismay over his seeming lack of urgency as an artist. Either factor, she warned, could scuttle an otherwise promising musical career.

Speaking with Appel with Beatnik flair, Bruce would distance himself “from hippies and flower-power,” identifying himself instead as an artist, individual, and detached “observer” of life. Sometimes, he explained, his powers of observation were directed outward, resulting in “flashes of objectivity.” More often though they were directed inward, in which case the goal lay in describing the world from his own uniquely subjective perspective. Indeed, Bruce even told Appel that intense introspection, enhanced with psychedelic drugs, had helped him to integrate the different sides of his own personality (Appel 1968). While this sort of talk will seem odd to many today, personality integration was a common goal among occult and psychoanalytic adherents during the late 1960s.  Ultimately, Appel reported, Bruce’s was a life devoted, in his own words, to free and unfettered self-inquiry.

Bruce’s Brand of Folk

By 1968, western-style folk music was a popular global phenomenon, yet it remained, then as now, a decidely anti-establishment mode of personal and collective expression. Bruce’s distinct brand of folk, however, with its overwhelmingly introspective lyrics, constituted a marked departure from the dominant and socially engaged folk music written by Pete Seeger and others like him.

At the time, Bruce’s brand of folk was given many different names, from ‘new folk’ to ‘neo folk’ to ‘new aesthetic folk’ (Mitchell 2007, pp. 144-145). Further, his unique style had much in common with the short-lived ‘psych folk’ sub-genre, known alternately as ‘freak folk,’ ‘weird folk,’ ‘wyrd folk,’ ‘acid folk,’ ‘pagan folk,’ or ‘enchanting folk.’ As one anonymously authored online definition has accurately put it, ‘psych folk’ fuses folk music and psychedelic rock, by incorporating:

“trance-like atmospheric sounds, musical improvisation, Asian influences, and lyrics about the natural world, love, and beauty that together evoke a ‘state of mind associated with psychedelic drugs’.”

‘Psych folk’ was popular among members of the 1960s neo-pagan subculture (Psychedelic Folk Homestead), of which Bruce was by then an active member; indeed, intensive study of the Tarot would emerge as his principle spiritual preoccupation at the time. Still, the drug culture probably served as Bruce’s entry point into neo-paganism for the simple reason that both shared common locales and a loose but common leadership.

From Yeats to Gurdjieff: Further Esoteric Explorations

Bruce has denied casting spells of his own during the 1960s. At most, he has owned to flirting with black magic (Holden 1981), having acquainted himself with the writings of the famous black magician Aleister Crowley. These he found “completely off-putting.” At the same time, he acquainted himself with the long tradition of white magic, deriving much inspiration in this regard from the life and work of Irish poet William Butler Yeats, himself a one time devotee of the Rosicrucian Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an esoteric society active in Great Britain in the early twentieth century.

The writings and teachings of the occult figure George Gurdjieff were also important for Bruce at the time. Like his famous pupil P.D. Ouspensky, Gurdjieff spoke of a ‘fourth way’ of spiritual initiation, which he claimed was uniquely appropriate for modern men and women, in that it permitted the pursuit of enlightenment or self-awakening while simultaneously tending to life’s everyday responsibilities. Then, as now, the goal of the so-called Gurdjieff ‘work,’ lay in self-transformation: in moving from the normal human state of ‘waking sleep,’ into the higher consciousness of ‘Objective Reason.’

Breaking Into the Toronto Music Scene

As a solo artist, Bruce experienced a second important breakthrough in November 1968, in the form of a gig at the recently established Pornographic Onion, a downtown Toronto coffeehouse run by students from the Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. Variety magazine published a brief yet glowing review of the show, describing Bruce as the best young Canadian singer-composer then working in Toronto. Dismissing his peers as “sullen and moody,” Variety praised Bruce’s “affable style,” his incorporation of “blues and ragtime melodies,” and his broad sensibilities, ranging as they did “from the melancholy to the satirical” (Variety 1968).

By no means, however, were a majority of the gigs Bruce would secure at the time well suited to his peculiar talents. Two months would be spent singing folk music to indifferent crowds at the Electric Circus in Toronto, for instance. On nights like these, Bruce would later recall, he took to playing an original work titled, “North American Bastard Son.” Though never recorded, the song became a standard for Toronto area band The Ugly Ducklings, with whom Bruce often shared a stage (Yorke 1971, p. 58).

A seemingly cynical response to Canada’s recent bicentennial euphoria, “North American Bastard Son” implied that the nation had surrendered its sovereignty to its neighbour to the south, the United States.

“Well life is just something to sell or to buy / You’re as loose with your money as you are with your thoughts / If I can’t be persuaded I can surely be bought.”

American culture, the song insisted, had grown restless and, worse, spiritually impoverished. Commerce, now dominant, threatened to commercialize the very fabric of society. Within this degraded milieu, Bruce located himself at the spiritual margin. There, “North American Bastard Son” affirmed, he sang songs and held communion “with the angels at night,” preserving a principled sense of right and wrong long since lost or abandoned by the dominant culture (Yorke 197 1, p. 58).

Rising, Falling, and Rising Again: The Early Life & Career of Bernie Finkelstein

Going solo presented Bruce with a ripe opportunity to record the material he’d written on his own, much of which he wished to put behind him (Rhodes 2008). Opportunity knocked in the spring of 1969 when Gene Martynec, then lead guitarist of the Toronto area band Kensington Market, introduced Bruce to Bernie Finkelstein, a young Toronto based talent manager with an impressive, if erratic, track record. Fresh from the Ontario countryside, where he’d struggled unsuccessfully to establish a viable farm, Bernie had returned to Toronto in search of new music artists for True North Records, an independent Canadian record label he was in the process of founding.

At Gene’s request, Bernie took in one of Bruce’s solo shows. By the end of the night Bernie was persuaded that Bruce’s earthy style and tasteful “ethereal” sensibility were marketable (McLauchlan 1998, p. 198). When Bernie offered to produce Bruce’s debut record and agreed to allow him to record it on his own, the latter  enthusiastically agreed. As a result, Bruce would have the distinction of signing on as True North Records’ first official artist (Caldwell 2002). Armed with a recording contract, Bruce applied for and received government-based arts funding (Yorke 1971, p. 57).

Bernie has revealed remarkably little about his origins to date, other than remarking of his precocious entry into the talent management world: “I was one of those fortunate people that found one of the few things they were qualified to do right away.” Be that as it may, Bernie clearly took to hard work at an early age (Holloway 2006). From the start he possessed an uncommon clutch of complimentary talents: an ear for upcoming talent, a finger on the local counter-cultural pulse, and a shrewd business sense in an industry then dominated by cautious conformists and vainglorious visionaries.

Born in Toronto, and raised for a time in England, Bernie’s family returned to Toronto when he was in his mid-teens (LeBlanc 1995, p. 65). Leaving Downsview Secondary School in 1964 before graduating, a nineteen-year old Bernie, by then an avid Bob Dylan and Kurt Vonnegut fan (Jennings 1997, p. 132), gravitated towards Yorkville, Toronto’s emerging bohemian district. There, future Finkelstein collaborator Bernie Fiedler had recently opened The Riverboat coffee house (Encyclopedia of Music in Canada). In Yorkville, Bernie found work as an espresso maker at El Patio, where he doubled part-time as a cleaner and bouncer (Holloway 2006). Within weeks, Bernie’s former Downsview classmates Ian Telfer and Brian Price were asking him to manage their new band, The Dimensions. In as little time, Bernie booked them to play at the club (The Canadian Pop Encyclopedia 2009). “I didn’t want to manage a band,” Bernie has admitted, “but I got asked, and it seemed … as interesting as making coffee, so I said yes.” Using a local payphone to do business, he began improvising his way into the industry (Toronto Star 2007).

Later on The Paupers, another Toronto band, arranged to practice at El Patio off hours. Soon, Nicholas Jennings attests, Bernie was making the band sandwiches and offering its members astute business advice. In particular, he insisted that they start writing and performing their own material. Heeding his advice, their prospects rapidly brightened. By late 1965, Bernie was officially managing their affairs (Jennings 1997, pp. 132-133).

On the advice of Ottawa music promoter and Le Hibou owner Harvey Glatt, Bernie flew to New York City in early 1967, to present a four-song Pauper demo to MGM industry executives. Signed on the spot, they became, as Jennings attests, “the first Canadian rock group to snare a fat American recording contract” (Jennings 1997, pp. 145-146). By then, as Pauper drummer Skip Prokop recalls, the band had become a “‘well-oiled machine’.” Emboldened, Bernie met with Howard Solomon, manager of  the Café Au Go-Go in Greenwich Village, and handily arranged for The Paupers to share a one-night bill with Canada’s Ian and Sylvia. There followed a second one-night bill with San Francisco’s Jefferson Airplane (Jennings 1997, p. 146).

Upstaging Jefferson Airplane that night, The Pauper’s gained the attention of prominent music journalists and industry heavyweights. With the exception of  Beatles manager Brian Epstein, Albert Grossman had also been in attendance. Grossman was then managing the careers of Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, Ian and Sylvia, and Peter Paul and Mary. A day later, an “incredibly stoned” Bernie would contract with Grossman to co-manage The Paupers. “‘I was so excited that I might get to meet Dylan through Grossman that I just wanted to do the deal’,” Bernie would later claim (Jennings 1997, p. 150).

For a time, Bernie relished working, as Nicholas Jennings puts it, with “the most powerful management company in the world.” Nevertheless, within months he had effectively lost control of both his band and his life. Excessive marijuana consumption had begun to take its toll. Anxious and depressed, Bernie would sell his $20,000 share in The Paupers to Grossman (Jennings 1997, pp. 156-157).

Returning to Yorkville (Holloway 2006), Bernie drew on a portion of the funds he’d raised in New York to assemble Kensington Market, a Jefferson Airplane-inspired Canadian band. Its members were hand-picked from the local music scene. Debuting at Yorkville’s Night Owl club on 4 June 1967, Kensington Market would go on to play the Mariposa Folk Festival that summer, earning rave reviews in local newspapers (Jennings 1997, pp. 162-163, 165). When it was released in 1968, Globe and Mail pop music critic Ritchie Yorke would declare Avenue Road, the band’s debut album, as perhaps the “‘finest album ever cut by a Canadian group’” (Jennings 1997, p. 185).

As time wore on though, Bernie and his band began to suffer the effects of increasingly intense hard drug use. This grinding decline paralleled broader trends in the Yorkville scene. As Jennings explains, by 1968 land speculators had knowingly permitted countless properties in the district to deteriorate, hoping ultimately to dominate the area by way of a bargain buyout. In the interim motorcycle gangs took advantage of the situation. Moving in, they flooded the neighbourhood with drugs like speed (Jennings 1997, p. 194). “‘I was in a real descending spiral’” at the time, Bernie recalls, “‘snorting a lot of pure meth’” (Jennings 1997, p. 198).

In fall 1968, a contingent of Yorkville residents migrated to the outskirts of Killaloe, Ontario, where a five hundred acre communal farm had recently been established. Among the group was Bernie, who had just given up managing Kensington Market. Luke Gibson, Kensington Market’s lead vocalist, was also present. Both, Jennings chronicles in Before the Goldrush, were keen on dropping out and on getting clean.

Neither Bernie nor Luke, however, could get used to the commune’s “ritualistic, neo-tribal ethos,” and so the two took to camping by a lake on the farm. Ultimately they would purchase an inexpensive property in nearby Pembroke, with the intention of starting a farm (Jennings 1997, pp. 198-199). Situated, as it was, on the rocky and rugged Canadian Shield, its century farmhouse was a damp and cramped affair, its soil poor and unyielding. “‘I probably learned more in that one year than I did in all the time I was at school’,” Bernie recalls (Jennings 1997, pp. 198-199).

Boredom, frustration, and escalating financial loss would force Bernie to reconsider. It was at this time that the initial idea for True North Records was born. “My vision,” Bernie has explained, “was that every record we [made] should be of such great value … that it would stand the test of time,” continuing to sell a decade later (Jennings 1997, pp. 198-199). Founded largely on the funds he’d managed to save, Bernie envisioned providing Canadian musicians with a means to present their work on the international stage (Jennings 1997, pp. 198-199).

Bruce Cockburn: Recording Artist & Rising Star

In May 1969, Bruce would make his first solo appearance at Bernie Fiedler’s Riverboat, a notable gig arranged in part by Murray McLauchlan, by then a friend and benefactor (Jennings 1997, p. 199). Otherwise, Bruce remained a regular feature at the Pornographic Onion, playing alongside Murray and other artists like David Rea, Beverley Mitchell, and Lenny Bran (Globe and Mail 1969a). Off-stage, the popular American country singer George Hamilton IV would release a cover on his compilation album Canadian Pacific of “Together Alone,” one of Bruce’s new songs (The Cockburn Project). Featuring exclusively Canadian songs, the record’s liner notes praised Bruce’s work with 3’s A Crowd (Batten 1969a). From this time forward Bruce was able as a musician to begin earning a respectable living for the first time.

Drawing on some of these new funds, Bruce purchased a pick-up truck, retrofitted  with a travel camper. Together he and Kitty started using the vehicle to traverse the Ontario-Quebec coffee house and folk festival circuit (Lawson 1999). Of these shows his headlining Friday July 25th appearance at the ninth annual Mariposa Folk Festival, held at Toronto’s Centre Island, stands as a milestone. Quebec’s Gilles Vigneault was first to take the stage on the night of Bruce’s performance, delivering a celebrated performance of his song “Qu’il est difficile d’aimer” (“How Difficult is it to Love”). Joni Mitchell, an Alberta native who had recently resettled in California, followed, topping her set with a performance of “Real Good for Free,” a new piano driven composition (Fraser 1969).

Bruce had secured the gig by agreeing to stand in for Neil Young, who’d bowed out to work with Crosby, Stills and Nash in the United States (Batten 1969a). His performance would follow Mitchell’s, and he took to the stage wearing in a full-length Moroccan cape (Shears 1969, p. 47). Though Globe and Mail music critic Ritchie Yorke would pronounce Bruce’s performance “a little too folksy,” he would also concede the set had been well received and had nearly earned Bruce a standing ovation. Canada’s Ian and Sylvia would close the show (Yorke 1969, p. 26), while acclaimed American folk artist and civil rights activist Joan Baez would deliver the festival’s penultimate performance on closing Sunday (Batten 1969b, p. 15).

In total, the festival entertained twenty-nine thousand spectators and featured the work of a hundred different music artists (Globe and Mail 1969b, p. 15). Only in the aftermath of Mariposa ’69 were Bruce’s parents able to relax, secure in the knowledge that their son’s musical aspirations had finally paid off (Kensington Market Communications Inc., 2002).

In August, the talented though novice Canadian filmmaker David Acumba began editing forty one thousand feet of film shot in July at Mariposa. By the end of the month the mass of footage had been cut back to two thousand feet for the upcoming CBC documentary, Mariposa: A Folk Festival (Millin 1969a, p. 13). Televised on Sunday 28 September (Millin 1969b, p. 23), the results surprised many, including a Toronto Daily Star journalist, who noted that Bruce’s “plaintive” performance of one of his new songs, “Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon,”  had survived the final cut (Hodges 1969).

Barry Wright, an American recently relocated to Toronto from Los Angeles, recalls watching the documentary the day it was televised. Hearing “several hauntingly beautiful guitar notes and a soft, gentle voice” wafting from the television that had been left playing in the adjoining room, Wright rose from the table he shared with three equally homesick American expatriates that night, to sit, transfixed, before the black and white set. As “Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon” ended, Wright, tears in his eyes, marveled that Bruce had somehow “managed to reach out through the normally cold, impersonal medium of television,” to transport him “to Another Place.”

A literally magical experience, Wright believed, Bruce’s music was, for him, like that of a shaman, capturing:

“a single moment in eternity so well, so precisely, that when the tale is told, when the song is sung, the folks sitting around the campfire or in the audience can experience that moment, too” (Wright 2006).

That evening, Wright left his friends’ apartment craving more. Soon he confirmed Bruce would be playing the Riverboat. To his surprise, the club turned out to be an unusually cozy affair: a dark basement room, no larger than a modest apartment, with a tiny stage to one side, and an upright piano. Normally the club played host to twenty guests at a time. Spinning “tales of wonder about Other Places, both internal and external,” Wright recalls, Bruce stood or sat on the little stage, when not otherwise occupied with the club’s piano (Wright 2006). Later that Fall, Telegraph journalist Peter Goddard would report on a subsequent Cockburn performance, declaring Bruce the surest of “all the local singers,” and the author “of the most compact, lyrical songs heard in Toronto in years’.” Goddard was especially struck by Bruce’s “Going to the Country,” a new song that had already become a Cockburn concert staple, which he described as “totally beautiful” (Goddard 1969).

Recording, Promoting and Releasing Bruce Cockburn

In December, Bruce entered Yorkville’s Eastern Sound Studios to record the songs that appear on his debut album, Bruce Cockburn (Caldwell 2002). Engineered by Bill Seddon and produced by Bernie, in partnership with Gene Martynec (Yorke 1971, pp. 58-59), the recordings were built around Bruce’s low tenor voice and six and twelve string acoustic guitar work. Otherwise, the record featured Bruce on bass drum and piano, Dennis Pendrith, a former Flying Circus band member, on bass, and Michael Ferry on tongue, a specially tuned drum (Yorke 1971, p. 59).

Years later Bruce would describe his agenda, on entering Eastern Sound Studios. Bruce Cockburn, he insisted, had been about leaving behind “years of bad rock bands,” about clearing “out psychedelic decadence that was itself a reaction to institutional decadence” (The Cockburn Project). He would emerge from the sessions pleased with the results, relieved to finally commit his songs to vinyl (Yorke 1971, p. 59). The resulting record’s simple, acoustic guitar-driven structure would ultimately owe as much to a tight budget and to Toronto’s inferior recording facilities, however, as it would to the reign of unfettered artistic license (Kensington Market Communications Inc., 2002). The album’s ten tracks included: “Going to the Country,” “Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon,” “Together Alone,” “The Bicycle Trip,” “The Thirteenth Mountain,” “Musical Friends,” “Change Your Mind,” “Man of a Thousand Faces,” “Spring Song,” and “Keep It Open.”

Of the songs recorded that month, the rollicking, piano-driven “Musical Friends” was selected to lead as the album’s first single, receiving radio play by early January 1970. Bruce and his single also received widespread exposure in Canada on Sunday 11 January when CBC television aired Rock One, a new documentary on Canadian music, shot and produced by David Acumba. Hosted by Ian and Sylvia, Richard Flohil reported in the Toronto Daily Star, the film profiled “Canada’s best known folk singers,” who together were “largely responsible for a new level of literacy in Canadian song writing.” Disappointed that the documentary failed to profile Gordon Lightfoot, Flohil believed its studio sequence of Bruce playing “Musical Friends” made up for the shortcoming. Readers who had seen Acumba’s Mariposa, he noted, would remember Bruce, “the gentle boy from Ottawa who sang Jesus Don’t Let Toronto Take My Song Away.” Later that month another performance would garner glowing praise, this time from Ottawa Citizen journalist Lee Edwards, who described Bruce’s “‘thought-provoking lyrics’” as having achieved “‘impressive results’,” in combination with his “‘always compelling’” singing (Flohil 1970, p. 47).

As the spring release of Bruce’s debut approached, his music received further exposure. In March, Canada’s new pop country music star Anne Murray released a cover of “Musical Friends.” The track gained regular radio airplay. Equally significant, Toronto’s Spring Thaw theatre troupe adopted “Going to the Country” as part of its seasonal repertoire. As well, a week before the album went to market, Bruce would open for British folk rock band Pentangle at Massey Hall – then, as now, Toronto’s most venerable concert hall. Bruce’s first Massey appearance was followed on 15 and 16 May with back-to-back shows at Matt Muldoon’s Queen Street East club (Flohil 1970, p. 47).

Bruce Cockburn: The Critics Have Their Initial Say

Bruce Cockburn was received warmly by critics and the public alike. Jack Batten was the first critic to weigh in, however lightly. Long opposed to trends like acid rock, he must have surprised few when he expressed enthusiasm for the record, declaring it worthy of “nothing but praise and playing.” Batten’s reading was otherwise sentimental though. He judged its moods soft and sweet when they were actually warm, anxious and melancholy. He claimed that it reveled in the quiet joys of friendship, springtime, bicycles and country living, when in fact its references to friendship were ambivalent, its references to springtime cosmic, its references to bicycles sardonic, and its references to country living non-existent (Batten 1970).

A month later, in June, The Vancouver Sun’s Max Wyman would echo Batten, drawing attention to the album’s alleged “calm, settled and reflective … gentleness.” Wyman came closer to capturing the record’s essence though when he wrote of its “very finished musical and poetic thoughts” and its “direct, often beautiful statements of truths” (Wyman 1970).

Lee Lewis extended these observations in July in Music Scene, with his notion that the album communicated accessible “universal truths,” a reading borrowed from Bruce himself, who’d suggested as much in an interview with Lewis (Lewis 1970). Peter Nichols’ 2 October Ottawa Journal review would in turn speak of Bruce Cockburn’s unique aura of “one-ness,” a quality uncommon, he noted, in contemporary popular music (Nichol 1970).

Later, on 18 December, in a review of the record for British Columbia’s Province newspaper, Alan Walker would forward the prescient observation that Bruce’s music was less detached and cosmic than politically charged and religiously engaged. The style of Bruce Cockburn, he argued, constituted one “of protest and commitment,” that took “the form of gentle reminders that God’s earth and human love are worth preserving” (Walker 1970).

By December 1970, Walker seemed justified when he claimed that Bruce Cockburn had come into his own as a “successful solo artist.” “Going to the Country,” for instance, the second single from the album, had just peaked at number four on the Canadian RPM Adult Contemporary music chart the previous month ( Meanwhile the album had sold fifteen thousand copies (Walker 1970). At an average of a thousand copies a month, Bruce was matching sales figures for a Canadian folk artist only previously achieved by Gordon Lightfoot. Otherwise, in the world of live music, Jack Batten would report, Bruce continued to draw “packed-house” crowds, particularly at college concerts (Batten 1971a, p. 37). By early 1971, Bernie, who’d recently agreed to manage Bruce’s affairs (LeBlanc 1995), felt justified turning down concert offers worth as much as $1,700 a night. Walker confidently predicted Bruce could gross $100,000 in 1971, “if he wanted to” (Walker 1970). For all intents and purposes, Canada had embraced Bruce Cockburn.

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