A Narrative Reading of Bruce Cockburn
Even a casual listener will perceive in the ten songs comprising Bruce Cockburn a clear sequence of moods, landscapes, vignettes, and insights. This journey includes an initially abrupt shift from feelings of jubilation to feelings of depression. These then give way to feelings of love, which in turn give way to those of oddball loneliness. Cosmic contemplation follows, only to be supplanted by an atmosphere of wine soaked, urban jazz. Later still, prophecy morphs into reports from the underworld, that resolve in a soulful longing for Eden. This, in turn, gives way provisional acceptance of an itinerant way of life, symbolized by the busking street musician.
“Going to the Country”
Punctuated by poetic descriptions of full-bodied identification with the natural world, and evoking the pace of a country drive, “Going to the Country,” the opening track of Bruce Cockburn, unfolds from the perspective of the open window of a car in motion. Its first verse establishes a clever contrast. Sedentary civilization, symbolized by the white letters of a highway sign, contrast with life in motion, symbolized by “the long white line” of the highway margin, where white letters blur and form a continuous line. Identifying himself with the highway’s edge, where the hitchhiker raises his or her thumb, Bruce adopts a marginal point of view on Bruce Cockburn.
In “Going to the Country,” Bruce at first resorts to personification as a means to identifying with the world he feels cut off from, as in the lines “Cows hangin’ out under spreading trees,” “Tractor-trailer truck says goodbye with a sigh,” or “Sunshine smile on me.” This common touch offers his listener an entry point into an otherwise esoteric composition. Gradually, though, personification translates into full-bodied moments of direct identification with aspects of nature’s otherness. Imagining what grass feels when the wind blows in verse two, Bruce sings: “I can smell the grass growing in the field / Wind in the hair tells me how it feels.”
The song’s chorus goes on to pray that the sun’s rays will restore Bruce to his rightful place in the cosmos. By verse three, this gospel of solar restoration finds Bruce blissfully declaring:
“Birds singing, I’m singing in my bones / Doesn’t much matter now where I’m going / Get it when I get there is what I’ll do / If I get enough I’ll give some to you.”
Just as a bird sings because it is a bird, so human bones can and will ‘sing,’ radiating well being, whenever human beings submit to the restorative power of the sun, through direct communion with nature. The striking poetic devices Bruce employs in “Going to the Country,” including evocative word play, resonant internal rhyme, and harmonious line-by-line alliteration, concretely externalize the song’s central, precious insight: a right relation with the natural world is possible, and has the power, if only momentarily, to restore accord between humans and nature.
Nevertheless, “Going to the Country,” suggests, either one’s bones have sung, or they have not. Only direct personal experience of the embodied self can confirm the possibility, indeed the necessity, of nature’s healing, redemptive power. Experience alone, Bruce insists, confirms and educates; disembodied intellect cannot.
“Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon”
Confident conclusions: these. Yet Bruce’s listener is struck by the stark transition that emerges on Bruce Cockburn from the sun-drenched ecstasy of “Going to the Country,” to the damp and downbeat depression of “Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon,” the album’s second track. The latter song’s unusually short verse lines combine with elongated articulations and stream of consciousness lyrics to evoke inner thoughts as they struggle to rise above oppressive and deadening circumstances. Cut off from rural delight, and seeming also from poetic inspiration, Bruce turns his attention inward. What follows are the blues of a struggling artist or waylaid spiritual traveler cut off from the enlivening warmth and inspirational presence of the sun.
In the gloom of the first verse, Bruce hears the sound of raindrops falling on garbage can lids. For Bruce, this sound evokes the aura and expanse of a cathedral interior. Surprised by this association he sings:
“Rain rings trashcan bells / And what do you know? / My alley becomes a cathedral.”
Once sacred space opens inwardly it becomes possible, Bruce reports, to experience a deeper emotional transformation. In “Going to the Country” it had been necessary for Bruce to seek redemption in the physical light of the sun. In “Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon” this same force is discovered within in the presence of Jesus, God’s son. Moved to pray, Bruce sings: “O Jesus, don’t let Toronto take my song away.” This prayer remains ego-bound, however, so fittingly the song’s third and final chorus, “O Jesus, don’t let tomorrow take my love away,” acknowledges a greater threat: the death of love itself. Delicate as a moth’s wing, the song concludes, love is easily crushed. It only survives and grows, Bruce concludes, when we commit to loving love itself.
Given its disarmingly sentimental wartime melody, its infectious colloquialisms, its light and breezy guitar lines, and the veiled identity of Bruce’s invisible companion, “Together Alone,” the third track on Bruce Cockburn, is both surprising and beguiling. Wherever he goes, the song reports, from “the crowded subway train” to a walk in the country rain, Bruce’s discarnate companion follows. Given Bruce has just affirmed a prayerful relationship with Jesus in “Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon,” a listener is forgiven for assuming Bruce travels with Jesus in “Together Alone.” Equal parts love song and prayerful meditation, “Together Alone” refuses his spiritual companion a simple or fixed identity. The effect is akin to a central doctrine of the Sufi mystical tradition: that a human lover can, at the same time, manifest aspects of the divine. Regardless, the listener understands Bruce’s prayer in “Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon” has been answered: he now shares his days with a benevolent presence, an inner sun evoked through prayer.
For a brief moment the third verse undercuts communion as Bruce recalls the conclusions of modern philosophy and psychology: that the human self is ultimately inarticulate and unknowable, both for itself, and for others. “It’s been said many times,” Bring sings, “that we’re all by ourselves, and each man is on his own.” Humanity, he ponders, may ultimately stand alone in an indifferent universe. Yet Bruce’s response to this possibility is simple. Neither denying nor claiming to revise these quandaries, he dismisses both as academic, singing: “I don’t care, that may be true / I just want to be with you / Together alone.” What counts as true, the song insists, is personal experience, the only reliable measure of the real. Affirming a desire-based defiance of reason and science, Bruce allows the longing for true communion to trump the apparent limits of the real. In so doing, Bruce positions himself at the social and subjective margin, in solidarity with history’s mystics and fools, who continue to haunt the halls of conventional wisdom. In short, the listener learns, Bruce himself may be a bit crazy.
“The Bicycle Trip”
As if to confirm as much, “The Bicycle Trip,” the fourth track on Bruce Cockburn, at once the album’s most eccentric track, presents a playful, and at times drug addled, version of Bruce. There is good reason to believe the song was partly inspired by his mid to late 1960s experiments with marijuana and psychedelics. Notable, perhaps, for incorporating non-instrument based sounds and a non-traditional storytelling structure, the song is arguably the most self-indulgent in a forty-plus year career.
In the first of a series of increasingly nonsensical sequences, the listener finds Bruce riding a bike on a gravel road in an otherwise peaceful, sunlit valley. Striking an initially serious note, he describes the butterflies he encounters at the outset of his adventure as “Shades of the eternal dancer.” Drawing here on Hindu philosophy, the Tarot, or both, Bruce imagines or perceives these butterflies as spirits of the recently deceased, transiting between death and rebirth. Then, in the song’s murky middle, Bruce vocally imitates the hypnotic hum of grasshoppers, followed by the howl of a wolf. He then encounters “a parrot with boxing gloves,” which proceeds to imitate him. In the end, Bruce returns from this would-be Shamanic trip to the ride on the song’s staid gravel road once more.
A nominally credible interpretation of this sequence might read the parrot as a symbol of nature’s tendency to mirror human interests. In this respect it is instructive to note that, up to this point, Bruce Cockburn has only detailed Bruce’s interactions with nature or the spiritual world. At best, the appearance of the parrot in “The Bicycle Trip” suggests, Bruce now seems to question the possibility of direct human communication with nature. Otherwise, the corny and campy style of the song can be read as a mode of self-effacement popular among the era’s hippies. In this there is something of John Lennon’s overt late 1960s rejection of celebrity cool and bourgeois decorum.
“The Thirteenth Mountain”
With its unusual marriage of wide-eyed winter wonder and anxious melancholy, “The Thirteenth Mountain” concludes the record’s first side on a surprisingly elevated, if unsettling, note. Contrasted with “Musical Friends,” the first track on the second side of the album, “The Thirteenth Mountain” documents the exhaustion, as opposed to the culmination, of a spiritual path: that of the lone initiate, in pursuit of direct communion with self, nature, and spirit. It throws all that has transpired so far into question.
The setting of the song is a cold winter’s night. Snow falls. A circle of light surrounds the moon. Stars dance above naked tree limbs. Holly bushes glimmer. Fairy castles, described matter-of-factly, loom in the distance. Nearby, a cold, dark river – ambivalent, unsettling, goading suicide – runs beneath a layer of ice. Fundamentally tragicomic though is the scene’s “Wide-eyed, white-plume owl,” who plays “upon his magic flute.” While Bruce’s owl certainly evokes Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, with its tale of moral refinement achieved through Freemasonic initiation, owls are more often symbols of anxiety, uncertainty, and death.
In the midst of this portentous scene stands a lone and weary Bruce, a young man, a dharma bum, for whom survival has become an unusual affair. Far from merely struggling to build a proverbial fire in the night, Bruce struggles to read the pristine Tarot in the ebb and flow of nature’s script, beyond the sensible snares and rational conventions of modern civilization. Eventually, Bruce asks himself and his listener two enigmatic, intertwined questions: “Are no men / is only Man / seeking one love?” Each question amounts to a reformulation of the central insight Bruce communicates in verse three of “Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon”: that true love is love expressed for love itself.
No answer is forthcoming. Yet Bruce’s simultaneous recognition that the night stars, which once led the Magi to the site of Christ’s birth, have grown mute, fills Bruce with a mixture of anxiety and exhaustion. Having reached a spiritual summit of sorts, the song’s enigmatic thirteenth mountain, Bruce finds himself at a dead end, aware that his growing relationship with Jesus, the Christ, may be crucial, as opposed to merely comforting.
It is at this moment of crisis, this turning point, that the attentive listener realizes Bruce Cockburn documents a highly personal, yet discernible, narrative of spiritual initiation. In this respect Bruce’s journey culminates in what the psychologists Carl G. Jung and R.D. Laing termed a ‘psychic turn,’ or psychotic breakdown. Evidence for this view is found in the fact that the outer world described in “The Thirteenth Mountain” doubles, in every respect, as a parallel inner or interior landscape. For Bruce, inner and outer space converge.
For a moment Bruce seems to contemplate drowning himself in the dark waters of the nearby river. Suicide alone, he realizes, offers transcendent union with nature and the spiritual world. However, for both Jung and Laing, a ‘psychic turn’ was ultimately and, particularly with proper guidance, a critical and, for some, an essential path, toward healing and self integration. This, it should be recalled, was the aim of the so-called Gurdjieff work.
Evidence that this psychotic episode brings Bruce healing and renewal veritably jumps out at the listener in “Musical Friends,” the first song on the second side of Bruce Cockburn. Here Bruce’s lyrics abandon the first person narrative “I” in favour of the communal ‘we.’ This shift from “I” to “we” is paralleled by an understated and parallel shift in narrative geography: from a lofty mountaintop to a wine-tinged, jazz-inflected, urban apartment. This transition recapitulates a portion of the classical hero’s journey, from contemplative heights to earthy lowlands. It follows the descent of the prophet in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, as well the ascent of the young nomads at the heart of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums.
Exuberant and unselfconscious, “Musical Friends” celebrates the jazz and folk musicians’ transient way of life, and the networks of counter culture communities that grew up to support and sustain it. Further, the song suggests that the ‘eternal dancer,” first described in “The Bicycle Trip,” may best be known through the spirit of music. For, just as true love loves love itself, so, Bruce adds, the living life is life lived in motion. If so, Bruce argues, a musician is well disposed to loving love itself and to living the living life. Let go, Bruce implores, and you’ll get precisely where you need to go.
“Change Your Mind”
What is it that prevents us from letting go, Bruce asks in “Change Your Mind”? His answer: fear, that which is the opposite of love, and the true enemy of life. Hurtling, off balance, towards an uncertain and unsustainable future, modern civilization, Bruce sings with the authoritative voice of a prophet, clings unceasingly to its oldest fear: the fear of change.
“Living in the past / Is not living at all / The old fear going fast / Everybody scared to fall.”
Fixated on fear, and feeding on fantasy, this slow, yet undeniable arch of decline, manifests in the song’s second verse in the image of a sand sculpture, dissolving in the rain:
“Sullen and profane / The ancient temple stands / Dissolving in the rain / Its Gods long turned to sand.”
This common scene, most likely encountered on a Toronto beach, or in a local park, permits Bruce to recall the words of a long forgotten childhood rhyme. They remind him that the wisdom of the ages is ultimately contained in the simple songs of children.
Yet, as with most earth bound epiphanies, the meaning of this fleeting recollection remains more implied than stated: that the hollow hubris of human civilization is only ever overcome through a return to the kingdom of childhood. On the one hand, this return entails a revival of the spirit of childhood play. In this sense, Bruce realizes this spirit in his own life through his travels and music making. On the other, this admonition calls for a retrieval of childhood’s magical consciousness, epitomized by Bruce’s ongoing creative conversation with the world on Bruce Cockburn.
Life as play was a central tenet of the 1960s counter culture. In this sense “Change Your Mind” adamantly agrees with the day’s dominant hippie ethic. Yet, Christianity and Zen Buddhism also counsel a return to childhood as a means to salvation or liberation. Indeed, such a return is arguably central to Jesus’ teachings, as when he is said to proclaim in the Gospel of Matthew: “‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’” (18:3; 19:14; see also Mark 10:15 and Luke 18:17). What the sacred, yet inarticulate stars conceal in “The Thirteenth Mountain,” a path to the Christ, is ironically revealed in “Change Your Mind” through the profane ruins of a child’s sand castle.
“Man of a Thousand Faces”
In “Man of a Thousand Faces,” the eighth track on Bruce Cockburn, Bruce struggles to imagine himself into the suspended soul life of urban everyman. He begins outside his body, enveloped in a vast sun-drenched seascape, set free from the cold, the concrete, and the crowds of the city:
“I’m looking to be by a window / That looks out on the sea / Anybody here know / Where such a place is? / Surf of golden sunlight / Breaking over me / Man of a thousand faces.”
In the song, radio static simulates the sound of breaking beach surf, a detail that identifies this scene as fantasy. The song’s subsequent shift into dirge like minor chords denotes a return to reality, as Bruce’s urban everyman wakes. Gazing out over an elegiac winter garden, filling with hailstones, he again imagines himself out of body and into the frozen earth. Sombre and silent, friends gathered above in vigil.
Echoing a key transition in the hero’s journey, as outlined in Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, the most likely inspiration for the song’s title, Bruce sends his buried soul in “Man of a Thousand Faces” into the underworld. Unlike Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, or Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid, both of whom were led through the underworld by wise and reliable guides, Bruce’s urban everyman, who might just as well wander Toronto’s sewer system, journeys alone.
Above, in a metallic realm of day for night, partly foreshadowed on the album’s cover, satanic skyscrapers fill the sky, while a glass-eyed idol speaks of modern idolatry and cultural blindness. Here, Bruce draws on the language of surrealism to retread the cynical and colonized landscapes of “North American Bastard Son,” while an increasingly shrill electronic whine, subtly mixed into Bruce’s guitar work, speaks of increasingly unquiet desperation. Both ancient and traditional means of initiation are lost or inaccessible, Bruce bewails in “Man of a Thousand Faces.”
The transition to “Spring Song,” the second last song on Bruce Cockburn, is seamless and sudden. Waking nightmare gives way to Lenten sobriety and to a vaguely womb like or cocooned atmospherics. From within this space Bruce sings:
“When we come / When we come again / To celebrate renewal / At the heart / At the heart of us / Our eyes will touch life.”
Here Bruce contrasts the glass-eyed idol of “Man of a Thousand Faces” with the ‘eye of the heart,’ referring to the latent chakra or spiritual organ centred around the human heart, whose cultivation promises to lead humanity along the path of truly selfless love. The season of birth and renewal, spring serves as a metaphor in the song for a long anticipated awakening: the advent of inner human light or sight. This inner sight, moreover, will be limited by neither space nor time. It views the present, as “Spring Song” attests, in both the mirrors of the past and in the light of the future.
In this spaceless space and timeless time, Bruce, as Paul Nennekes argues in Three Moments in Love, imagines a new Eden or kingdom of heaven on earth. There, maternal earthly forces unite with paternal heavenly forces:
“Seasons turning yet again / The Mother’s breast is full again / As in heaven, so with men / Is now and ever shall be.”
In this imagined future, humans are nurtured by both maternal and paternal forces. In this respect, Bruce may have wrote “Man of a Thousand Faces” and “Spring Song” in keeping with the mythological insights of Sir James Fraser’s Golden Bough, an influential comparative Anthropological study published in the 1890s. Fraser’s central contention was that the roots of contemporary religion and magical belief lie in ancient fertility cults, that worshipped and periodically sacrificed “a sacred king,” whose return signified the triumph of fertility, symbolized by the union of male and female elements, over wasteland. Yet, the near direct invocation, toward the end of “Spring Song,” of the Christian Gloria Patri or Lesser Doxology (“As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen”), suggests Bruce is in search of an ecological or earth-centered Christianity. Such a faith would wed the otherwise contradictory forces presented in “The Thirteenth Mountain.”
Despite all this, Bruce warns in “Spring Song” that the spiritual path of the heart, by which love for love itself is kindled, remains difficult to discern. This, he insists, is because modern humans, entranced as they are by mere ornament, have forgotten where they stand in time. The vital dance of life has been silenced by the “frenzied dance” of the city, which paves over history and memory with unconscionable speed and ease. Bruce insisted on the fragile nature of love in “Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon.” In “Spring Song,” he adds, he or she who would walk the path of love must face harrowing personal trials. Like Tamino, the youthful hero of Mozart’s Magic Flute, aspirants must “wander in the flames with nothing but [their] names,” before the lotus petal of the enlivened heart chakra can open.
“Keep It Open”
Bruce’s debut album closes with “Keep It Open.” With its whimsical mood and portable slogan, the song brings simple closure to an otherwise esoteric and eclectic album. The modern nightmare of “Man of a Thousand Faces” has been endured, the pagan Christ of “Spring Song” revealed and affirmed. Bruce returns, then, to the everyday scene of the street in “Keep It Open”, peaceful and sun stoned. Keep your heart open, Bruce implores, for openness is the gateway to the the power of now, as Eckhart Tolle has more recently put it, inherent in every moment. In particular, Bruce adds, remain open and compassionate towards those who minds are closed, and whose hearts are hard.