Encountering Christ Directly: Bruce and Kitty’s Marriage
In a 1978 interview, Bruce was quick to disparage the spiritual explorations of his youth. “‘I was mostly doped out in the ‘60s’,” he declared: “that was the peak of my metaphysical nebulosity’” (Takiff 1978). This period, he claims, came to an abrupt and unanticipated end in December 1969.
That month, at Kitty’s behest, she and Bruce were married in the Ottawa diocese of the Anglican Church. Attended by immediate family only, the wedding ceremony was never publicly announced (Sojourners 1988). At the time Bruce’s willingness to be married in the Anglican Church had little, if anything, to do with the apparent merits of Anglican theology. Rather, the choice had been based on aesthetics: the parish’s traditional stone architecture had resonated with his then neo-medieval sensibilities. If there was a secondary factor, it was the affable rector, a man Bruce regarded as unusually personable (Batstone 1994).
All of this goes a long way toward explaining Bruce’s amazement when during the ceremony he was suddenly aware of a “palpable” yet invisible presence standing with Kitty, the rector and himself at the altar (Sojourners 1988; Batstone 1994). “‘At the moment we were saying our vows’,” Bruce recalls, “‘there was an overwhelming impression that there was someone standing there that I could not see’” (Batstone 1994). Refocusing on the ceremony, his thoughts would immediately return to the episode as soon as circumstance allowed. Only then did he conclude that the invisible presence had been none other than the risen Jesus (Cameron 2001).
In the short term, this spiritual experience inspired Bruce to begin developing a deeper understanding of Christianity. He started reading The Bible and also the works of C.S. Lewis (Wroe 1987, p. 19). The episode, moreover, would prove to be merely the first in a series of direct encounters with this spiritual being over the ensuing years (Sojourners 1988).
Bruce’s Enduring Spirituality: Eclectic & Syncretic
As noted in the introduction to this book, with the exception of an ostensibly Christian orthodox mid-period spanning 1974 to 1991, the spirit and content of the remainder of Bruce’s career, referring here to both its early and more recent manifestations, would appear to be musically eclectic and spiritually syncretic. For instance, we know that Bruce was publicly questioning Christian orthodoxy and traditional assumptions of Christian supremacy by at least 1990. Looking back fondly on his early tarot studies at the time, he forthrightly declared: “‘I’m skeptical of the idea that Christianity is more-true than any other way of getting to God’” (Kauffman 1990). Again, when asked, eleven years later, how he understood himself in relation to the Christian Church, he replied, with a laugh, that he fell “somewhere at the Hindu-Jungian cosmic end.” As well, in a recent interview, Bruce has also claimed: “‘I owe as much to the Sufis or to Hinduism as I do to the Bible’” (Cameron 2001b). Indeed, on his most recent studio album, 2006’s Life’s Short Call Now, Bruce boldly attests in “To Fit in My Heart” to a post-biblical understanding of the divine. “God’s too big to fit in a book,” he sings, “Nothing’s too big to fit in my heart.” Given these declarations it seems sound to claim that Bruce’s work comes full circle, that eclecticism and syncretism are his natural life orientation.
Consequently, we should look with some reserve on J. Richard Middleton and Brian J. Walsh’s orthodox Christian reading of Bruce Cockburn in their celebrated and influential 1993 Grail study, “Theology at the Rim of a Broken Wheel: Bruce Cockburn and Christian Faith in a Postmodern World.” Though its focus lay elsewhere, Middleton and Walsh’s article made two important, interdependent claims about Bruce Cockburn that are directly relevant to the question of Bruce’s late 1960s spirituality. The first was that the record belonged to a pre-Christian phase in his career, said to last until Bruce recorded “All the Diamonds” for Salt, Sun and Time in 1974. The claim is based on the view that Bruce refrained from forwarding a clear statement of faith prior to “All the Diamonds.” As Martin Wroe puts the matter, “The blurred vision of the creator that nature’s thick lenses offered now gave way to the crystal-clear vision of God in Jesus” (Wroe 1987, p. 19).
The second claim related directly to the first. It was that Bruce’s first four albums were best understood as expressions of an “almost Wiccan, neo-pagan reverence for nature,” coupled with an “antipathy to human culture” (Middleton and Walsh 1993). Both claims depended on how Christian faith was defined and on where its limits were understood to lie.
If we look beyond the bounds of a narrow and doctrinal Christian orthodoxy, however, a Wiccan or pagan reading of Bruce Cockburn fails to account for three crucial and explicit references. The first is Bruce’s prayerful invocation of Jesus in “Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon.” The second, as chapter four argues, is Bruce’s search for the Star of Bethlehem in “The Thirteenth Mountain.” The third is Bruce’s citing of the Lesser Doxology in “Spring Song.” These references to Christian consciousness occur, moreover, at crucial junctures in the initiation-based narrative of Bruce Cockburn, as each accompanies a critical moment of transformation and resolution.
As noted, just as Bruce is an eclectic musician, so also is his work spirituality eclectic. This is why nationalist readings of his work fail to account for or to encompass its transnational or syncretic sensibility. The most prominent political reading of Bruce’s work to date is Timothy Rice and Tammy Gutnik’s “What’s Canadian about Canadian Popular Music? The Case of Bruce Cockburn,” published in Taking a Stand. Here the two describe Bruce Cockburn as an “elegiac and escapist” record, that promotes “a rural Canadian idealism far removed” from the political crises of late 1960s America. Yet, only one of its ten songs, “Man of a Thousand Faces,” strikes an even remotely elegiac note. There certainly is nothing elegiac in “Going to the Country,” “Together Alone,” “Musical Friends,” or the album’s closing and concluding track, “Keep It Open.”
The album, moreover, does anything but indulge escapism. The very idea of escape is, for Bruce, shallow and trivial. He playfully taunts the possibility in “The Bicycle Trip,” then solemnly interrogates the notion in “The Thirteenth Mountain.” Rice and Gutnik’s claim that Bruce Cockburn extols “the virtues of the country as opposed to the city” also proves erroneous. Even “Going to the Country” acknowledges that Bruce visits the countryside with the intent of returning to the city with a new song capable of communicating nature’s healing power to his listeners. Far from siding with Canadian rural idealism, Bruce Cockburn assumes membership in a counterculture, whose boundaries cross national borders, and whose relation to the urban and the rural are dialectical rather than dualistic.
Bruce’s Early Poetics: Sun Imagery
Bruce’s early songs, including those on Bruce Cockburn, use sunlight to symbolize the conscious human self, as well as the Christ, who makes human self-consciousness possible through a process of alchemical transformation. The sun’s presence pervades the album, from its song lyrics to its gold-coloured, gate fold cover. In “Going to the Country” sunlight brings artistic inspiration and corporo-spiritual renewal. In “The Bicycle Trip,” God butters “the land with sunlight.” In “Musical Friends,” a spontaneous social itinerary is expected to unfold “some sunny morning.” In “Man of a Thousand Faces” Bruce basks in “Surf of golden sunlight” while in “Spring Song” the “mirrors of the past shine, with the light of unborn days.” Finally, in “Keep It Open” Bruce sings of being “Sun stoned in the east.”
Bruce’s Early Poetics: Eye Imagery
At the same time, Bruce’s early songs are filled with eye imagery. In “Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon” Bruce described eyes as archways: passages between inner and outer worlds. In “The Thirteenth Mountain” he sings of a wide-eyed, white-plumed owl, and then, towards the close of the song, of his own eyes “too tired to see the river flowing ‘neath the ice,” the album’s first reference to spiritual blindness. In “Man of a Thousand Faces” the listener learns of a glass-eyed idol and of a serpent, twisting the spaces between Toronto’s skyscrapers “till every eye is blinded.” Then, in “Spring Song” Bruce sings of the moment of when “our eyes will touch life,” introducing the idea of inner sight or the ‘eye of the heart.’ In “Keep it Open” he prays: “In our eyes let there be peace.”
The overriding theme of Bruce’s eye imagery is that physical sight cannot be relied on to provide true insight into life’s concerns. Inner sight, mediated by the heart, must be cultivated and relied on. Just as there is an outer and an inner light, there also is an outer and an inner eye. Bruce Cockburn, then, is not about choosing a country life over a city life. In addition to suggesting a dialectical relationship between city and country, it also moves between external and internal worlds. However beautiful the outer world may be, inner beauty must also be cultivated.
Bruce’s Early Poetics: Water Imagery
Bruce Cockburn is also filled with water imagery, whose significance lies in providing an emotional language. In “Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon,” “Together Alone,” and “Change Your Mind” water appears in the form of rain. In each case rain is associated with renewal. In “Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon” rain gives rise to sounds that inspire transformational inner images. In “Together Alone” rain is a peaceful presence. In “Change Your Mind,” it becomes a purifying force that humbles human vanity. In “The Thirteen Mountain” rain gives way to snow, ice, and a river: to water in three simultaneous states. “Change Your Mind” makes reference to a wishing well, the first inkling that Bruce’s soul will travel into the underworld. Hail appears in “Man of a Thousand Faces” along with references to the sea and to a sunlit ocean. Otherwise, “Musical Friends” refers to the consumption of copious volumes of wine, while “Spring Song” refers to breast milk.
Bruce’s Early Poetics: Marginality & Liminality
The other dominant set of imagery on Bruce Cockburn might well be described as liminal, in the sense of existing on a threshold, or in an intermediate state or condition. Some are obscure and repeated only once, such as Bruce’s reference to a crystal in “Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon.” Rightly understood, a crystal is a liminal being, existing at the boundary of the mineral and plant kingdoms.
In the same manner, some of the creatures populating the album should also be understood as liminal beings, existing at the boundary between nature and culture. In “Going to the Country,” birds sing like the bones in Bruce’s body. In “The Bicycle Trip” a parrot speaks like a human being, even as it remains a bird, while Bruce howls like a werewolf, perhaps the ultimate liminal being. In “The Thirteenth Mountain” the eyes of the white-plumed owl, like those of a human being, look forward.
A liminal poetics is, at the same, a marginal poetics. This is nothing new in the history of poetry, particularly since the Romantic poets of the nineteenth century defined their purpose as lying beyond patronage and the general purvey of institutions. By the nineteenth century the poet had become the articulate, though alienated, outsider. Bruce adopts this position in “North American Bastard Son,” explicitly locating himself at the margin of even white North American society’s sacred institutions, like the Christian Church. This marginal poetics is essentially a Beat poetics. It recurs in his reference to the “long white line” of the highway in “Going to the Country.” In “Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon” it manifests as both an alleyway and a moth. Associated with poverty and decay, the moth is also nocturnal.
Liminality, Masculinity & Desire in Bruce Cockburn’s Early Work
Here it must be noted that the presence of a liminal poetics on Bruce Cockburn runs counter to the claims forwarded by Paul Nonnekes in his 2001 study Three Moments of Love in Leonard Cohen and Bruce Cockburn. Nonnekes, interested in reading both songwriters’ works in the light of psychoanalytic theory, focused on the articulation of masculine desire in Cockburn and Cohen (Nonnekes 2001, p. 1). The songs of Bruce Cockburn, he insisted, express the experience of “the so-called barred subject,” which has “no authentic origin” and which is “always-already lost” (Nonnekes 2001, p. 7); that is to say that Bruce’s psyche seemed trapped, to Nonnekes, between a longing for the ideal – the unattainable womb of the mother, represented by nature – and the necessity of remaining in and speaking through the linguistic realm of the father, where desire is only ever deferred. In short, Bruce Cockburn presents a man questing after an unattainable ideal (Nonnekes 2001, p. 7).
This ideal, Nonnekes claims, is most clearly expressed in “Spring Song,” where Bruce imagines a ‘loving’ and thus ‘imaginary’ father, symbolized “through natural images of sun, wind, and sea.” It continues in the same track, he adds, through Bruce’s marriage of maternal earth and paternal sky elements: a ‘loving father’ living in harmony with a natural and nurturing mother. For Nonnekes, this vision expresses the child’s longing for an “an ideal parent”: a “mother-father combination … unencumbered by the complications of the social-material world” (Nonnekes 2001, p. 8).
Nonnekes’ claims are unique in the history of Bruce scholarship. But do they stand up to sustained scrutiny? Many will object, for instance, to Nonneke’s decision to restrict his inquiry to Bruce’s lyrics (Nonnekes 2001, p. 6). Others will question why Julia Kristeva’s theories, which he leans heavily on, should be accepted as definitive descriptions of the human condition? Though widely respected, her work is far from authoritative. As well, at no time does Bruce actually posit a human union with the natural world on Bruce Cockburn. Rather, as previously noted, “The Bicycle Trip” can be understood as a comic, if awkward, refutation of this impulse, while “The Thirteen Mountain” suggests the same may in fact be no more than a death wish. A close reading of the album, then, reveals a gradual movement away from a nature and spirit oriented life. In “Keep It Open,” the album’s concluding track, Bruce rejoins the human community, accepting a contingent and provisional way of life.
Still, Nonnekes’ unique perspective helps his reader focus on the question as to how Bruce constructs or performs masculinity on Bruce Cockburn. Of course, the construction of masculinity in Bruce’s work goes back to his earliest songs, where sexuality is already a prominent focus. In his early effort “Bird without Wings,” for instance, Bruce describes feeling trapped between two impulses; one impels him toward artistic creation, the other towards sexual union. The song leaves the listener asking if Bruce will ever be able to wed both art and a woman?
This ambivalence toward relationship manifests on Bruce Cockburn as a commitment to play, a relational strategy the counter-culture arguably adopted as a means of navigating the new liberal sexuality. Early in 1970, for instance, journalist Jack Batten would describe Bruce as “the young man from Ottawa with the pure voice and the gentle ways” (Batten 1970). This gentleness at times borders on child-likeness, a posture favoured by many counter culture figures, both prominent and obscure, whose affectations were willful and conscious.
All of this is in sharp contrast to the parallel stream of sexism and chauvinism in late 1960s rock. As journalist Jack Batten lamented at the time, rock remained a male-dominated and predominantly misogynist enterprise. “Women in rock are objects,” he complained; even Woodstock had been a male affair, while Hair had also been rife with male chauvinism. Women, he believed, had been barred from contemporary music, much as women had been barred from many professions, organizations and associations. Batten was particularly struck by Gordon Lightfoot’s work, which amounted, he insisted, to a persistent “put down of women” (Batten 1970).
For Bruce at the time, utopia – the ushering in of the Kingdom of God on earth – was to be achieved through a collective human return to the Kingdom of Childhood. Yet this supposition implied giving up, or arguably denying, the reality of adult sexuality. What was to become of sexual desire? Neither eroticism nor sensuality can be found on Bruce Cockburn, with perhaps one exception: the image of Bruce basking in a vast sunlit ocean in “Man of a Thousand Faces.” There is something disembodied and otherworldly in this vision, however.
It may be that displaced desire manifests on Bruce Cockburn in the form of anxious self-doubt, inscribed in the structure of the album’s songs, whose final verses often undercut or contradict simpler affirmations stated in earlier verses.