Opinion

Diamonds plus: Cockburn at 66

(Alternate title: Gold But Better)

While I was reading Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, “an Everest among books”, part of the thrill was the space troubador character named, oddly enough, Bruce Cockburn, who provided a floating lyrical chorus to the convoluted narrative.

I was so impressed that our Bruce was actually a fictional character. His transcendent, literate poetics had always seemed to come from his simultaneous experience of visions and sensations in another realm.

Then, decades later, he reappears in The Shack by William P. Young, (a thoroughly redemptive prose work by the way) as the favourite songwriter of a character named God.

The world of literature has given him the super-heroic proscenium under which to wield the authority that his musical avatar represents. In his human incarnation, as the laureate that his peers recognize him to be, he is a smiling face on the dance floor of the world, grooving, enjoying his anonymity. Why is there no Cockburn Legend in the Canadian archive?

Examined, Bruce’s talents are myriad. How much faceting can one diamond sustain? Zen master of specifically Canadian imagery, startlingly complex and subtle Mississippi-style guitar wizard, community beacon, bold mystic with Christian / Taoist / Buddhist / Sufic sleeves proudly exposed, one of the original folk bilingualists (ses textes ont été imprimés en français depuis les jours de Trudeau), international peace-seeker, singer of delicacy and urgency, shy public figure, outspoken political critic, muscular ecologist, diplomat, comedian, feminist, the defenceman on the Tears Are Not Enough team that rose up in the middle and roared out the crucial goal… ”Let’s show ‘em Canada still cares!”

Down at the atomic core of the crystal, the symmetry is off balance. As folk music audiences drift from the inspiration of cosmic bards toward the magnetism of the pragmatic romantics, shouldn’t the insistence of his lessons impose a personality equal to their stature?

In the TV world, he is an ambassador to the ruins of the war-torn, poverty-sick world, in the shadow of the cameras and his brother John the Doctor; he is a father, struggling with his confession of past parenting disorders. But this is not the archetype of the Promethean stealer of fire, dancing a sunwheel dance in the falling dark of the dragon’s jaws that his writing portrays.

The recent seventieth birthday of the top songwriter from that other country on our continent prompted a bacchanal of journalistic and poetic gush. I wonder about the different aspect of appreciation that our Canadian Gemini elicits. Somewhere in Colorado tonight, he will be celebrating his 66th birthday, reflecting, perhaps, on his major accomplishments, his Junos, his Hall of Fame induction, playing Pete Seeger’s birthday, Nepal, Baghdad, SNL, the new Canada Post stamp, The Order of Canada.

I wonder if Bruce Cockburn will be thankful for his significant lack of legend. Is being under the radar a stealth strategy to give him the personal space to go forth without cameras and crowds?

Is his un-celebrity a way of honouring the essential human equality that he explicitly points to in lyric after lyric as the necessary precept to answering the illusory problems that incarnate life appears to impose?

This way of living evidences a spiritual summit reached, but also, may I humbly suggest, a uniquely Canadian charm against the ways of the world, and the pitfalls of celebrity. Instead of I’m Not There, is Bruce Cockburn transformed into a cast of ordinary characters in his own biopic I’m Still Here?

While the myth vortex fails to shape Bruce Cockburn into a symbolic being, he continues to translate perceptions from beyond the senses into the vulgate of the everyday for us, using language and music to provide his loyal fans with something “like gold, but better”.

Steady on Mr. Cockburn, and best wishes today.


Paul Corby is the host of Corby’s Orbit, 11-2p.m. Fridays on CKLN.FM online.


Photo credit: Canada Post

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5 comments

  1. avatar
    John Zytaruk 27 May, 2011 at 11:44

    One of my biggest and most enduring musical heroes, inspirations, and teachers. He provides a stellar example of what a lifetime committment to art can achieve. His melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and lyrical ingenuity are unmatched. His records stand the test of time with exemplary production and an unbeatable stable of stellar sidemen and collaborators. Unlike many of his peers, who’s best writing and records are clearly long passed (sorry Neil,) Bruce has created some of his best work ever in recent years (especially when Colin Linden has been producing.) I saw him in North Bay on his current tour, and of the thirty odd shows of his I have seen over the years, this was one of the strongest ever. My man!

  2. avatar
    Kevin James Hobbs 27 May, 2011 at 12:30

    Bruce, I first saw you at Festival of Friends in 1977. I was impressed then and have been ever since. Your music is one reason. Your concern for human rights and our planet the other. The combination an unforgettable message. Those who have listened and will listen will continue to carry the torch. Thanks Bruce. Have a great birthday brother. KJH.

  3. avatar
    Geraint from Wales 29 May, 2011 at 17:04

    Canadians – count yourselves so lucky that you can see Bruce every year and enjoy his TV appearances on a regular basis. This side of the Atlantic, we wait, and wait and wait and wait and then get really worked up in anticipation when we hear that he’s on his way. An inspiration for lovers of that precious interface between musical wizzardry, profound art, personal intimacy and meaningful politics. Thank you Bruce, and please hurry over the Atlantic before your next birthday. Happy Birthday or Penblwydd Hapus as we say in Wales

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