Canadian parliamentarians can breathe a sigh of relief that sergeant-at-arms Kevin Vickers was on duty when a lone gunman walked into the House of Commons on October 22; the intrusion was brought to a quick, if regrettable, conclusion. This country’s music lovers, however, might be equally happy that his predecessor wasn’t as quick on the uptake when a very different kind of dissident walked into the same building in 1995, carrying a satchel full of land mines.
In the earlier incident, the interloper was multiple-Juno-winning songwriter Bruce Cockburn, whose ire had been raised by Canada’s complicity in distributing the deadly devices around the globe. The mines he carried had been rendered inoperative, but his point had been made: death can lurk, invisibly, anywhere.
One event was the result of a passionate conviction that ordinary citizens must speak out against evil; the other, as far as we know, was an act of madness. But both were likely the result of frustration that governmental power is increasingly deaf to peaceful protest, and Cockburn doesn’t see that improving anytime soon.
“I think that’s getting worse around the world,” he says, reached by phone in San Francisco, just a day after the shootings on Parliament Hill. “That is one of the results of the increase in corporate power and influence over government, and the surrender of democratic principles that’s happening across the board, as far as I can see. It’s certainly happening in the U.S.; it’s happening in Canada; it’s happening in Europe.…And it’s partly just a result of the available technology. Once you have an official entity that’s charged with protecting us, which is pretty necessary, that entity is going to want to accrete to itself everything that it can possibly get to do its job well.…And that’s what we’ve seen happen with the NSA in the States, and with its Canadian counterpart to some degree or another.”
Given Cockburn’s role as an activist—not to mention his mournful but incendiary song “If I Had a Rocket Launcher”, written after he visited Guatemalan refugees displaced by that country’s civil war—he’s almost certainly under surveillance. But just about anything anyone wants to know about his political beliefs, his writing process, his musical landmarks, and the clandestine love affair that inspired some of his most gorgeous songs can be found in his new and revelatory autobiography, Rumours of Glory.
Issued simultaneously with an identically titled and lavishly produced boxed set, which shadows the book’s progress in musical form, it’s a surprisingly frank statement from an artist who has previously been guarded when discussing his private life.
“It was an odd line to walk between exposure and maintaining privacy—and there’s an awful lot that’s not in the book, partly because we would have had a 4,000-page book if we’d put everything in,” Cockburn admits. “But it’s not like there are any great revelations threatening anyone. I wasn’t going to blow the whistle on anybody’s infidelities or any of that kind of stuff; it’s not about that.”
Cockburn credits his cowriter, journalist and environmentalist Greg King, with giving the book its structure, and with making it more than the “spiritual memoir” he’d originally intended to write. While we do get the details of Cockburn’s ongoing spiritual quest—and he’s not the one-dimensional Christian he might have seemed during the 1970s—we’re also privy to his journeys around the globe on various humanitarian and fact-finding missions for Oxfam and other NGOs.
“I doubt very much that we’d have as much information about the background of Central America and Chile as we do without Greg’s involvement,” he notes. “I wouldn’t have thought of going that far with it, but I think it makes for a more interesting book, and it’s stuff that people should know—especially young people, if anybody young reads the book.”
Rumours of Glory also includes some insightful musings on his early upbringing. Some of these, he notes, came out of the work he’s been doing with Montreal therapist Marc Bregman, a specialist in the interpretation of dreams. Cockburn balked at Bregman’s initial diagnosis, but has since come round to his way of seeing things.
“The first opinion he offered was that I had father issues,” he says, laughing. “And I thought, ‘Jesus Christ. Father issues?’ I was like, ‘Come on: I’m not paying you to tell me I’ve got father issues!’ It sounded like such a cliché to me‚ and of course it turned out to be perfectly true.
“I touch on that in the book in that episode from my teens, when my dad confiscated my notebook,” he continues, adding that the journal in question mostly contained semiregurgitated horror stories. “He was doing what he thought he should do as parent, but it really shocked me. He was basically a pretty good guy—a really good guy, actually—but that was a turning point in terms of trust. Right at that moment, it became clear that I could never trust my dad again…and, by extension, every other kind of authority.”
Cockburn’s thinking a lot about parenting these days. At 69, he’s the father of a three-year-old daughter, Iona, and grandfather to his first child Jenny’s four kids—five good reasons, he adds, to keep on working for a better world.
Hal Wake interviews Bruce Cockburn in a special Vancouver Writers Fest event at St. Andrew’s–Wesley United Church on Monday (November 10). See the Vancouver Writers Fest website for details.