Bruce Cockburn: Some Kind of Ecstasy Still Has a Hold on Him

Photo by MusicAlive!
Bruce still had some passionate thoughts to reinforce in us, which his musical bystanders would certainly support.

by: Carey Rutherford

Bet you’ve never been in a Canadian Standoff before, have you? It’s like a Mexican Standoff, but, more . . . Canadian.

It started out innocently enough: Bruce Cockburn was hanging a plaque in Calgary‘s National Music Centre, as part of his Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame induction which began in Ottawa last year. He spoke there and was presented with the plaque, and (by some organizational miracle that we can thank the NMC for) Calgary has a place for him to hang the plaque here. Along with a lot of other musical Canucks like Joni Mitchell and Rush.

And so, of course, there was to be celebration, and presentation, and reception, and conversation.  Basically all the rest of us were getting in on the honour of his creative poetics, and what they’ve meant to our country for the last 50 years.

We say 50 years, because that number was mentioned in the presentation which the NMC guy and the Hall of Fame gal presided over on Sunday night.

Trying to describe the significance of this event to my 22-year-old daughter gave me pause. Who is Bruce Cockburn? How does one attribute to such a non-presumptuous individual the power and creative life that he has given us?

We may have wondered where the lions were, and then we’d wished we had a rocket launcher, but there’s been lots of other things that he has also stimulated, from jazz violinist, to cattle environmentalism: basically he’s a Canadian version of what that noisy Irishman in U2 does all the time: conscientiously objecting to the price of taking the easy way out.

But Mr. Cockburn does it in a manner that allows us to retain that sheen of Canadianism, of polite indignance that we believe Canada has sole proprietary rights to. And so, when Bruce finally did want to blow a helicopter out of the sky and said that some sonofabitch would die, it was simultaneously pushing our envelope, and yet staying in character for us: a people who believe that we are a nation of peace keepers, but peacekeepers who now carry guns!

Mentioning pop music hits minimizes the work Bruce Cockburn has done. Anyone who listens to the Dancing In The Dragons Jaws album, from whence that infamous Wondering-about-Lions song comes, can attest to this: top to bottom, front to back, the beauty and poetic brilliance is undeniable, as many of his other albums have also proved. While MUSICAlive! doesn’t pretend to follow his every move and every musical jot, there’s been enough work and live performances experienced in the past to eliminate any doubt about Bruce Cockburn’s place in Canada’s musical constellations.

Under such an influence, the people gathered at the NMC’s fifth floor Hall of Fame stage, were not an entitled clique of power and prestige. They were a gathering of convivial collective hopefulness. In keeping with the intentions and words of the man being honoured, there was not a lot of pretence present in this performance, which is of course, what it was. In an ironic triple echo, the Ottawa representative admitted to stealing a piece of Bruce’s earlier speech when introducing him, and then Bruce repeated her statement himself: describing a world where facts are becoming questionable, but where Canadian Musicians still managed to frequently tell the truth.  Mr. Cockburn went further, allowing that in a world steaming along in ridiculous ways, the blessing of having been born in Canada is only magnified; it’s less insane and less unpredictable than most.

Sure, it is a bit of uncharacteristic jingoism, but he’s permitted: he was wearing the Order of Canada while he said it, after all!

Given this reinforcement of Canadian reasonableness, it was no surprise when our Seeing-Eye Buddy #1 was leading us back to pick up our second beer, and we pause for some other patrons to pass. He’s had much practice facilitating my legally-blind movement, whether in the crush of bars, by countryside bonfires, crowded Stampede breakfasts or through the Calgary Philharmonic’s genteel listeners.

Photo by MusicAlive!
Mr. Cockburn’s induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of fame brought him to calgary to add his plaque at the NMC

And here begins the Canadian Standoff:

“Go ahead,” offers the patron, stopping for us.
“No,” says Buddy #1, “after you.” We all stand for a moment.
The patron notes “well, one of us has to move.”
“After you, sir,”  Buddy insists. They nod and continue past.

As we enter the elevator, he mentions, “That was Bruce.”

No Mr. Cockburn, you go ahead. I think it’s safe to say you’ve earned it.

Decide for yourself on Tuesday night, as Bruce begins the western leg of his latest tour, supporting the album Bone on Bone. You won’t be disappointed.