My first Bruce Cockburn album was his tenth in ten years, 1979’s Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws, which I bought on a tip from Guitar Player magazine. How much money did you spend on records when you were a teenager? And what other choice did you have for new music and specific hungers, beyond the frustrating flux and the shadowy market motives of radio? Every record purchase was an independent capital risk, and that sense of studied investment made you stick with albums longer and give them multiple cracks at your affections. Thus: growers, delayed and dark-horse favorites, album tracks rising into personal hits and all those other universal listening experiences born of scarcity and lost to our current state of on-demand abundance. The music wasn’t any deeper or more sublime in design than it is now; we were just stuck in a room with it longer.
But Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws was exactly what I was looking for at that moment and exactly as I hoped it would be: luminous, jazz-inflected, progressive folk/rock with a badass, liberated fingerstyle acoustic guitarist at the center of its late ’70s fusions. The songs were lovely, too: the lyrics a bit beyond me in their blend of poetic shimmer and worldly grit, but “relatable,” as the kids would say today – to my father’s great chagrin, were he around to hear them say it. I remember my Dad positively scowling at the “nonsense” of the Cockburn line, “Concrete vortex sucks down the wind/It’s howling like a blinded violin,” which I had offered as a prime example of Bruce’s mystical, musical journalism. Oh, my Pops surely never intended his opinions and aesthetics to intimidate my own; but sometimes he just couldn’t stifle a spasm of contempt at the source. He was always sad about it after.
In retrospect, Bruce has thrown a lot crazy images against the wall in his 45-year career, and more than a few have stuck – on me, at least. Fortunately, I weathered my Dad’s disgust and stayed onboard with Cockburn, going back into his progressive folk catalogue of the ’70s and walking forward with him through his remarkable run of politicized rock records in the early ’80s. Soon, I would discover that Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws was a major pivot point in the career of the man whom you can call Canada’s Dylan with a very, very straight face. (I’d prefer “Canada’s Joni,” but for the issue of Joni already being Canada’s.)
Its red herring of a single, “Wondering where the Lions Are,” was one of Cockburn’s few Stateside hits: a throwback to the quietly rollicking rag/folk of his earliest efforts. The rest of the album is a maelstrom of musical restlessness, blooming jazz ears and the dawning of a political and global consciousness in Cockburn, just beginning to cut through the fog of the vaguely Christian mysticism that characterized his first decade.
The jazziness and the worldliness exploded into something very like genius on his next record, 1980’s seminal Humans: an album that manages to be acoustic New Wave, folk, jazz and surreal confessional travelogue all at once. But let’s go back to go forward. The first drumbeat in the Bruce Cockburn oeuvre enters about 30 seconds into “You Don’t Have to Play the Horses,” the second track on his fourth album, Night Vision. His lovely first few records (of which High Winds, White Sky is often considered pick-of-the-litter) were schooled in the British progressive folk of John Renbourn and Pentangle as well as the meandering and irresolute art song of David Crosby, but grounded with far more Leadbelly and Josh White. Modal raga was in the air then, but pop was quietly in Cockburn’s mix too. In some of the hushed Beatlesque moments of early Cockburn I hear nothing so much as a way, way advance warning of Elliott Smith.
Always a Christian writer, never a Christian-genre artist, Cockburn shares that commercial space with only a handful of others: U2, of course, and maybe Sufjan Stevens. The uniquely Cockburnian paradox is that, as he dropped the veil of mysticism and moved ever more toward keenly pissed-off leftist activist rock, the Christian content in his songs grew a little more explicit, not less. When he drops the rare J-bomb in the middle of his poetic catalogues of Third World oppressions and outrages, it always seems to be a double-edged act of messaging: challenging the political conscience of fellow Christians and reminding his fellow progressives of the abiding historical efficacy of the Christian Left, saying “Deal with it.”
Humans was one of the last Cockburn records to sound like the old Bruce – one of the last records to share in the naturalistic warmth and space of 1970s high-end recording. The early ’80s were a bad, bad time for sound in general, for pretty much everyone, and you need to fight through that unmistakable period stamping to appreciate the incendiary heart of two of Cockburn’s best political rock records, 1983’s The Trouble with Normal (“The trouble with normal is it always gets worse!”) and his biggest record in the US, 1984’s Stealing Fire, from which came two of his hits: “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” and “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.”
This was back when practically everything was still trying to cop the sound of Zenyatta Mondatta and missing badly. There’s an unfortunately sterile gauziness to these records, the moneyed sound of the day as the artist angled for (and won) greater play in the US; and if there were a couple of records that I would love to hear remade to liberate their stunning revolutionary intelligence from their production, these might be them, right alongside XTC’s The Big Express.
Cockburn has stayed prolific through the ’90s and the new millennium, and his “late career” is dotted with gems, including some collaborations with T-Bone Burnett, a daring conceptual album in Life Short Call Now produced by old pal Jon Goldsmith and, perhaps most satisfying of all, 2011’s exquisite Small Source of Comfort, in which all phases and stages of Cockburn – folk and rock, political and spiritual, stark and decorated – seem to merge into an utterly comfortable, proven original voice.
The great Bruce Cockburn performs at the Towne Crier Café in Beacon on Saturday, August 22 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets cost $48. The Towne Crier Café is located at 379 Main Street in Beacon. For more information, call (845) 855-1300 or visit www.townecrier.com.
Bruce Cockburn, Saturday, August 22, 8:30 p.m., $48, Towne Crier Café, 379 Main Street, Beacon; www.townecrier.com.