In 1984, the Canadian progressive folk songwriter and innovative guitarist Bruce Cockburn released Stealing Fire, a kind of hit-bid modern rock record for the greater American audiences who had eluded him. Stateside music critics and guitarists had adored him for well over a decade, but that demographic – my demographic – is rather impotent when it comes to sustaining careers, unless your definition of success is great quotes for the press kit and steady work on the clinic circuit (which is precisely no one’s definition of success).
Most of Cockburn’s early acoustic records were gorgeous works of Christian mysticism and meandering jazzy folk, with an accelerating social conscience and electric edge the closer you get to the Reagan years. Like Sufjan Stevens many years after him, Cockburn’s Christianity never appealed to the Christian music market and its copious dollars. It’s not hard to understand why. Sufjan describes a God who “takes, and he takes, and he takes”: not exactly on-point messaging in the praise world, where God provides and provides and provides to those who will receive. Bruce, of course, described a Jesus Christ whose opinion regarding US actions in Nicaragua would be unambiguously pro-Sandinista, and worse.
By ’84, the radicalized and perhaps hit-starved Cockburn had mostly forsworn the impressionistic mystical poetry of his classic early work in favor of broad, politically charged rhetoric and global journalistic storytelling, with electric guitars. He had already released the world/jazz/folk, political/spiritual masterpiece Humans, and all it had done was excite the living *hit out of people like 18-year-old me. And so, he began to grapple with a contemporary sound, as one does after nearly 15 years mining a unique self-invented style – part Astral Weeks, part Leadbelly, part Weather Report.
All his work from this period suggests that Bruce was bowled over in the early ’80s not just by the sound of the Police, but also by the sparkling guitar-pop blockbuster Zenyatta Mondatta in particular. While history has rightly favored the first two Police records, there is no overstating how ZM suddenly changed the sonic landscape of music. That sound worked well with Bruce’s mode – a natural fit for this absolute whale of a guitarist. He ran with it.
And, to an extent, the hit bid worked. Stealing Fire (not, in this fan’s opinion, one of his best) yielded his biggest US hit to date, by far: the broad-stroke, righteous and humanistic revenge fantasy “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” If you think it is a dumb song, you may not be wrong, exactly, but you may be missing how its hurt and dumb implausibility are an essential part of his blunt, visceral plea. No one is going to get very far with me arguing whether Bruce Cockburn really means it.
Anyway, what brings us together today, to the extent and in the ways that we are allowed to be together anymore, is not “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” but rather Stealing Fire’s first single and minor, secondary hit, “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.” Cockburn was uniquely good among songwriters of that era at perceiving the seamless continuum between politics and our intimate lives and relationships. He was way ahead of the times in that way, for now we just expect that kind of myself/my world savvy from our smartest songwriters and podcasters. The Police-influenced “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” renews the age-old perception that, in times of danger, instability, oppression, deprivation, injustice and moral outrage, the motive and movement of change begin in and radiate outward from our intimate relationships and connections, in love and in touch.
Until now? As of today, the most dangerous danger of these extraordinary times is itself born in intimacy and connection, and the thing we are called to sacrifice is the very thing we first turn to in times of crisis: each other, love, communion, hugs, the good free stuff. When I make my list of what groups of people I most feel for during the pandemic, rating a solid third or fourth (below those most susceptible to disease and financial devastation) are those in love.
How do we respond with positive acts when the prescribed action is retreat and isolation? The passivity is maddening and paradoxical. This elective isolation, we are told, is the best thing we can do not only for own safety, but also for the safety of those most exposed and susceptible – and the stats seem to back it up. Of course, my social media feed (in other words, my life these days) and yours are full of the good people of the Hudson Valley running food and supplies, collecting and donating money, helping our healthcare systems in auxiliary ways and then sleeping in outbuildings apart from their families because of it, supporting businesses with gift certificates and a thousand other small acts that might never have seemed so large before. But for most of us, the best thing we can do is mope.
Music, it’s time to prove it. They say you can soothe the savage b(r)east. They say you can incite revolutions and end wars. They say you build community, foster brain development and improve surgical outcomes. They say you enhance milk production in cows. Music, many have argued through the centuries that you are the highest and holiest of arts, more discovery than invention, God’s little surprise made of physics, time and mystery. Whereas other arts are about something, music is something, and that mystical materiality provides a model for other arts to aspire to: thingness and being, not meaning. Now, dear Music, a nation of recluses and hermits of necessity looks to you to get us through an indefinite term locked in our own stupid little skulls.
How do you call on music for solace and strength and calm? The first thing that comes to mind is really to lean on the old favorites. If, like me, you usually feel a moral calling to listen forward, focus on the new and in any case expand your own field of musical experience in all cultural and temporal directions, let this be a time to revisit the music of which you are made. Remember, of course, that for some, Mastodon is more soothing and reassuring than Yanni, and that’s cool.
If you can listen to vinyl, do it. Some say (and let’s not have this argument here) that analog recordings and vinyl just feel better on some imperceptible neurological level than even the highest-resolution digital. And there’s something about the old routine of sliding a record out of a sleeve and dropping the needle. In any case, listen in the air, through speakers. Headphones at this time only exacerbate the isolation and suggest that perhaps we have been heading in this solipsistic, each-to-their-own-bubble cultural direction for longer than we recognize. Listen to music together with your isolation clique. Dance, but like an eighth-grader in a puritanical district. Keep it at six feet.
But also: Ask not what music can do for you; ask what you can do for music. Most musicians have recently and violently lost all of their sources of income. Commercial composers still have work, but that’s really about it. All their action now is on the streaming services, and I am sure you know by now what that gets them. Emphasize local; you’re lucky, there’s a hell of a lot of great original music locally, and I plan on doing a roundup of some next week. Try Bandcamp a bit instead of Spotify and Apple Music, and buy some good old, um, vintage downloads for a change. You won’t believe how much warmer it sounds when you pay for it.
Never have we seen the whole wide rainbow of real life funneled so hard into the digital and virtual. I wonder how the system is going to hold up! Can it deliver the bandwidth, and if so, can it really deliver the soul of community? And this leaves, of course, the first and the last avenue to the healing, restorative and affirmative powers of music: the person, the instrument, the voice. If ever you need the license to make music, you have it now. This is how I’ll be spending my sentence. Hope to see you on the other side in good health and with some new songs.