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Rumours of Glory: A memoir

Rupert Loydell

Many of us have been listening to Bruce Cockburn for 30 or 40 years now. I was introduced to him by a friend at church youth group and was lucky enough to see him and his band live in London a few months later, and then intermittently at various venues and festivals (including, of course Greenbelt) since. While feted in Canada, he remains more obscure in the UK, although I know I am not alone in having a shelf of his CDs in my music collection.

In his memoir (why not autobiography, I wonder?), which is - as you would expect - peppered with song lyrics, Bruce Cockburn is in the main warm and personable, chatty even, as he takes us through his life as a singer- songwriter, as a person involved in music. Readers of Third Way may perhaps be delighted that in his introduction, which he calls 'Overture', Cockburn immediately mentions how he found Jesus and how He informed some of Cockburn's songs and changed his life, but then be disappointed that in the same sentence he says he 'then let go of his hand amid the din of disingenuous right-wing Christian exploitation'. He also says that he has 'tried to keep Jesus the compassionate activist close to [his] heart, along with Jesus as a portal to the cosmos' and that he has 'long been leery of the dogma and doctrine that so many have attached to Christianity'.

While this may be reassuring to those of a more liberal persuasion and faith, it does immediately flag up some of the problems present in the book, namely that Cockburn can at times lecture, and sometimes be a little disingenuous.

The first part of the book is, to be honest, not very interesting. It sets the scene, tells us a little about Cockburn's formative years, his early bands, an interest in mysticism and the occult, and in due course delivers us to his first marriage and his early solo career. Cockburn's first moment of 'conversion' seems to arrive at his wedding, when he is aware of a presence in church which he takes to be Jesus, a Jesus who soon turns up in his thoughts and songs, most specifically in the hymnlike 'All the Diamonds in the World'. Cockburn also took an interest in the theology of Harvey Cox, reading his best-selling book on secularism, and his lesser known treatise on ideas of festivity and celebration, The Feast of Fools.

Cockburn's previous interest in mysticism and his new found faith also led him to Tolkien and CS Lewis, and then on to Charles Williams, whose strange theological ideas and even stranger novels were filtered into the upbeat visionary songs on the Dancing in the Dragon's Jaw LP. But soon after separation and? divorce arrived and Cockburn turned his eagle eye on the places he had visited and how he felt on the tough, gritty rock album Humans. There's a sense of disappointment and regret, coupled with emotional and spiritual desire, underpinning this album, and a quiet rage that is also showcased on the following album, Inner City Front, where Cockburn railed against 'what's been done in the name of Jesus / what's been done in the name of Buddha' against a lurching reggae beat.

It's at this point in his story that Cockburn starts to write about the humanitarian and political issues which have since informed his work. To start with this is interesting, and written in terms of what he has seen, where he's been and what has inspired him to write some of the songs. But this writing is never as interesting as the songs themselves, and further on I felt preached at - there are verbose, overlong sections, which to be honest don't tell us much that any socially concerned or informed person doesn't know. I also have my own concerns that despite railing against violence and wars he can't see any connection between shooting as a sport - which Cockburn practices - and violence and militarism as a mindset.

A similar thing happens with Cockburn's faith. He turns woolly and vague, starts accepting only theological and biblical ideas which fit with his own world view, and decides that anything that happens - including an affair with a married woman - happens through God's will to show or teach him something. I don't want to cast stones or condemn anyone, and of course we can learn from anything, but some of this seems self-delusional thinking.

What Cockburn is better at articulating are ideas of seeking out divine and human love, and of drawing on human experience of all types to write songs, informed by an inquisitive eye and ability to travel light into many countries and situations. As well as discussing the creative process, in general and specific terms, he also shares how some specific songs developed, and talks about recording them and playing them live. So guitarists, drummers, guest musicians and producers come and go, records are released, issues make their mark, and are considered personally, and then in song. Meanwhile Cockburn also documents his serial monogamy, with the happy ending of a wife and new daughter, and ends his book with an uplifting idea that 'If we go out there shining with the light of God and brimming with love, it will be noticed. A door will be opened for the spirit to walk through.' This is echoed in the final set of song lyrics quoted, 'The Light Goes on Forever', a 1980 song only released on the expanded edition of Inner City Front:

God waves a thought like you'd wave your hand/ And the light goes on forever/ Through the seasons and through the seas/ The light goes on forever

While Cockburn may at times be theologically suspect, as a singer-songwriter he is rarely surpassed; as a writer he is in the main down to earth and friendly, accessible and involving. If you are at all interested in his music or the spirituality and politics behind him, this is the book for you.