May 6, 2014 – These days Bruce Cockburn has settled in San Francisco. For a long-wandering troubadour, it’s a good place to land.
The climate is pretty nice and his wife and child live there too.
That doesn’t mean he’s not touring these days. In fact, the Ottawa-raised singer-songwriter is headed to his hometown in support of a poet.
There is a move afoot to restore the Ontario home of the late poet Al Purdy as a writers’ retreat. The home is in Prince Edward County.
So, Saturday night at Library and Archives Canada, Cockburn will perform in an event that is part of the Spur Festival of art, culture and ideas.
“Al Purdy was a fantastic poet,” said Cockburn. “It’s just nice to be able to be part of anything that has something to do with him.”
Cockburn has a large playbook from which he can draw.
“I have more fun playing whatever is newest usually. Sometimes I have fun discovering a new way of doing an old song that’s more enjoyable. It is the case that people want to hear certain songs. They need to get some of what they want.
But you couldn’t do a show that would offer ony the oldies. You have to mix it up.”
For the Purdy benefit he is just doing a few songs, he says. “I may chose wordier ones because it’s a poetry thing.”
When he thinks of the Purdy project, Cockburn is a bit envious.
“I’d love to have a retreat, but I don’t have any time to retreat anywhere.”
One reason for that is Cockburn, who turns 69 later this month, is the father of a two-year-old girl. And “she is lively.”
Cockburn remarried a few years ago and his wife is American. For a while they lived in New York, but his spouse got a job in San Francisco and the move happened. But he did spend some time commuting from the east to the west by car, no less.
“I liked the drive. I did so much driving across Canada in the ‘80s, I kind of missed it.” But eventually he made the move.
Musically Cockburn’s last album was released in 2011. [ Small Source Of Comfort ]
Since then he has spent most of his time touring and working on a memoir that will be released in November. He says he is doing the book now because he got an offer from a publisher that he couldn’t refuse.
“It was the right time. I’ve been approached over the years by various people who wanted to write my story and publishers who wanted me to do it but it always seemed to soon.
“Plus it seemed like my story and I didn’t want to hand it over to somebody else. It was my story to tell.”
Still it has ended up as a joint effort because he got bogged down after about 100 pages.
“I just didn’t know where to go.” So he enlisted a trusted journalist friend named Greg King.
“It was easy to write about childhood. It’s the distant past and it was simple. the memories are fewer and more concrete. But once you get into the mechanics of adulthood it gets complicated. I found it hard to sift all the information and put it in some kind of coherent fashion.
“It’s definitely my voice that you will read,” he insists.
Cockburn’s father died last year, but before that he would run things by him. “His memory was totally sharp. There are other witnesses that I can consult with. And I have my own vivid memories and this is my story.”
The memoir stops in 2004, after he returned from a trip to Baghdad.
There is a sequel, in theory, but he’s not anxious to write it.
Cockburn has been performing music but he is not writing it. The memoir has occupied that part of his creative self.
One of the things the Al Purdy folks want to do is an album of songs and Cockburn is considering taking part.
“I haven’t been writing. But I look forward to being in a position to seriously wonder if I’m going to write a song now.”
It’s not so much that his muse left, “I slammed the door. All the ideas and the space in my brain that gets those ideas is about the book.”
“My style of writing is very different from what is required for a book. You write a song, you are dealing with 30 lines. It’s finite and not very great number. The time frame it gets written in can be anything from a couple of hours to a few days. Sometimes that few days stretches over a long period. A book is concentrated over a long period.
“As it sits in my computer it is 478 pages and it’s taken time and energy to get to that.”
Memoirs prompt memories and Cockburn has been thinking about his Ottawa days.
“I dropped out of Berklee (College of Music in Boston, Mass.) at the end of 1965 and the next couple of years were with the band The Children learning to write with Bill Hawkins, which was the big benefit. I learned a lot about guitar from Sneezy Waters and Sandy Crawley and various other people but I learned about writing from Bill. That’s what got me started.”
He spends more time in the book on The Children than with the next group 3’s A Crowd.
“When I joined 3’s a Crowd it was not the original group with which I was acquainted. It was with David Wiffen and Richard Patterson who were left after original band broke up.
“David and Richard approached various of us to put a band together for a TV show (The band included Colleen Peterson, Sandy Crawley and Dennis Pendrith).
“I was looking for a way to go solo and this was an opportunity for a bunch of gigs that made sense to me. I took it. It lasted about six months with me in it.”
Cockburn’s family is still here, but he doesn’t get to come back and explore the changing city.
But it was that city with a small town feel that made him, he says.
“I think one of the things that was really notable about Ottawa when I was growing up there was how easy it was to get out of. The exposure to nature that we got as a matter of course. The family had a cottage a little west of the Gatineau on Grand Lake. And my grandfather had a farm up near Old Chelsea.”
Cockburn lived on Highland Avenue three blocks from Nepean High School, his alma mater.
“I think it was a good place to grow up for people in my situation. It was a middle-class kind of atmosphere with an emphasis on education.
The Cockburn’s would ski at Camp Fortune and Bruce was a competent skier, he says. After many years he picked up skiing again in the 1990s. But recently because of his daughter, he says, he hasn’t been able to go.
His father was in the Canadian military after the Second World War and was part of the occupying force in Europe.
“I’ve always been interested in history and in military aspects of history.”
As a performer, he has been in war zones including Afghanistan, on a mission to visit the Canadian troops.
“That was the first time I’ve been in a war zone with people that I could understand, who were my people. It was great to be in an atmosphere like that from that perspective. It was educational.
“Our stuff was being run well and our people were doing a good job. It wasn’t a surprise to find that was the case. It was a surprise to find how much that was the case and how professional and together and informed the Canadian soldiers I talked to were.
“They knew what they were there for, unlike the American troops that I have also met in other war zones.
“They gave you the impression that they were there because somebody made them go, they had no choice. They were cynical.
“I have had a difficult time convincing my lefty friends that this was important. This was to right a wrong … that can’t be ignored.
“I sort of agree that you can’t have a country in the world these days where people go around throwing acid in women’s faces simply because they want to learn to read. There are some cultures that don’t deserve to persist.
“There are aspects of the Afghan culture — here I am Mr. white man talking about it — the admirable traits deserve promotion and the opposite ones deserve suppression or removal.
“That’s true of us too.
“When the correction comes for us, I’m sorry I won’t be there to help my little daughter through it.”
Peter Robb, Ottawa Citizen