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Essay

So many things to see in this old world
But all I can see is you.

—“Together Alone,” 1970

The following is excerpted from Bruce Cockburn’s memoir, Rumours of Glory, forthcoming this November from HarperOne.

 

IN LATE 1966 I WAS INTRODUCED to two people, in very different circumstances, who would have a profound effect on the shape of my life. Both relationships were codified in 1969, when I married Kitty Macaulay, and when Bernie Finkelstein, with somewhat less ceremony, became my manager.

The nature of these relationships, like all relationships, helps to illuminate an aspect of the human condition—or maybe just my condition, though I think I can take a shot at some universal truths. My professional connection with Bernie has lasted nearly four times longer than any of my relationships with women. Business brings the benefit of distance: you don’t have to live with or love or even like your business partner to make it work. Relationships of the heart, though, require exposure of the soul. There is risk and, potentially, reward in every utterance, every look, every assumption. You are more vulnerable slipping into bed beside your lover than you are setting up a freelance meth lab in Sinaloa.

Our journey is driven by longing. The superb novelist Robert Olen Butler, a Pulitzer Prize winner, once told me that he teaches his students to incorporate longing in what they write, because longing is perhaps the overarching human emotion. Longing has to do with God, because what humans long for the most is a relationship with the divine. We may not be conscious of it, but we long to know God, in whatever context or guise that might mean to the individual. Which brings us back to projection, to thinking that the missing elements of who we think we are can be supplied by another person, or through the pursuit of esoteric knowledge. But only God can fill that hole.

Conversely, business is mathematical, it’s definable, and—perhaps speaking to a core reason I have never liked this aspect of my career—it is the very nature of the frenetic and often sterile world of business to undermine the contemplation, the open spaces of the heart, that we need to access and to honor artistic creativity. Commerce, in an era when the market has become god, can derail our quest for the divine. It’s easier to sell something than to intimately know something, or someone, but the price we pay for the ensuing derailment can hardly be put into words (though I’ve tried).

Bernie has represented me for forty-four years on a handshake. With one exception, I don’t know of any similarly long-lived business relationship in the music industry. That exception, interestingly, is Neil Young and his manager, Elliot Roberts, who have lasted about as long as we have. Bernie tells a story about discussing the phenomenon with Roberts, who said that he and Neil have enjoyed such longevity because they talk every day, and Neil is deeply involved. “Well,” said Bernie, “I think my relationship with Bruce has lasted as long as it has because he never calls me. I have to call him all the time.”

For four decades Bernie has had the unenviable job of representing the business to me. I’m not in business. I need and want to know what’s afoot, but I don’t want to hear about it every day. I don’t want to hear about it even when I have to hear about it. Bernie tries to do this job, which he does extremely well, and I’m obstreperous about it. Don’t call me all the time. It got a little better after the first decade, but I still harbor a distaste for the business side of the Business.

I couldn’t always keep the biz at arm’s length, though. Case in point: a fatuous 1970 article in the Canadian newsmagazine The Province, about my early career. The headline, “How Long Can a Man Dodge $100,000 a Year?” rankles to this day. My first album had been out for a few months, but the writer seemed only interested in the money I could be making, not the music I was making.

I have nothing against money, but I was raised to regard it as a personal thing. It was rude to ask how much someone spent on something, or how much he made. The article was embarrassingly specific. Obviously you have to pay some attention to money. The decision to accept a gig is based in part on the remuneration offered, but it has to honor the muse. To make artistic choices based on money or the anticipation of getting it is not an option. Of course, if you grow up without it, it’s likely to mean a lot more to you than if you were reared in comfort, as I was.

The writer of the article was at least insightful. He quoted me saying, “Money is a hard thing to deal with…. It’s easier for me not to have it.” Then he somewhat gleefully, if not accurately, recorded my response to the success of my first record, and Bernie’s reaction to my response:

Not long after last summer’s release of his first album—an event that would see any other singer spending time ingratiating himself with disc jockeys so they would plug the record—Cockburn took his wife, Kitty, and his dog, Aroo, on a non-working tour of Western Canada in a camper truck. They made their leisurely way across the prairies, over the Rockies to the B.C. Coast, then back again, enjoying the delights of the Canadian countryside that loom so large in Cockburn’s songs…. Bernie Finkelstein is only bewildered. “Success is happening for Bruce now,” Finkelstein said. But then he added, with a touch of professionalism: “It might have happened earlier, if only Bruce hadn’t gone out west…but, he did, right?”… Sadly now, but resigned: “He’s taking December off, too….”

The notion of “taking” my life partner anywhere also seemed obnoxious. Kitty and I embarked on our adventures together, as a team. We loved the wide-open West. Our explorations of the numinous Canadian landscape fed the songs, and our souls. We caught the West in the last of its wild state. Many of the songs I wrote in the seventies reflect our travels through the great expanse of the Canadian prairies, across the Rocky Mountains, to the moisture-rich west coast. Space was everywhere, and there is space in the songs. Everything wasn’t a tourist trap yet, clear-cutting was not so evident and agribusiness hadn’t completely killed off the family farm. In the first couple of years that Kitty, Aroo, and I traveled westward from Ontario, we were practically the only road campers out there. Seldom did we run across anyone else traveling the way we were. The prairies were full of old abandoned farmhouses—no families to be seen—harbingers of the reversion to feudal agricultural economics. All around the land still looked wild. Our journeys offered at least the illusion of freedom, as well as a deep sense of the land as divine creation. Soon, though, we were seeing the spaces fill up with scabrous industrial sites, hotels, housing developments, shopping opportunities. We’d watch like gawkers at a train wreck as the land was eaten up before our eyes by inevitable human expansion and greed. There were ever more rules about where you could park your camper. It was the tail-end of an epoch when the land was open and it, and we, could breathe freely. That will never come again.

§

Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws was my tenth album in ten years, all of them released on Bernie’s True North record label (with its fat phallic compass-needle logo). Bernie was just twenty-two when we first met at Maple Leaf Gardens, but he’d been dabbling in music management since high school and was already a fixture in an expanding Canadian music scene. At the time that scene enjoyed little of the infrastructure (record companies, recording studios, talent agencies, performing rights organizations) that was booming in the US. So Bernie stepped into the vacuum and built one of Canada’s most influential, if modest, music empires, eventually opening an office on Scollard Street in Toronto’s Yorkville district.

By 1969 I was performing exclusively solo and was anxious to record an album. I had written dozens of songs, and it felt like they were choking me up. I wanted to get rid of these damn things in my head to make room for new ones, and I thought making a record would do that. I didn’t know any better. I didn’t want a big-time producer who would insist on adding what I saw as superfluous elements: bass and drums, or strings. I wanted the record to be just me singing and playing my songs, nothing else. I wanted a producer who would help me present the songs with the simplicity and purity of albums put out by Mississippi John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb.

One spring day, in the Upper Crust café on Yorkville, I ran into Gene Martynec, a guitar player I knew from the recently disbanded group Kensington Market, which Bernie had managed. “I really want to get into record production,” said Gene. I felt the pot being stirred. Here was a colleague who wanted to be a producer, and I wanted to make a record. He said, “And I know this guy who wants to start a record company, Bernie Finkelstein. He’s got the funding and he’s looking for talent.” Gene brought Bernie to hear me play at the Pornographic Onion, a coffee house on the campus of Ryerson University. He liked the music well enough, but what encouraged him to take me on was that I insisted on being the only player on the record. Bernie welcomed the idea. It suited his budget.

Said budget was provided by a Yorkville character named Brazilian George, a shady dude known for dealing the psychotropic chemical MDA. In his 2012 book True North, Bernie described Brazilian George as “the nicer side of the Tony Montana character played by Al Pacino in the movie Scarface.” When our trio of neophytes—Gene the producer, Bernie the record label owner, and me the artist—set out to make what for each of us was our first record, Bernie financed it with a six thousand dollar loan from Brazilian George, who was rumored to sleep with a loaded rifle under his bed.

Bernie booked recording time at Eastern Sound, in Yorkville, and we knocked out the album in three days. We went through two engineers. The first one made a point of commenting on how pleased he was that there were no drums to record, drums not being to his taste. Bill Seddon took over for this guy, and he would go on to record four of my first five records. The studio had hired Bill because he’d worked at a radio station so he knew how to thread two-inch tape onto the machines, but that was all he knew about recording. Turned out he had a good ear and a knack for dials. With the exception of an annoying degree of background hiss, the album turned out fine.

Bruce Cockburn came out in the spring of 1970. The day of its release was reasonably pleasant for Toronto at that time of year, sunny and mild. As I rambled through Yorkville without a winter coat I heard something disturbingly familiar oozing out of the open door of a bookstore. It was me. In those days free-form FM radio was new, a rapidly growing phenomenon. The Toronto station CHUM-FM was one of these stations, and it was very popular. They had crazy DJs who would rant and read their stoner poetry and spin all manner of obscure, esoteric, and interesting music. It was not unusual for them to play an entire album. I entered the store and understood that my song was on the radio, and it freaked me out. I left in a mild panic and escaped, or so I thought, into the boutique where I usually bought incense, but the album was on in there too. It was like an episode of The Twilight Zone. I realized CHUM was playing the whole record, and it was on in almost every store in Yorkville. Most performers would have been thrilled. They’re playing my album! I was terrified. I thought, I’m never going to have privacy again.

§

After a few years of Kitty and me being together, coming apart, and getting back together a few times, I determined that we needed to move the relationship forward somehow. Move it forward, pin it down. I asked Kitty to marry me, and she said yes. On the penultimate day of the decade we were married at Saint George’s Anglican Church in downtown Ottawa. Kitty wanted a church wedding. I wasn’t concerned with how we did it, but I was fascinated with all things medieval, and I thought it would feel good to get married in a place with Gothic arches and stained glass. The bride wore a long antique dress and looked like she could have stepped out of the fifteenth century. I wore my standard outfit of the day: jeans and moccasins and the woolen troubadours’ tunic someone had made for Murray McLauchlan, which he had given me. (You can see the look immortalized on the back cover of the first album.) The priest, Father Patrick Playfair, was a man who instantly commanded respect. He looked like God: long robe, big red beard and longish hair, a strong Scottish countenance. As usual I didn’t want to make a spectacle of myself, so we kept the wedding small, inviting only immediate family and offending scores of others.

The church setting was mostly an aesthetic choice for me, though more deeply meaningful to Kitty. I took very seriously the idea of making a promise before God, but I didn’t care whether we did it in a field or church or somebody’s backyard. It was beautiful, but I wasn’t attached to the place. I was seeking a deep and mystical bonding with the beautiful woman I loved, which I got, but I also got something else, quite unexpected.

With Father Playfair’s guidance we repeated our vows, then exchanged rings. At that moment, when I held Kitty’s hand to place her ring, I became aware of a presence standing there with us—invisible to the eye but as solid and obvious as any of the people in the room. I felt bathed in the figure’s energy. I shivered, said to myself, “Well, I don’t know who or what this is, but we’re in a Christian church, so it’s got to be Jesus.” Who else would it be? He spoke no words, but the presence was real, male, and loving. In giving and seeking love we enter a temple of spirit that we can’t see but we can feel, that we can’t touch but which nurtures us and makes us whole. The church where Kitty and I were married was a human construct built to accommodate and celebrate the possibility of a relationship with God. But I don’t think it was about the building. It is the opening, the baring of souls to each other and therefore to the divine, that allows these communications to occur. I will say, though, that we seemed to be in the right place at the right time, doing right by God in his house, and that might have helped.


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