There were a couple of things that first attracted me to him. He was someone who said he was a follower of Jesus, but had an expression of faith that looked very different to my right wing view of the world. I saw someone who had thought long and hard about what he believed, sought to learn more, and acted on what he had learned. While we were at very different places to begin with, I wanted to be open to what he had to say, and have come to understand many things through very similar eyes.
I had been asked by an Internet Monk reader, who shared my love for the music of Bruce Cockburn, to come up with a list of my top ten Bruce Cockburn songs. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it would be an impossible task.
Instead I decided we needed a list of the top ten Bruce Cockburn albums, and I thought that a dialogue between two devoted Cockburn fans would be the best way to come up with this list.
The first fan, Peter Heath, won a game of Jeopardy at his own wedding reception, where every category was related to an aspect of Bruce Cockburn and his music. He won despite the Quiz master having fed some of the answers to his competitors in advance, just to make the game a little more “fair.” The second fan is yours truly, Michael Bell, and in fact I created the game for the wedding reception. Peter and his wife Krista celebrated their 28th anniversary on Saturday so congratulations to you both!
Peter and I attended our first Cockburn concert together with friends when he came to our University in 1983. The music was absolutely transfixing, and I must admit I was in awe of Bruce’s silver parachute pants. I had heard some Cockburn music before, but after the concert I was totally hooked.
Let the dialogue begin…
Mike: Peter, give me your list of your top fifteen Cockburn albums. He has 25 studio albums, the rest are compilations or life albums, so let’s limit ourselves to the 25. I will do my own ranking and then combine into a composite score.
Peter: Yeah, that would be fun.
Narrator: Twenty minutes pass
Peter: Here you go!
Mike : Wait! I am still doing supper dishes! Ok I won’t look at your list until I have my list done.
I’ll put some random stuff here
To shift my list
Mike: Let’s also include a list of our favourite songs
Peter: Sounds like scope creep…
Narrator: Here is what they came up with along with their comments. They will discuss the first five albums this week, concluding with Peter’s favourite album.
Next week they will cover Albums 6 – 10, along with some honourable mentions.
Finally, in the third part of this series they will discuss some of the songs that are important to them that are important to them, but are on albums other than their top ten and honourable mentions. Mike might just attempt his own rendition of a song or two!
Number 1 – Humans – 1980
(Mike’s # 1, Peter’s #2)
Mike: Humans was an album born out of difficult circumstances. In 1980, his marriage with his wife Kitty ended, and you can hear the anguish and grittiness expressed throughout the album. Several of the songs lament the end of the relationship. From the cry of “What about the bond? What about the mystical unity?” to “Something jeweled slips away… laughing at the hands I hold out… Gutless arrogance and rage… Burn apart the best of tries.” We hear him as he tries to make amends in “Fascist Architecture of my own design.” He concludes with a lyric like “so I find out what the luxury of hate is… telephone snarls don’t touch me”.
And we observe his grey, raw world expressed in Grim Travellers and Tokyo. Tokyo, incidentally was just the second song I learned how to play on the guitar. (John Denver’s West Virginia was the first.)
Peter: While much of this album covers hard themes, there are scattered moments of hope. Rose Above The Sky may be the most amazing song Cockburn ever wrote, full of desperation and haunting and yet clinging to a faint hope. Rumours of Glory hunts for hope through pain, “You plunge your hand in, you draw it back scorched. Beneath it’s shining like gold.” Even More Not More points toward the good, like “more current more spark, more touch deep in the heart” while balancing that off against “not more thoughtless cruelty, not more being this lonely”.
Musically, Humans Cockburn sticks with his acoustic guitar but brings a very fine band along and starts walking away from any sort of folk music sensibility. In hindsight, it’s the last primarily acoustic album he did before leaping into electric guitars with The Trouble With Normal. Who would have guessed?
Some of the most meaningful songs for Peter or I:
- Rose above the Sky
- Grim Travellers
- You get bigger as you go.
- Rumours of Glory
- What About The Bond
- How I Spent My Fall Vacation
- Fascist Architecture
Number 2 – Stealing Fire – 1984
(Mike’s #2, Peter’s #4)
Peter: The pinnacle of Bruce’s commercial heyday, Stealing Fire sees him rocking out after a life changing trip to Central America. Lovers and Rocket Launcher are classics. Lovers includes maybe Cockburn greatest single turn of phrase (Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight). Rocket Launcher is 5 minutes of rage propelled by electric guitars (one hundred thousand wait to fall down from starvation, or some less humane fate). Frankly, I question the wisdom of recording a song so focused on murderous vengeance, but for all that, it does kick down the door on the suffering of warzone life, and reminds us to be skeptical of power brokers and political solutions. Fortunately, Cockburn shows us the beauty of that trip on Nicaragua and the rolling Dust & Diesel (I feel like I’m in the back of a pickup just from the music alone).
Mike: This album, along with Trouble with Normal, really introduces us to Bruce’s full throated political activism. Nicaragua was clearly pointing a finger at the U.S. policy and action in the area. Those who remember Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair will remember how this story played out.
Lovers in a Dangerous time would be in my top ten list of Cockburn songs if I had one. I like to think of this song being about Christ and his Church, even if that may or may not have been Cockburn’s original meaning. It came out just as Music videos were starting to come into their own. Let’s just say it was a developing art, and Lovers went in a very unexpected direction.
Dust and Diesel did make it into the Jeopardy game with the cryptic clue “small particles with a petroleum product”.
- Lovers In A Dangerous Time
- Peggy’s Kitchen Wall
- Maybe The Poet
- If I Had a Rocket Launcher
- Dust and Diesel
Number 3 – Inner City Front – 1981
(Peter’s #3 Mike’s #5)
Peter: Bruce leaves the countryside and parks himself in urbania, grabs an electric guitar and a band, and gives us ICF. Cockburn paints a nuanced and detailed portrait of downtown life and invites us to tour it with him, especially with Pay Your Money and All’s Quiet. Radio Shoes is unique among his instrumentals as it showcases the whole band. Eventually tourism gives way to anger at governmental and individual savagery in Justice (Can you tell me how much bleeding it takes to fill a word with meaning?) and a challenge to live as light in Broken Wheel (Lord, spit on our eyes so we can see how to wake up from this tragedy). He closes by retreating to longing and observation in Loner (men’s faces, women’s bodies on the magazine stand), heightened by Hugh Marsh’s violin. And we are left wondering … whatever happened to Chucky?
Mike: What happened to Chucky? I want to know why he was being chased down the street! What did he do? A very visual song if there ever was one.
The song that has really stood out to me over the years is “The Strong One”. I just sent it to our HR manager as a show of support after she had to lay off a third of the company. It would be one of my go-to songs when I am feeling burdened.
You help your sisters, you help your old lovers,
you help me but who do you cry to?
‘Cause isn’t it hard
To be the one who gathers everybody’s tears
Isn’t it hard
To be the strong one.
- Broken Wheel
- All’s Quiet on the Inner City Front
- You Pay Your Money And You Take Your Chance
- The Strong One
- And We Dance
- Coldest Night Of The Year *on rerelease
- The Light Goes On Forever *on rerelease
- Radio Shoes
Peter: Do you realize that between us, we have chosen every single song on the album as a top song?
Mike: As you will see this won’t be the only album that this happens for!
Number 4 – In the Falling Dark – 1976
(Mike’s #4, Peter’s #5)
Mike: This album is significant in that it is the first album in the list that predates both of us. That is, it was recorded long before either of us had our first interaction with Bruce Cockburn. It is also interesting that these first four listed albums made it into both of our top five selections.
Peter: Meeting an artist and becoming interested in their work can really depend on when you meet them – where you are in your own life and tastes, where the artist is as well. Falling Dark would not have been an entry point for me into Cockburn’s world, but once I got interested in his music, I am glad I backtracked a bit and gave this album a listen.
Mike: Lord of the Starfields is probably the most meaningful song to me of all the Cockburn songs. The refrain, repeated over and over, “Oh Love that fires the sun, keep me burning” is what I cry out over and over when spiritually I am in a dry and desolate place.
Peter: Like Mike, I love that key line from Lord of the Starfields, as it opens up how I think about God’s love. The musical setting, especially the intro riff, sets you up for something positive without being formulaic.
Mike: Gavin’s Woodpile is still very apropos when we look at the high rates of incarceration of African-Americans in the U.S., and indigenous people in Canada:
I remember a bleak-eyed prisoner
In the Stoney Mountain life-suspension home
You drink and fight and damage someone
And they throw you away for some years of boredom
One year done and five more to go —
No job waiting so no parole
And over and over they tell you that you’re nothing…
Peter: Gavin’s Woodpile gives an acoustic voice to Cockburn’s (barely) simmering rage at injustice within the justice system. Other Canadian songwriters like Steve Bell have taken on this theme as well. We’d all benefit from listening to this song every now and then.
Mike: Steve’s album “My Dinner With Bruce” is my favourite Cockburn tribute album, and he gives you quite the insight into his own journey with Bruce. Plus he has a great preview of all the tracks of his cover songs!
The song incidentally was written at a penitentiary just south of Ottawa in 1975. I was invited into that same institution in 1987 to help lead the music for their Chaplaincy service. I don’t think I had made that connection until just now.
Festival of Friends is one of two songs by Cockburn that I would like played at my memorial service. (The other is Joy Will Find A Way from the album of the same name in our honourable mentions section). He wrote it for friends who had just lost a child to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Like an imitation of a good thing past
These days of darkness surely will not last
Jesus was here and he’s coming again
To lead us to his festival of friends.
Peter: Silver Wheels foreshadows future travelogue songs that put the listener right in the car/train/truck with Bruce. His description of the outskirts of any Canadian city still rings true: “The skin around every city looks the same, miles of flat neon spelling well-known names: used trucks, dirty donuts, you you’re the one”. You’d think we’d have done something different in 45 years! And Vagabondage provides a wonderful twist to the “band on the road” song, putting all the lyrics in French (“Toujours en route, Nous sommes encore en route”). I miss the French songs that formed a consistent element of his earlier work.
The title track, In The Falling Dark, also taps into frustration, grasping the willfully earthbound ways we live:
Light pours from a million radiant lives,
off of kids and dogs and the hard shell husbands and wives.
All of that glory shining around and we’re all caught taking a dive.
And all the beasts of the hills around Shout, ‘such a waste,
don’t you know that from the first to the last we’re all one in the gift of grace.’
For those with eyes to see …
- Silver Wheels
- Gavin’s Woodpile
- Lord Of The Starfields
- Water Into Wine
- I’m Gonna Fly Someday
- Festival of Friends
- In The Falling Dark
Number 5 – Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws – 1979
(Peter’s #1, Mike’s #9.)
Peter: Wondering Where the Lions Are is a wonderful song, Cockburn’s first real entry on pop charts, bouncing along while mocking militarism and “pointing a finger at eternity”. But what I really love is the way all the other songs hold together thematically and musically. It’s like Bruce and the band got into one musical headspace and just ripped through all the songs at once. It’s something you don’t hear very often. And lyrical gems pop up throughout … Centred on silence, Counting on nothing, I saw you standing on the sea … Maybe to those who love is given sight, To pierce the wall of seeming night, And know it pure beyond all imagining … But everything you see’s not the way it seems, Tears can sing and joy shed tears. This album is a masterclass in writing and assembling an album as an album, not just a collection of songs.
Mike: For me, Creation Dream is wonderful imagery of Christ calling the world into being. And the guitar work that accompanies it is so full of energy, that it meshes beautifully with the lyrics.
Centred on silence
Counting on nothing
I saw you standing on the sea
And everything was
Dark except for
Sparks the wind struck from your hair
Sparks that turned to
Wings around you
Angel voices mixed with seabird cries
Fields of motion
Questions that contain their own replies…
- All of them … seriously
Peter: Mike, thanks for inviting me to join you on this journey. It’s great to relisten to these albums and recapture why they captured my imagination over the years.
Mike: Peter, thanks for your contribution. You made this post so much better than I could have created on my own.
So that is it for Part One. Five amazing albums. All very much worth purchasing and listening to. Stay tuned for the next two Mondays as we do some further exploring into the music and world of Bruce Cockburn. There are some real gems in our next list as well.
As always your thoughts and comments are welcome.