Book Review: Rumours of Glory

Memoir by Bruce Cockburn (co-written with Greg King)

Devoted fans and admirers of Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn will enjoy this tome. At over 500 pages, it’s like spending a short vacation with the man, during which you sit beside a cozy fire or maybe on the stool next to him in a palapa bar somewhere in the tropics and night after night he tells you his life story, until you are so enthralled you wish the experience will never end. He’s a fascinating, courageous, multi-dimensional poet of a man.
Musician readers will be delighted as he generously describes how and why his songs came to be. Recording sessions and live gigs with the likes of T Bone Burnett, Jackson Browne and Bonnie Rait will make guitarists salivate. I have to confess that I’ve been more of a fan of the man than his music, mostly because though his lyrics are poetry, they are often too much to bear. I tend to swim in the deep end myself so I usually prefer music that lifts my spirit or helps me escape altogether. Nevertheless, a few of his songs became totems during the years I moved fearlessly through Central America and saw the darkness of geopolitical warfare, such as this one:

Cockburn is well known for his forays into war zones and he is intent upon clarifying his motivations. “My songs tend to be triggered by whatever is in front of me, filtered through feeling and imagination. I went looking for humanity in all its guises. I wrote about what I found: the love, the meanness, the artists, the farmers, the juntas; the books, the slums, the palaces; the conflicts, the peace, the music. That’s why I don’t think of the things I write about as “protest” songs. They reflect what I see and how I feel about it. The songs are not ideologically driven. They are meant not as calls to action—though if someone heard one of my songs and was inspired to help the poor or save an ecosystem, all the better—anyone who feels a resonance, or even someone who doesn’t, because life is one long conversation.”
As I read between the lines, it seemed to me that he paid a high price for too often walking that psychological tightrope between detachment and compassion. As Cockburn writes, “What doesn’t kill you makes for songs. All the angst I lived with through the nineties fed some pretty good songwriting.”
I had never given Cockburn’s personal relationships much thought so it was very interesting to read about his various connections. “Each previous relationship created its own opening and taught me about myself and others. For some people, this all quite obvious: of course we learn and evolve as we go along. But it’s not a given that we’ll absorb these lessons. I was fortunate enough to have merged my life with that of strong and, each in her own way, caring women—Kitty, Judy, Madame X, even Sue—who were not afraid to take on my reticence, saw something that seemed worth the effort.”
Regardless of the reason(s) behind his sexual reticence, he clearly experienced a kind of intense unfurling during a prolonged affair he had with a married woman he mischievously labeled as Madame X. Oh to be a fly on that wall.
Rumours of Glory is a great read and so packed full of information it really ought to have a glossary.