The Canadian folk/rock singer-songwriter recalls a nomadic life spent witnessing the social and political crises of our time through song.
Cockburn (b. 1945) proves to be a natural storyteller in this debut, which begins with his shy, lonely childhood growing up in a comfortable Ottawa family and traces his rise as a celebrated guitarist who moved from 1960s coffeehouses to concert halls to such hit recordings as “Wondering Where the Lions Are” (1980) and “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” (1984). Known for his eclectic musical tastes—jazz, rock, blues, reggae, folk, country—he entered the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2001. Writing with intelligence and candor, he tells how other artists—from Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg to Doris Lessing and Christian/occult author Charles Williams—influenced his thinking and work and sparked his lifelong activism against war, injustice and exploitation. Cockburn reflects at length on his keen interest in Christian mysticism and the “active benevolence” of the Bible, his view of his protest songs as cries of spiritual anguish, and his travels to troubled parts of Central America, Africa and elsewhere, where injustices touched him and turned into songs like “Rocket Launcher,” which he wrote after meeting with survivors of genocide against Mayan people by Guatemalan militias. “What doesn’t kill you makes for songs,” he writes. Long repressed and preferring “a covert life,” Cockburn writes that it took him many years to feel comfortable performing for audiences and to break out of the “bonds of isolation for the infinitely elastic bag of human absurdity.” He recalls his early unsuccessful marriage and subsequent intimate relationships with a series of strong women, including an unidentified “Madame X,” who helped him open up emotionally in the 1990s.
This unusually absorbing book will enthrall Cockburn fans and anyone interested in the life of a serious artist committed to his music and progressive causes.