40. THIS IS BAGHDAD – Bruce Cockburn


Most of what we know about present Baghdad will be from news reports. I felt, though, that the third section of David Mitchell’s wonderfully ambitious ‘Bone Clocks’ novel was probably giving me a different,more incisive glimpse into life there; and I feel something the same about this song – that both lyrically and in its sound-collage, it’s conveying something movingly authentic about life in that ravaged city.

If you read my earlier Bruce blog (After the Rain/Creation Dream) you may remember I promised a Part 2 to my Bruce story. Here it is. I met someone in a Jonatha Brooke concert who, in our chat, shared that she’d come to appreciate Jonatha through her association with Bruce (the ‘War’ track?); she’d been practically a ‘Cockburn completist’ she said, but she couldn’t rate any of his more recent albums (She was talking ‘Charity of Night’ onwards, I think.)

I realized then that I was far more indiscriminate about my acceptance of Cockburn’s work because – and you’ll need to see the previous Cockburn essay to get this –it was more of a case that I’d ‘adopted him’ than simply got attracted to some things rather than others. With each new album, it’s a bit like he’s come home from school with another new crayoned picture and each one of them I put up on the fridge and love, because it’s Bruce.

Ha. That sounds slightly pathetic, and it’s perhaps overstating the case, because obviously I can’t fully lay aside my critical faculties, and the part of me that responds appreciatively or otherwise, to song. So I suppose the fact is: I also do find so much to enjoy in ‘later Cockburn’. Having seen him in concert very recently, too, I feel like in some ways there’s even something of a growing strength in his compositions. Certainly in the maturity and confidence of his performance-presence.

Take this song – and I’m listening to it right now as I write – it feels like a major oeuvre. Based on his extensive travelling, BC’s songs have often reflected impassioned responses to various trouble-spots, highlighting and challenging examples of social and political injustice. For many of these songs (I’m thinking of the 80s and 90s especially) he’s chosen a more brooding monologue-type structure, more or less spoken verses with sung refrains – and no less powerful for that. But this song is melodic right through – verse and chorus – and the content, after some intriguingly cinematic orchestration in the intro, is direct from the word go – ‘Everything’s broken in the birthplace of law..’

We get snapshot images of the war-torn ruinous state of a city with such a richly historic culture. These elements are reflected throughout the song’s sounds – eventually we’re aware of a clashing, battering background rhythm, cumulatively insistent throughout the five-minute song, but over this – and unusual for BC – lush, melodic strings in the introduction and returning to sweep elegantly alongside the plucked guitar and percussion in the chorus. ‘This is Baghdad’ intones the repetitious refrain, underpinned by these musical elements – and the result is one of the most ‘filmic’ pieces he’s ever produced. Alongside these cameos of devastation and deprivation (‘Not enough morphine and not enough gauze/Firefight in darkness like snapping of jaws’)  there’s a sense of probing reportage ( the ‘blast’ in verse 3 – its ‘radiant energy’ and resultant fatalities), and the final verse is a bold challenge to US accountability – ‘Carbombed and carjacked and kidnapped and shot/How do you like it, this freedom we brought/We packed all the ordnance but the thing we forgot/Was a plan in case it didn’t turn out quite like we thought’…

Bruce takes his songwriting seriously and that’s another reason to love him. These are songs with integrity, asking questions.


12. CREATION DREAM and AFTER THE RAIN – Bruce Cockburn

And so to Bruce, finally.  It had to come.  My Bruce-history needs to be told.  But first, these songs.

I get them mixed up, if truth be told.  Although lyrically quite different, in sound and feel and emotional associations, they have a common vibe.  For reasons I’ll try to explain soon, Bruce became a major part of my listening life when we lived in Paraguay; and one day in the ‘English’ staff room, Kate –our newly arrived, zany, effervescent Australian ex-vet young teacher –wanted to listen in to what I was listening to on my Walkman.  When she grabbed an earplug to listen in, it was one of these two songs.  ‘But this is one of my happy songs!’ she squealed with surprised delight.  ‘I love this song!’ I realised what she meant (whichever one of these two songs she was referring to!) because both have a pounding, insistent ‘drive’ to them, melodies perhaps unremarkable in some ways, but subtly apt vehicles for their somewhat mysterious, always entrancing, lyrical content; and yes, they are really ‘happy’ songs!

It’s a bit religious of me to say so, but I almost feel that there’s something ‘anointed’ about the album which contains these tracks – ‘Dancing In The Dragon’s Jaws’.  Perhaps it was his immersion in the works of mystical Inkling Charles Williams, prior to writing and recording some of these songs? Like all the great albums, this one has its own character, a very ‘unified’ feel to it.  The opening track, ‘Creation Dream’ sets the tone perfectly, and its two verses seem to imagine the first, original act of creation –‘centred on silence/counting on nothing/I saw you standing on the sea…’; and the Creator is imagined as joyful, exhilarated in the act of bringing life into being: ‘you were dancing/I saw you dancing/throwing your arms towards the sky…/stars were shooting everywhere…’ Catch the song in the right mood (e.g.  With your Walkman on, walking down the warm evening callés of Asunción towards a cervecita…) and it’s breathtaking.

‘After The Rain’ is more mysterious, but it has the same dream quality, and the same life-affirming vitality.  Its highlights are these speculative assertions: ‘maybe to those who love is given sight/to pierce the wall of seeming night/and know it pure beyond all imagining’; and even more so, the thrilling falsetto-leap that takes place on ‘hydrogen’ in this: ‘maybe to those who love it’s given to hear/music too high for the human ear/and clear as hydrogen to go sailing…’ Goosebumps, from both the sound, and the content!

So, the story of me and Bruce. I always say that I sort of ‘adopted’ him; I chose to like him and listen to him even before I had heard him.  Before the nineties, his name was a fringe-name I may have noticed peripherally in articles about Greenbelt Festival, or about minor Canadian songwriters, or singers with some kind of Christian focus.  In Paraguay, when some kind organization had gifted us with free subscriptions to a magazine of choice, I read an article about him in ‘The Other Side’ (a now discontinued U.S. ‘alternative’ Christian periodical, a bit like ‘Sojourners’); felt a kinship…  And shortly afterwards, as if it was meant to be (!), discovered in a downtown record store a whole heap of music cassettes from north American companies (Columbia, particularly, I think) at prices muy barato – amongst them several Bruce Cockburn albums.  A couple of weeks later, in a different store, a few more!  Suddenly it seemed like I had most of Cockburn’s back catalogue for –In The Falling Dark, Humans, Joy Will Find A Way, Sunwheel Dance, Night Vision, High Winds White Sky, Inner City Front, The Trouble With Normal, Stealing Fire, Dancing In The Dragon’s Jaws (and I easily added missing ones later) –so I had an incredible and sudden immersion into his music, as it filled my ears there in those subtropical years, in the walks to and from work, in the late night strolls to cafes and plazas, soaking up the lovely Latino otherness.  I was inordinately proud of the Bruce I had adopted –in some ways not the most dynamic of singing voices; and a few of the songs even seemed a little awkward or contrived in construction.  But they were songs of challenge, searching, reflection, faith and compassion and I loved them all as if he were my own.

Back in Blighty, my interest in his work became inevitably less intense, but ‘fell into place’ as one significant element of my song-life.  Perhaps I will need to write a Part Two, and explore this for with another song…