RUMOURS OF GLORY by Bruce Cockburn
Reviewed by Al Tizon
It’s true: Dogs do eat peoples’ homework. One night our Great Dane “Dude” made a midnight snack out of my copy of Bruce Cockburn’s Rumours of Glory (HarperCollins, 2014), a book I had volunteered to read and review. I foolishly left it sitting on a footstool relatively near where he sleeps, and the next morning, I found it ripped, tattered, shredded, chewed up, and spit out. That’s right—Dude ate my homework.
So rather than having the usual luxury of an intact book in my hands that I can flip through, revisit sections and pull quotes, the half-eaten Rumours before me served an alternate purpose; it provided a tactile representation of just how much Bruce Cockburn music I’ve consumed through more than three decades. Starting with his 1981 release of Humans (which is still my favorite), I succeeded through the years in obtaining almost all of his albums going forward, as well as a few of his pre-Humans releases. More germane here, the chewed-up book testified to how much I thoroughly enjoyed devouring his memoir. Okay, ’nuff already.
By “thoroughly enjoyed,” I don’t mean I liked everything I read. Indeed, the book verified what I had known implicitly for years, namely that at certain key points of belief and life, I part ways with Bruce. Sometimes, I don’t get him. And that’s really okay. His post-Christian spirituality, left-of-left politics, occult dabbling, love of guns, and progressive views (at least compared to my very traditional views) on sex and relationships are a few of the points of divergence.
But that’s precisely why I “thoroughly enjoyed” the book; he didn’t write it to conform to anyone’s expectations, and certainly not to the Christian superstar image that many of us, secretly or not, want him to uphold. True to form, he wrote with honesty, vulnerability, and passion, laying it all out there, regardless of whether all of his beliefs and actions fit neatly into somebody’s faith box. That’s the way his music has been for over 40 years and continues to be—why should his memoir be any different?
The draw to Cockburn for me through the years, besides his sometimes inspirational and sometimes prophetic song-writing and mood-altering guitar work, has been where he lives, namely, at the intersection of faith, music, and social activism. Certainly, we could rattle off many musicians with a social conscience and just as many activists who have been inspired by faith-infused music. The uniqueness of Cockburn, however, is the extent to which these things have informed one another.
When he wrote “The Mines of Mozambique,” for example, it wasn’t in response to an article he read or a documentary he watched. Rather, it was because he was there and heard firsthand stories of death and maiming due to landmines that were planted during the latest civil war. He wrote it amid doing his part in the work of de-mining the land. That same level of globe-trotting activism is true of many other songs, such as “Berlin Tonight,” “Tibetan Side of Town,” “Indian Wars,” “This is Baghdad,” and his classic “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” about human rights atrocities in Guatemala in the mid-1980s. From Mozambique to Iraq to Nepal to Nicaragua to the First Nations reservations of North America, Cockburn traveled the globe, not as a mere observer but as an advocate of the poor, dispossessed, abused, and victims of war.
Social activism is one main strand in Cockburn’s body of work; another is relationships. This is where you hear him at his most vulnerable as he speaks of the pain of divorce, loneliness, illicit relationships, as well as of celebration when relationships go right—the agony and the ecstasy, as it were.
And yet another main strand is God. One can detect chronologically Cockburn’s journey from explicit Christian faith—“All the Diamonds,” “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” and “Lord of the Starfields,” to name a few of my favorites—to an embrace of a real but mysterious divine reality, which is broader than Christianity but which Jesus surely embodied. I get this sense as I listen, for example, to his song “Mystery.”
Cockburn has created a beautiful musical tapestry of faith, love, and social transformation, and now we have it in story form.
By the way, there is a 9-disc limited boxset (8 CDs and 1 DVD), also called Rumours of Glory, that complements the book. The only reason I’ve hesitated to buy it for myself is because I already have most of his music. But for those who don’t have the full Cockburn discography in their library, I’m sure this boxset would be worth the investment.
Whenever I need inspiration to live creatively, passionately, and relevantly in the world, I do well to throw a Bruce Cockburn CD in my player—any one of them would do—and to revisit his memoir, Rumours. Of course, I would need to go to my local library to borrow a copy. Grrr.
Al Tizon is co-president of Evangelicals for Social Action and associate professor of holistic ministry at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University near Philadelphia, Pa.