By David Werther.
Bruce Cockburn, Slice of Life (Rounder, True North, 2009)
On March 11, 1936, C.S. Lewis wrote a fan letter to Charles Williams.
I never know about writing to an author. If you are older
than I, I don’t want to seem impertinent: if you are younger,
I don’t want to seem patronizing. But I feel I must risk it.
. . . I have just read The Place of the Lion and it
is to me one of the major literary events of my life — comparable
to the first discovery of George Macdonald, G.K. Chesterton,
or Wm. Morris.
In 1979, some of us experienced one of the major musical events of our lives, the beauty and mystery of Bruce Cockburn’s “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” a song inspired by his reading of Charles Williams’ novels. And, as we explored the Cockburn canon, we found, as Lewis did in Williams’ work, “layers and layers . . . [we] neither expected nor desired and substantial edification.”
Bruce Cockburn’s Slice of Life is a generous sampling of his work, culled from ten solo acoustic shows in May of 2008. In his liner notes, Cockburn comments, “. . . we chose not to add too much polish. What you hear is what it was.” And what it was, was: spectacular guitar playing, especially evident in “The End of All Rivers”; comfortable give and take with the audience, including a tale about being offered a summer college job working with a gun runner, a mercenary mentioned in “See You Tomorrow”; renditions of some classic songs: “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” “If A Tree Falls,” “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” etc.; and some bonus tracks, songs played as sound checks.
Cockburn’s songs are for the eyes as much as the ears. He is especially adept at providing precise lyrics that paint pictures in the mind’s eye of the listener. I don’t hear “How I Spent My Fall Vacation” so much as I see it: the two guys in leather jackets shivering in the empty cinema, the sun going down like the eye of God, the smoking volcano, the young cop in yellow light with his finger on the trigger.
Cockburn’s work can take us to places, both geographically and emotionally, where we’ve never been before. Those with qualms about imprecatory psalms may find themselves identifying with the protagonist in “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” and ready to wreak vengeance on the murderers of Guatemalan children. Those who have never been to the East can catch glimpses of Kathmandu, “On the Tibetan Side of Town.”
At the end of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis notes “in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth . . . you will nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” Cockburn’s truthful originality is unmistakable in Slice of Life.