Tuesday, July 23, 2013

How Bono sneaked into the Greenbelt festival in disguise, to see Bruce Cockburn play.

Bruce Cockburn: Pacing the Cage is a moment of reflection on Bruce Cockburn’s career

Bruce Cockburn.
Bruce Cockburn.

Pacing The Cage

Director: Joel Goldberg
Writing Credit: 
Genre: Documentary
Duration: 70 minutes
Release date: May 24, 2013
Synopsis: A documentary on the life of iconic Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn.
There’s a story of how Bono, in the early 1980s, sneaked into the Greenbelt festival in disguise, to see Bruce Cockburn play.
Who is Bruce Cockburn?
The producers of Pacing the Cage(Cockburn’s manager Bernie Finkelstein and Joel Goldberg, who also directs) require just over an hour to answer that question, as much to feed existing fans of the musical artist as for those uninitiated.
“Zen songwriter, singer, activist, psalmist,” the early Bono pronounces in an interview (so young he hasn’t got his trademark sunglasses yet), after reciting the lyrics of “If I had a rocket launcher” from memory as though speaking Dylan Thomas verse. Scenes like these Pacing the Cage more than makes the case for Cockburn as poet, as any listen to any of the folk-rock icon’s songs might. On their 1987 album, U2 would also allude to the famously evocative image from Cockburn’s indelible “Lovers in a Dangerous Time:” “Got to kick at the darkness ‘til it bleeds daylight.”
But the documentary is also about Cockburn as mystic, romantic troubadour, excellent guitar player, prophet and political activist. Michael Ondaatje praises his poetry; fellow songwriter Sylvia Tyson opines that he’s done all that while preserving his soul.
And all this, before the opening credits.
That sort of gives you an idea of who Bruce Cockburn is in Canadian culture as a performer, and in the international songwriter community. Who Bruce Cockburn as a father, perfectionist or otherwise? Not really.
Cockburn, who turns 68 next week, comes across overall as self-deprecating. About his skill on the axe (“I play pretty good guitar for a lyricist”) and about how he has lived down being a folk-rock icon long dubbed ‘the Bob Dylan of Canada.’ His manager calls him a ‘working musician’ and when he recounts a story of jamming with West African superstar, it’s not immodest: it’s to share an anecdote that illustrates his regret at not being a better father to his now-adult elder daughter.
Throughout, montages and images in Super 8 are the shorthand typical of road movies — the flickering of steel bridge beams overhead, of blurring past the tour bus windows, of the highway’s broken meridian lines disappearing below. If you know songs that capture that experience, it’s probably because Cockburn’s written them.
The album “All the Diamonds,” is recalled as the turning point, when Cockburn decided he was a Christian, with close-up of his journal at the time (pages he recently donated, along with 31 other notebooks, career papers and ephemera, as a collection McMaster University) that mention Jesus and not wanting to be perceived as a Jesus freak. As what Cockburn calls a rich “body of myth,” Christianity isn’t the only worthwhile one out there, he says, whether one reads the Bible or romantic love or humanist care into his lyrics, or the Buddhism, Beat literature and existential influences Cockburn cites as influences. The songs work regardless of one’s particular political of spiritual affiliation (although admittedly, “Lord of the Starfields” and “Festival of Friends” are frequent fireside circle songs at Bible camp).
It’s also a doc about Cockburn as mentor (to next-generation singer-songwriters such as Sarah Harmer), activist (fundraising concert for child soldiers with Roméo Dallaire) whose first overtly political song, the one so coveted by Bono, was born from a visit to Guatemalan refugee camps and “out of a sense of outrage,” Cockburn says, written “in a hotel room with a bottle of whiskey.”
Although there is a lot of footage from his 2009 solo tour (sometimes entire performances, just a guy onstage singing, with his guitar, aaaahh), it’s not a concert documentary, and although peers, friends and fan experts weigh in, Pacing the Cagenot a biopic, a eulogy or as flattering as it is, even really a tribute. If anything, it’s like the space between songs on an album, a moment of reflection. A persuasive pause in a career of perpetual creative motion, before the next song.