This week Bruce Cockburn publishes his memoir, Rumours of Glory, and I am taking the time to reflect on some of my interactions with Bruce over the past 40 years.
“Thanks to Encounter ‘76-the messages were deeply appreciated and the money put to good use.” – Bruce Cockburn, liner notes to his 1976 album In The Falling Dark.
It was a surprise show, for a different audience: 400 Baptist young people, many of whom had never heard of Bruce Cockburn before, gathered in a medical school lecture theatre at the University of Ottawa. A special Saturday evening performance. I don’t think anyone thought to tape it – it was 1976, and no-one was thinking about posterity.
In the previous 18 months or so Bruce had been increasingly outspoken on stage about his relatively new Christian faith. So when the organizers of the annual Baptist Young Adults Encounter were thinking about who to turn to for entertainment on the Saturday night of their annual weekend retreat, Bruce’s name came up. It made sense, since that year the event was being held in Ottawa. Those were pre-internet days, so to contact Bruce the organizing committee sent a letter care of his manager in Toronto.
I remember my friend Gord Lorimer telling me. “We sent the letter and hadn’t received a response. Then one evening the phone rang, and the guy on the other end said ‘Gord?’ ‘Yes’ ‘This is Bruce Cockburn, I’m calling from Winnipeg. Tell me more about this Encounter thing.’”
Gord told him it was a gathering of Baptist young adults, aged 17 to 25, that took place on a different Ontario University campus each year on the Victoria Day weekend in May. In 1976 it was going to be in Ottawa and the organizing committee wanted Bruce to perform on the Saturday night. Bruce was not in the habit of playing church concerts, and in Ottawa he usually played sold out shows at the 2000 plus seat National Arts Centre. He was apparently intrigued by the proposal and agreed to appear, with the condition that it be a secret so as not to affect ticket sales of his next Ottawa appearance.
It was a magical night. I think (and I suspect Bruce would agree) that it was one of his best performances, a coming together of audience and performer as a single entity. A natural introvert, Bruce was perhaps as comfortable on that stage as he has ever been with an audience, certainly as I have ever seen him. I remember one song “Praise God,” which I don’t think has ever been recorded. Certainly it has never been released, and perhaps rightly so. It probably wasn’t one of Bruce’s best, the lyrics extremely simple, but it was definitely a heartfelt expression of faith. Other songs that evening, like “Lord of the Starfields,” “All the Diamonds” and “Festival of Friends” took on deeper meaning when shared with a Christian audience. The applause was enthusiastic and Bruce at one point asked if it could be toned down because “my guitar is embarrassed.”
Which brings us to the dedication, quoted above found inside In The Falling Dark.
We live in an imperfect world. While Bruce was onstage entertaining, someone went backstage and stole his leather jacket. Not someone from Encounter I don’t think, we were all in the room. But no-one had given any thought to security and a university campus is fairly open. Someone of less than good character saw the opportunity and helped themselves.
Needless to say, those attending Encounter were appalled. Bruce was our guest, and this had happened. It was suggested to us that those who were able could contribute to a fund so that Bruce could buy a new jacket. A large piece of newsprint was obtained for a massive thank-you card that everyone personalized and signed to accompany the money.
Bruce has moved at least a half-dozen times since 1976. I wonder if he still has that thank-you card.