The song “Tokyo” was playing on a tape recorder, one of Bruce Cockburn’s greatest hits. Thousands of miles away from Tokyo, near Basel, a friend of mine demonstrated to me this live version from a concert in Switzerland. Originally, this song was first released on the album HUMANS in 1980. I was impressed by the power, pain and presence of the live performance which led to a strong mystical experience. What a powerful miracle in a song!
Music is a powerful language of the heart.
Dawn Over Tokyo
Until then, Cockburn, a Canadian singer and songwriter, was unknown to me. And since I almost couldn’t make out the lyrics, I paid attention to the images rising in my head; somebody flying away from a disturbing, bitter-sweet experience right into the first red rays of the rising sun. Later on, when I looked up the lyrics, it hit me again like lightning. The picture in my head came amazingly close to the story Cockburn was telling in his song. After witnessing a puzzling accident scene the lyric continues:
Tonight I’m flying headlong
To meet the dark red edge of dawn
I know somebody will be crying
And somebody will be gone
It felt like somebody left a trace on the road I believed I was walking alone. Invisible, but even more real, I could feel an intimate presence. To me, it was a deep spiritual experience, crucial to the way I tried to come to grips with life as a whole from then on.
As a theologian, I was constantly busy pondering arguments about God and the world. The approach was basically rational, from a distance. And now, there it was! The other side approached me in a direct way, that’s how I look at it. For a moment, the surface of daily life with its trivial reality became transparent for the underlying magic and mystery. Not for the first time, but in a rarely clear way and by surprise.
Nevertheless, once you’ve made such an experience, it’s clear that there’s a dimension of life, which can only be seen when this dimension makes itself known by way of revelation. Once your eyes are open, the only responsibility will be to keep them from getting shut, to nourish an attitude of openness instead of dull fixation. In the following I would like to sketch a few traces that started with this experience.
Two Pearls of Truth
In the course of my theological research and teaching, I discovered two pearls of truth. The first one is a metaphor, quite modern in its appeal: our life is an ongoing journey, a “Never Ending Tour” (Bob Dylan) so to speak, with constant change. The second pearl is a short saying by the German reformer Martin Luther which doesn’t shine at first sight: “It’s temptation that forms a theologian”. Sometimes on this journey you’re attacked, enraged and paralyzed by doubts and questions, emptiness and fear.
However, this odyssey becomes a pilgrimage of hope to the promised land and this abyss of temptation becomes a mountain moving faith – as soon as my eyes are opened by the light of love which shines on everything and through all things. This is, so to speak, the mystical side of life, the sense that there is always another side to everyday reality, more than I’m able to grasp. This reality keeps the world going: faith, hope and love (cf. 1. Corinthians 13,13).
Common roads toward unity
It was even more of a surprise when I discovered, that Bruce Cockburn tried to live up to that. Common roads already, for his music and words encouraged me to embark on a new journey. He uses elements of folk, blues, jazz, rock and country in order to lend wings to his words: about the Creator’s compassion with our world and our responsibility to give love a chance. Not in every song, of course, but as a general source of inspiration. In return, the words that you’re reading now are merely a weak reflection of Cockburn’s magical poetry wrapped up in music.
Basically, Cockburn starts out with a concrete experience motivating him to write a song. At the beginning, there’s always a specific observation. For example in the CD-booklet of the album HUMANS you will find a place and date attached to the song “Tokyo”: Tokyo, Sept 19, 1979. This is true for many of his lyrics.
From a seemingly sober starting point, he makes the surface of life transparent for its magical and mystical dimensions, for the underlying unity of all that is. For me, it’s a chance to ask myself: Where do I start from? Where do I want to go? And what do I take with me on that journey? In other words: How can my story become one with the story of universal love?
The Space of Presence in the Heart
I remember Bob Dylan saying, that music is like a space where time stands still, where the present moment encompasses all that ever was, is and ever will be. When I’m listening to music, I get a feeling of what wholeness and identity could be like. The past moments of my life are connected with the steps to come. Music can be an analogy for this space of presence, and at times music can be the medium where the present moment of my life coincides with the present moment of somebody else.
This magic can happen when I perceive with the center of my personality, with my heart. Thus connected from heart to heart, I’m able to view my journey in synchronicity with the journey of someone else. Such a unique experience gives my life a sense of meaning empowering me immensely. It can break me open for the spark of life.
There is a touching example for that on the album BREAKFAST IN NEW ORLEANS, DINNER IN TIMBUKTU” (1999), in the song “Last Night of The World”. Cockburn visited Guatemalan refugees in the south of Mexico back in 1983 and he was struck by the hard circumstances they had to face day after day. Moreover, he was touched by the love which was shining through their eyes, their life as a whole:
I’ve seen the flame of hope among the hopeless
And that was truly the biggest heartbreak of all
That was the straw that broke me open
Mystical way of looking at life
Two roads become one because underneath there is a road of hope that has already been traced by the source of life which is pure love. This, if you will, mystical way of looking at life offered me a new way of answering my questions. The first thing I had to learn was: letting go – of everything which was important until now and, in turn, has become a burden. Let go – and move on! In that process, Cockburn’s words and music were an essential source of clarity and strength.
Another verse I would like to quote is the last one from the song “Mighty Trucks of Midnight” (Los Angeles, June 1991) on the album NOTHING BUT A BURNING LIGHT (1991). He reflects upon the economic changes of the place he lived having left a mass of jobless people:
I believe it’s a sin to try and make things last forever
Everything that exists in time runs out of time some day
Got to let go of the things that keep you tethered
Take your place with grace and then be on your way
You can’t move on when you carry too much. Your heart won’t be ready to receive if you hold on to a dead promise defending it like your own life. In “Strange Waters” (Halton Hills, Nov. 7, 1996) on the album THE CHARITY OF NIGHT (1996), he uses drastic words: “Everything is bullshit but the open hand”. It is the night with its tender, sparse light that grants him this basic insight, but also the charity of transformation needed.
Kick at the Darkness
When you start all over again, it might get dark around you. But moreover, you’re being reconnected with the underlying current of life, even if night falls upon you, or maybe just because of that. The only thing that counts in such a situation is your own experience that you can start from, that keeps you going, hoping and fighting: the reminder and rediscovery of the magical or rather spiritual dimension in your own biography. Right here, when the road gets narrow and the air is tight, you might be feeling accused, from the inside as well as from the outside,
But nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight –
Got to kick at the darkness ‘til it bleeds daylight
I received tremendous power from that dynamic picture Cockburn uses in the song “Lovers in a dangerous time” (Toronto, Sept 1983) on STEALING FIRE (1984). On this pilgrimage to the promised land, I believe everybody will be tested seriously at least once in a lifetime. Then, darkness spreads all around becoming a wall that brings the journey to a halt.
Here, at your own personal Rubicon, you’ve “got to kick at the darkness”, fight with this mysterious angelic Jacob, “’til it bleeds daylight”, until you can walk on – limping into a new morning, full of hope but nevertheless hurt for the rest of your life.
The turning point
This imagery brings me back to the beginning: the journey through the night of Tokyo towards the dawn of a new day. – Among his 29 studio albums released by now, to me HUMANS is still an outstanding one. It marks a turning point in his life, musically as well as personally. Few years before, in the summer of 1974, he committed himself to Christian spirituality, after a detour into Buddhism and black magic. Apart from his wife and other important persons in his life, his decision was also prepared through the lecture of C. S. Lewis and Thomas Merton.
Nevertheless, his biography doesn’t fit the cliché “First I became a Christian, then all of my problems got solved: my marriage got fixed, I stopped drinking … ” and so on. It was rather the opposite: His work on HUMANS coincides with his divorce. Right at the core of his life he was tempted. And with open eyes he also looks at the dark side of human existence.
The night as well as darkness, in general, is a very important symbol for Cockburn – not only mean and evil, a place of death and danger. It’s also a place for reflection and healing of the soul, calm and protective. Night can be both: serious and serene, full of tears and laughter, horror and healing, pain and joy, death and life.
Above all, Cockburn has a special and light way of smiling at life’s distress. He won’t cede the last word to the traces of death, but rather to the hallmarks of life. Sometimes the latter can be found in the most unexpected places like in a song he used to cover at live gigs: “Always look at the bright side of life” from Monty Python’s movie Life of Brian, a provocative parody of the life of Jesus. Here’s a look at one verse:
Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true,
You’ll see it’s all a show,
Keep ’em laughing as you go.
Just remember that the last laugh is on you!
Kicking at the darkness with irony and humor – this is probably the most powerful weapon against evil and absurd reality. The slighter the stronger…
Looking at Cockburn’s poetic language, the visual sense with its spiritual quality is crucial. On the album INNER CITY FRONT (1981) he compares the galaxy with a “Broken Wheel”, the name of the song. As humans, we are no longer at the center of the universe. Rather we are drifting “way out on the rim of the galaxy”. The lyrics flow into a bridge and there into a prayer:
You and me – we are at the break in the broken wheel
Bleeding wound that will not heal
Lord, spit on our eyes so we can see
How to wake up from this tragedy
The wounds that hurt are just as political as they are personal. Once my eyes are open, I cannot stay an “innocent bystander” watching the world go wrong. Broken Human Rights should concern me as well as my own broken heart! In light of the temptations he is facing, Cockburn meditates upon the book of nature as well as the other book, the Bible. The line Lord, spit on our eyes so we can see was inspired by the story of Jesus healing a blind man (John 9,1-12). Again, the night revealing to us the Milky Way is a source of insight also on this album.
Back to the roads Bruce Cockburn has been wandering for more than sixty years. Besides many other awards he received, he was introduced into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, in March 4, 2001. This is not the first but certainly a good reason one should take notice of this artist. Moreover, it’s the magical and above all spiritual power of his lyrics together with the music which invites for a dialogue.
If it’s true that every human activity can be seen as a prayer as long as it’s done in the space of presence, then music is a prayer too. Finally the traces someone else left on the roads of Tokyo can all of a sudden become the traces of my road too.