FAME Review: Bruce Cockburn - Pacing the Cage (DVD)
Bruce Cockburn - Pacing the Cage (DVD)

Pacing the Cage

Bruce Cockburn

True North Records - TNDVD578 (DVD)

Available from True North Records.

A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Mark S. Tucker

Bono kicks off this much deserved and very late documentary by reciting lyrics from Bruce Cockburn's most famous song, If I had a Rocket Launcher, then names the song-writer as a zen kinda guy, which is interesting, as the profound 40-year album-and-road vet is oft pegged as a Christian mystic and indeed professes to Christianity per se, though in what capacity is not easy to pigeonhole (I seem to detect a certain Jesuitic strain, however). In that, I think you could easily analogue Bruce to Chris Hedges, likewise a religionist but of an ilk even the most hard-bitten atheist has to step back in admiration of. And I have to say I agree with Bono: Jesus, after all, was a zen kinda guy too because truly Humanist sentiments engender philosophy more than religion, and the Christ was an anarchist espousing spirit and man metaphorically to masses of people just as stupid and indoctrinated then as today. Zen, you see, is not a religion but a philosophy, except when it's perverted. Like Ikkyu, third zen patriarch, a true seeker has to abandon every modus, even the one that got him to where he wanted to go, because they're all just devices, tools, and when the product is crafted, the tools are put away, and we move on to the next thing. Bruce Cockburn has e'er been a true seeker.

Pacing the Cage is the perfect title for this film, as the guitarist-singer-writer has been more than a little the restless soul who calls the road "home in a way". I say the DVD is "late", and I'm not speaking to the director or label but rather addressing the fact that someone should've visually covered Cockburn 20 years and then again 10 years later, and Cage should rightly be the third time around. His work has deserved that all along, but, regardless, director Joel Goldberg chose to follow the man's 2008 solo tour, from which the Slice O'Life CD has also been taken. It was a good decision, as you get Cockburn and only Cockburn—well, a buncha commentarists too and then the inimitable Colin Linden as road manager but Bruce is ground zero in an intimately raw presentation, and perhaps I should explain "raw" as well.

Cockburn has, from the git-go, ever been a gentle, graceful, and intricate thinker, writer, and player, so the rawness I speak of is not a personality trait but rather a matter of an ambivalence forever aschisming his work, best brought out in two lines from the very first concert cut here: "One day, you're waiting for the sky to fall / The next you're dazzled by the beauty of it all" (Lovers in a Dangerous Time). Fans are rightly dazzled by everything about the gent's music, so it's a bit of a shock to early find out in this documentary that he's highly self-critical about his own work, very doubting, almost paranoid…but then, what else would drive an individual to the degree of excellence he's achieved? There's a zen saying that the best father is the one who doubts he's really a good father, as he's then forever watching his behavior closely and mindfully.

That sensitivity extends to the man's bands, too, though, some of whom he has typified as "of questionable merit" or even "horrible", an odd but honest if harsh sentiment from the guy who, after all, chose them. On the other hand, Bruce is a stunningly good fingerpicking guitar player, so adept that even Eddie van Halen named him as one of the all-time greats. Various videos exist of Rocket Launcher where his middle eight solos are jaw dropping on both acoustic and electric (the former of which is illustrated here), but the talent has been abundantly evident for decades on all his many LPs and CDs. We find that, live, he's as smooth and complex as in studio.

Pacing the Cage is cut up into chapters exploring his various wonts—guitarist, activist, touring artist, etc.—and the narrative interleaves concert footage with commentary with Cockburn's own thoughts. Everything is also quite proletarian, despite whatever financial success he's achieved. No cult glorification, no high-gloss ready-for-MTV vids, no carefully scripted questions and responses, just a combination of first and third person POV flanking an artist on a stage with an array of guitars. As said, this is a long overdue DVD but the reason for that may have been Bruce himself, a guy who's entire life has been art and the transmission of messages, someone who has always been interested rather than striving to be interesting, a quality which makes all the difference in the world and thus is not taken up in ego.

Edited by: David N. Pyles

Copyright 2013, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.
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