Story goes that back in the early 1980s a reporter asked Eddie Van Halen what it felt like to be the best guitar player in the world. “I don’t know,” Van Halen quipped. “Ask Bruce Cockburn.”
Despite the fact that Cockburn is a killer guitarist, this tale is probably apocryphal. But, when I was a teenager, my musician friends and I passed this little bit of trivia around like it was gospel. Part of it was Canadian pride, but part of it was the sense of being in on something. The best guitarist in the world was a Canadian folksinger? Like we wanted to be one day? It was quite literally a rumour of glory.
Cockburn has always been an outsider, even after he became a household name. Soft spoken, sensitive, and a devout Christian, he began his career as a kind of anti-star, often shying away from chances to make it to the “next level.” When big-time fame was thrust upon him in the late 1970s, with the release of the single “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” Cockburn used his newfound platform to advocate for displaced and marginalized people in war-torn Guatemala.
Indeed, since the early 1980s he has been nearly as busy as an activist as a musician (and those two paths have often intersected). Along the way he has racked up numerous hit records, singles, and sold-out shows, played alongside luminaries like Jackson Browne, T Bone Burnett, and Bonnie Raitt, and has had his songs covered by Jerry Garcia, Jimmy Buffett, and the Barenaked Ladies.
In this uncommonly frank and poetic memoir, Cockburn traces his life story with commendable honesty, kicking at his own darkness and daring to see what it bleeds. From failed marriages to intensely meaningful affairs, his personal life is woven into tales of spiritual awakening and discovery, a lifetime dialogue with Christianity, and a growing engagement with transnational politics. From his early days as a half-broke hippie folky in Ottawa, Boston, and Toronto to his present status as one of Canada’s most celebrated musicians, Rumours of Glory is exhaustive and impressively detailed. Though the reader may tire of the (often lengthy) asides discussing Latin American politics (especially in the second half), Cockburn’s passion for these subjects never wavers. Nor does his willingness to wrestle with his own demons. This is, above all, an illuminating, lucid work of self-examination.