I first came across Bruce Cockburn’s The Charity of Night in my friend Jordan’s basement. I was always envious of his digs. Down there he had access to a pool table, a pinball machine, and a home theatre that put my family’s tube television to shame. During the autumnal days of high school our group would typically roll in there on a Friday night with a portable poker table and a case or two of Wildcat with the understandable goal of letting the good times roll. That said, my evenings were often marred more by an inability (due to easy tells) and less by an unwillingness (due to supposed dangers of money between friends) to succeed at poker. Luckily there was a decent parental CD collection to browse.
A few years earlier I had been introduced to Bruce Cockburn by the cheesy video and pop hooks of “If a Tree Falls”. I followed this up with the purchase of the 2002 compilation Anything Anytime Anywhere and a ticket to see him live at Victoria’s Royal Theatre. The compilation was eye-opening and the concert was, in the words of one of the sexagenarian attendees, “like a fine wine!” After developing a broad knowledge of the singles, my preferences remained with Cockburn’s accessibly political 1980s pop hits such as “If I Had a Rocket Launcher”, “Lovers in a Dangerous Time”, and “Call It Democracy”. While I respected the elements of folk that characterized his earlier work, I was drawn to his later innovations.
Among the many CDs in Jordan’s basement, The Charity of Night, released in 1996, caught my attention on a number of levels beyond my interest in Cockburn’s later work. As a teenager, I was intrigued by the album’s superficial contrasts: Its name is, obviously, both comforting and mysterious. Its cover features an angelic figure, embraced by a lunar shape on a bed of stars, holding an assault rifle. Furthermore, on its track list I noticed two cuts that I had enjoyed on Anything Anytime Anywhere.
To this date, my reaction to The Charity of Night has not drastically changed. Cockburn uses the concept of nighttime, generated by a quiet jazz-like performance, to convey his concerns and politics. Unlike the direct 1980s material that I had usually preferred, The Charity of Night offers more room and time for reflection. Much like the heavily armed angelic figure found on the album’s cover, Cockburn seems peaceful but isn’t content to let the listener off easy. However, other than the weighty “Mines of Mozambique”, his commentary is more nuanced. Songs like “Pacing the Cage” and “Birmingham Shadows” softly address conceptions of movement and expectations. One of the singles, “Night Train”, speaks to the sensations and preoccupations of displacement.
The instinctual drums and heavy guitar work of “Mines of Mozambique” give way to the embracing, almost cinematic atmosphere of “Live on My Mind”. With a length of almost seven minutes, Cockburn takes his time. His initial priority is the establishment of a haze of acoustic guitar; this is soon accompanied by an unimposing bass and hints of percussion. The instrumentation is all-encompassing for just over 40 seconds before Cockburn vocally interjects: “See you standing in the door against the dark”. Instead of proceeding directly to the next lyric, Cockburn doesn’t rush, offering almost 15 seconds before rounding out the imagery: “Fireflies surround you like a crown of sparks”.
The first verse makes it clear that the length and pace of this song are its strength. While Cockburn’s lyrics, as always, are thought out and affecting, it is his embrace of time that gives the song an added impact. With regards to contemporary music, often it seems as though we are forced to interact with a great deal of it simply by receiving and moving on without doing much in terms of processing or reflecting. As a result, songs like “Live on My Mind” are right away more absorbing due to their unpretentious ability to grant us time to grow introspectively. Here, the strength of Cockburn’s lyrics and the temporal space he takes time to construct are a central pause to think about the broadly relatable trains of thought established in this song, such as the focus on the transition from darkness to light to wonder conveyed in the first verse and the link between geography and corporeality in the second.
After delivering the first chorus, Cockburn turns to an extended instrumental interlude in which he accompanies the continuous acoustic elusiveness with calculated sparse flickers of electric guitar; he alludes to the album’s conceptual broad strokes by integrating lambent percussion and spacy keyboards. Bass is used to maintain a grounded concentration and to forward the final verse, in which Cockburn returns to light’s momentary nature in order to paradoxically compare it with love’s rejection of the temporal: “Light me like incense in the night / Light me like a candle burning bright / Light me like a searchlight in the sky / Time means nothing when I look in your eyes”.
Reaching back to Cockburn’s acknowledgement of the human condition in the first verse, the aperture granted by time logically allows for an extended examination of the conceptualization of love forwarded in “Live on My Mind”. Although it might seem clear that the song is directed at someone, we are left wondering if the sentiments expressed are for another person or, perhaps, for some higher power. Cockburn is no stranger to spirituality, and his song’s conveyance of emotion and awareness as experiences so ultimately powerful in their ephemerality can be related to both physical and immaterial contexts. However, I am convinced that, much like the song’s title that places an emphasis on the consideration of the brief feeling of being alive, the chorus, on which he is gently accompanied by Jonatha Brooke, reveals Cockburn as a songwriter, at least in this context, fixated on a personal connection: “It’s your eyes I want to see / Looking into mine / I’ve got you live on my mind / All the time”. That Cockburn takes such time to express the fleeting characteristic of this connection makes the song all the more poignant.
I cede the final word on the impact of this deep cut to an anecdote contributed by journalist and photographer Daniel Kroonen to the encyclopedic on-line reference, The Cockburn Project. After a concert in Belgium, Kroonen thanked Cockburn for this song: “Thank you for ‘Live on My Mind’ because I think of the love of my life every time I play it.” Cockburn’s reply: “So do I.”
“Live on My Mind” – Bruce Cockburn
Music and lyrics by Bruce Cockburn
B. Stafford is the 14th Floor’s Annex-based music critic.