ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, FEB. 1, 1996
By Steve Newton
Tom Cochrane’s “Life Is a Highway” was one of the three most-played songs in North America in 1993, which means that a whole whack of folks heard it, whether they wanted to or not. Cochrane admits that, by way of airplay royalties, the snappy little ditty “paid for a few tanks of gas”; it also helped earn him four Juno Awards and a Grammy nomination.
But though the huge success of that song has pushed sales of Cochrane’s Mad Mad World to the two-million mark worldwide, he claims there wasn’t any real pressure to re-create its commercial potential on his new Ragged Ass Road CD.
“Pressure with me was more in terms of gettin’ my life in order,” says the venerable Canadian tunesmith during a visit to the Georgia Straight offices. “I try not to worry about what it’s gonna take to sell, and my faith has always been in trying to be as honest as I can in my work—and then, hopefully, down the line that will allow me the privilege to carry on. And ever since I made that choice with songs like ‘White Hot’ and ‘Lunatic Fringe’, that’s always been the case.
“I only deviated from it a coupla times,” he adds, “and whenever I did I got myself into big trouble—psychologically, and just practically. Breaking Curfew is an example, because even though it had some good songs, there were major steps taken toward compromises on it. It was my worst record to date, sounds-wise and everything else. I broke up with my management then, I broke up with my band then, but then outta that came something positive.”
Red Rider’s 1984 Breaking Curfew album, with its bogus-sounding single “Young Thing, Wild Dreams (Rock Me)”, was definitely not Cochrane’s finest hour, especially considering the high standards set by the previous Neruda disc. But he made it clear that that second-rate effort could be overcome when he roared back with the confident and assured Tom Cochrane and Red Rider disc in ’86.
Highly personal cuts such as “The Untouchable One” (written for his wife, Kathy) and the introspective single “Boy Inside the Man” were followed on 1988’s Victory Day album by the reflective “Good Times” and the tragical “Big League”. The latter track, about a promising young hockey player killed in a car crash, struck a particularly strong chord with Canadians, and like most of Cochrane’s material, it was inspired by real-life people and events.
“Whatever I am as a writer is because of the people I met and experiences I went through,” he explains. “What I do now is not real work—I have to continually remind myself of that—but I drove cab, I worked at CIL Paints, I worked at Canada Packers loading sheep carcasses into freezers. I delivered phone books in L.A. when I was down there trying to peddle my wares as a songwriter. I met real characters while I was doing this, and I draw on those things.”
Although human interaction may be Cochrane’s chief lyrical wellspring, he also finds stimulus in other people’s artistic creations. He delved into the works and ideas of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda on the much-heralded Neruda album, and on one of Ragged Ass Road’s strongest tracks, “Paper Tigers”, he takes inspiration from American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath.
“There’s really only one instance like that on this new record,” says Cochrane, “because I went through a tremendous amount of turmoil in my personal life, so I had a lot of that to write about. But I always wanted to write a song that was inspired [by], if not directly about, Sylvia Plath, because [her novel] The Bell Jar just left a big, big impact on me.
“That book is such a good case study for today,” he adds, “because it’s all about traps. And I wanted to make the statement that we’re all haunted by stuff we go through as kids, but a lotta these things are paper tigers—they’re things that have claws when you get older, but that if you can get by them, they’re in fact harmless. Somebody like Sylvia Plath never got by them, she ended up committing suicide, but I think we can all relate to that idea of trying to get through to somebody that you want to help so bad that it hurts.”
“Paper Tigers” is one of Ragged Ass Road’s most compelling tracks, and a fairly catchy number to boot, though maybe not as catchy as “Life Is a Highway”. Cochrane is well aware that it’s often the simple, infectious hook of a tune that can make the big difference in cracking the lucrative—and, for many Canadian bands, elusive—U.S. market.
“That’s my theory on bands like the Hip,” says the Manitoba-born, Ontario-raised rocker. “I think the Hip just need that one accessible ‘Shiny Happy People’ pop song, and that’ll do it for ’em. You know, through the early ’80s, when it was a very corporate scene, I was told by management that ‘This is about business, it’s pop music, it’s about America,’ and I fought against a lot of that. I think I helped forge an atmosphere in Canada where now Canadians will embrace a band like the Tragically Hip and make them the heroes that they deserve to be. Who cares if they’re not big in the States or Europe or whatever? That’s not important. Canadians will say, ‘We’re proud of this for what it is, we know it’s good, we don’t have to have somebody else put their stamp of approval on it.’
“The same goes for people like Sarah McLachlan, who I think is one of the most gifted artists to come out of this country in a long time. She broke through in the States with really not even a hit single—sold over a million records—and I think it’s remarkable. There’s no sellout factor there; it’s just wonderful music. It’s good to see that stuff happening, and it’s an atmosphere that we need to continue to nurture.”