ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, FEB. 18, 1999
By Steve Newton
When I was 12 years old, my beloved teenage brother drowned in a slough near our home, and ever since that day I’ve felt a connection to rock music that breaches the tenuous barrier between life and death. The first few times I heard Blue Oyster Cult’s stirring ode to the afterlife, “Don’t Fear the Reaper”, I experienced a warm shiver at the back of my head. Tom Cochrane has also touched me in that soft spot, particularly with “Big League”, his tragedy-inspired tune about a promising young hockey player cut down in his prime by a car accident.
On the Ontario rock great’s latest CD, xray sierra, he does it again. Twice, actually. He first turns the emotional screws on “Stonecutter’s Arms”, a sentimental tune that deals with love, camaraderie, and the ties that bind. “I had a friend whose dad died in his arms,” sings Cochrane, “and it broke his heart for a while and it turned him to stone/But I knew he’d get around it, it only made him stronger/But every once in a while you look in his eyes you know he’s not alone.”
“That happened to a very close friend of mine,” says Cochrane, on the phone from his Toronto-area home, “but it’s something I can relate to as well. I’m goin’ through that with my dad, though not on the same level.” Cochrane’s father, Tuck, is in a special-care home, suffering from Parkinson’s disease and the aftereffects of two small strokes, and Cochrane sings about him in the second verse of “Stonecutter’s Arms”. “There’s old Tuck man, he’s down on his luck man, some days he’s wasting away/There’s a place where Tuck will soon fly there, a toast to his charms at the Stonecutter’s Arms.”
“I think it’s one of those demarcations of life,” says the 45-year-old tunesmith, “one of those markers that make you take stock. You know, you always feel you’ve got a handle on the fact that we are mortal and life is short, but you never really realize that it’s at the core of your being until you see it happen to people that are an inspiration to you. So the song touches on that. It touches on a few things—spiritual and physical—that we deal with in our lives and how we come to terms with things.”
Cochrane’s father was a rugged bush pilot who finished his career piloting jets, and Cochrane has carried on the love of flying. But that passion almost cost him dearly in 1997, when his floatplane flipped over during a miscalculated landing. That close scrape with death seriously coloured the songwriter’s approach on xray sierra.
“It was a very cathartic aspect in the writing and creation of this record,” he says of the crash, “and I think that’s why I called it xray sierra—after the middle two ident letters of the airplane. And you realize that, you know, sometimes things are out of your hands, and why, and when, and where you walk away from things is perhaps predestined.”
Thirteen-year-old Joseph “Beeper” Spence is one person who didn’t walk away, and Cochrane recounts his murder—as well as that of 22-year-old Jeff Giles—in xray sierra’s haunting closer, “Northern Frontier”. Spence and Giles were both innocent victims of Native gang violence in the north end of Winnipeg, the former gunned down by a 15-year-old who mistook him for a rival gang member.
Armed with little more than a reverb-heavy guitar and Vancouver drummer Randall Stoll’s stark percussion, Cochrane cuts straight to the bone in a gripping docudrama-style ballad that’s testimony to his talent as a self-described “sonic journalist”. The guy who got a million toes tapping to “Life Is a Highway” displays his lyrical range while detailing how that sunny highway can suddenly veer into darkness. “A van crossed the bridge that night and stopped at Flora Avenue/When Beeper thought they’d lost their way, walked over to see what he could do/‘Are you I.P.?’…‘straight up’, he’d say, even if it wasn’t true/‘Bust a cap in his ass’…he turned to run, heard the blast then he was through.”
The Manitoba-born Cochrane has been concerned about the violence in Winnipeg for some time, but wasn’t motivated to write “Northern Frontier” until last year, after reading a Saturday Night article about the Deuce and the I.P. (Indian Posse), the city’s aboriginal street gangs. And even after recording the song, he considered leaving it off the album. “It was a tough decision,” he says, “but if I feel compelled to write somethin’, I have to write it. It’s part of what I think a writer does in this society: write about things that are real, and that count. And luckily, in the end, for me, for my peace of mind, the families [of the victims] felt that way, too.”
Despite Cochrane’s unflinching look at the heartbreak of stolen young lives, xray sierra is far from all doom and gloom. The opening track, the ska-flavoured “I Wonder”, is a breezy commentary on the quest for truth, and “Heartbreak Girl” is an upbeat sing-along that features the spirited vocals of Vancouver’s Janele Woodley, who Cochrane hopes will show up and sing when he plays the Vogue Theatre next Friday and Saturday (February 26 and 27).
Another track sporting a truly positive vibe is “Beautiful Day”, although one line in the song—“You’re born naked and you go out with a suit…if you’re lucky”—is attributed to one Nick Lloyd. It turns out that Lloyd was the brother of Cochrane’s close friend and road manager Derek Lloyd, and that Nick Lloyd met an untimely death in 1996. Sometimes it seems as if there’s no escaping a twinge of the tragic in Cochrane’s current world.
“There’s a bloodletting,” he admits of his latest songwriting stance, “but a positive one. You can’t live in a vacuum and be a writer of any substance, so you’ve gotta leave yourself open to life experiences and accumulate them, and then at the appropriate moment, hopefully, come out with a piece of work that’s positive and truthful. I mean, don’t you find that in life trauma tends to change people? It’s all part of life’s rich pageant, and [if you] ignore the tragic side of it, then you’re just making music that’s Pablum—you’re avoiding the things that make us stronger. Life is a learning experience, so I want to write about it all.”