[14 August 2014]
It was a hot Ottawa summer day, 1968. A 23-year-old Canadian musician named Bruce Cockburn was hanging out at the Somerset Asylum, watching a movie being filmed which co-starred his poet friend and occasional songwriting partner, Penelope Schafer.
It wasn’t a real asylum. That was merely the nickname given to the old house on historic, artsy Somerset Street where Penelope (she went by her first name only) lived with her brain research scientist husband, Ted Schafer. The house received its alias due to the colorful cast of characters it attracted and the crazy things that would happen there.
Being in the orbit of people like Penelope helped to create a transformative year for Cockburn that would introduce him to new experiences and further his path to becoming a world renowned solo artist.
The movie being shot that day was called The Tragic Diary of Zero the Fool, and its director was a friend of the Schafers named Morley Markson. Markson was an industrial designer and photographer who had recently gotten into filmmaking. He recalls, “Penelope was a friend of Bruce’s and was kind of one of the cultural centers of Ottawa. They were a very experimental couple, the Schafers, and people would come over and spend time with them and do all kinds of experimental activities.”
Harvey Glatt, Cockburn’s first manager and a well-loved important figure in the local music scene as a promoter, investor, and owner of the Treble Clef music store, adds “[Ted Schafer] did a lot of brain experiments at the University of Ottawa. The only time I ever did acid I was with Ted. It was most of a night and into the early morning and it was kind of treated as a research experiment. I remember we went to different parts of the city and walked around ‘cause Ted would do stuff like that – he would have people take marijuana and test their brain responses. He didn’t take me to the lab or anything, [but] I felt that I was safe in his hands.”
In the spirit of the Somerset Asylum and of the times, The Tragic Diary of Zero the Fool was an avant-garde work inspired by the Tarot. It was sort of a film within a film. “Bruce came over a couple of times while we were filming it,” Markson says. “He was always working, he was always sketching things out and thinking up things in his head every minute he sat down. He was always strumming on his guitar and working things out or writing things down. He was always, always, always busy doing something. In his own thoughts and his own music. He was quite unusually focused. It was beautiful.”
Cockburn had recently decided on a new direction for his music. Just a few months prior, he had dissolved his latest band, Olivus, and moved back to Ottawa from Toronto. He later told Goldmine Magazine “There was a general feeling of exhaustion in the air anyway, with the psychedelic scene and all that, which I felt, the same as a lot of other people did, and I thought, ‘Betcha there’s a lot of people that would like to hear songs with just voice and guitar right about now.’ So, I went solo, and it took me another year or so to extricate myself from the band involvements.”
One of those band involvements he needed to extricate himself from was the re-formed 3’s a Crowd, which he had been drafted into upon his return to his hometown. 3’s a Crowd, like Olivus, had recently fractured but re-formed in order to pay off debts and to appear as the “house band” on a new variety TV show called One More Time. It was a natural fit for Cockburn, as Glatt was managing the band and the other musicians were already friends of his. They’d even recorded a few of his songs on their recent album, Christopher’s Movie Matinee. It was easy to join when the call came, and it would be some extra income. The band immediately embarked on a tour opening for the Turtles and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. 26 episodes of the TV show were filmed, but reportedly only one ever aired.
Another filming opportunity also arose that summer, along with a commission to write a new song to go with it. Markson, still working on The Tragic Diary of Zero the Fool, would be the director. At the previous year’s Expo 67 in Montreal, he’d had a big success with the “Kaleidoscope Theatre” – a theatre with multiple screens and special effects like mirrors. Glatt knew Markson and liked what he had done. He envisioned something similar at that year’s smaller scale Central Canada Exposition in Ottawa: “When I saw the Kaleidoscope Theatre I said ‘Morley, there’s gonna be a big section of the Ottawa exhibition aimed at youth and our Treble Clef store will have a booth in there and is it possible for you to film something [for it]?’” It would be a good opportunity for Glatt to give his band some exposure, as well.
As this was the “groovy” ‘60s, the youth pavilion was dubbed the “Where It’s at Pavilion” and featured clothing and music exhibits, live radio shows, a coffee shop for folk singing sessions, and was decked out in eight-foot tall abstract murals and psychedelic orange and black trash cans. The Treble Clef`s booth was actually a small room holding 20 or 30 people – a far cry from a full-size theatre, but still of ample size to create something akin to Expo 67’s full Kaleidoscope experience.
Taking as his cue the then-popular ideas of communication and media theorist Marshall McLuhan, Markson envisioned a very short film that would “mourn the passing of the book and celebrate the victory of the proliferation of the screen.” In a convenient synchronicity Penelope, his star actress in The Tragic Diary of Zero the Fool, would co-write the song with Cockburn. This wasn’t totally new territory for them as they’d already written a handful of other songs together. Glatt recalls “I remember her co-writing a couple of songs with Bruce. What people thought was poetry was really often them going to a magazine and then cutting lines out of the magazine and piecing them together and trying to write songs from them and people said ‘Oh, that’s so poetic!’”, he laughs. “You know what it was like in those days. Meaningless stuff people would think was very esoteric.”
The song was titled “Electrocution of the Word”, and seemed to tackle the same themes as the video, yet the vocals (primarily by Cockburn) were all but indecipherable (due in part to the audio quality of the existing recording). A stinging electric guitar solo is a highlight, a style of playing Cockburn would soon temporarily abandon for a primarily gentle acoustic approach. A menacing, spoken recitation of the title ends the song dramatically before a crashing chord ends things in an effects laden fade-out.
The video, definitely a product of its time, includes images of singer/guitarist Sandy Crawley holding a burning book and the band on a grey day (with Cockburn in red satin medieval garb, including cape) conducting a solemn candle-lit ceremony marking the end of the printed word. For one section, the band and Markson drove out to nearby Meech Lake in Gatineau Park to film some scenes in the water, which would later be colorized red and purple for the video.
There’s also some psychedelicized performance footage, plus a projection of words on a wall with silhouetted band members clawing at them, and perhaps most memorably the band members writhing in mock electrocution.Markson explains the concepts and intentions behind it all:
“Soon everyone would have their own little screen, just like in the movies of old, but now their own, little, glass-covered bit of immediacy, universality and fame, their own electric-world connection. It started with stage, then cinema, then went home to home movies, then television, and now the screen which is everywhere, even in your pocket, connecting everyone… everyone framed in importance, blown-up or reduced as you wish, improved or distorted. The words (of the old book) became secondary… the thrill of any old page transported onto glass became primary. And like McLuhan used to imply: the user became part of the environment, the environment becoming the excitement of the content. Like having a new car along with the pleasure of driving it fast and experiencing its power.”
“So the song and the filming wanted to extol the death of literary content and its usurpation by the environment… the omnipresent screen with the omnipresent friends everywhere close, surrounding you. In those days, the music video was just beginning its brief reign before performance spontaneity graduated into dramatized “American Idol-ism”, and so, we have Electrocution of the Word as a period piece.”
It was one of the first music videos made in Canada and proved to be a hit at the Expo. The only problem was that Cockburn hated it (Markson jokes “If he reads this, you’re gonna have to convince him there’s something in it!”). The director admits “the burning of the book was very corny, but life is corny sometimes.” “I’m guessing why Bruce didn’t like it”, Markson continues, “probably because the soundtrack wasn’t too clear. We did the soundtrack on color emulsion, which really does terrible audio, especially in those days. You know, we mixed it and everything, but the audio never really printed well.” Unfortunately, the song was never recorded separately, so the film is its only document.
Glatt remembers “He jokingly said ‘I’ll decapitate you if it’s made public!’ I didn’t know it was on YouTube [now]. I didn’t put it there”, he laughs. Cockburn has since approved a 2013 release of old recordings by The Children, a pre-3’s A Crowd band he was part of. Glatt says “I think he’s changed his thinking about archival material in recent years.”
Regardless, in the final months of 1968, Cockburn had other things to concern himself with. He was due to appear solo with a handful of other up-and-comers at the New Songwriter’s showcase at the Mariposa Folk Festival on the Toronto Islands in late August. The showcase would be hosted by his friend Murray McLauchlan and new star Joni Mitchell. It was a small, but important step on his road to a solo career.
As it turned out, his performance was so well received that he was invited back for a feature performance the next year. Mariposa 1968 would also lead to a more personally rewarding collaboration with Penelope than Electrocution of the Word – in partnership with another young poet and Native rights activist named Duke Redbird who was a featured participant in a poetry workshop.
At the festival, the three connected artistically as well as socially and decided to form a music and spoken word trio to, as Redbird says, “get the message out, as we all were in those days, to try to change perceptions and hopefully persuade the establishment to loosen up a little bit and make life more palatable for everybody.”
Back in Ottawa the three consulted the ancient Chinese book of divination, the I-Ching, for a name. It guided them to “Abundance to Revolution”, and so they christened themselves “Three: Abundance to Revolution”. Penelope’s friend and co-star in The Tragic Diary of Zero the Fool, Gerald Cogan, would be their promoter. Cogan was also a press agent and dabbled in acting, Markson remembers him as “a brilliant man about town.”
A debut performance at Ottawa’s Carleton University was lined up for September 28th. The performance at Carlton went well. “We were well received. But then I don’t think Bruce ever had a bad reaction when he was on stage” Redbird laughs. “Penelope and I did poetry, and Bruce sang his songs and sort of backed us up acoustically on his guitar.” Redbird recited poems he had written about First Nations issues, while Penelope’s focus was on women’s issues of the day.
A write-up in the paper about the trio noted Cogan had plans to send the group on a cross-Canada tour and then possibly two months of performances in England. Whether these ambitious plans coincided with his group’s plans is debatable. Redbird says now, “I’m sure he exaggerated the press release, as all good press agents do, you know?” In actuality, they only played a couple of additional shows, all in the Ottawa area.
A large part of why they never played more was the unexpected death of Cogan. “We all went our separate ways after Gerald’s death” continues Redbird. “We all had our separate careers and Bruce was definitely a rising star and his world was opening up as a solo performer. He didn’t really need Penelope or I. He was working with us on a purely philosophical basis that we believed in what we were doing. It wasn’t about the group so much as it was about the message…Abundance to Revolution was a vehicle to express an ideology that spoke to justice, that spoke to recognizing the inequities in the society of the day. And Bruce was a great supporter of anything that would give voice to that.”
In fact, Bruce had a week-long solo gig at Ottawa’s Le Hibou coffeehouse (co-owned by Glatt) in late October. He wasn’t fully solo yet, though, as there were more 3’s a Crowd obligations to fulfill. A multi-night stand at Toronto’s Pornographic Onion coffeehouse (where he had previously appeared solo) in January, 1969 and a six week tour of the Carolinas in the Spring had been booked by Glatt. It was on this trip that he met Fox Watson, a musician who arranged traditional fiddle tunes for guitar. This opened up a new way of playing guitar for Cockburn and was a direct inspiration for later instrumentals “Foxglove” and “Sunwheel Dance”.
Things fell into place fairly quickly upon returning to Canada as he hooked up with Bernie Finkelstein, who was looking to start his own record label. Bruce’s self-titled debut was True North Records’ first release and the start of a partnership that continues to this day.
The Tragic Diary of Zero the Fool was finally finished in 1969 as well, unfortunately wrapping on a negative note with co-star Cogan’s death, as well as a falling out between Markson and Penelope about how the movie should have ended. Yet, it garnered rave reviews at college film festivals and won the grand prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival in 1970. Markson remembers, “I sat at the back of the audience and was eating popcorn and watched everybody looking at the film. It was wonderful and the first time I ever experienced anything like that… it was a hot film for a while.”
He went on to make more films, including Breathing Together: Revolution of the American Family and Growing Up in America, two acclaimed documentaries about the counterculture. Unfortunately, The Tragic Diary of Zero the Fool is currently unavailable and may remain so, as Markson says there’s content in the film he’s very uncomfortable with now.
Electrocution of the Word was shown one more time after the Ottawa Expo, on a CBC series called “New Filmmakers” in 1969. After that it basically disappeared for close to 30 years before a bootleg copy turned up in the ‘90s.
Redbird was also present at some The Tragic Diary of Zero the Fool film shoots that autumn, and became a prominent activist and widely published poet who has also written and directed for film and television. He was vice president of the Native Council of Canada and is currently Aboriginal Mentor/Advisor at the Ontario College of Art and Design.
Penelope and Bruce had another co-written song, “It’s Up to You”, become a finalist in 1969’s CBC Song Market contest. That same year, her poems appeared in a poetry/photography exhibit produced by the National Film Board of Canada called Seeds of the Spacefields (unconsciously echoed in Cockburn’s later title “Lord of the Starfields”?) After the ‘60s, she continued to write poetry and moved to the West Coast before dying in 2011. Redbird stayed in touch with her sporadically. “Whenever I talked to her she said she was very, very happy. She lived in a [house that] she described as an eclectic meeting place for all kinds of wonderful people.” Perhaps much like The Somerset Asylum.
“The second half of the ‘60s really was a kind of learning period, in terms of writing, for me” Cockburn said in 1995 (Arizona Republic). The year 1968, in particular, was a period of transition and growth for the still young musician. It was a year of endings and beginnings – closing the door on his old life of bands and opening new doors that would allow him to more fully articulate his artistic expression, undiluted by the compromises of band experience.
As the world was morphing into a new decade, the glow of the hippie dream and the Summer of Love was fading. Public tastes were changing, with the tides shifting towards a desire for a more personal, intimate kind of music from their entertainers. Cockburn’s move in a solo direction was perfectly in sync with the rise of the singer/songwriter in the early ‘70s. And the seeds that would result in a long-lived, internationally successful career were sown in those heady late ‘60s days of poetry, idealism, and music.
Special thanks to Morley Markson, Harvey Glatt, and Duke Redbird for recollections and information.
Rob Caldwell is a writer and librarian living near Toronto. He has written for various online publications, including The Allmusic Guide and No Depression music magazine.