September 2017 issue
Life is still a highway for Canadian music icon Tom Cochrane
By Blair Matthews
We’ve all heard the stories about struggling musicians who scrape by, playing gigs at night and taking menial jobs during the day to support their dreams.
For many, it’s an impossible road that never leads to a full-time career, let alone fame and fortune. But for Canadian musician Tom Cochrane, despite the bumps in the road, life really is a highway.
He struggled early on playing local coffee houses in Toronto and driving a taxi cab to make ends meet. He racked up an impressive resume of mundane jobs: meat packer at Canadian Packers; clerk at CIL Paints; dishwasher; delivery man; he even took a job on a Caribbean cruise ship for a while.
As the 1980s dawned, Cochrane connected one night at a Toronto nightclub with a group of musicians called Red Rider. They were looking for a lead singer; Tom auditioned and it wasn’t long before he got the spot.
The band caught the ear of music execs and was signed by Capitol Records.
Red Rider, (who later became known as Tom Cochrane & Red Rider), had a handful of early hits like Lunatic Fringe, White Hot, and As Far As Siam.
They spent the better part of a decade writing songs, churning out albums, and touring.
In 1990, Cochrane ventured out on his own with his first solo album Mad Mad World and the single that became a smash hit, Life is a Highway.
And when he found international fame and the accolades started piling up, he found himself not quite believing that it would last.
“Every new record was like you’re out of a job and starting over again,” he reveals candidly. “Right up until Mad Mad World, even.” After his next album with Red Rider didn’t do as well as previous records, he was left wondering if his music career was coming to an end.
Thankfully, he found his footing through corporate gigs, new albums, and a heavily-devoted fan base that has kept him writing and performing regularly.
“I love playing the biggest hits because the energy you get back from the crowd is immeasurable. It just feeds that incredible sense of community; every nerve in my body is electric when I play Life is a Highway.”
Tom Cochrane & Red Rider’s very first single, White Hot, is a song they released 37 years ago, yet everywhere he tours now, the crowd knows the song by heart.
“We played a show in Edmonton last week and we had 10,000 people singing every single word of the song. There’s nothing like it. It validates what I tried to do in the beginning which was to write songs that would stand the test of time. So important to me to try to write timeless music. You fail more often than you succeed, but when you get songs like Lunatic Fringe or White Hot, or Life is a Highway, they’re still relevant. That’s important to me because even though I might be a heritage artist, we’re still valid.”
He notes some of the musicians he was influenced by had similar philosophies: Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, The Band, The Beatles, Van Morrison, and Leonard Cohen.
Playing in the Same Spot As His Idols Played
Cochrane has many fond memories of venues he’s played, but none more awe-inspiring than Toronto’s 3000-seat Massey Hall. Built in the summer of 1894, Massey Hall has provided a stage for some of the world’s most popular musicians and performers.
“The acts that were the most influential with me and on my music growing up played there. I saw so many acts there. Johnny Cash was there a number of times and he was so popular in Ontario.”
Notable Massey Hall performers include: Dizzy Gillespie, Neil Young, Luciano Pavarotti, Rush, Gordon Lightfoot, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Kim Mitchell, Ronald Hawkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and so many others.
Oh... and Tom Cochrane (1991, 2015, 2017).
“That place just left such an indelible imprint on me and made me very proud as a Canadian; that room had some of the best concerts — every genre of music was performed there. It always seemed to spark magic in artists that would spur them on to pretty incredible performances.”
If there was any doubt that Cochrane had made it in the music business, selling out Massey Hall in 1991 confirmed it. And likewise doing a sold-out show at Maple Leaf Gardens was a bitter sweet achievement for him.
Cochrane’s father, Tuck, was a bush pilot in Manitoba and after the family re-settled in the Toronto area, Tuck flew for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ McNamara family. “I got to see the seminal Leafs — the last year they won the Stanley Cup. I used to get to go into the dressing room and that was so exciting,” he remembers.
Calling him a lifelong hockey fan would be an understatement. He’s performed at NHL games, sang the national anthem countless times, and has had his music used in NHL promotional team videos.
Big League, another of his most popular songs, was written based on a chance meeting he had with the dad of a young hockey prodigy who lost his son in a car accident.
And in 2008, the family of Luc Bourdon, the Vancouver Canucks defenceman who died in a motorcycle crash, requested Cochrane to play the song at a memorial tribute before a game in Vancouver.
The song remains a powerful reminder that life is short, he says.
Finding Clearer Vision
When the house lights come up and Cochrane leaves them wanting more, he’s mindful of how fortunate he is. As his career was catching fire in the late 1980s, he looked for ways to give back to the world who was being so kind to him.
He found a deeper purpose by partnering with World Vision, a global relief, development and advocacy organization empowering children, families and their communities to overcome poverty and injustice.
Cochrane travelled to Mozambique with World Vision in 1989 (the trip inspired him to write Life is a Highway), beginning a journey of more than 25 years of dedicated humanitarian work.
“Life Is a Highway was a pep talk to myself that you can’t change the world as a single individual in one fell swoop, but you can spread some goodwill and love along the way. After the trip to Mozambique I felt a heaviness about what I couldn’t do. It was draining and I was exhausted in every sense of the word. Working on this song really pulled me out of that place and helped me focus on the truth that you need to keep your eye on the road ahead, and focus on the good you can do, and that this will make a difference. Out of a dark place, ironically, came one of my most positive songs.”
He has since been on many trips with World Vision, most recently visiting Syrian refugee camps in 2016. Cochrane is World Vision’s longest-serving ambassador.
Coincidentally, Cochrane’s 25th Anniversary of the Mad Mad World album coincided nicely with the start of Canada 150 celebrations. “I’m such a proud Canadian, Canada 150 is such a great year to be touring,” he says.
Mad Mad World sold over a million copies in Canada, 6-million worldwide. His Life is a Highway single reached No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S.
Cochrane’s list of career achievements is the stuff that legends are made of: winner of eight Juno Awards; inducted with a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2009; an Officer of The Order of Canada; inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2003; recipient of the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award.
The ultimate honour for Cochrane was having a stretch of road in Manitoba named after him between his hometown of Lynn Lake and Thompson. The road was appropriately renamed Tom Cochrane’s Life is a Highway, a nod to his best-known song.
“I had the great honour to go back there. I believe that these small towns are what help define our country as much as the big cities. I’m a small town boy from the prairies, so it’s appropriate to be doing some of these shows and the Hoedown which raises money for some good causes as well.”
With his career coming full circle, Cochrane is still touring (albeit with a less gruelling schedule than 25 years ago). It’s a life he clearly didn’t expect, but humbly accepts.
As he passes the 37-year-mark as a professional musician, he has stopped wondering if it will all end tomorrow.
He has no plans to go back to driving a taxi.
“This has been probably the busiest year-and-a-half that I’ve had in quite a while. I’ve been lucky enough to make a living with my hobby. It’s what I love to do and I make people happy doing it. I feel really fortunate to have had the career that I’ve had and that people still want to come out and see us play. I think we’re playing better than ever now.”
Tom Cochrane with Red Rider is headlining at MAGNA’s HOEDOWN event on Saturday, September 16. Tickets available now at hoedown.ca.