Tom Cochrane: A Road Less Travelled.


By Keith Sharp

Should your travels take you to Northern Manitoba any time soon, you might find yourself on a stretch of highway which runs between Thompson and Lynn Lake. Formerly known as PR 391, but take another glance at the road sign and you will realize that this 322-kilometre stretch has been renamed Tom Cochrane’s “Life Is A Highway” in honour of Lynn Lake’s most famous son.

During a ceremony staged Monday October 31st at the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister and Lynn Lake Mayor, James Lindsay were on hand as Infrastructure Minister Blain Peterson officially announced the name change, in honour of the 25th anniversary of Cochrane’s debut solo album, `Mad Mad World’ which contains that iconic track.

As he sat down for a coffee in Toronto’s Shangr La Hotel, Cochrane enthused about being bestowed with such an honour and reflected on the past two week’s of activities which had been created around the release of a two-CD deluxe re-package of Mad Mad World.

First off was a live performance Saturday October 22nd during the first intermission of the Heritage Alumi Hockey Classic game between The Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers, (“50,000 people there to see the old boys play”). Then it was off to Toronto Wednesday October 26th for a special reception in the Distillery District where Cochrane was feted for his contributions to World Vision before heading out to Calgary October 27th and 28th where a special Tom Cochrane display had been set up at the newly created National Music Centre.

tom-cochraneFollowing the official launch of the Mad Mad World Re-release and the announcement of a 25th Anniversary Mad Mad World Canadian tour to run between March 3rd in Abbotsford BC to March 31st at Casino Rama near Orillia Ont, Cochrane dropped by the Manitoba Legislature for his Highway signing ceremony before concluding his activities with a media blitz in Toronto.

“I had a sense I was creating something special but you can never predict if it’s going to be a hit or not,” Cochrane noted. “I had this metaphor of life being like a highway, because like those old blues songs about trains connecting the continent, highways are now the connecting point. I had this cathartic revelation after just come back from my World Vision trip to Africa. That trip was tough. I saw some really tough things, war zones and poverty and when I came to write the song I realized I can only do what good I can do on this road in front of me or I’m gonna crash.”

Recorded in Memphis with veteran producer Joe Hardy (“I liked the guitar sound he achieved with Colin James and ZZ Top”), Cochrane found himself demoing material that was forging a new direction from himself which also caused a separation from his Red Rider writing partner, Ken Greer.

“I had noted that Tom Petty had done the same with The Heartbreakers when he went solo on “Full Moon Fever” and I thought to myself, that’s what I’ve just gone through,” Cochrane reflected. “I had songs I had produced on my own that were a departure for me and I think Ken was threatened by what I was doing.”

Mad Mad World, released in September 19th 1991, contained 13 tracks including other hits like “Sinking Like A Sunset”, and “No Regrets”, “Life Is A Highway” topped the Canadian charts, went to No 6 on the U.S Billboard charts, and sold over one million copies domestically, earning him one of only a few Diamond Awards earned by Canadian artists.

The Re-mastered Deluxe issue contains all the original tracks plus an early “Life Is A Highway” demo, titled “Love Is A Highway” as well as a second CD featuring a live concert in Chicago which contains 12 tracks that include previous hits like White Hot”, “Big League” “Boy Inside The Man” and the main single “I Wish You Well” from his follow up Ragged Ass Road release plus a special 24-page souvenir book.

Yes it’s been 38 years since  Cochrane was invited to join Greer, bassist Jeff Jones, keyboardist Peter Boynton and drummer Rob Baker in the Toronto based Red Rider. Reconvening in Vancouver, where under the management of Bruce Allen, Red Rider released a string of hit albums for Capitol Records including their 1980 debut `Don’t Fight It’ (“White Hot”) `As Far As Siam’ (“Lunatic Fringe”) in 1981 and their conceptual` Neruda’ in 1983.

TomCochraneUnfortunately, Red Rider’s laid back performance style was not in synch with the bic-flicking Arena Rock efforts of Bruce Allen’s other charges; Loverboy, Bryan Adams and Prism and when their 1984 ‘Breaking Curfew’ achieved disappointing sales, Cochrane and Greer split with Allen, reforming as Tom Cochrane and Red Rider in 1986, he scored a moderate hit with “Boy Inside The Man and followed that with “Big League” off their 1989 `Victory Day’ release. Yet Cochrane still struggled and ultimately decided to go it alone with `Mad Mad World’.

Not only did Cochrane achieve his biggest break in the U.S, but Country band  Rascall Flats covered “Life Is A Highway” in the  2006 Pixar Animated `Cars’ movie  and enjoyed a major hit on the U.S country charts.

And he’s not short of honours having been inducted into Canada’s Music Hall of Fame in 2003 and Canada’s Walk Of Fame in 2009 while receiving The Order of Canada in 2008 and Order of Manitoba in 2015 and six Juno Awards while being lauded for his charity efforts with World Vision, War Child, Amnesty International and Make Poverty History

So 25 years later, Cochrane’s career is set for a resurgence. Follow up records like Ragged Ass Road (1995), X-Ray Sierra (1999), No Stranger (2002) and his country-flavoured 2015 comeback effort “Take It Home” have allowed Cochrane to add to his body of material without enjoying the hit status of Mad Mad World but he is encouraged by the young audiences he is attracting, especially at festivals, who seem to have been exposed to their parents or older siblings’ record collection.

“It’s kind of like what has happened to Rush,” Cochrane enthused. “A younger audience hears our tracks from their parents or they go to a festival and remark,` I’ve heard that song before but  didn’t know it was you who sang it?”

As for the upcoming tour, Cochrane intends to perform `Mad Mad World’ in it’s entirety but his management want him to perform the album in sequence which would mean singing “Life Is A Highway” first? “Can’t see that happening,” he noted, “There’s so much energy in that song, we have to perform it late in the set.”

Cochrane is looking forward to performing other tracks off the album like “Sinking Like A Sunset”, “No Regrets”, “Everything Comes Around” and “Brave And Crazy” which he has only performed acoustically before.

TomCochraneWith a band that will feature Ken Greer and with Country music sensation Meghan Patrick not only opening the set but also sharing vocal duties with Cochrane, the strange part about the tour is that, for the most part he his bypassing  major centres like Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary in favour of less obvious destinations like Abbotsford and Prince George BC, Fort MacMurray and Bonneyville AB and there will be further excursions North during next summer.

“I’m from Lynn Lake Manitoba, I’m a country boy and I always get a charge out of playing those small centres.” Cochrane confessed. “They are so appreciative of you playing there.”

As for future plans, Cochrane still retains the urge to write new material, to perform live and he has plans to write an autobiography. “Bruce Springsteen once told me, “Performing is like being 15 years old again, jamming with your buddies in your garage, only there’s thousands of people out there. I can relate to that.”

And in conclusion, Cochrane related a valuable piece of advice he received from Tuck Cochrane, his bush pilot father, who once said to him; “If you love what you are doing, then do it. But promise me one thing, give it 150% percent effort but know when to quit. I’m still waiting for that moment when I do know when to quit – it hasn’t happened yet!”

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