John Cossar’s goldmine has been waiting a long time. Sixty years and only now is he getting around to gutting it out.
“It pours,” he says. “It pours out of me.” The words of a perpetual songwriter, with more music in him than any machine could keep up with. An old man with more history to impart than future to fit it all.
It was four years ago when John decided to start a career in music, at the age of 56. Single, after 35 years as a family man, he found himself with a guitar to his name and a wealth of words to be written.
Eighty songs later, John’s now working on his first album. And he couldn’t be more convinced he’s finally living the life he was meant to.
Begins in the bay
John was born in Burgeo, the baby of “a bunch of brothers and sisters.”
And as far as his memory can tell, he was raised up by the radio.
“I listened to lots of radio. All we could get was CHCM Marystown and I was kind of warped by that — I wanted to play rock music and that’s all I was interested in.”
A confessed bad boy, he got into the habit of staying up all hours of the night, channeling music from thin air.
“In the early morning hours where Burgeo is situated, there’s an atmospheric skip and it changes the angle of whatever radio station is broadcasting. You pick up unique ones you wouldn’t normally pick up all hours of the night.”
“I wanted to play rock music and that’s all I was interested in.” —John Cossar
He found himself listening to New York stations, around the time when the Beatles landed — he even heard them being interviewed in their hotel rooms. Says he was a Beatles fan before anybody knew of them in Newfoundland.
At 14, his parents bought him his first guitar from a Sears catalog, so he could at least pretend to be some sort of rock star.
“I was playing somewhere in my head. I didn’t care how it sounded; I just wanted to play it,” he says.
The cover band years
Then there was his big brother Joe…
“He was the coolest guy. He could play guitar — was the best in town and still is.”
It was a while before John says he was cool enough to play with his brother, but they eventually wound up in bands together. One in particular, called The Movers, covered songs John suggested, the likes of Carl Perkins. Nobody knew the words but John, who was on rhythm guitar.
“The singer at the time would be peering back at me asking what the words were to the point when they said, ‘you might as well sing’.”
He was a musician playing other people’s songs on through high school and into his twenties. But he didn’t mind, as long as he got to play — back then playing whatever song was all he cared to do.
“I also played as I watched them fool around on each other and watched them fall apart,” —John Cossar
“When I was a teenager playing in the band, I avoided work like the plague. I didn’t even know there was two 3 o’clocks in the day for Christ sakes. I couldn’t see the point in working like everybody else.”
From the stage, John says he watched other people dance with his girlfriend, and later watched them dance with his wife. He watched while all his friends grew up and saw them get together, and he even played for their weddings.
“I also played as I watched them fool around on each other and watched them fall apart,” he says. “You get the entire perspective. It made me wonder, how do people survive the way they do?”
Well into his twenties, John came to the conclusion it was time to call it quits with music altogether, and make a go at a straight life. So he did, starting with a job in construction.
“It taught me to work. Good physical tiredness — coming home and passing out because you couldn’t do anymore — it toughened me up.”
He came out of the experience wanting a family with his high school sweetheart, Betty. And as the years went by from there he became a dad to his daughter and husband to his wife.
For the past thirty years he’s worked as a baker, trading time for money with Wonderbread, Auntie Crae’s, Sobeys, Purity Factories and Tim Hortons.
That second chance
John’s wife of 22 years died of breast cancer in 2001. He later remarried, but it didn’t last.
“They say write what you know,” John puts it. “And all I know is this right now.”
He’s since left the straight life behind him and picked things up where he left off in his twenties, with the exception of playing covers.
“I’m never going to play anyone else’s songs again. I played cover songs for ten years and even though I like Irish songs, I don’t ever want to sing another one for a long time.”
He’s not about to waste his second shot at this. Wiser now, John lives in day and night devotion to his music, regardless of the cost or what anyone else might think.
“I live my life like I live my life. I’ve let other people’s opinions of me bend me into shapes where I didn’t recognize me, and I no longer do that. I’m not living to anyone else’s standards.”
Being a full-time musician has meant busking on the streets of St. John’s for money to eat over the past two years, but John doesn’t mind. He’ll write songs right there on the sidewalk.
Making music has become his obsession and filled a huge hollow space in him.
“I can’t even put it into words, just how much I admire what comes out of me,” —John Cossar
“I can’t even put it into words, just how much I admire what comes out of me, and it sounds so friggin’ vain. I don’t even give a rat’s ass if anybody else ever reads it.
“I would look at this as if you were to make your favorite stew — for that stew you go to the grocery store and get all the things you want to put in it. My little grocery store is filled will all the words that I know, so I’m walking down the aisles choosing this word and that word. I’m making a stew — I don’t quite know what it is but I do know one thing for certain; I’m not going to be putting things in that stew that you like. I’m putting stuff in that stew that I like. I’m the one that this is made for.”
Another bridge to burn
Not intentionally, John says he’s caused more hurt than anything by not doing what he should have been doing a long time ago. But hurt belongs in the past, is something he lives by. And now that he’s reaping the benefits of being himself, he’s the most grateful man you’ll meet.
“It’s been one nice thing after another. I got a manager out of it I didn’t even ask for; I got a recording contract; I got funding for a demo, and now I have funding for a full-length CD.”
Listening back to demos he’s recorded, John can’t believe it’s him — he can’t believe he wrote the words or played the guitar. To his ear (he’s deaf in one) the music is flawless — something he never considered himself to be.
He’s a man of metaphors, and there’s no line between his life and his music. Performing what he’s created on stage, he says, “It’s like this big ball of sadness has left me. I roll it away and it hits people — they cry and I smile.”
John’s also been known to shed a few tears on stage. Lyrics like these are the reason…
These precious years are flying by so fast,
I swear, the seasons feel like days.
And the days feel just like turning pages,
from the cradle to the grave.
Still, I’m spending all my time and money,
just like a drunkard on a spree,
‘cus if you’re gone,
time can’t go fast enough,
John Cossar, who turns 60 April 8, is currently in the studio working on his debut album, Another Bridge to Burn. Sample the song ‘Trouble’ below: