TORONTO — More than 25 years after the runaway success of Life is a Highway, Tom Cochrane is still trying to unpack how it forever changed his career.
Topping the Canadian charts for six weeks, the furiously optimistic single burst onto radio in 1991 and helped carry its album Mad Mad World to sales heights reached by few Canadian artists — over a million copies.
Even now, Cochrane seems baffled by the trajectory that turned his “manageable success” as frontman of 1980s rock band Red Rider into an entirely different beast.
“As an artist it appears like there might be a master plan,” he says.
“But I’ve always been a believer in putting one foot ahead of the other and seeing where it leads.”
In February, the eight-time Juno winner will embark on an anniversary tour that marks the birth of the song and its seminal album, which was released in September 1991.
The concerts are timed with a reissue of the album, packed with extra goodies for fans, and a coffee-table book that’s still in the works.
It’s not just Cochrane who is marking the occasion.
A stretch of Manitoba highway near his birthplace in Lynn Lake was renamed in his honour last October and Calgary’s Studio Bell is currently holding an exhibit of rock memorabilia from his career that runs until April.
All of this might’ve never happened if an earlier take of Life is a Highway hadn’t been rescued from a pile of songs Cochrane thought were unusable.
First envisioned as Love is a Highway, Cochrane says his original version was nixed while he was still in Red Rider.
It was his friend John Webster, an instrumentalist on Mad Mad World, who encouraged him to revisit a demo recording with mumbled vocals and improvised lyrics that still lacked the infectious sing-along chorus. The song was bare-bones at best and Cochrane didn’t know what to do with it.
Upon returning from a “shocking and traumatic” visit to West Africa he found the answer.
Struck by his experience in the region with the World Vision famine relief organization, he was trying to process his thoughts after witnessing levels of poverty unlike anything he had seen before.
“I didn’t realize how much that would affect my psyche,” he says.
Cochrane needed a happy song he could “hang the experience on” and one morning inspiration struck for a new take on “Life is a Highway.”
“It became a pep talk to myself … saying you can’t really control all of this stuff, you just do the best you can,” he says.
“All the details of going into a country like Mozambique, which was in a protracted civil war at the time, you can’t be distracted with all of that.”
Writing some ideas out, he rushed into his backyard recording studio to lay it down.
Within days of its release, Life is a Highway”was all over Canadian airwaves.
Stateside it didn’t take long to catch fire either and it climbed to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“It just seemed to keep going,” a befuddled Cochrane recalls.
On its heels, Mad Mad World turned out a few other notable singles.
No Regrets, Sinking Like a Sunset and Washed Away all charted, but none of them came close to the strengths of “Life is a Highway.”
Cochrane says without the first hit, it’s unlikely his album would be one of Canada’s all-time bestsellers.
“I still think it was a strong record all the way through, but it wouldn’t have been the same thing,” he says.
“It would’ve gone in a different direction and perhaps wouldn’t have had the impact it had.”
He hopes that beyond Mad Mad World he’s also made a dent in how Canadian artists are perceived on a global scale.
“I helped pave the way, I believe, for artists (being) proud to be a Canadian,” he says.
“Back then it was hard to fight for your Canadian identity and stand your ground.”