TOM COCHRANE will open for Richard Marx tonight at 8 at the Garden State Arts Center in Holmdel. Tickets, $18 (lawn) and $25, may be purchased at the box office and TicketMaster outlets or by calling TicketMaster Charge, 507-8900 or 1-(212) 307-7171. For additional information, call 1-(908) 442-9200. Cochrane will also headline a concert featuring Tall Stories and Kilby Taylor 1 p.m. Saturday at the Sussex County Fairgrounds, Branchville. The free show is part of WDHA-FM’s Summer Concert Series. For further information, call 538-1250.

Life’s like a road that you travel on
When there’s one day here and the next day gone
Sometimes you bend sometimes you stand
Sometimes you turn your back to the wind

— Tom Cochrane,
“Life Is a Highway”


Tom Cochrane knew what he was writing about when he put those words on paper.

After cruising along for more than a decade as the front man for Red Rider — the Canadian band best know for the 1981 hit “Lunatic Fringe” — Cochrane realized he had to choose a different route if he was to be artistically satisfied.

“For at least five years, I was saddled with a situation that I wasn’t happy or comfortable with,” said the singer-songwriter, who makes his home outside Toronto.

During a telephone conversation earlier this week from Pennsylvania, Cochrane, 38, said he felt stymied by the creative restraints imposed by the band. If the songs he wrote didn’t fit the narrow Red Rider mold, they were summarily rejected.

But leaving the known (the security afforded by the band) for the unknown (a solo career) was a scary proposition.

“I had to wonder if the fan base I had would accept me,” said Cochrane. “If they denied what I was doing, it would be all over. I’d be back to driving a cab.”

His fears, however, proved unfounded. In fact, Cochrane, whose best writing evokes the poetic lyricism of Don Henley, has enjoyed more success than Red Rider ever did.

In Canada, Cochrane’s solo debut, “Mad Mad World,” and the initial singles, “Life Is a Highway” and “No Regrets,” roared up the charts at autobahn speed. The album has sold more than 5 million copies in his homeland, and several months ago Cochrane copped four Juno Awards, the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy.

Now, he is on the road, hoping to replicate that success in the United States. And he’s begun to succeed. “Mad Mad World” is receiving significant radio play, and the buzz surrounding Cochrane’s live performances has been extremely good.

“Life Is a Highway” is “a metaphor for the changes I’ve gone through,” he said. “You can’t dwell on the negative. What you have to do is learn from it and move on.”

During the course of the one-hour chat, it was difficult to imagine the affable, articulate Cochrane ever possessing a negative thought. But he said the positive attitude he now exudes came about only after he made a conscious choice to change.

“I had been in a very negative band,” he said, adding with a soft laugh, “We were a surly bunch of individuals.

“And no one will ever stop you from wallowing in self-pity. But it’s a big waste of time, and ultimately it will beat you down.

“The best thing you can do is accept change and embrace it.”

The alteration in his outlook and thinking, said Cochrane, can be attributed to a fact-finding trip he made to Africa with the relief organization WorldVision. Cochrane was impressed by Africans’ resilience and ability to take pleasure in life’s simple joys, despite their dire straits.

“After some reflection, I knew the type of songwriter I had to be,” said Cochrane. “I knew I wanted to write songs that would move people and sensitize them to what’s going on around them.”

That he would want to educate and illuminate listeners is not surprising. As a child, he envisioned a career as a broadcast journalist. “Watching people like Walter Cronkite,” he said, “I couldn’t imagine anything better than going to all those exotic places and reporting back to your homeland.”

But after hearing the Beatles for the first time, Cochrane decided on a career change. His love of music was furthered by such artists as fellow Canadians Neil Young and Leonard Cohen, The Byrds, and Bob Dylan.

“Dylan was the one who demonstrated to me that music could be more than simple pop songs,” said Cochrane, who began singing in coffeehouses during college.

“This business can drag you away from the real world. But a good writer is one who, with sincerity and integrity, taps into the situations and problems that real people, not the Hollywood types, experience.”

The inability to tell stories that people can relate to on a personal level, said Cochrane, was one of the reasons Red Rider enjoyed limited success.

Another of Red Rider’s problems, said a laughing Cochrane, was that the group was slow when it came to recording. “We would take five days to get the right snare drum sound. We would never let anything go.”

So when he embarked on his solo career, Cochrane said, his primary musical goal was to “shoot from the hip.”

To achieve this, Cochrane traveled to Ardent Studios in Memphis to work with producer Joe Hardy, a former Stax Records artist with solid blues and R&B credentials. The trip south proved immensely rewarding, lending a raw performance feel to Cochrane’s timely social commentaries looking at censorship (“Brave and Crazy”), violence against women (“Emotional Truth”), drug addiction (“Get Back”), and child abuse (“All the King’s Men”).

“Music should first of all be visceral; it should come from the gut,” said Cochrane. “Later is when you get [listeners] thinking.”