A FEW MINUTES WITH… Bruce Cockburn
By Don Wilcock
Singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn plays The Egg’s Hart Theatre on Sunday evening (November 5), the first stop in his largest tour in years. He’ll be accompanied by a four-piece electric band in support of Bone on Bone, an extraordinary album from an artist who at age 72 has a repertoire of originals the equal of any folk or Americana artist alive and touring today.
A lot of the job of religion, says Cockburn, is “to keep wiping the lens so that stays clear. You’re not clutching it up with ego and shame or whatever else we allow to get in the way because once you get that thing going, you’re going to blame it on somebody, and then you have enemies again.” Cockburn has been cleaning our lenses since he first appeared at Toronto’s famed Mariposa Folk Festival in 1967.
Unlike some other veteran songwriters who have written songs of great introspection who wish for their songs to do all the talking for them (Bob Dylan and Don McLean, for example), Cockburn is a great conversationalist who will expound about any topic whether its aging and performing, Trump and fake news, religion, child rearing, or how he feels about “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” being his signature song in the U.S. He’s like a bull rider waiting for the gate to swing open.
His concert at The Egg is the first stop on a long tour promoting Bone on Bone, his first new CD in seven years, with a band that’s more electric than any he’s had in years. When I asked him how it felt to be doing a tour this aggressive and with these many dates at age 72, he spit back, “It feels like it’s not enough.” And then chuckled as if he almost couldn’t believe he just said that. It almost didn’t happen. He spent years working on his memoir “Rumours of Glory,” published in 2014. The concentration it took to write that and his preoccupation with the birth of a daughter in 2011 totally absorbed his muse.
“I’m not a particularly gifted writer. It was very hard work, and I don’t have the clearness or focus to sustain something like that for as long as that. I ended up pulling it off, but it didn’t feel natural. It’s hard to write a quote, spiritual memoir, unquote.”
When I interviewed him in 2011, Cockburn was struggling with getting into the project. “Maybe it matters to have my thoughts on a page that are different from the songs people are used to. Is it really worth doing this, and do I really want to take out of the songs the mystery that people feel and reduce it to a reality that’s boring to everyone? Is it like maybe the mystery is better?”
He’d been asked about having an authorized biography written about him when he was in his 40s and 50s, but back then it was easy to say that he hadn’t done enough. But in 2011 the task was staring him in the face. “I’ve been very slack about getting it together. I have to say I’m kind of wrestling myself with that one. When the part of my mind that likes the idea is dominant, then I’m into it, but a lot of the time I’m saying to myself, ‘I don’t know if there needs to be a book like this. It doesn’t make sense.’ So, I have to fight myself all the time to get myself to work on it, and eventually it will get done.”
The process of writing the book was antithetical to his career of writing songs that required a short attention span and often came to him in “a flash.” It was when he was asked to write a song for a documentary about Canadian poet Al Purdy after his memoir was published that he got back into writing the songs for Bone on Bone. The song for the documentary, “3 Al Purdys,” is on the new album.
“It was really about four years I guess where I didn’t write anything. I thought maybe I’m done. That’s a long time, in my experience, not to write a song. So, it wasn’t like I had the intention, really. I had to kind of look that in the eye and
think, well maybe that’s the end of it, but I didn’t particularly want it to be. I thought I’d prefer to write songs and keep on performing, so when the invitation came along to write something for the documentary on Purdy, it just seems like a gift from the universe. I said, ‘OK, here’s your chance now.’
“Most of my writing is not intentional. It becomes intentional once the idea’s in there, but I’m not one to sit down, think about a theme and write something about it, but his just felt right, and then right away I got this idea of the song that came out of this which was about Purdy which was this notion of a homeless guy whose obsessed with reading poetry, ranting in the streets. So, it jelled into a song
pretty quickly, and then the way was open for other ideas.”
A 12-time Juno Award winner (the Canadian version of the Grammys), Cockburn has sold more than seven million albums. In September he was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters’ Hall of fame by Buffy Sainte-Marie. His music covers everything from urban social issues to politics. His guitar playing is inspired by Mississippi John Hurt, and he has produced such well-known songs as “Wonderin’ Where the Lions Are,” “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” and “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.”
Cockburn was totally shocked when that latter song became a hit in 1984. Inspired by a visit to Guatemalan refugee camps in Mexico that were attacked before and after his visit, the song ends with the line, “If I had a rocket launcher, some son of a bitch would die.”
“It (seemed) totally impossible to me that anybody would put that on the radio, and then all of a sudden there it was all over the place. It helped me get an audience in the states that I didn’t have prior to that.”
I asked him if he could replace “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” as his most recognized song in America, which one would he replace it with and why?
“Oh, that’s an interesting question. I can tell you why I would replace it if I could. I think the song was written as a result of a very specific emotional experience, and of course once you put something on the radio, it becomes
generalized and everybody who hears it filters it in the wrong way, and reads different things into it, and it would be nice not to have the label which gets attached on some circles of political singer, quote, unquote. I don’t think that is a description of me.
“At the same time, it represents a couple of things I did, so I’m not disowning it. But at the same time I think it would be nice if maybe a song like ‘Alive in My Mind’ were that popular or – well, that one is hard to play now. It would be a conflict between the more spiritually oriented things than the straight ahead love songs, some of which have been very well received but didn’t get on the radio.
“In Canada it’s a little different because ‘Night Train,’ for instance, got a lot of coverage. We got a video that got exposed heavily. So, people are pretty familiar with that song, and I’m happy about that because that song in a certain sense is a kind of personal manifesto that came about pretty organically, and I think made a good record. I can think of other examples, too, but I don’t know if I can pick a specific one and say, ‘Well, I think people should delve and dive heavily into the new album.’”
Cockburn at this point is centered and enthusiastic about life in general and his ongoing career. “I think what is really vital is to be open to a sense of the divine being in your life and obviously you can make terrible mistakes following that road, too. People do – every now and then a preacher shows up and has decided the world’s going to end on November 25th in X year, and then followers all go out to the mountain top and all have to walk home in the rain because it didn’t happen.
“I just want to hear God talking to me, and I want to know what I’m doing is in keeping with that completely incomprehensible agenda that God has. So, I don’t think it’s good to try to second guess what the agenda is, although we always feel like we have glimpses of it. At least I do.”
My radar is telling me this is going to be a very memorable show. Of aging Cockburn says, “I don’t know at what point the brain/hand connection will just cut off. I mean that can happen. I don’t mind the idea of having to read my lyrics. I mean Lou Reed spent his whole career doing that on stage with a big book of lyrics that he put on a music stand in front of him. He got away with it OK, but other things can happen that would seriously cause problems, and so as long as that kind of thing isn’t an issue, then I expect to keep doing it.”