Bruce Cockburn has won practically every music award that his native country, Canada, has to offer. The recipient of multiple Junos (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys), he also has been honored with the Order of Canada. In more than three decades, he has recorded twenty-seven albums, the latest being You've Never Seen Everything.
Cockburn also has a big following in the U.S. Many activists who were involved in Central American solidarity work know Cockburn for his defiant song from 1983, "If I Had a Rocket Launcher." This song tells of a helicopter in Guatemala that keeps coming back to murder more kids. The last line of each verse begins, "If I had a rocket launcher. . . ." For the final verse, he completes that line with the words: "some son of a bitch would die.
In "Call It Democracy," he denounces the chief institution of neoliberalism: "IMF dirty MF/Takes away everything it can get/Always making certain that there's one thing left/Keep them on the hook with insupportable debt.
The Denver Post called Cockburn "a strident political activist." Actually, he's anything but. He's a thoughtful, sensitive person, not to mention a gifted musician and a remarkable guitar player. And though some of his lyrics are political, he covers a lot of different subjects. Love and affection are chief among them, as he sings in "Open" and "Don't Forget About Delight" on his latest album.
Born in Ottawa in 1945, he now calls Montreal home, though he's on the road a lot, and not just for gigs. Many of the places he visits--from Mozambique to Cambodia--are marred by the heavy footprints left by the United States. In January 2004, he was in Baghdad.
I spoke with him in Aspen at the end of the year, the day after he gave a solo performance before a jam-packed audience at the historic Wheeler Opera House. On stage, he's a confident performer with a big personality, but in person, he's unpretentious, and he didn't have any prerecorded soundbites.
Question: Tell me about your trip to Iraq.
Bruce Cockburn: It was a whirlwind. We were in Baghdad for a week, we being myself and three Americans under the leadership of Thomas Gumbleton, a Catholic bishop from Detroit. Great guy. We met Iraqis from all walks of life, from the arts, the intelligentsia, business people, various religious communities, homeless people, human rights workers.
There were many things that stood out. One that comes to mind immediately was the huge gap that existed between the U.S. and the Iraqis. There's just no communication there at all, at least not on the street level. We watched the interaction on a number of occasions between U.S. soldiers and the Iraqis. The soldiers were doing their best to not be heavy, to not be any more confrontational than a guy with a gun can be when the other guy doesn't have one. But there was no understanding. Almost all the military personnel were wearing sunglasses. No Iraqis wear sunglasses. They really want to see your eyes. So immediately they can't trust the Americans.
A number of Iraqis told us they had welcomed the U.S. forces as liberators initially but in the intervening months, they had come to feel that they had swapped one oppressive regime for another. The Iraqis did exchange one oppression for a lighter kind, in some ways. Abu Ghraib, as bad as it was, can't be compared to what Saddam was doing to people.
But what they also traded away--well, they didn't trade it away, it was taken from them--was any possibility of personal security, whether it was economic or physical. The prevailing attitude in Baghdad was fear: Are they going to kidnap my kids? Is somebody going to shoot me in the middle of the night? Am I going to get carjacked and killed? We heard firefights every night. Everyone keeps their drapes closed in Baghdad because of the possibility of flying glass.
And people were afraid of getting sick because there just are not enough facilities to take care of them. And that's not only a product of the war but also of the thirteen years of sanctions that preceded it. We went to a couple of different hospitals and doctors would talk to us about the shortages of everything from trained nurses to morphine. The power would go out continually, the hospitals would try to rely upon their emergency generators. But those were rickety because they could not get the spare parts to fix them up properly.
Everything that makes a society run is broken in Iraq. The only real structure is the people's own sense of themselves as Iraqis, which was very strong. They're a proud people, and they trace their historic roots way, way back.
I got invited to lunch at this guy's art studio. In the courtyard, he was cooking fish in a way I had never seen before. I asked him about it, and he said, "It's a Sumerian recipe." Here's Iraq, where irrigation was invented, where law was invented, where writing was invented. All these things that we consider necessities of civilization started there. And the people who live there damn well know that.
Q: Your song "This Is Baghdad" came out of that trip.
Cockburn: It's an attempt to describe the scene as I saw it, which I've done in many other songs about many other places. I suppose "Rocket Launcher" is like that, too. In it, I was trying to describe the feelings I had in the presence of Guatemalan refugees who had experienced unbelievably horrible things. I still think about those things.
Q: In the summer of 2003, when I saw you in Boulder with a small ensemble, you performed "If I Had a Rocket Launcher," much to the delight of the huge crowd at the Boulder Theater. It seems like parts of your audience really want to hear this song.
Cockburn: That blew me away. Of all the songs I'd put out that I thought would have had radio possibilities, that wasn't one. A lot of people who didn't even know that it was about Guatemala responded to the sense of outrage in it, and that made it popular. It was a very interesting phenomenon because I never would have imagined in a million years that anybody would play that on the radio, and yet they did. And people ask for it to this day.
Q: Your latest album is You've Never Seen Everything. You've got a song in there called "Put It in Your Heart." Why did you write that?
Cockburn: After September 11, 2001, I was as shocked as anybody. My American friends were distraught, and I felt a great empathy with them. I crossed the border into the United States that same morning, shortly after the second plane had hit. So I was around for all of that, watching TV, channel surfing. And I chanced upon Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Falwell looks right into the camera at me the viewer and says, you know this terrible tragedy is the fault of you gays and lesbians and you people who've had abortions. I was angry. I thought, you self-serving bastard. There you are, promoting your little agenda on the back of all that pain. I couldn't stomach it.
But I realized that in my reactions to Falwell I was as guilty as he was of perpetuating bitterness. It was more of the same, that endless treadmill of blame and incriminations that we seem to be on. And in the process of thinking about these things, I was actually meditating and the phrase "put it in your heart" came to me. And I applied it to that and wrote the song.
Q: Do the lyrics come first?
Cockburn: I always write the lyrics first. There are one or two exceptions over the years, but that's pretty much the way it's been. The process of applying music to words is a bit like scoring a film. You've got imagery. Possibly you've got characters and a story. The music creates a field for those things to unfold in. ?
I'm particularly attuned to lyrics, and very often a bad set of lyrics will ruin a song for me, while my friends will be just grooving on the music. I don't mean that it has to be about anything in particular, but there has to be some art applied to it, simple or otherwise.
Q: What is the line between making art and being pedantic?
Cockburn: I've been accused of being a little pedantic here and there, but I don't buy that criticism. I'm telling it like I see it. You don't have to buy it. You don't have to like it. You don't have to listen to it at all. I'm not trying to convince people of things, other than the fact that I'm trying to make as vivid as I can my own feelings and experiences. Most of the time, our deeper, stronger feelings are things we all have in common. I take a certain liberty in saying I felt this way in this particular situation, and there's a good chance you would too. This is why. Here's what I saw. Here's what I felt. That's as close as I get to preaching, in my mind, anyway.
Q: What is the role of artists in creating social change?
Cockburn: My overall responsibility is to be truthful. If people pay money to come and see me, looking for something other than that, then they've made a mistake. It wasn't until I went to Central America and Chile in 1983 that I really understood that there is no gap between art and politics. That politics is a part of life and art is about life. It doesn't mean that all the art has to be about politics--in fact, heaven forbid. But politics is a totally legitimate area of focus for any art, whether it's painting or songwriting or anything else, as much as sex is, as much as spirituality is, as much as any other behavior of people is.
Q: You say it's important to attach anger to something useful.
Cockburn: I think it is. We all grow up with anger. It's part of the human condition. But what do you do with that? It seems obvious to me that you've got to use it for something, but you have to separate it from your ego. Once you tie anger and ego together then you're a monster, at least a latent one. So you have to be able to separate those things before you are going to be able to do anything useful with your anger. And you have to be able to sit back and say, yeah, I'm really mad about this but I'm only one of 10,000 people who might be mad about that particular thing and everyone has a slightly different take on it. We can all benefit from hearing each other's takes on these things. Anger is energy, and you've got to find a place to put it that works for you.
Q: And for you it's in music?
Cockburn: It's partly in music.
Q: Where else?
Cockburn: It's partly in the way I go through my day, too. Music itself isn't enough to completely wear down my stash of anger. And I don't have all that much more to be angry about than anyone else. It's not like I was abused as a kid or anything. I had a pretty comfortable childhood with parents who took good care of me. But resentment exists, and some of it goes into the music. Some of it goes into physical activity. Getting involved with NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and nonprofits helps, too. And that's where the ego and the anger have to be scrupulously kept apart. You run into a lot of people in that scene, as I'm sure you have, who either haven't thought of that or aren't very good at doing it. They burn out, fast. And sometimes they're not very nice to work with either because of it.
The people who have impressed me most--and the closest I've come to having heroes--are the people who have devoted their lives to making things better for others. These are people whose names you never hear, people who work for Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, and other humanitarian groups. They're just out there in the world, doing stuff. Those people, the ones who are really effective and really able to make a difference, are people who've sorted that anger/ego equation.
Q: You are graying, and so are your fans. Are you reaching younger audiences?
Cockburn: The main demographic is getting older with me but I am encouraged to note that there are always some younger people around. I got a couple of young friends, and they'll bring their friends around, and we'll end up sitting around with guitars, and these kids will hear what I'm doing, and they're like, whoa, what is that? People respond to the music in that way, totally free of any conditioning or expectations, so you know it's working.
Q: Over the course of your three-decade career, you've produced a large body of work. You've said that you're afraid of repeating yourself. How do you keep yourself fresh and not stagnate?
Cockburn: It goes back to trying to be truthful. Sometimes I catch myself doing something that I've already done. The more I've done, the more that's likely to happen. Then I just throw it away. I wait until I've got the right way of getting a thing done, which means my songwriting proceeds at a very slow pace. But it's the only way I can really work.
Q: As a Canadian, how do you see the United States?
Cockburn: It's hard for me to be objective because there are so many people I love in the United States, and I've had such great adventures in this country and have been so well received by people here. But one time I was at an agricultural exhibition, and these farmers were boasting about their modern animal husbandry techniques. They had an enormous sow in a pen with a whole bunch of piglets. In order to make sure that she didn't roll on the piglets, the pen was so small she couldn't actually turn around in it. She couldn't even stand up. She could only lie down and not roll over. Which was brutal. It was disgusting. In some ways, Canada is the piglet. You live next to the United States. There's so many ways in which we are inextricably connected politically, economically, socially. There's no stepping away. But at the same time, we don't have a say. Canada is a different country. Sometimes I think of it as Finland in the Soviet era. We're totally free, but we're totally free to agree, basically. If we disagree too heartily or over too sensitive an issue, then we pay a price for that.
Q: You draw attention to inequality in your new song "Trickle Down" and in your classic "Call It Democracy."
Cockburn: "Call It Democracy" came about because I was spending increasing amounts of time among people who were the victim of the world economic system. And I felt bad about it, and I think anyone in their right mind would have. Going to places like Honduras, Nicaragua, and various African countries you get to see very clearly what the cause and effect is. We finance the obnoxious elites in those countries and they exploit their people so we don't have to say that we're doing the exploiting but nevertheless we are benefiting from it.
Q: In one of your most popular songs, you write: "The trouble with normal is it always gets worse, fashionable fascism dominates the scene. The grinding devolution of the democratic dream." That's from 1981. Where are we now?
Cockburn: It's not new what we are witnessing. On the one hand, that's kind of discouraging. But on the other hand, it'll be good for especially some of my American friends who are so disappointed in the outcome of the election and so dispirited from it to remember that this is not the first time we've been up against this kind of crap. In fact, we'll never not be up against this kind of crap. You just got to keep banging away at it.
If we don't, it's only going to get worse. So at the very least we know that by resisting the powers that be, we are keeping things from getting worse than they otherwise might be. And that effort is very much worthwhile.
-- David Barsamian is the director of Alternative Radio, based in Boulder, Colorado. His most recent interview was with Studs Terkel in the November issue. His latest book is a collection of interviews from The Progressive, "Louder Than Bombs."