"The whole point of writing songs is to share experiences with people", says Bruce Cockburn, looking back on a career that includes 26 albums, numerous international awards, including the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Tenco Award for Lifetime Achievement in Italy, 20 gold and platinum records in Canada, and countless concert performances since he released his first solo work in 1970. Cockburn's collected work is a journey-both moody and revelatory-into the dark night and the sweet laughter of the soul, around the world with vivid imagery and unflinching observations of human cruelty, greed, courage, and survival through faith, and back home to the peaceful forests and vibrant cities of his native Canada.
"It's the wheel going around," he says. The stuff from the '70s was a product of inward-looking exercises, and then it got very much outward directed through the 80s, and started to swing back so that you get some of both in the '90s, and by the end of the '90s, it's back to internal again, but in what I hope is a deeper way. It's not my idea that love is at the center of everything, but I believe it is, and I understand a lot more about that than I did in the '70s". Cockburn's remarkable journey plays out in the 16 songs on his new (2002) greatest hits compilation, Anything Anytime Anywhere (Singles 1979-2002).
Born in Ottawa in 1945, Cockburn set his sights on a career in music after growing up listening to Elvis records. He landed at Berklee College of Music in Boston in the early '60s, but found he was too spiritually restless to settle into studies of jazz guitar and composition, and in 1965 he moved back to Ottawa to play in a series of rock 'n' roll bands. Cockburn eventually found his voice as a songwriter drawing upon instinctive spirituality, a keen eye for detail, and a wry sense of humor. By then he had also developed a highly personal finger-picking guitar style that merged Mississippi John Hurt blues with modal jazz harmony as well as melodic lyricism and cycling rhythms that suggested an ear for Indian, Asian, and African music. Ten albums later, Cockburn moved beyond his identity as the folk muse of eastern Canada. The 1979 song Wondering Where The Lions Are was a national hit in Canada and a wake up call to the world. It reached the top 25 on the Billboard charts in America. The song blends Cockburn's sunny guitar work with reggae backing by Jamaican musicians in Toronto. Its dream-inspired lyrics about ferocious lions suddenly turned friendly grew out of a conversation Cockburn had had with an acquaintance in Canada's security establishment. A conflict was brewing between Russia and China, and his friend warned that they might wake up the next day to the end of the world. We woke up the next morning, Cockburn recalls, and it wasn't the end of the world, so that was the beginning of the song.
It was also the beginning of Cockburn's international career. A year later, in the song Tokyo, Cockburn reflects on the jarring experience of witnessing a car wreck at the end of his first Japanese tour. From the transitional album, Humans, this song finds Cockburn opening to the world, and also to new brands of rock 'n' roll, which he had shunned in the early '70s, but now returns to with open ears. Love songs like The Coldest Night Of The Year are a perennial feature of Cockburn's repertoire, but driving, orchestrated electric-guitar pieces like The Trouble With Normal, brimming with anger and outrage, mark a turning point in the early '80s, an embrace of global realities and urban sensibilities. Cockburn's electric guitar work further revives and updates his taste for rock 'n' roll, and Jon Goldsmith's keyboard work and Hugh Marsh's soaring electric violin solos also announce a boisterous new era in Cockburn's ever evolving sound.
The 1984 album Stealing Fire was a peak, the centerpiece of what Cockburn now sees as his north-south trilogy, three musically adventurous and politically engaged mid-80s albums. Stealing Fire grew out of Cockburn's travels in Central America, particularly Nicaragua. Lovers In A Dangerous Time was inspired by watching his daughter play with friends in the school yard, and contemplating the frightening world she would grow up in. It also played as a meditation on the dawning reality of AIDS. But the album's most significant song was the most painful to write. If I Had A Rocket Launcher arose from Cockburn's experience in a refugee camp just over the Mexican border from war-ravaged Guatemala. The specter of helicopters crossing that border to strafe desperate refugees awakened deep anger, and Cockburn's honest expression of that anger came very close to a call to arms.
"I wrestled with it so much before I recorded it, Cockburn says, morally, I mean. I had this song that was my truth, but it just seemed utterly shocking the idea of singing that for people, and the risk that it might incite the wrong kind of emotion in listeners seemed too big. So the learning experience there was the understanding that to not sing your truth is wrong... a kind of self-censorship." To Cockburn's surprise, Rocket Launcher received more radio play than any other song in his career, and its video became a regular on MTV. The song also deepened a growing rift with Christian organizations that had once embraced Cockburn's music. One such group had actually been funding Guatemala's murderous government and saw Stealing Fire as Cockburn's endorsement of Godless communists. "All of a sudden there was this gulf between us, recalls Cockburn. They were saying I was wrong. And I'm going, 'I' m not wrong. I went there and I saw it for myself. You guys shouldn't be doing this.' But they didn't want to hear that."
If anyone thought the Rocket Launcher experience would mellow Cockburn's anger about the victims of the world economic order, they found out otherwise when he released the rocking, raging Call It Democracy the following year. The song is as good a manifesto of the anti-globalism movement as rock 'n' roll has ever produced. But in the late '80s, Cockburn did begin to mellow. The wistful Waiting For A Miracle puts a reflective coda on his Nicaragua experiences. It was a tenet of Marxism that the human being is the crown of creation, says Cockburn, and yet here they are, the crown of creation, out there slaving in this field and worrying about whether they're going to survive this day.
Cockburn was pleased when Jerry Garcia covered Waiting For A Miracle. Over the years, artists as diverse as Barenaked Ladies, Jimmy Buffett, Anne Murray, Maria Muldaur, The Rankins, Dan Fogelberg, Holly Near, and Chet Atkins have interpreted Cockburns work, but he was particularly flattered to get the nod from Garcia. He describes the moment when the two met: [Garcia] said, 'Oh, man, that's a beautiful song. I hope I didn't get the lyrics too screwed up.' And I said, 'Well, I was actually planning to wait until the second time I met you to bring that up.' Cockburn's 1989 album Big Circumstance marks the start of a trend back to a more acoustic sound palette and more personal themes. The single If A Tree Falls puts an environmental spin on Cockburn's rage at global capitalists. Its tough, spoken-word verse and anthemic, sung refrain decry the destruction of the world's rain forests.
After that album, though, Cockburn hit a songwriting dry spell. "Part of it was the fact that all I could think of was stuff I had already done, he says. I didn't know where to go next, so I took some time off, and then I ended up writing the songs on Nothing But A Burning Light." The lead track on that album, A Dream Like Mine, is a spare distillation of Cockburn's rock and folk instincts, with lyrics inspired by a Canadian novel about a archetypal warrior figure who rises from a lake to fight for the survival of native people. Cockburn's next album, Dart To The Heart, draws on what Cockburn describes as "misadventures of the heart". The single, Listen For The Laugh, fills out his clean new sound with a punchy horn section, and celebrates the laughter of love, the most important kind, says Cockburn, somewhere between a kind of mocking Nietzschian laughter and Rumi, that heart laugh that the Sufis have.
These two early '90s albums were produced by T-Bone Burnett and recorded in Los Angeles. Cockburn learned a lot about the art of recording from Burnett, and for his 1996 album, The Charity Of Night, he decided to try his hand at producing. He recruited a band member, singer/guitarist Colin Linden-a technology wizard-to co-produce with him, and together, they created Charity and also the award-winning 1999 album Breakfast In New Orleans Dinner In Timbuktu. The songs from these albums reveal a mature, seasoned outlook on life, especially Pacing The Cage, a perfectly crafted evocation of those times when one feels confined by the life one has created. Sometimes the only way you can see getting out of it is imagining death, says Cockburn. But the simple beauty of the melody and music suggests transcendent hope, putting a poignant twist on what might otherwise seem a bleak message.
The film noir-tinged Night Train was the fruit of a night spent drinking absinthe. Cockburn says the highly alcoholic beverage is famous as having both inspired and destroyed generations of French artists, adding, I embraced the absinthe experience and it produced 'Night Train.' It also produced a horrible hangover.
In 1999's Last Night Of The World, Cockburn returns to a cherished idea, that love trumps all. He imagines himself sipping champagne with his lover on the eve of the apocalypse. Listeners interpreted the song as a comment on the then approaching millennium, but Cockburn says it's one of those songs that never goes out of style.
Anything Anytime Anywhere also includes two newly recorded songs, the title track, a lost love song reinvented with help from the Fairfield Four, and one fresh composition, My Beat, featuring guest vocals by Patty Griffin. It's about riding my bike around Montreal, and being in the moment, which is still the internal, and eternal, thing, part of that ongoing exploration of what it means to be alive.
Listeners who've missed out on Cockburn's amazing journey so far could hardly ask for a better introduction. And of course, the wheel keeps on turning, as the journey continues.
-- Banning Eyre