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14 June 2016 - Original post published in March 2011. Updated on May 26, 2016:
In the spring of 2006, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published my first book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, which was a collection of 32 “spiritual profiles” of well-known people (I won’t say “celebrities” as that label applies awkwardly to many folks in the book) who I had spent time with face-to-face talking about their spiritual lives. I then set out, as you do, promoting the book at various literary festivals and other public appearances. As part of that tour, we decided I should conduct a few of these “God Factor” interviews live before an audience. We invited Bruce Cockburn, long a favorite of mine and one of the first “celebrity” interviews I ever conducted way back when I was writing for my college newspaper. Bruce agreed to join me onstage at the Ann Arbor Book Festival in May 2006. I figured he’d fly in with his manager, do my little dog-and-pony show and fly back to Ontario. Instead, incredibly gracious and generous soul that he is, Bruce drove his van down from his home in Kingston, Ontario alone and spent a couple of days hanging out with me in the rain in Ann Arbor. Our conversation onstage was only a small part of the amazing conversations we had those few days in Michigan, but the only one for which I have an audio recording. (Our dinner at this fabulous Indian restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor — I’ve never before or since had curried okra quite as good — not far from the theater where I’d interviewed him backstage 15 years earlier, will remain one of my favorite experiences of all time.)
As for our public “interview,” it too remains one of my favorite of all time. For years I’ve meant to take a couple of hours to transcribe it and post it so all of you could read (and hear) Bruce’s thoughtful responses to my questions about his faith. I’ve sat down many times to do so, never finishing until tonite. So with my apologies for taking many years to share it with you in its fullness, I give you the Bruce Cockburn “God Factor” interview in its entirety.
Transcript of my Bruce Cockburn “God Factor” interview at the Ann Arbor Book Festival, May 13, 2006:
C: Can everybody hear us ok?
I’ve done many of these interviews before but never with an audience before, and usually we’re sitting on a couch or talking across a dinner table, but I think we’re both game. And I’m gonna grill him.
B: Here I sit, ready for the skewer.
C: Ready? Ok. Here comes the first one.
How would you describe yourself spiritually?
B: As a seeker, I think. I think that’s the simplest way to put it.
I think I suppose in some way we’re all that, or those of who think we should be are. Not everybody cares enough, I guess, about spiritual matters to identify themselves that way. But I do. And that seeking has led me through a bunch of different stuff.
I started being interested in spirituality when I was in high school. I can remember – whether it was the influence of the Beat writers I was reading, it might have been that – or some other set of circumstances that conspired to kind of get me thinking that there’s more to life than just the physical and that whatever that ‘more’ was it was something we should be paying attention to.
And that was the beginning.
I flirted with Buddhism because of the influence of the Beat writers. I moved on when the 60s came along – I sort of moved on into the occult, studied the Tarot, read a lot of old musty books about the occult take on spirituality. Eventually became a Christian and tried for a minute or two to be a fundamentalist Christian because I thought they seemed to offer the clearest definition of what being a Christian was.
And then I realized that it was, that their definition left out a lot of things because really what fundamentalism seemed to be about was drawing lines around things that were uncomfortable when they didn’t have lines. And I wasn’t comfortable with that kind of comfort.(laughter)
So it kind of went on from there. Since then I’ve fallen under the influence of Sufi writers of Hindu teachings through Yoga studies and various other things. And the search continues.
C: Were you raised with any kind of traditional religious upbringing?
B: I was raised going to Sunday school, with the obligation to wear grey flannels on Sunday mornings, which was horrible.
C: What flavor?
B: It was what is called the United Church in Canada, which is different from the one in the United States. Its’ an amalgam of Methodist and Presbyterian. Socially the United Church in Canada has a history of kind of a liberal, of social engagement. It’s one of the least attended churches in existence, although when I was a kid that wasn’t true. All of the churches had bigger attendance than they do now.
My parents are agnostics and the only reason we went to Sunday school was that, well, my great aunt would be unhappy and the neighbors would talk. This was the 50s. You don’t buck the system in the 50s. We did what we were supposed to do. And that basically was kind of clear from the beginning that that was what we were doing. Because my parents would go to church from time to time but we didn’t hear any talk of religion in the home at all.
We got a little bit in school. We had to say the Lord’s Prayer. I remember the first time I encountered that. For some reason, we moved half way through kindergarten, and in the first half of kindergarten they weren’t saying the Lord’s Prayer — I don’t really know what that was about because it was pretty normal, as I later learned. But the next kindergarten I went to, you said this prayer in the morning and I’d never heard it before.
So I’m mumbling away, ‘Our Father, which art in heaven, HELL would by thy name,’ which I thought, ‘What the hell does that mean?’ Whoah. Weird. Psychedelic, if I had known that word back then. But anyway…
C: Do you recall what your first idea of God was?
B: Oh I think, I’m not sure how much this has been colored with hindsight, but I think it was probably sort of the charismatic old man with a big beard hanging out up in the sky. I think that’s probably the image I had of God as a kid.
But I also learned to love books really young and I learned that from my father who at that time, especially – he’s not that much of a reader as he was then – but he was a big reader and introduced me to Greek mythology, for instance, really early and it captivated me completely. Which I mixed up with Greek history – ancient history – as well so that my sense of the past was tied up with gods and heroes as much as it was with battles and modes of dress and stuff like that – buildings whose traces can still be found around. But there was a period when I was really young that I wanted to be an archeologist until I found out how much kind of boring work that involved.
So, my sense of God had to have also been affected by pictures in my mind of Zeus and Thor and the other ancient gods.
C: What do you think God is now?
B: Um…I like the Kabalistic view of God as ‘the boundless,’ which is basically a way of saying, I think, that there’s no image that applies at all and there’s no limits and every image that you could possibly think of is going to have limitations. Dealing with the boundless – I can kind of relate to that.
But I don’t know. It all remains to be seen.
If you think of psychology, if you think of Jung or Freud and the Jungian archetypes that exist in our beings in that worldview, those have a divine aspect or offer a connection to the divine. And those are clearly images – the animus, the anima, the principles that we, in my dreams anyway, they show up as people – sometimes really screwball people.
I remember – and this< I’m sure it was God – but a dream I had a few years ago: I opened the door of my house, which was in the country looking over nice fields – and there’s this old man in a suit, a yellow three-piece suit with a straw fedora and a cane and walking up my driveway. And he walks right up to my front door and I open the screen door and I’m excited to see him – he’s an old black man – and I said, ‘Hi! Welcome!’ and he looked and me and went, ‘Putain!’ which, for those of you who aren’t familiar with that, it’s the French word for ‘whore.’(laughter)
Oh, OK. Clearly this man is telling me something.
I think he was kind of telling me stop fooling around with vague concepts and an intellectual kind of involvement and get down to trying to feel that kind of visceral contact.
So that’s what I currently work on.
C: Now, you said you became a Christian at some point. Can you talk about how that happened?
B: Yeah, I married a Christian. At the time we talked about spirituality but we really didn’t get down to religion too much. But over the first couple of years we were together, we talked a lot about that stuff.
She had grown up in a very freethinking household. Her father was a scientist. They were spiritually aware people but very disinclined to kind of attach any kind of imagery to things. And by way of adolescent rebellion, she had sort of run off and become a Baptist.(laughter)
Kids have to separate themselves from their parents in some way and that was hers.
So we got into discussions about Christianity – she had abandoned that course after realizing that the people she had been with were very narrow-minded. They were glad to sign her up but they weren’t so good at dealing with being human.
We’re not married any more and we haven’t been for a very long time, but she remains a friend and she is a very psychic person with a lot of insight and she would have experiences that she couldn’t talk about with these people because it sounded demonic to them. So she left that.
But what she persuaded in getting me to do was to look at the Bible as something other than the chronicle of horrors that I had previously seen it as. We used to look in the Bible for the juicy bits, ya know? The guy stabbing his dagger into the king’s belly until the fat closed over his fist – that was a good one. And bits of the woman who was killed because she saved her husband’s life by grabbing his antagonist’s genitals. But because she’d touched a guy’s genitals, she had to be killed.
Ya know you find this – this is what I knew about the Bible as a teenager.
But, Kitty showed me St. Paul’s – whichever one of Paul’s letters that talks about loves – and one of the great things about the letters of St. Paul is that the guy – there is such a clear sense of him as a person in those letters. I don’t think I would have liked him very much.
C: I know I wouldn’t have…
B: But I really liked what he had to say about love. About the tongues of men and angels and that whole passage is a beautiful invitation to think more about that stuff. And that’s what Kitty offered me in terms of the Bible. So between that and reading CS Lewis and Tolkein and Charles Williams – who was another one of their cronies who wrote another amazing series of novels – almost impenetrable from a writing point of view – he was a terrible writer, but he was dealing with concepts that he seemed to have a really clear picture of – the bigger cosmos that we all inhabit and the way in which we interface with that cosmos, that are described in this series of seven novels dealing with kind of with the occult. Some of the people who are coming into these novels from the occult side are evil or represent evil and some do not. And his background seemed to, in some ways, parallel my own, some of the stuff that I’d studied before I got interested in Christianity came through in these novels clearly, and that attracted me to him.
So I came under the influence of these people and eventually I realized that I was in fact a Christian in every way except getting down on my knees and saying, identifying myself with Jesus as a person. And I did that. And then I was a Christian.
C: And here you are.
B: And here I am.
C: When we talked about spirituality once before, I don’t recall whether I asked you if you’d still call yourself a Christian, and I can’t recall what you might have answered. But would you?
B: Um, I guess I’m reluctant to not call myself a Christian because it’s been such a big part of my life. But I know that there are Christians out there who would not consider me a Christian and would probably be offended at me using that word about myself.
C: You’re in good company, Bruce.
B: I think so, actually.
But, um, so… In a certain way I do think of myself as a Christian, but I’ve learned so much from so many other sources that … and now we’re reading this very interesting book by a Canadian theologian called ‘The Pagan Christ,’ in which he deals with his own shock and dismay when he realizes that basically all of the elements of the story of Jesus as handed down to us in the Bible are present 2,000 years earlier than that in the Egyptian story of Horus, who is born of a virgin, has 12 followers, is murdered by the state in a horrible fashion and rises from the dead.
You think well…does that mean Jesus was there then as Horus? Or does that mean that it’s all metaphoric? Or something between the two? I don’t know the answer. For this particular guy, Tim Harper I think his name is, he comes to the conclusion that it is metaphoric and that’s how we should approach it and as that, for him, the stories are a source of inspiration and a model for us to approach God through. But it’s not that easy for me to make that leap if I believe his take on things.
I don’t know the answer.
I went to Jerusalem a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about this last night – Jerusalem seemed to me to be sort of a maelstrom of human spiritual hunger. It’s just this vortex. It seemed to me that there will never be peace in the vicinity of Jerusalem, partly for that reason. And it seemed, when you saw the distinctions that people went to such lengths to make between themselves as Franciscans or Armenian Orthodox or Armenian Catholic or different sects of Judaism or of Islam – they’re all there and they’re all representing themselves in their various uniforms and with their various rituals and they are terribly suspicious of each other. And you think, ‘This is as good as we get? This is a close as we get?’ Everyone has their sense of it. The thing, in a way and this is off the top of my head, but the thing that that illustrates is more than anything else the subjective nature of our relationship with the Divine.
And how important it is to remember how subjective it is and not to require other people to approach the divine in the same way. And humanity being the sort of tribal creatures that we are, we want to make these divisions. There is something instinctive in us that requires us to create tribes and to have somebody to oppose us in order to make us valid, or something. And when you see that so clearly illustrated in the confined setting of the old city of Jerusalem, it’s just – I don’t know. It was interesting. I’m still thinking. I don’t know where that’s going to take me yet.
C: There’s a debate going on in the States, and I don’t know what the conversation is like in Canada, but and I think what it boils down to is in a political construct here mostly. But what I think it really boils down to is people debating over what it really means to be a Christian. And if you are a Christian what that should mean for your politics – and I mean that in a social-justice kind of way. What do you think that means? How has that played a role in your activism?
B: Love your neighbor as yourself. It’s pretty simple – until you try to practice it.(laughter)
B: But it remains simple as a concept even if the neighbor is kind of smelly or whatever. It remains possible. And of course it also, in order to love your neighbor as yourself you have to start out first loving yourself, which is a big difficulty for a lot of people. We do the opposite. We project our self-hatred onto the neighbor and pretend that that, because it’s outside of us, we don’t have the problem. But it’s our problem.
So how do we translate that into the political arena? Well, it gets complicated when you’re dealing with issues like immigration, which is obviously a big one right now here, and a lesser issue in Canada but we kind of argue about all the same things that you guys do a year later.(laughter)
B: …And with much less at stake, normally. But um, hah hah, ya know if you look at it – there are people somewhere in the world who are starving or who are victims of war and they’re victims of a situation that they didn’t create themselves – you go, well, that’s simple. I need to help those people. How can I help those people? Well, there are all kinds of nonprofit organizations and all kinds of avenues for helping people when it’s that obvious and it’s important to take advantage of those things because there are people who are our more immediate neighbors at those nonprofits who devote their lives to making the lives of other people in the world a little better. And they deserve our support. Ok? So that’s a simple take on it.
But when it comes down to whom you vote for, it gets very dicey. I didn’t vote in the last federal election in Canada because I couldn’t stomach any of the candidates. They all looked like cheap liars to me and they still do. After the elections, we have a government that wants to be Bush-like but doesn’t have America to work with.(laughter)
So we’re saved from the worst excesses by virtue of being a country that doesn’t have any real power in the world. But the tendencies are there all the same.
C: What are you doing when you feel the most centered, or spiritually alive or something like that? Or the most authentically you?
C: It’s a pop quiz.
B: Hahahah. I don’t know if I trust feeling authentically me. Hahahah. I’m not sure what that means. There probably is a good answer to that but…
C: I can phrase it a different way: What are you doing when you feel closest to God?
B: It’s an accident and I can be doing anything.
But most often it’s in the presence of some – it can be a dream when I wake up and feel like there was something important about God in the dream, or it can be standing under a starry sky and feeling – that’s probably the most dramatic moment – or standing on a seashore at night hearing the waves, feeling the rhythm of it, feeling a part of this enormous fluid clockwork mechanism (I’m mixing metaphors horribly) but that’s how it strikes me. There’s this jigsaw thing that’s going on that’s always in motion, that’s always sparkling and once in a while I get the feeling that I’m a part of that in a conscious way. I think we’re all part of it, obviously, but most of the time I’m not thinking about that. I’m thinking about something that I think I’m supposed to think.
But when I forget what I’m supposed to be thinking, and it’s usually as I said in the presence of some kind of natural grandeur, I kind of whoah! Forget little me. This is the voice of the Real talking.
C: What about your music? If I don’t ask you about your music they’re going to …
B: In your book, Melissa Etheridge says she finds God in her music, which I really suspect. Nothing against Melissa – she’s very good – but if I were to say I find God in my music I would think, ‘You arrogant prick!’ right after.(laughter)
But, um, I don’t know. Music for me is a way of sharing experience among people. I wrote one song for God, on purpose, and that was ‘Lord of the Starfields.’ I attempted to write a biblical psalm, and it’s kind of written in the style of the psalms and it’s addressed to God, in a way, and it’s … ya know, I mean, I don’t know if God’s impressed by things like that. I suspect not really.
What impresses God, if that word can even be applied, is the raw emotion, the raw feeling behind the creation of a song like that, which was there in that case. It’s not always there in the songwriting process. The songs come out better when there is something raw and visceral going on, but sometimes that’s a little harder to access. And sometimes you feel the feelings and there are no words to frame it in, so there is no song.
C: Unless it’s in “Speechless”…
D: Well, instrumental pieces offer a different kind of thing. I hadn’t even really thought of about this – I had with other people’s music. This harks back to the previous question about where God turns up and God can turn up in the incredible harmonies, the mathematical symmetry of Bach or the more kind of strenuous outside harmonies of Bartok. I mean, there is something sublime that comes through that music sometimes. And it comes through in a non-verbal way. You can listen to Bach chorales where there are lyrics, but the lyrics are not very important to me, and as a songwriter that’s a kind of sacrilegious thing to say. But when I listen to a Bach chorale I’m listening to the music and the sublimity – if that’s a word – that comes through the music, not through my understanding of the music. That’s something I should remember with my own songs.
I had never applied that notion to my own work, but we put together a compilation of instrumental pieces that came out last fall (2005) and with a few new pieces on it, and hearing a whole album of instrumental stuff put it in a very different light for me. I realized that these pieces have something to say that’s going to be very subjective. I don’t know what another person will take from hearing those pieces. Hopefully they’ll think that some of it is beautiful and be touched in some way. But I found that whatever was happening there is something very different from what those same instrumental pieces have done on the albums that they originally came out on where they function more like counter point to a bunch of words, or relief from a bunch of words, as they case may be. Cuz I do tend to be a little word-heavy in the songs.I’m accused of that.
C: They’re always great stories.
Do you worship? And if so, how?
B: I don’t go to church. I did. In the ‘70s I did go to church pretty regularly, for the second half of the ‘70s, I guess. But then I moved from Ottawa to Toronto and I never found a church that I really felt as comfortable with and I started touring more, farther afield in the world, and ya know, I’d wind up at a Catholic church service in Italy, which is the only kind you can find there – or the only kind I could find there – and couldn’t take Communion because I’m not a Catholic and I didn’t want to compromise the priest.
I could follow the service because it was close enough to what I was familiar with – I went to an Anglican church. But anyway, I drifted away from it and I haven’t ever gone back.
But I pray from time to time. I meditate a little bit, from time to time. Which I think of as a kind of prayer, because it involves opening myself to whatever might come in. And I feel like I don’t’ think I really am able to execute this very well, but I feel like my whole life is supposed to be a prayer, that everything I do is in some way supposed to be in tune with the will of God – if the Boundless can be said to have ‘will.’
But I think it does.
C: How do you figure it out, though?
B: Well, I don’t think you figure it out. I think that trying to figure it out is what gets us into trouble all the time. But feeling it in some genuine way – and that I realize is a very loaded notion – but feeling it in some genuine way is a truer way to deal with it.
I find – something will tell me, ‘Don’t go in that store; go in that other store.’ And I’ll go in the other store and there will be someone in there that I’ll end up having an encounter with that was meaningful, whereas if I had gone in the other story it wouldn’t have been. Tiny little things like this happen all the time, if you listen. If I listen to that little voice that says, ‘Go here and not there,’ which I’m not very good at doing. But once in a while I do and it produces surprising results, frequently.
C: I have one last question I’d like to ask, and I’m sure folks here would probably like to ask you a few things themselves … I’m thinking back to something you said at the beginning when I asked you how you would describe yourself spiritually and then later you saying that you wouldn’t not call yourself a Christian but that you continue – you are a seeker and you find truth other places, at least that’s how I’m interpreting what you said. At the beginning of my book [The God Factor], it starts with a quote from my philosophy professor at Wheaton College – the only thing I remember from his 8 o’clock Introduction to Philosophy class, when he said, ‘All truth is God’s truth,’ which to me means, if it’s true – it doesn’t matter who it’s coming from – it’s really coming from God. And I was wondering if you could share with these folks a story you told me last night about Nepal and the fellow you met coming down the mountain.
B: Oh, man, yeah.
C: It’s a great story.
B: Well, I don’t know…
C: I think it’s a great story.
B: Well, I went to Nepal in 1987 on behalf of a Canadian nonprofit that does work there among other places in the Third World. I was there for five weeks traveling around and traveling almost entirely on foot, because that’s how you do it in Nepal. The last week or so we were there, on the pretext of going to the Everest region to look at Sir Edmund Hillary’s projects with the sherpa people, we went trekking, basically, in the general direction of Mt. Everest. We didn’t get there because of time considerations. But we’re going up and up and up and up these incredible mountains in this incredibly scenery in this landscape where every time you turn a corner there’s what’s called a chorten – a pile of rocks, basically, with ‘Hail to the Jewel and the lotus’ written on every rock that people have put there for centuries. They’re always at a little crossroads and the little roads or pathways are not, of course, what we think of as roads.
So we came over a mountain into a village at one point and the villagers were all away at the local market, but we could hear this bizarre music – Tibetan style music – and it was a funeral. And we kind of crashed the funeral and hung around for a while. The funeral was going on for days. This wasn’t part of the story but I’m telling it anyway: the people whose relative was being honored at the funeral had spent a year scraping up enough money to hire all of these monks and nuns to come and conduct the funeral, which was lasting three or four days of constant music and constant chanting and prayer and whatever. So this is the kind of landscape that we’re in.
We’re walking up this beautiful trail, and a party of people that became very quickly were Americans were coming down the other way. There was this old gentleman, a guy in his – older than me (I was a little younger in ’87 of course), this guy I would guess was in his maybe late 70s and he had spent his entire life in Nepal, or at least he had spent 25 or there abouts years in Nepal after he had left his job as a teacher at a seminary here, some kind of evangelical college here in the States. He boasted to me that he had taught Robert Schuller, the guy who has the Crystal Cathedral. But he was bitter. He was about to leave Nepal. He had gone on this trek up to see the Everest base camp as kind of the last thing he was doing in Nepal before leaving for good.
And he said he was so disappointed because he had spent all of this time trying to bring God to the people of Nepal. He said, ‘These people don’t want to know God.’ Well, they didn’t want to know his God. They didn’t get his God. And he didn’t get them, at all. I felt so bad for this guy. I felt sort of judgmental, I have to say, but I also felt like what a tragedy this was. This guy had been there all of these years and he hadn’t got that this whole place is steeped in Spirit and to me it was just so obvious. I don’t know what that means in the day-to-day and of course when you live in a place you become sucked in in a way that a casual observer might not be, so ya know, it’s not fair for me to judge him. But it just seemed like such a waste of that energy. Ya know?
C: Maybe it’s just not seeing God in other people?
B: Well, I think it’s the tribalism thing. I think it’s the conviction that your version of God is the only real one and – I mean, this is what we’re taught in church – everybody that doesn’t believe the way we do is condemned to a hereafter of torment. And he’s out there trying to save these people from that hereafter of torment and they’re going, ‘Well, I don’t think so. We’ve got our way of looking at these things and maybe you should take a look at it.’
The thing, too, and it’s part of the picture when you talk about Nepal and I’m sure it’s probably true in other places, proselytizing is illegal in Nepal for anyone on behalf of any faith. But it works fine for the Buddhists and the Hindus because they’re not into proselytizing anyway. And the Christians and the Muslims have a harder time in Nepal. A Catholic priest was jailed while I was there because he was caught proselytizing. That was part of the landscape that this guy had to face, too, which, of course, I didn’t have to deal with because I wasn’t there for that.
But I think it was a clear illustration, as clear as any that I’ve come across, of the problem when we try to identify God, when God becomes some kind of extension of a human construct, which the God that we grow up with – the same God with the long hair and the beard – is probably the same God that guy believed in, that God is not trustworthy. Ya know?
C: Thank you for answering my questions, Bruce, I appreciate it. If anyone has a few questions for Bruce Cockburn or for myself, I’m sure we’d be happy to answer.
AUDIENCE 1: I do. You mentioned some classical writers who are all dead – Lewis and Tolkien – are there any contemporary writers, Christian writers in particular, that you have found useful or influential for you?
B: There’s a guy named Bob Ekblad who’s a Presbyterian minister who put out his first book recently, which is called Reading the Bible with the Damned. Which is about his experience as a kind of aid worker in Central America and in his current practice of a prison ministry in Washington State, where he’s dealing with a lot of people from Central America, too. And it’s a pretty interesting take. I think he would probably consider himself an evangelical, but he’s one of the good ones.(laughter) This book, The Pagan Christ, I found very interesting. It’s a disturbing book and not a terribly great piece of literature, but definitely worth reading, I think, too.
AUDIENCE 2: I wonder how you balance being, apparently, the sincere, seeking Bruce Cockburn that everybody thinks is so cool and the public Bruce Cockburn that has to schlep his way to Ann Arbor to do a gig like this.
B: I came because I wanted to. The answer to the question is I try to keep there from being too much of a gap between those two things. I actually don’t do very much that doesn’t fit with who I think I am. Over the years I’ve learned to accommodate the music business to a greater degree than I did in the beginning. But I see that in human terms. I mean, I go to a radio station and the radio guys have their jobs that they’re doing and if I relate to them as human beings, we’re not really – it stops being the business game. As long as I’m able to do that, I don’t feel like I have to do too much of the other stuff.
It gets weird – my first taste of high-level politics, when I actually started meeting heads of state in connection with issue-related stuff of one type or another, there was kind of a heady intoxication that went with that. I thought, ‘Oh, I have power!’ The lure of power was out there. I didn’t feel like I really had it but I could get it if I played my cards right. But thank God I got over that. I realized, well, what liars these guys were and that I’d never be as good a liar as they were. So not to hold myself up as any paragon of virtue, but there are people who have skills and talents and mine isn’t that one.(laughter)
AUDIENCE 3: I wonder how you relate to reincarnation and whether that has any resonance for you.
B: ‘In my Father’s house, there are many mansions.’ Uh, it was suggested to me years and years ago that that was a reference by Jesus to reincarnation. I don’t know one way or the other, but I feel like one lifetime isn’t enough and I kind of … I guess my … I’m not sure that I hold onto this assumption the way that I would hold onto a Teddy Bear when I was a kid or something, but I kind of assume that we have more than one life. At this point in my life, I feel like death is some kind of graduation ceremony and we’re on to the next level of education after that, whatever it is. I’m not sure if we can come back in human form or whether the bundle of energy that is in us goes somewhere else, but I do feel like I have a sense that I’ve been here before and that I might be here again.
AUDIENCE 4: Cathleen I have a question for you. Would you consider yourself a seeker of the truth? You hear that term a lot. And if so, what is the truth that people are seeking?
C: Wow. I wish you’d asked Bruce that. It’s a tough one.(Bruce laughs)
Am I a seeker of truth? I certainly hope so. I’m a Christian. I use that term begrudgingly only because I suck at it.(laughter)
I’m trying to be a Christian, in the true sense of what that word means. And I guess… what is truth? Dang, with three minutes left in the hour. God, I guess? I think when people are seeking truth, I think the ultimate truth is God and so what they’re really looking for is God. And I suppose that leads to the question, ‘Well, what is God?’ And I don’t think I’m going to try to box that in. I don’t think you can box that in.
So, am I a seeker after truth? Am I a seeker after God? Yes. And that’s why I wrote the book [The God Factor]. And that’s why I do what I do for a living, which I enjoy a great deal. And that’s the way I try to live my life, and in my best moments, I think I’m kind of heading in that direction.
B: C.S. Lewis said that all it takes to be a Christian is a belief in the reality of Christ. So you can’t really suck at it.
C: Are you sure?
B: Well, he was sure, and I’m taking his word for it.
~ from Cathleen Falsani - The Long-Lost ’06 Bruce Cockburn “God Factor” Interview (with Audio)
11 May 2016 - A two hour radio interview that took place in April 2016, has been uploaded to WEFT.org.
Niecey interviews well known and respected Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn.
1 May 2016 - TORONTO, ON: Andrew Burashko's Art of Time Ensemble is presenting its tenth Songbook concert featuring Hawksley Workman and the music of Bruce Cockburn. May 13 - 14 at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Workman will perform Cockburn's protest songs in new arrangements by Canadian composers.
The program includes If I Had a Rocket Launcher (arranged by Jonathan Goldsmith) and If a Tree Falls, as well as Workman's We're Not Broken Yet from his latest record, Old Cheetah.
"I've loved Bruce Cockburn's music for a very long time and consider him one of my biggest influences," says Workman. "He is a master of the protest song, always keeping beauty and poetry front and centre. In a time where protest is stifled and muted, I thought it might be good to revisit his music."
Art of Time's songbook series, in which a vocalist selects the setlist and performs with the ensemble of classical musicians and jazz improvisers, has been led by Sarah Slean, Steven Page, and Tony award-winner Brent Carver. "I've been a fan of Hawksley's for years," says Art of Time's Artistic Director Andrew Burashko. "He's one of the best performers around; a true force of nature, and an exceptional musician."
The band backing Workman includes Order of Canada recipient Phil Dwyer on saxophone, guitarist Rob Piltch (Blood, Sweat and Tears), violinist Erika Raum (ARC Ensemble), and Andrew Burashko on piano, among others. A limited quantity of tickets are available from the Harbourfront Centre Theatre box office.
NOTES FOR EDITORS:
Hawksley Workman, singer
Andrew Burasho, piano
Phil Dwyer, saxophone
Amy Laing, cello
Joseph Phillips, bass
Rob Piltch, guitar
Erika Raum, violin
SETLIST - All Songs by Bruce Cockburn
Call it Democracy, arranged by Kevin Fox
Red Brother Red Sister, arranged by Andrew Downing
It's Going Down Slow, arranged by Jim McGrath
If a Tree Falls, arranged by Andrew Staniland
Burn, arranged by Drew Jurecka
Gavin's Woodpile, arranged by Andrew Davis
If I Had a Rocket Launcher, arranged by Jonathan Goldsmith
VENUE: Harbourfront Centre Theatre (Formerly Enwave Theatre, 231 Queen's Quay West)
DATE/TIME: May 13 - 14, 2016 8PM
TICKETS: $25 to $59, available online at artoftimeensemble.com, by phone at 416 973 4000 or in person at the Harbourfront Centre Box office.
Hawksley Workman tackles Cockburn songbook
7 March 2016 - Well it's been long overdue and a long time comin' but a new BruceCockburn.com is now live. The website has been newly constructed from the server space and on up. There are photo, video galleries and song playlists. New content will be added regularly. Please go take a look!
February 2016 - Daniel Keebler, over at the Woodpile, has put together a wonderful article, including a 2 hour audio documentary which was made in 1977.
Special Occasion presents - ON TOUR WITH BRUCE COCKBURN
A two-hour program produced for the CBC in 1977. Bill Usher documents aspects of the Circles In The Stream tour of which he was a part. Included are intimate conversations with Bruce Cockburn about himself, his music and those who listen to it.
22 February 2016 - The title of Bruce Cockburn’s memoir, now out in paperback, is Rumours of Glory. Upon reading the book, it occurred to the Cockburn enthusiast and fellow Juno-winning musician Hawksley Workman that there was too much rumour and not enough glory affixed to the standing of Cockburn. The two artists spoke to each other recently by phone, about credit due, MTV and roads worth taking.
Hawksley Workman: The passing of David Bowie got me to thinking about artists who seem supremely aware of what they’re creating for themselves and their own self-mythologizing. My sense, Bruce, is that you weren’t ever really aware of the legacy you were creating. Is that fair to say?
Bruce Cockburn: It strikes me that legacy is a very ephemeral thing. I’ve had that word thrown at me, but I don’t know. I think it’s out of my hands.
Workman: But people like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, they nurtured or fostered an image of themselves that accompanied their art. I have trouble that you’re not included in the group of names we seem to culturally deify, and that it’s because their kind of self-mythologizing wasn’t part of your landscape. Do you feel that?
Cockburn: For me, it’s always been about the music and words. But under the surface, I recognize I have an ego like everybody else. I want to be noticed. In the beginning, I was defensive about that. I didn’t want to think in those terms, and I went to great lengths to avoid acquiring an image of any sort. But then I found that I had acquired an image of somebody who was trying not to have an image. So, I couldn’t beat that one. Once you put yourself in front of the public, an image is thrust upon you – by people’s response, by the media, by some sort of natural reaction to having somebody who is up on stage seem larger than life.
Workman: I hear all that. But your compulsion to do or to go or to be seems to eclipse that of somebody who might stroke their chin and think about what move might make them cool.
Cockburn: I’d be a liar if I denied being aware of how things might look to other people. But, again, it’s out of our own control. You can make choices, and people might see you as being cool or as a jerk. I got called names for supporting the Sandinistas. You can’t take that out of the picture, but, for me, it’s always been about curiosity more than anything else. I don’t see anything as a compulsion.
Workman: After reading your memoir, the thought that came to my mind was that I’m not working hard enough.
Cockburn: I’ve been curious and I’ve had opportunities that I’ve taken advantage of. In some cases I went around looking for the opportunity, like the first trip to Central America. I tried to make that happen, and had given up on it, before it actually did happen. Once I did that, I got invitations to all sorts of interesting places. And it seemed morally appropriate as well. I don’t feel I’ve ever been a crusader of any sort. But I feel it’s good to do what you can do.
Workman: You were putting political videos and songs on MTV. You were doing things that were as punk rock or as rebellious as you could at the time. Did you understand just how unreal it was?
Cockburn: Oh, I don’t know. Most of the credit I receive for anything I’ve done has had a lot to do with [long-time manager] Bernie Finkelstein. He’s the one who knows how to get out there and get people’s attention.
Workman: I just don’t feel it’s been recognized or celebrated that you were breaking all kinds of rules.
Cockburn: I suppose people could say there was a certain amount of strategizing that I didn’t do. But I don’t feel like I’ve given anything up. People would say, especially in the U.S., “Do you think this political involvement stuff is going to hurt your career?” For one thing, I don’t think of what I do as a career. It’s just what I do. And for another thing, it doesn’t appear to have hurt it, because the most quote-popular-unquote song of all, which was If I Had a Rocket Launcher, was almost the biggest hit. Mind you, I was totally shocked it got on the radio.
Workman: Do you feel that you’ve received all the credit you deserved?
Cockburn: I’ve done what I’ve done. I didn’t go to Central America looking for song material or anything else. I went there to see what the Nicaraguan revolution looked like up close. When I got there I found myself very deeply moved by the things I was encountering. That experience changed the direction of the next couple of decades for me. Invitations came up – invitations for adventure, to Nepal, for instance. And who’s going to say no?
~ from The Globe and Mail.
17 December 2015 - On December 11 and 12 Bruce performed at the San Francisco Lighthouse Church with the Lighthouse band and singers. This was a Christmas show with many of Bruce's songs from his Christmas album, along with some other well know songs. Bruce also performed solo on some of his non-Christmas songs.
Videos, complete setlists and photos are on the December 11, 2015 and December 12, 2015 setlist archives.
16 October 2015 - WHYY video, a great piece with clips of Bruce performing and then commentary on the songs. This has a limited time online, so go watch it.
16 October 2015 - There are only 17 days left to listen to this interview BBC Scotland.
9 July 2015 - Last month, the Free Press sat down with Winnipeg Folk Festival legend Mitch Podolak and asked him to flip through a pile of archival photographs of the event he founded 41 years ago.
"We owe the Winnipeg Folk Festival in a lot of ways to Bruce (Cockburn), because people did not have any idea at all what a folk festival was — none. We knew we had Bruce and we used Bruce in a way we didn’t use anybody else.
"We said, ‘There’s a free Bruce Cockburn concert in the park,’ and 14,000 people showed up the first night to see that, and what they got was the folk festival. Thank you, Bruce."
From the article From the article Good Times, Great Music by Melissa Tait & Joe Bryska. Photo - Photo: 1975 Winnipeg Folk Festival, David Landy Collection, Archives of Manitoba.
Bruce Cockburn diehards packed the tent for hometown hero
by Aedan Helmer - Ottawa Sun
20 June 2015 - As odd pairings go, it was a doozy.
Ottawa-raised Bruce Cockburn making a celebrated return to his hometown -- tucked away in a full-to-bursting Laurier Ave. tent -- while the Philly-bred Roots crew invaded TD Ottawa Jazzfest's Main Stage, taking a Saturday night off from their house gig under the bright late-night television lights of The Tonight Show.
You could almost sense the spirit of Pete Seeger at the side of the stage, vowing to yank the plug.
But once Questlove, Blackthought and company took the stage, they left no doubt they were right where they belonged -- though some of the jazz traditionalists in the crowd may have disagreed, once their lawn chairs were evicted from prime dancing ground.
And while Tonight Show viewers are only treated to snippets around commercial breaks The Roots got to strut their stuff in front of a packed Confederation Park.
Launching into their signature The Next Movement -- with its acid jazz-infused Rhodes hook putting The Roots in a class of their own when they broke out with 1999's seminal Things Fall Apart -- the band did proceed to rock the mic with Proceed, The Fire and Mellow My Man, barely pausing to take a breath through the entire 90-minute set.
A late addition to the festival's star-studded roster -- and one that would have been circled on calendars of the young, urban crowd who might otherwise give Jazzfest a miss -- The Roots ended up bumping Bruce Cockburn to a side stage, and an earlier time slot, after he was originally announced as a Main Stage headliner.
It was a shame Cockburn's throng of fans didn't get to see him in all his glory, and while it's always a delicate dance at festivals, a wiser scheduling move may have seen the celebrated songwriter playing the Main Stage in the early evening slot, shifting Duchess and their Andrews Sisters-style torch songs to the tent.
As it was, the Laurier tent was already swelling to the seams by the time Cockburn emerged.
And so cherished is Cockburn, especially around his old stomping grounds, simply striding onstage earned his first of several standing ovations from the lucky 500 fans who crammed in to the standing room-only show.
Dressed head-to-toe in black, capped by a grey tuft and trademark round-rim glasses, Cockburn dug into his acoustic guitar on the instrumental opener Comets of Kandahar, his gruff and wonderfully strained vocals making their first appearance on The Iris of the World, both drawn from his latest studio offering, 2011's Small Source of Comfort.But as Cockburn acknowledged, the songs are "from my most recent album, which is not very recent."
"I got involved in writing a memoir, and it took up all my creative energy, so we're not here promoting an album, we're just here to play some music," he said to more applause.
He did just that, delighting his long-serving faithful with songbook staples like If I Had a Rocket Launcher, Rumours of Glory and Lovers in a Dangerous Time, with its unmistakable opening chords ringing, setting things in motion for one of the all-time great lyrical entries into the Canadian canon.
Accompanied by the excellent Roberto Occhipinti, who has won Junos of his own as a renowned bassist, and drummer Gary Craig, Cockburn shone as an instrumentalist as well as a gifted wordsmith, with his acid-laced, politically-charged lyrics propelled by some absolutely menacing guitar work.
And, this being Jazzfest, he left plenty of room for Occhipinti to explore, which he did expertly, walking the length of the upright bass or breaking out the bow for the uncharted waters.
And while Duchess were delightful, with their Andrews Sisters-inspired torch song harmonies -- which they saucily trademarked as girl-on-girl harmony -- they may have been better suited to the cozy confines of the tent, if only to allow Cockburn and company to truly stretch out on the Main Stage.
~from Ottawa Sun by Aedan Helmer. Photos by Errol McGihon/Ottawa Sun/Postmedia Network.
16 June 2015 - After spending the better part of the last three years writing a memoir, Bruce Cockburn has little desire to continue working to the kind of schedule required by a publisher.
“I’ll be happy if there are no deadlines at all,” declared the Canadian Music Hall of Famer by phone from his home in San Francisco.
“The actual writing, the sitting down and coming up with language was fun, as much fun as writing songs. I always feel like Sherlock Holmes on the trail of something: I’m tracking down the next line. that was true of the book, but the presence of deadlines made it very stressful.”
The memoir, Rumours of Glory, was published last year (accompanied by a nine-CD box set), freeing Cockburn up to get back to his first love, writing songs. He has three new tunes in the works, none of which are ready to perform, and no deadline to finish them. As is his preference.
“I went through a brief phase early on where I thought real writers write every day so I thought I should try that,” explains the 70-year-old Ottawa-born singer-songwriter-guitarist. “After about a year doing that, I ended up with about the same amount of usable stuff as if I had just waited for the good ideas so I opted for waiting for the good ideas, and it’s been that way ever since.”
It’s been four years since his last studio album, Small Source of Comfort, long enough to see further changes in the ever-shifting music landscape. Even a legend like Cockburn, known for hard-hitting topical songs like If I Had a Rocket Launcher and Lovers in a Dangerous Time, has to wonder where he fits in.
“I’m still trying to figure out how to approach coming back to being a songwriter,” he says. “I did gigs through that period so I was not completely away from the scene, but I didn’t write anything. It’s different now than it was even five years ago, and it’s moving fast. By the time I feel like I’m ready to make a CD, will I make one or will I sprinkle out a bunch of tracks online?”
In the next breath, he answers his own question: “I still think in terms of making CDs, and I know lots of other artists do, too, and not just old guys. I don’t think the medium is dead. I think that there is a place for a collection of songs, and I don’t really sympathize with the trend, which is to just put out these things one-off without any kind of background or connections.
“An album is kind of like a book, a collection of poetry, and so where that will fit in in the current scene, I don’t know if it does at all. But I’m not worried about it until I have enough songs to worry about it.”
In the meantime, there are plenty of gigs, including a hometown show at the Ottawa Jazz Festival. He’ll be playing with longtime drummer Gary Craig and a new sideman, Toronto bassist Roberto Occhipinti, who’s known for his jazz chops. “I’m hoping there will be some jamming and stuff in the set, but I won’t really know ’til we do some rehearsing,” Cockburn says, describing the jazzier configuration as a new adventure.
Another factor influencing his life these days is his three-year-old daughter, Iona, who frequently travels with her parents when Dad is on tour. Needless to say, there are no journeys planned to war zones.
“It makes for a slightly more complicated balancing act with respect to touring,” Cockburn says. “That’s the biggest single effect. It’s also harder to get time. I’m living the life of a young family man and I’m not a young family man. I’m an old family man. There are energy requirements that I manage to meet but it’s hard work sometimes.”
Except for lack of sleep, Cockburn says he’s in good health. Retirement is a long way off.
“I’ll retire when I have to. If my hands stop working or my brain stops working and I recognize it, then I’ll retire, I guess, but I don’t have any expectations of quitting voluntarily.”
At the TD Ottawa International Jazz festival
When: Saturday, June 20 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Laurier Avenue Music Stage, Marion Dewar Plaza
~ from Bruce Cockburn: Back to his musical basics by Lynn Saxberg. © Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen
15 June 2015 - CBC Cinq a Six host Nantali Indongo speaks to Bruce from his home in SF
Interview is online at http://www.cbc.ca/cinqasix/
1 June 2015 - Q You gave your memoir the same title as one of your songs, Rumours of Glory. What does that title say about your religious journey?
A I’ve certainly gone through different perspectives on the whole issue of God and Jesus and what it is to be a seeker. I think what that song is attempting to portray is the hint of God — “rumours.”
The hints are around us all the time, yet we tend not to see evidence of God’s presence as readily as it’s presented. At least I don’t. But once in a while it hits you, and this song was triggered by what’s described in the first verse. I was in New York, looking up between the buildings at the part of the sky that was visible, at dusk in winter. It was crossed by two vapour trails, and they were lit by the setting sun, which wasn’t visible because it was behind the buildings.
The streets were darkening and filling with people coming out of their jobs. It was that — the contrast between the relatively grumpy-looking crowd of people leaving work and trying to get on the subway, the grit of New York streets, and then this glorious image in the sky. It seemed like one of those hints.
As a title for the book, it’s ironic more than anything. My career has been pretty good, but is it glorious? I’m not glorious enough to be featured in the tabloids.
Q You write that the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton has influenced you. Merton embodied a spirituality of paradox, as do you. You say you’re living your life as best you can in line with the word of Christ, and yet you’re not necessarily taking that word as gospel. You say that praying in the company of others can be nurturing, and yet question the value of religious worship or affiliation.
A I see a pattern full of that contrast. It’s full of ambiguity and dichotomy and slipperiness. Just look at people in any context — it could be at a cocktail party or a worship service or a war. You’ll see all this stuff going on. There’s beauty and grace, and there’s spite and ugliness. What I see is that God’s there in that relationship. It’s for me to be open to him and receptive. That’s what I work at. A long time ago, when I was new to the game so to speak, the forms [of religion] were valuable. I still like ritual, but the ritual has to be about that relationship to God.
Q Much of this seems beyond words at all.
A I think there’s a trap inherent in taking words at face value. Sometimes that’s what you have to do, and it’s appropriate, but other times you have to read the heart of the person speaking and look past the actual words. If I hear a minister preaching, I have to try to hear past the literal words if I’m going to take him seriously. I’m not saying that the words don’t matter, because they do. But if you want to know whether or not to admit those words into yourself, you need to feel the heart of the person delivering them. It’s about the relationship with God.
Q You describe your early days in The United Church of Canada in your book, and tuning in to a sermon when you were 10 or 11 and noticing that the minister was talking about “real stuff” — “he was nailing something.”
A I was sitting there with my parents and had my pad of paper and my pencil, getting ready to occupy myself during the sermon. For some reason, that day I listened to [the minister] speak, and it really made sense to me. In this case, I don’t think I was looking past the words. I was looking at the words for the first time, and grasping that it wasn’t just a guy up there telling you to wash your hands and pray or whatever.
Another powerful experience was my acquaintance with Peter Hall, the organist at Westboro United [in Ottawa], who taught me theory and piano. He was a real mentor, helping me appreciate music and get deeper into it.
Then in the 1980s and ’90s, through my travels and connections with charitable work in various parts of the world, I was aware that the United Church was very active and very outspoken on some issues I thought were really important. The United Church has stood out as an agent for positive social change.
Q You’ve said that people who maintain a relationship with the Divine bear a special burden of healing. How do you see that call of Christ today?
A There are some obvious worldly examples. How do you exercise compassion and forgiveness to ISIS, for example? I have trouble with that. I want to kill them all, but I don’t think that’s what I’m supposed to do. That’s probably the most extreme example.
I feel like the world’s getting screwier and screwier and there’s a kind of entropy taking hold. The challenge is to respond to that increasing madness from a godly base.
It’s tricky. That one-to-one relationship with God becomes really important, although it can get off balance too. People do all kinds of horrible things thinking that God told them to do it. So you need some community around you to bounce off, to keep you moving in the right direction.
Q How do you maintain that relationship with the Divine?
A I struggle with a lack of trust, which I didn’t know back in the day. When I was a more active churchgoer, I felt like I had a pretty solid faith. But I had a conversation with a Presbyterian minister friend of mine who said, “Do you believe in an all-powerful, all-seeing God?”
I said, “Yeah, I do, but I don’t trust him. I don’t want to be available to him, because he’s going to ask me to do [things] I don’t want to do.” This is a totally wrong-headed way to think about it, but this is my default position, and I struggle with that. I’m winning, little by little — or God’s winning. It’s getting better. The period of doubt I’ve gone through has been an exercise in going deeper.
I’ve been doing Jungian-based dream work for a long time, and through it I’ve come to find myself; I’m able to feel love from God and receive it.
MJ [my wife] recently started going to a Pentecostal church, but it doesn’t conform to my previously held stereotype of a Pentecostal church. It’s full of spirit and brains and fun, a real sense of joy. I was shocked to discover this and finally let MJ persuade me to go with her. Then I got invited to play with the band. So I go now and sit in the church band as a guitar player. It’s an unfolding process.
Q You’ve had a lot of labels in your day — including psalmist and prophet.
A And some less complimentary ones!
Q Which seem to fit now?
A You know, I’m just a guy trying to live. I don’t have a convenient label for myself, but I can look with hindsight and see prophetic bits in the songs. I’ve written three songs since the book came out, and the most recent is a gospel song. So where is that going? I don’t know. Part of the job of being human is just to try to spread light, at whatever level you can do it. Songs are one level, and it’s not simple. You can spread light with dark songs, because they invite people to notice and respond to what’s around them. They are invitations to look.
Interview on Soundcloud (parts not in the above content)
This interview has been condensed and edited.
~ from United Church Observer by Mardi Tindal.
14 May 2015 - Singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn published a memoir, “Rumours of Glory,” in November, in which he writes about some of his best known songs, including “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” In this 1984 song, which was a minor hit, Cockburn — like Bob Dylan did in his classic “Masters of War” — breaks from the protest-song norm to fantasize about wreaking violence on perpetrators of evil.
Cockburn — whose current tour includes a May 17 stop at the South Orange Performing Arts Center — has spent a lot of time over the years explaining this song, which he wrote following visits to Guatemalan refugee camps in Mexico. And he does so again in “Rumours of Glory.”
In a recent interview with homegrownradionj.org (which can be heard in its entirety, below), Cockburn said the book, co-written with Greg King, includes “a lot of stuff about what was going on in Guatemala when I wrote that song.”
Continue reading this article ... http://www.njarts.net/pop-rock/bruce-cockburn-explains-songs-in-new-memoir/.
You can listen to the interview referenced above HERE
~ from New Jersey Arts.
13 May 2015 - When you’ve been writing and playing songs for 45-plus years, you have a lot of material to work with. In fact, you might have so much that you’d need to write a memoir to put it all in context.
That’s just what Bruce Cockburn, the venerable Canadian songwriter and guitarist, has done. “Rumours of Glory,” which was published late last year, recounts his long career as a musician, human rights activist, and spiritual explorer. With 31 albums and a raft of musical and humanitarian awards to his credit, Cockburn — who turns 70 May 27 — has a lot of ground to cover.
He brought copies of his book, as well as a new boxed set of CDs, to Northampton’s Iron Horse Music Hall last Friday, the first of two nights he would perform there before a sold-out house. He also brought four guitars — two six-string acoustics, a resonator guitar and a 12-string acoustic — to showcase his inventive finger-style work and the jazz, world music, blues and folk sounds he incorporates in his songs.
Cockburn is by his own admission a pretty shy, introverted person — though he’s become somewhat less so over the years — and he joked that he’d felt a little self-conscious when he’d visited Northampton’s “local bookstores” to see if they had copies of his memoir.
“My manager, Bernie, always used to tell me to visit local record stores when I was on tour and check out what they had of mine,” he said. “I never liked to do that.” He added that he’d looked as unobtrusively as possible for his book in Northampton’s stores “but I didn’t see any. But maybe they bought 100 copies and sold them all.”
Not to worry. As one woman at the packed Iron Horse called out, “We have it, and we love it!”
The crowd also loved Cockburn’s songs, which he plucked from throughout his long career: 1973’s “All the Diamonds in the World,” “Hills of Morning” from 1979, “Understanding Nothing” from 1987, and 1995’s “Pacing the Cage.” There was also the beautiful guitar piece “The End of All Rivers,” one of the tracks from his 2005 instrumental album, “Speechless.”
As good a guitarist as he is — Cockburn often lays down a thumping rhythm with his thumb and plays melodic leads with his first three fingers — he’s won much of his acclaim as a lyricist, and his songs have been covered by a wealth of artists, from Barenaked Ladies to Jimmy Buffett. Whether writing about his own spiritual explorations or the injustice he’s witnessed around the world, he brings a poetic intensity and sense of the mystical to many of his songs. He’s a Christian, he says, who has moved away from organized religion but still stresses the importance of what he calls “the divine” in his life.
Case in point: For the second song of his set, he played “Strange Waters,” which is built around slow, chiming chords and observational lyrics about a journey that could be both literal and metaphorical: “I’ve stood in airports guarded glass and chrome / Walked rifled roads and landmined loam / Seen a forest in flames right down to the road / Burned in love till I’ve seen my heart explode.”
At the Iron Horse, Cockburn’s voice sometimes strained when he approached the top of his range. Yet that lent a sense of urgency to songs like “Call It Democracy,” a full-throttle attack on the International Monetary Fund and its role in bracketing poor countries in debt: “Padded with power here they come / International loan sharks backed by the guns / Of market hungry military profiteers / Whose word is a swamp and whose brow is smeared / With the blood of the poor.”
It was one of Cockburn’s more impassioned moments during an otherwise fairly low-key set; he played the song on his 12-string guitar, giving it some added drive and volume and bringing the crowd to its feet at the end.
“I guess not a lot has changed since I wrote this,” he said about the 1985 song. “I’m not sure when the revolution is going to come.”
Then, when someone called out, “Let’s start it now,” he paused for a moment, then quipped, “I’m in danger of making a speech.”
Cockburn, born and raised primarily in Canada’s capital of Ottawa, took up the guitar in his late teens and studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston in the mid-1960s, though he left without a degree. He later played with a number of rock bands in Canada before concentrating on songwriting, releasing a series of folk-oriented albums beginning in the early 1970s.
In the 1980s, though, his music began to embrace wider influences, and he also developed a reputation as a “political” songwriter, in part from songs like “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” That 1983 tune was inspired by his visit to a camp of Guatemalan refugees on Mexico’s border, people who had fled the attacks of Guatemala’s military — many of whose leaders had been trained by the United States — during the country’s 30-year civil war. Furious about the refugees’ plight, Cockburn imagined shooting down Guatemalan helicopters that buzzed the area.
Over the years, he’s traveled to countries such as Nicaragua, Mozambique and Iraq as part of his activism, playing benefit concerts and jamming with musicians in other nations. He’s also worked with organizations such as Oxfam, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders and Friends of the Earth.
Yet in his memoir, Cockburn, who now lives in San Francisco with his second wife, says his songs “tend to be triggered by whatever is in front of me, filtered through feeling and imagination. I went looking for humanity in all its guises ... the love, the meanness, the artists, the farmers, the juntas ... the conflicts, the peace, the music. That’s why I don’t think of the things I write as ‘protest’ songs.”
Indeed, although the crowd at the Iron Horse applauded all his tunes, the ones that seemed to bring out the warmest feelings were the ones exploring the range of human emotion, from regret and sadness to wonder and faith. He had the audience singing along with the chorus of “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” a lilting folk tune about a sudden feeling of optimism that he introduced by saying, “Here’s one that came back into the repertoire recently after being out of it for a long time.” The tune, from 1979, was Cockburn’s only Top 40 U.S. single.
Though he played solo, Cockburn added unusual textures to some of his songs by activating, through a foot pedal, a pair of heavy steel chimes positioned on either side of the stage. The chimes lent a particular resonance to “The End of All Rivers,” the instrumental track, which Cockburn played with reverb, echo and digital delay on his guitar, allowing the song’s hypnotic central riff to repeat as he added a long solo over the top.
He also closed the show with two songs, “Mystery” and “Put It In Your Heart,” that speak to the power of love and beauty to offset the worst the world and humankind can show — or the problems that can bedevil a single person. On the gentle “Mystery,” which included a pretty solo, he sang “Come all you stumblers who believe love rules / Stand up and let it shine.”
As the song ended and applause rang out, one woman seemed to speak for many when she called, “I don’t want the show to end!”
~ from Music review: A life in music and words: Bruce Cockburn explores range of human emotion at Iron Horse show - by Steve Pfarrer - Gazettenet.com.
14 May 2015 - Expect to experience some old favorites when Bruce Cockburn performs Tuesday at the Sellersville Theater and Wednesday at World Café Live.
The veteran Canadian singer-songwriter hasn’t written a new song in three years. During that period, he’d been busy toiling on his memoir, which was released last autumn.
“Rumours of Glory” dropped at an immense 544 pages. “That’s more than 100 pages for each decade I’ve been a musician,” he says. “I’ve been at this for awhile.”
Cockburn, who will turn 70 at the end of the month, focused on his book and his newborn daughter. “She arrived just when I was starting this,” he says. “I don’t have as much energy as I used to have and writing a book is a lot of work.”
Fortunately, Cockburn enlisted a wordsmith — Northern California journalist Greg King — to aid in the project. “I needed a second brain to help organize things,” Cockburn says. “That was a huge help and it helped me focus on the content.”
He had been approached often over the last few years to write a memoir. “But it didn’t seem like there was enough of an arc to write that book,” he says. “But when Harper Collins approached me about this a few years ago, I experienced enough to sit down and write it. They said they wanted a ‘spiritual memoir.’ That sounded good.”
Cockburn tells colorful stories about coming of age in the music business. “Nobody I mentioned in the book has said anything negatively,” he says. “I’ve heard from some people who say that they recall things differently, but overall, it’s been really good in terms of feedback.”
The bard’s early years have the most impact.
He chronicles how he felt when his father destroyed a notebook of his poems when he was 14. “There was probably a lot of derivative drivel in there, but the material was also personal and precious,” Cockburn says. “What he did was intolerable, but it might have spurred me on as a songwriter.”
Speaking of songs, a companion box set, which is comprised of 117 songs and nine discs, was released by Cockburn’s True North Records last October.
“That’s some serious product between the box set and the book,” he says. “I’ve been busy.”
Cockburn doesn’t have fresh material. His last album was released in 2011 [Small Source Of Comfort], but he doesn’t want for songs. He has released 25 albums during his 45-year career as a recording artist.
“I have more than enough to put on a show when I come in,” he says. “I have so much to choose from. I’m thrilled to have completed the book and I can focus on songwriting. I probably have enough for 500 more pages of memoir, but I think I’ll stick with being a musician. It’s a lot easier for me to write songs than a book, but it was a great project.”
Cockburn is very popular in Canada, but he’s a cult hero in the States. His clever folk-rock has its audience, but he’s not a household name like he is in the Great White North.
“That’s fine — that’s something I can’t control,” he says. “I just go about my business and I’m thrilled to be doing what I’m doing.”
Cockburn is enjoying his second act as a parent and citizen. He has moved with his wife and daughter to San Francisco.
“It’s great here,” he says. “I miss the grittiness of New York, but I can’t imagine raising a child there. She is going to love being brought up San Francisco.”
Bruce Cockburn appears Tuesday at the Sellersville Theater, 24 W. Temple Ave., Sellersville. Show time: 8 p.m. Tickets: $35 and $50. Information: 215-257-5808. [Tour Dates]
Cockburn appears Wednesday at World Café Live, 3025 Walnut St., Philadelphia. Show time: 8 p.m. Tickets: $34.50. Information: 215-222-1400. [Tour Dates]
~ from Bucks County Courier Times - Bruce Cockburn can pick and choose from a vast portfolio - By Ed Condran Correspondent.
1 May 2015 - “I honour nonviolence as a way of being, and as a political tactic, but I am not a pacifist. As we continue to watch the world’s greatest military powers plunder weaker states and people as an integral, almost pro forma method of planetary domination, it’s clear that a violent response to such injustice, and carnage, would be useless and ever more destructive. But that’s easy for me to say as I sit on my peaceful deck in my peaceful city in my relatively peaceful country.”
So writes the gifted Canadian singer, songwriter and guitarist Bruce Cockburn in his recent memoir, “Rumours of Glory.” An intrepid world traveler and human rights activist, he has journeyed to dangerous war zones and scenes of hideous human travail. In 1983, under the auspices of Oxfam, Cockburn went to southern Mexico to observe the living conditions of impoverished Guatemalan citizens who had fled to refugee camps near the Guatemalan border.
Cockburn was shocked by the stench and destitution. The displaced had fled the murderous policies of their country’s regime, its brutal soldiers trained and funded by the United States. “The Guatemalan military wasn’t content to simply torture and slaughter and destroy villages where they were. They continued to harass the survivors, crossing the border into Mexico and attacking the refugee camps, strafing from helicopters, now and then dragging people off to the jungle and hacking them to pieces with machetes.”
Cockburn wrote “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” in response. The final verse of this powerful song highlighted his outrage: “I want to raise every voice — at least I’ve got to try. Every time I think about it, water rises to my eyes.”
Cockburn grew up in a comfortable middle class family in Ottawa. His family’s dynamic tended to stifle emotional communication. To this day, Cockburn is inclined to introversion and solitude, a self-titled “emotionally cloistered chameleon.” This internal orientation and frequent traveling has contributed to a string of broken marriages and relationships.
Early in life, he expressed a passion for music. He had little interest in the rest of academia. For a time in the mid 1960s Cockburn was a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. The city then was a center of the folk music scene. Cockburn left Boston before he obtained his degree, returning to Canada to pursue music in his own way and immerse himself in the Canadian music scene: “Here’s the door. There’s the cliff. Go through. Jump. Just don’t forget your guitar,” he writes.
Cockburn writes of his interest in spirituality. His first wife inspired him to revisit the deeper dimensions of Christianity, though he remains “leery of the dogma and doctrine that so many have attached to Christianity as well as to most other religions.” Cockburn’s attraction to things spiritual and mystical surely influences his laid back and critical approach to the venal side of the music industry. “Commerce, in an era when the market has become god, can derail our quest for the Divine.” Cockburn admits his perspective has sometimes driven his manager, Bernie Finkelstein, to distraction, yet their partnership has endured for decades.
Cockburn’s political consciousness came about gradually. He was becoming more aware of greedy corporations wreaking ecological devastation in his native country. Mercury contamination especially stirred his sense of urgency, as it combined environmental destruction with the deepening economic horrors overwhelming the world’s poor.
Around the globe, Cockburn has witnessed manifold aspects of planetary crisis. While concerned individuals and organizations of goodwill remain hopeful harbingers of positive change, the sheer magnitude of natural resource erosion and social dislocation is daunting. Too many in the developed world remain indifferent or oblivious. Referring to his song “The Trouble with Normal” Cockburn writes: “Each sliding step down this road brings cries of warning and expressions of dismay. Each new skid downward leaves the previous one seeming acceptable after all. That, indeed, is the trouble with ‘normal.’”
Cockburn has championed the effort to rid the world of land mines, which are still in many countries: Egypt, Iraq, Mozambique and Cambodia to name a few. “At least 60 million are still buried across the globe, including a staggering 23 million in Egypt alone (more than any other nation), alongside unexploded ordnance left from World War II, disallowing use of huge regions in the north and east of the country,” he wrote.
Wherever he finds himself in the Third World, Cockburn jams with local musicians. These encounters can open new musical horizons.
His book is an honest and compelling memoir. Those unacquainted with Cockburn’s substantial oeuvre can find plenty of songs and performances on YouTube. The book and his music taken together present Cockburn as an indisputably accomplished artist and also one of the great humanitarians of our troubled time.
~from Streetroots.org. Reprinted from Street Roots’ sister paper Real Change News, Seattle Washington.
1 May 2015 - In his new memoir, Rumours Of Glory, Bruce Cockburn shares stories from a career that began in the mid-1960s, following a stint at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. The Canadian troubadour also offers accounts of his world travels, social activism and spiritual life. There are plenty of musical memories as well, which are reinforced by a 9-CD box set of the same name, with tracks selected by Cockburn from his 31 albums to offer parallel audio accompaniment.
In your book, you describe your rather unique reaction to hearing yourself on the radio for the first time back in 1970.
I had been writing songs for a few years in a bunch of different bands. So I had these bodies of songs and I felt choked up on them. I felt that having to carry all these songs in my head was getting in the way of writing new ones. So I wanted to make a record, and in my imagination, that record would allow me to forget about those songs because they would have been there and accounted for, so I could get on to writing new ones. Of course, what I didn’t realize was that it doesn’t work like that—when you record those songs, then everyone wants you to play those songs.
On the day my album came out, I was in the Yorkville area, which was the Toronto equivalent of Haight-Asbury or the Village in New York, and was the center of the counterculture scene. This was at a time when free-form FM radio was really just taking off and all the stores in that area would listen to this particular radio station called CHUM. So I’m in a store and they were playing my music. No one knew me but I felt like I had a big finger pointing at me. It was terrifying.
So I left the store and went into a different store that had the same radio station on and they were playing the whole album. You could do that kind of thing back in those days. I felt like I would never have a sense of privacy again. It was a very excruciating experience and I felt I had to duck and hide.
While we are on the subject of hearing yourself, Bono references your song “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” in U2’s “God Part II” [“Heard a singer on the radio late last night/ Says he’s gonna kick the darkness till it bleeds daylight”]. Do you recall the context in which you first heard that? Was it obvious that he was referencing you?
I think the album was out for a year or two before I actually heard it, but it was obvious when I heard the song. I had met Bono in the late ‘80s or very early ‘90s at a Christian festival in England. We had a chat and he expressed his approval of that song at that time, but nobody ever called me to tell me that they had done it. I kind of heard it through the grapevine and eventually I did hear the album, and there it was.
Did you have any exchanges with Jerry Garcia over the years, and what was your response to hearing him perform a song of yours [“Waiting for a Miracle,” which became a Jerry Garcia Band staple in 1989 and appears on the group’s selftitled 1991 live album]?
I heard from audience members that his band was doing the song live. Then his record company applied for the mechanical licenses that are part of the process. I was very excited, so I got the album and I put it on. It was a beautiful version, musically, and it had great energy, but the lyrics were unrecognizable in places. Right after that, a Bob Dylan song came on [“Simple Twist of Fate”] and the lyrics were quite altered in Garcia’s version as well, so I felt better. I told myself: “Well, if he is doing it to everybody, then I am in good company.” [Laughs.]
Sometime that same year, the Dead were doing one of their week-long extravaganzas at Madison Square Garden. I happened to be in New York, and somebody said, “Let’s go put you together with Jerry.” So I was ushered up onto the stage behind the amps where his tent was, and Jerry came out. He was very gracious and a lovely guy. We shook hands, and he said, “Man, it’s great to meet you! That’s a beautiful song, I hope I didn’t screw up the lyrics too much!” And then I said, “Well, I was going to wait till the second time I met you to bring that up, but it’s OK you did it your own way, and I’m glad you did…”
Speaking of iconic rock guitarists, you once shared a bill with Jimi Hendrix and you nearly shared a stage with him.
I was in a band that was originally called The Flying Circus but, because of competition from another band, we changed it to Olivus. We thought the name was terribly clever and we got a job opening shows, including some big ones like Wilson Pickett, Cream and Jimi Hendrix.
The Hendrix one was in Montreal in an arena and, after the show, there was a party in which all the participants were invited to a studio downtown. Hendrix had done an amazing show and, after a while, Mitch Mitchell came in and I got to talk to him. Then Hendrix came in and there was a stage with instruments and equipment but no one was using them. So he looked around at the people in the shadows and he said: “I don’t know what they are staring at. I want to play some music.”
Then he got up onstage and there were open jam sessions. I could have played, but I felt that I wouldn’t have anything to contribute to this jam session, so I would be better off not to reveal that to anyone present. I listened to a little bit, then I left. It was very interesting. He had a natural vibe about him. He just seemed like a regular guy and he seemed to expect other people to act like him, too.
What is the most inspiring live performance that you have ever witnessed as an audience member?
It would be a toss-up between the first time I saw Ani DiFranco and the only time I have ever seen Laurie Anderson, for very different reasons. I saw Laurie Anderson when she was touring the Mister Heartbreak album, and that was an incredible union of art, technology, humor and thoughtfulness. Then years later, the first time I met Ani, we were both playing at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival [in 1995]. At the time, I had never listened to her music, but I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
I chose to answer in terms of pop performances, but nothing could top hearing John Coltrane on a Saturday afternoon at The Jazz Workshop in Boston in ‘64.
~ from Parting Shots: Bruce Cockburn by Dean Budnick - Relix.com
1 May 2015 - Read this Good Times.ca article online. (written late 2014)
30 April 2015 - Singer-songwriter and activist Bruce Cockburn has been a solo artist since 1969 and a recording artist since 1970. His songs include hits like “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” and “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” He is the subject of a 2013 documentary, Bruce Cockburn Pacing the Cage: The Feature Documentary, and in 2014, his book Rumours of Glory: A Memoir was published. Cockburn will play a mix of old and new songs at the Hangar Theatre on Sunday, May 3. He spoke to the Ithaca Times about music, his career, and his feelings about the state of the world.
Ithaca Times: Where are you today? Is this a Monday night off for you from playing?
Bruce Cockburn: No, I’m home in San Francisco now.
IT: My mom lived in Watsonville. I’m not crazy about Los Angeles, but I love the Bay Area.
BC: No, Northern California is way better.
IT: How long have you lived there?
BC: About six years.
IT: I always hoped I’d get to talk to you because I also play guitar and write songs, and you were very influential in showing me that I could write my own songs and not just learn other peoples’ songs.
BC: Sorry for that. [Laughs.]
IT: It was Elvis Presley that got you started playing guitar. When did you start writing your own songs?
BC: Well, it was a slow process. I got introduced to a whole lot of other music beyond that early rock n’ roll as soon as I started taking guitar lessons, basically, because my teacher wasn’t a rock n’ roll guy, he was more into a sort of very mainstream jazz. That kind of jazz that you still run across a lot here and there: I mean Les Paul and other people. So I got introduced to other kinds of music and it expanded from there. And I discovered an interest in writing music when I was still in high school. I absorbed a fair amount of theory and was eventually formally taught quite a bit of it. By the time I got out of high school, I thought I wanted to be composing music for large jazz ensembles, so I went to Berklee to study that, and it occurred to me to try and write songs even though I had great appreciation of the folk scene, especially when Dylan came along, and the Beatles and so on. They were the kind of model for the kind of songs that you could write because, growing up, I didn’t have a particular interest in writing lyrics about, uh, dating.
BC: But there were models that went a little further. So when I finally dropped out of Berklee at the end of ’65, I had become interested in writing songs then. I dropped out because I realized the jazz thing was not for me, even though I love it and still do and listen to a lot of it. I ended up applying a certain amount of what I learned at Berklee in a kind of informal way to my own songwriting. In those days, Berklee was strictly a jazz school. Now they teach you songwriting and stuff. I’m skeptical of that although I have great respect for the institution. I’m a little bit skeptical about studying songwriting and the likelihood of turning out formulaic songwriters by having a course like that. But back then it was strictly jazz; it was small and very intense. I learned a lot, but it wasn’t for me. So I guess this is just the short part of this long answer to your question. I started really thinking of myself as someone who wrote songs in ’66, when I joined a band that was doing original material.
IT: So the Beatles had been around a few years at that point.
BC: Yeah the Beatles had had almost their whole career by then, and the Rolling Stones, too. There was just a lot of good songwriting going around. There was crap, too. Atrocious songs would get on the radio that were “in the style of.” Like when so-called “protest music” became popular, partly influenced by Dylan and others, they were the real songwriters who happened to write songs that could be categorized that way, like Dylan and Phil Ochs and other people. And then there were all these posers that sort of wrote songs like that because they were popular. The style was popular. But that was in full swing in the mid-sixties. It was an encouraging atmosphere in which to work because it was like, “Everybody’s doing it, I can do it too.”
IT: It’s hard to sing a Dylan song without sounding like Dylan: his cadences, his phrasing.
BC: Yeah, he’s a very idiosyncratic singer. Although if you listen to enough old R&B, you’ll hear a tremendous amount of what Dylan did. He did it with his weird, reedy voice, but his phrasing, you hear that a lot on old R&B and blues records.
IT: In the documentary, you were using an echo box to overlap phrases on the guitar, and once I knew that you liked Elvis, I could hear a lot of [Presley’s guitarist] Scotty Moore in what you were doing.
BC: No, Scotty Moore wasn’t the original impetus to want to play guitar. He and whatever the guy’s name in the Crickets, and Richie Valens. It’s like, that’s real guitar playing, quote-unquote. That’s what I thought at the time. And it was quote-unquote real guitar playing; it just wasn’t the only real guitar playing. [Laughs.] But I’m not at all upset to be compared with Scotty Moore, that’s for sure. But there’s a few pieces where I use an echo for rhythm. It’s just an echo, it’s not a loop. But there’s a couple of songs where I do that. One instrumental piece in particular, “The End of All Rivers”, that has echo and an extremely long reverb as well, and so I can actually harmonize with myself.
IT: I’ve never been able to figure that out for myself, but I hope to someday.
BC: Well, you just set the echo tempo and then play with it. That particular song uses the lowest possible setting on my Boss echo unit. That’s all it is. I just made it as slow it could go and played with it.
IT: Since you were at Berklee, do you write your own charts when you’re making an album?
BC: In theory, although I’ve never done it. The arrangements are mostly worked by discussion and intuition more than by written parts. But technically, I do know how to do that.
IT: If you wanted to write a part for flute, you could write that.
BC: Yeah, I could do that. I haven’t generally done that, but I’ve worked with the people, whoever was producing the albums, to work on horn parts or on string parts as the case may be. When we did Life Short Call Now (2006), I got Jonathan Goldsmith to produce the album because I knew he could write really great string parts, certainly much better than what I would have come up with. (The album featured a 27-piece string section and guest appearances by Ron Sexsmith, Ani Difranco, and Hawksley Workman on backing vocals.) He produced that album, and he produced a bunch of the albums in the 80s. But in the meantime, he’s had a career writing orchestral film scores, and he’s really good at writing for strings, so that’s why I got him all through that album because I knew I wanted strings. In theory, I could write parts, but what we usually do in the studio if it’s a band is just to play the songs, and people come up with their own parts, and I’ll act as kind of editor and say, “a little more of this, a little less of that,” you know, get the feel right and then we play it. I prefer, if I’m gonna hire good people to play with me, part of it is to let them do their good thing.
IT: I first saw you playing “Wondering Where the Lions Are” on Saturday Night Live with the original cast in 1979. Most of the SNL books concentrate on the comedy and not the music. What do you remember about that experience of live American TV?
BC: Um, it was very tense. You know, we were there for an afternoon and part of an evening, and that’s all, and it was a very tense atmosphere. We didn’t really meet any people. We just—we were there, we were put in our position: “Be ready for this, and hurry and up and wait, and hurry and up and wait.” I mean, they treated us with respect, but everybody was really wrapped up in their own thing, and nobody was really interested in us. There was another band on that show, the Amazing Rhythm Aces, and that guy, the guitar player, I can’t remember his name, and I’ve met him since then [Cockburn is likely thinking of vocalist/guitarist Russell Smith], the rhythm guitar player of that band, and he was good—I quite like the band—but he tried to make conversation with me, but I was so nervous I couldn’t even talk to him. I’m sure he thought I was some kind of an asshole.
IT: They had a great lead-rhythm guitar guy, Duncan Cameron.
BC: Yeah, they were a good band. “Third Rate Romance” was a hit. It was a good record, like a bunch of Memphis soulful white guys.
IT: I was driving in Oklahoma at night in early 1985 when I first heard “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” and I had to pull the car over and just listen. I really like the guitar sound you had on that record [Stealing Fire].
BC: Thanks. What was on that? It was probably a Strat.
IT: There’s a certain icy, angular “stereo chorus” shimmer in the mid-80s, especially the Police, and that song and stuff like "Lovers in a Dangerous Time" and "Making Contact" and "Peggy's Kitchen Wall" really had that sound. I always think of the Police, who I love.
BC: They were good. I saw them live once, early on, around the time of their second album.
IT: A friend of mine wanted me to ask: Do you, Bruce Cockburn, still wish you had a rocket launcher?
BC: Well, I didn’t really wish it then, either. I was just telling people how it feels being exposed to this stuff. It wasn’t so much a wish as it was to say, this is how I feel, and this is what I’ll be doing about it if I have to. If I had the means to respond to this military repression, I would have made use of this. That’s what I was really saying. If that’s still true, it might be, I’m not sure. But I’ve been in a lot of war zones, but I’m not interested in war in that kind of way. But I don’t think I’ve ever been that anxious to fire on anybody.
IT: Tell me about the war zones.
BC: For work, I tour in the United States and to a lesser extent in Europe. But I’ve traveled. I’ve traveled in Japan, I’ve traveled in New Zealand, that kind of thing. The trip that produced “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” that had nothing to do with touring. It was loosely described as a “fact finding mission”; those trips are really about helping getting work for various kinds of agencies in the Third World. In this case, it was Oxfam Canada that sent me down to Africa. But since that time, I’ve been involved in various other trips. I went to Central America four or five times in the ‘80s, and Africa and Nepal once in the ‘80s. Later on, I’ve been involved with a campaign to ban land mines; in connection with that, I went back to Mozambique and Vietnam and Cambodia. In the meantime, somewhere in there, we went and played Kosovo. I spent a week in Baghdad in 2004 and a week in Afghanistan in 2010, I think. There was another trip back to Nepal at the very end of their civil war. So when I say I’ve been in a bunch of war zones, that’s what I mean. But I haven’t gone to any of those places except in conjunction with either charitable work of some kind, or in the case of Afghanistan, I went because I could, basically, because I could go sing for the Canadian troops, and my brother happened to be one of the Canadian troops, so that made it nice to go there. It was a different kind of trip, though.
IT: What do you with your down time when you’re not performing?
BC: Well, lately I have a three-year-old, so when I’m not touring, I’m dealing with baby stuff.
IT: Is this your first child?
BC: No, I’ve got a grown-up daughter who’s got four children of her own.
IT: In the documentary, you say, “We’re f***ed”.” Do you still feel that way? Of course, that was the year of the financial meltdown.
BC: It had nothing to do with the financial crisis. No, I don’t feel better about it, actually. If I want to go there—I don’t spend all my time thinking about it—but If I go there, I don’t feel good. I feel like the world’s in a very precarious position. I don’t think it’s hopeless, because there’s always room for someone to come up with something. But I don’t see much evidence that the people in a position to make decisions about the way the world goes are doing anything about anything, other than money. They’re very interested in that, but they’re not fixing any of the damage that we’ve done, and there’s the whole philosophy of perpetual warfare; what kind of crap is that? But that’s America these days. I’m not very hopeful about it, but I’m hopeful enough to have a kid. But I’m worried about what kind of world she’s going to grow up into.
Cockburn to Visit the Hanger by Bryan VanCampen - Ithaca.com.
15 April 2015 - In our current issue, Andy Whitman interviews legendary Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn, who is this year’s recipient of Image’s Levertov Award and will play a live concert on April 23, 2015 at 8:00 p.m. Read the full interview in issue 84.
Image: The late seventies and early eighties were a time of profound change for you. Looking back on that transformation, what advice would this newly enlightened Bruce Cockburn offer to the old Bruce Cockburn? And, turning it around, what cautions would the old Bruce Cockburn offer to the new Bruce Cockburn?
BC: The new Bruce Cockburn would say, "Lighten up," and the old Bruce Cockburn would say, "How?" That’s the gist of the inner battle that was taking place.
I had a conversation at one point with an artist in Toronto whose studio space we were using. We were shooting a video, I think. We were chatting, and he said something like, "Having fun is what it’s all about, after all." And I just looked at him like, "What?" "Well, isn't it?" he said. And this other guy with a heavy German accent said, "We're supposed to be having fun."
It had never occurred to me that anything was supposed to be about having fun, other than very specific things like watching a movie. At the time, my conclusion was that this was a worldview that this guy had embraced. And my worldview was about duty. It was not about fun at all; it was about doing what you were supposed to do. If I stepped back from the idea of duty, from the perhaps neurotic or unduly Victorian element of it, for me, life was ultimately about doing the next appropriate thing. Whether I thought of it is as duty or embracing the possibilities, appropriateness had a lot to do with it.
But being hung up on duty can interfere with your appreciation of the appropriateness of something that comes up spontaneously, and that would be a caution that the new Bruce would offer the old Bruce. The old Bruce would say, "It’s all about doing what you’re supposed to do. There's a job to be done, and the job is to be the right kind of human being. People who have no moral base, or who don’t have one that I can see easily, are wasting their energy and time and pissing away their God-given talents and souls on having fun." The new Bruce would say, "Yeah, but they've got something you don't. They're open to others and they can hear each other, and you're not, and you can't."
It wasn't black and white. The old Bruce could be open to and hear a lot of things, but a lot of life felt so heavy, and I simply stopped feeling as heavy when I started seeing things differently. The big change wasn't so much the embrace of other people, although that did have a huge effect, but the fact that God basically said it was okay to get divorced, that it was okay to break a promise made in his name and in his presence. It was okay, don’t worry about it. That was the big earth-shaker. From there, I started to think that some other ideas I had about how things were supposed to be needed to be looked at, too. And sure enough, a lot of us worry about a lot of things we don't have to worry about. I’m not arguing in favor of a hedonistic, devil-may-care lifestyle, but there is enough real stuff to worry about without burdening yourself with details—although it varies from person to person.
I got kind of intoxicated, I suppose, with this sense of freedom, and I am still working on that. I have so much baggage that keeps me from being as free as I think God would like me to be, and I am still struggling with that. But big doors were opened back then, and every now and then they still are.
Image: I love many parts of your story, but I will confess that’s my favorite part. I think that the notion of finding solidarity in a community of stumblers and screw-ups is one that is very freeing.
BC: It was such a relief, you know. To find solidarity of any sort is a big relief, especially when it seems to be so deeply rooted in such reality. You can find something to share with people on all kinds of levels—sports, or what kind of whiskey you like to drink, or whatever—but sharing a communal understanding that people are broken, and fully capable of loving and being loved anyway, made a huge difference.
I had a dream much later, maybe ten years ago, where I was looking for directions in a town I didn't know, and I had taken a shortcut through an alleyway. The alleyway led to a courtyard, and the courtyard was full of beautiful young people milling around in the moonlight, having some sort of event. An older guy came up to me and asked, "Can I help you?" And while we were talking a strikingly beautiful young woman, kind of punkish and tall, walked by me, and when she turned, one side of her face looked like those World War I trench victims with half their faces blown away. It was shocking, but then I realized that everybody in the place was like that in one way or another. They were all damaged and trashed and beautiful, and I can't remember whether the older man said this to me or whether I just understood it, but somehow I came to understand that it's the scars that bind us. This is what binds us to the people in ISIS, to our enemies, to everything. It's what every human has in common, regardless of ideology or lifestyle or clothing style or anything else. We've all got these wounds. I suppose the wounds of Christ are archetypes for these wounds. It’s in our woundedness that we have our connection point.
Now, I suppose you can imagine a roomful of people sitting around and saying, "I'm fucked up this way or that way," and others saying, "No, you’re not." You can make something horrible out of that, too. But in this case it was such a revelation. You don't have to be perfect to get along with people. In fact, nobody ever is. Anybody who claims to be is as wounded as everyone else and their wounds are making them say that.
~excerpt from Image Journal. Purchase magazine for full interview Issue 84.
26 January 2015 - At four p.m., Canadian singer-songwriter legend Bruce Cockburn strides into the hotel lobby in his signature black Doc Martens and shakes my hand warmly. At age 70, he is slighter than he appears in his old music videos. He’s here to talk with me about his spiritual memoir Rumours of Glory. The book narrates his journey of faith and activism, explaining the stories behind his songs and his choices.
We take the elevator to a business lounge, a cozy gold-tinted room outfitted with two computers and nearly-trendy transparent plastic chairs. Despite his big name and stack of music awards, the setting seems luxurious, since Cockburn’s international activism has been far from first-class; he’s been to war zones in Mozambique, Guatemala, Honduras, and Iraq, where set up camp amongst refugees and in decrepit hostels.
“Writing the book was like writing a song,” Cockburn says as we each take a seat in our respective plastic chairs. “I feel like a bloodhound sniffing out a trail and sensing that there’s something there to discover.”
And in essence, Rumours of Glory is just that: its pages mirror Cockburn’s songwriting. Part personal narrative, part social commentary, part didactic, the memoir allows the audience to learn by posing questions.
When I read the book, I tell him, I was so fascinated by the history of the issues and places he unearths; the logical next step was to explore them for myself.
As I say this, he chuckles. “I’m certainly not the only one who’s mentioned those things, but the invitation is out there,” Cockburn says. Wryly, he smirks. “I guess it’s proof it’s the same guy writing.”
Originally, Cockburn says he was going to arrange the book in vignettes, with various scenes that add up to a whole. It was his co-writer Greg King’s idea to arrange it chronologically; Cockburn says King urged him to put in a lot more of the political background that drives the book. When HarperCollins asked for a spiritual memoir, Cockburn says he hadn’t considered pairing it with so much of the political tensions that have driven his travels. But it makes sense that the two twine together, just as they do in his songs.
In high school, Cockburn discovered his grandmother’s guitar in his attic. He was then inspired to become a musician, and was eventually initiated into the Ottawa music scene in the mid-1960s. Cockburn played with a number of outfits, even opening for the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1968, until he decided to pursue a solo career.
In the 1980s he started to pursue international activism; his songwriting became infused with deep concerns for human rights, the environment, and faith. During this time he spent a good deal of his shows explaining his songs to the audience. “Specifically, it was the song ‘If I Had a Rocket Launcher,’” he interjects as I mention the time period. “When I first came up with the song I felt it could be so easily misconstrued; I didn’t want people to take it wrong and think I was telling them to go down and kill Guatemalan soldiers. I wanted to make sure people got it right.”
I ask him whether he still finds himself needing to explain those stories. “Not very often, and not very much,” he says. “I think I’ve said enough in print about it, and now there’s the definitive version in the book,” he says. “So I’ll tell people to read that!”
One of the strongest themes in Rumours of Glory is his dismay at social elites who ignore alarming truths about systemic violence. He uses the example of The Washington Wives’ self-appointed censorship that prevented Cockburn’s songs about poverty and injustice from being aired. All because of a single profanity in “Call It Democracy.” Ironically, this line accused social elites for being calloused towards the marginalized.
Though he weaves stories from all areas of life into both his book and his song lyrics, Cockburn has been adept at keeping his personal life out of the spotlight of the press. “The memoir ends before my second daughter was born,” he says. “And that’s a start of a whole new story, which would have taken another 200 pages and taken us past the publisher’s deadline!”
He pauses. “If anything, it’s a set-up for volume two, just in case I ever forget how bad it was writing one book, or, more to the point, if my wife ever forgets; she thought the book was ruining my life.”
The memoir closes with a recognizably spiritual afterword on the responsibility of all people to nurture a relationship with the divine, and to practice healing of our world. From the language Cockburn uses, some readers may come away with a sense that he has undermined the singularity of the Christian faith by preaching universalism.
When I ask him about it, he is pleased to elaborate. “I’ve flirted with so many tribes over the years. A lot of people’s lives have converged with mine for a time,” he says. “You can get picky about other religions — take Shinto, for example — and call them all superstition. Or you can honour the profound things that are expressed through that belief system. And you can walk away thinking, ‘I could learn something from these people,’” says Cockburn.
“I don’t claim to be an authority on anything, and I really don’t think anyone should be claiming to be an authority on anything.”
Cockburn says he is grieved by the deep scars that have been inflicted upon humanity when people dig their heels into exclusive claims to truth. We witness it, he says, in the inability of “a significant portion of the right-wing Christian community” to see that they are of the same persuasion as those they call radical in the Middle East.
“Above all, you can’t go around killing people because they don’t agree with you. We need to pull the plank out of our own eye and our own psyche before we try to fix someone else’s wiring,” he says.
“When I look around at the mystical traditions, filled with people who have been reticent to share their knowledge, nowadays they are just throwing it out there. Maybe it’s an impulse from God encouraging us to get together, to love each other, to love the planet, and see miracles happen,” says Cockburn.
He speaks with the experience of age, where little is shocking, and yet he does so without much cynicism. I see the hope instilled in him by good gifts that cause him to wonder: his daughter, his friends, and his faith.
I can’t help but think that the world needs a few more Bruce Cockburns, keeping us wide-eyed enough to stop destroying the world, one another, and ourselves. Around us is a world filled with violence because we refuse to really see and hear people who are different.
Because, like Cockburn, we need to be lovers in a dangerous time.
~ from Converge Magazine.