10 March 2000 -- Tom Groening has been a Bruce fan since 1979, when he "first heard Cockburn's music on college radio stations in the New York area where I was raised." Tom is a reporter for the Bangor Daily News located in Bangor, Maine (the largest daily paper north of Boston), and lives in Maine with his wife and two children, and "gets such choice assignments as interviewing and writing about Bruce."
"There are no revelations here," Tom says of his article. "I took on as my task 'explaining' Bruce to all those who maybe had heard his name, or a song or two, or maybe owned an album or two from the 70s, in the hopes that they would come to the show." For this reason, the article is an excellent introduction to the many visitors to this site who are recent fans of Cockburn.
He's had breakfast in New Orleans, and dinner in Timbuktu.
And in the year or so between those two meals, singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn has logged a few more thousand miles and soaked up another knapsack full of images, observations and feelings in what seems to be a never-ending journey.
Cockburn, who performs Tuesday night at the Camden Opera House, explains that he wrote the songs for his most recent and 25th album, "Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu," in the period between a visit to Louisiana and an extended trip to Mali, the southwestern African nation which is suffering a devastating drought. Cockburn was on hand to narrate a documentary film called River of Sand.
As with his travels to Central America, which produced his biggest-selling album Stealing Fire in 1984, the new record reflects Cockburn's own documentary, almost journalistic style of songwriting.
Speaking by telephone from Colorado last month in the first weeks of a North American tour, Cockburn reflected on the paradox of his being anything but a household name in the U.S., yet consistently filling venues of 500 to 1,500 seats here.
"I'm not a household name in Canada either," his native land, "but I've been around the scene for a long time," he says. Near constant touring, which takes him to Europe, Japan and Australia as well as across the U.S. and Canada, and the support of a manager with whom he's worked since 1970 get much of the credit for a solid following, he says.
But clearly, Cockburn inspires passionate listeners. In 1998, a half-dozen people from Waldo County were in evidence at a concert in St. John, New Brunswick, some 150 miles away. In the early 1980s, when the Blue Hill community radio station WERU-FM was raising funds through benefit concerts, a newsletter reported that some people drove nearly 200 miles to seek Cockburn at the Bangor Opera House.
Yet Cockburn confounds those who would categorize his music, and spawns a slew of adjectives hyphenated with his name that describe, but fail to convey who he is: Canadian, Christian, environmentalist, political and human rights activist, poet, among others. After playing in a seminal Canadian rock band in the late 60s, he went solo in 1970, playing mystical folk music which featured his subtle but virtuoso acoustic guitar work.
Becoming a Christian in the mid-70s, his work took on overt references to God (in songs such as "Lord of the Starfields" and "Creation Dream"), while at the same time expressing a decided leftist political bent (the lyrics to "Burn" from 1974 include: "Look away across the bay/Yankee gunboat come this way/Uncle Sam gonna save the day/Come tomorrow we all gonna pay...," which did not endear him to the Christian Right.
While sticking primarily to acoustic guitar, Cockburn surrounded himself with jazz musicians through the late 70s, then turned toward rock in the 80s. Stealing Fire yielded songs which made it to mainstream American radio, such as "If I Had a Rocket Launcher," about his visits with refugees of U.S.-backed totalitarian regimes in Central America, and "Lovers in a Dangerous Time."
In the 1990s, Cockburn returned to more confessional songs and ballads, then in 1997 released what many consider his masterpiece, the dark and bleak but powerful The Charity of Night, ranging across a landscape that includes the barrenness of middle age, a faith that is sometimes tattered, memories laced with violence and lust, and finding connections with a "young upstart" like Ani DiFranco while wandering around Birmingham in the middle of the night. The set also included "The Mines of Mozambique," a scathing protest against the use of landmines, a cause Cockburn embraced long before it became fashionable to do so.
The new album has more bounce and light in it, a fact that may relate to the strong sales it is logging. Asked about numbers, Cockburn confesses ignorance, other than to say that those associated with his record company "seem to be smiling a lot."
Pressed to make sense of his strong if small following, Cockburn says "I guess it's because people know I deliver the goods." He explains that his audience understands that his songs "come from an honest place," that his lyrics reflect his experiences without embellishment or artifice.
In interviews, Cockburn has explained the way he works. Clearly a word person, like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, his songs begin as entries in a notebook, recording his struggles to live a life of faith, the lessons of relationships gone wrong, and scenes from his travels in the third world. From these voluminous journals, some of the words are put to music.
"My songwriting is an attempt to take what I've experienced and what I think is true and distill it into something that is entertaining, then throw it out to people and say 'Maybe you can use this too,"' he said recently. "In some ways it makes me the focal point for like-minded people. They hear the songs, and all of a sudden there's a kind of community."
Cockburn is the subject of one of the longest-running music fan-based Internet e-mail lists, named Humans after his 1980 album.
One of the singles from the new album, "Last Night of the World," begins with Cockburn sipping rum and lime juice and listening to the radio at 3 a.m. The sketch includes a detail like, "Blow a fruit fly off the rim of my glass," then relates what he had done earlier in the evening, bicycling around a city. The chorus asks: "If this were the last night of the world/What would I do?/What would I do that was different/Unless it was champagne with you?"
The artist decides which words, which experiences to document in song, he continues. "You get down to whether or not it's well-expressed, assuming you like the way the artist works, then if you add in that feeling that it's coming from an honest place and that you're getting a `hit' of the artist's experience of things, then it becomes a valuable experience in your own right, beyond just sort of being entertained."
On the current tour, Cockburn is backed by a bass player and drummer, the same pair who worked with him on The Charity of Night tour. Along with a generous sampling of "Breakfast...," Cockburn has chosen some relatively obscure songs from his 200-plus collection, a process he says is easy.
"Feast of Fools" from 1978 came back to the set list in part because of the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle last year. And a fan favorite, "Dialogue with the Devil," that Cockburn had not performed in nearly 20 years, is back.
"That came around I suppose because I was ready to hear it in a new way," he explains, in particular the verse that begins: "Sitting on a mountain of ashes/Face to face with past regrets." Those words mean more to a 50-something than a 20-something, he suggests, chuckling.
Still, joy pervades many of his songs, even on an album drawn from a trip to Mali, and the apparent end of a relationship.
"Give It Away," the jaunty, riff-based tune that opens the album, starts with a spoken verse reminiscent of Beat poetry, describing wryly a hot morning in New Orleans, a city of "saints and fools," with sweating tourists and multiple-pierced teens hanging out on street corners. Then, Cockburn sings in the chorus, that it all makes some kind of sense: "I've got this thing in my heart/I must give you today/It only lives when you give it away."
Asked to account for this redemption and joy, something that sets Cockburn's music apart from much of the cynicism in popular music today, he pauses, trying to find the words.
"It's important that we all remember it's all about love, really," he says finally. "Love cuts every which way, and it's kind of the grease that makes everything work in the universe. It's the source of both angst and anguish, but great joy also. And it's as much about joy as anything."
©2000 Bangor Daily News. Article archived here.