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Cockburn on stage in 1983. Photo by Murray Harrison

8 December 2000 -- Dutch journalist Gerard Vos interviewed Bruce Cockburn in Amsterdam in July 1999, for the music magazine Platenblad. This is the first translation of the article, "The Rage of Bruce Cockburn," into English. Translation by Arjan El Fassed. Edited by Nigel Parry.

Once he was called Canada's best kept secret, something that still seems to hold. After the powerful album The Charity of Night -- that brought him another gold disc in his own country -- there is now a worthy follow-up, Breakfast In New Orleans, Dinner In Timbuktu. Besides guest vocalist Margot Timmins (Cowboy Junkies), Lucinda Williams also performs on Cockburn's 25th album, enough reason for a talk.

It's not easy to place Bruce Cockburn (54) under one common denominator. Singer, guitar-player, songwriter and controversial Christian are some, but above all, he is a political activist. Mid-eighties Bruce Cockborn surprised friend and enemy with his If I Had a Rocket Launcher, a song based on his visit to the Guatamaltese refugee camps in Mexico.

Almost daily, helicopters flew over from Guatamala to bomb unprotected refugees. This horrible experience brought him an international hit and changed his life forever. Ever since, Cockburn has used -- more than before -- his celebrity to bring worldwide societal wrongs to the attention of a wide public.

For example, the landmine issue in Mozambique, something Princess Diana worked for. Her death was for Cockburn not a complete tragedy:

"It was a God's gift for a good purpose. It's a sick way how things work, but it made the media give the landmine problem significantly more attention. Obviously her death made a big difference for some countries' willingness to sign the (anti-landmine) convention."

With his grey hair, his student-style small glasses, and coloured clothing he has an unremarkable appearance. "A familliar face," says the bartender in a typical Amsterdam bar, thoughtfully cleaning some glasses and watching the street outside.

Responding to the question whether Breakfast In New Orleans, Dinner In Timbuktu is a return to his older work -- since he uses old rhythms -- Cockburn is straightforward:

"No. I see this album more as a sequence of The Charity of Night. That album was about the search for light in the dark. The new album is about healing. Healing of all impressions one sees and that have a major impact on you. In that way it was logical to include in the songs, elements from the past. Perhaps there was an unconscious drawing from old elements. My way of writing songs has not changed. It is an organic, almost biological urge, that comes regularly to the surface. There is the urge, but the ideas are not always there. It is a matter of waiting until there is the idea. But then two or three songs arrive in succession. Then, I often have images in my head."

"A lot of my songs are built with scenes, like movies."

He stirs his cappucino and looks thoughtful.

"For example, I wrote the song Look How Far when I was on my way to a seminar about religion and art. The idea for the song developed after a short meeting with Ani DiFranco (Canadian folk-storyteller with an own recordlabel, editor). You meet a lot of people in this busines and once in a while you become friends or you want a friendship, but most of the time there is no time for that. I realised that this frustrated feeling, that there is never enough time, I experience a hundred times per year. Accordingly, I asked myself how it would be if I had enough time. It's not literally about Ani DiFranco in Look How Far. It could also be Jonatha Brooke, T-Bone Burnett or Jackson Browne, or all those others with whom I have worked. The image of "look how far the light has come" originally stems from the magazine The Other Side, a Christian-left oriented magazine.

The author wrote about the tough reality and asked how long the light takes before it reaches earth. It is a beautiful image and I use it in a different way, but it stems from the magazine."

Bard on War

Cockburn has never been silent when there was something he didn't like. The military dictatorships in South America, Reagan's government, the stolen land of the native Americans, Cockburn takes action against everything that tastes like injustice.

The 1985 song Call It Democracy, from the album World Of Wonders, was one of the first songs that was censored by the Parents Music Recource Center lead by Tipper Gore, the senator's wife. Not because Cockburn mercilessly criticised the functioning of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and discredited it. No, because Cockburn used the word "fuck". Many hadn't noticed that, by the "dirty MF" in the chorus -- IMF / Dirty MF / Takes away everything it can get" -- Cockburn meant "dirty mother–fuckers."

On the new album the political lyrics made room for more irony. The first song "When You Give It Away" in which Cockburn sings: "Slid out of my dreams, like a baby out of the nurse's hands, onto the hard floor of day / I'd been wearing O.J.'s gloves and I couldn't get them off."

Responding to the question whether a period has begun of a less critical Bruce Cockburn he says:

"For me it's important to remain sceptical towards human institutions, whether they are religious or political. It's extremely important to pay attention to the political arena. To pay attention to what people initiate together, this is the essence of politics. Politics is as much part of life as other things. The emphasis only changes from time to time. In writing, this emphasis changes in relation to my own experiences, depending on what I'm confronted with.

Concerning songwriting, politics is less important, but this does not hold true in my daily life. I just came back from Cambodia and Vietnam in relation to the landmine issue. After all those years there are still landmines. These are ongoing issues that mean a lot to me.

When I travelled around Central America, I continuously saw the desastrous effects of the Western monetary way on people. This produced the song Call it Democracy. I wrote that song to criticise the Western exploitation, and -- on the other hand -- to excuse myself from the enormous complicity and frustration.

But that was then, I cannot continue to write the same songs. That same situation still exists, perhaps worsened".

Cockburn is animated, his face speaks of war. Has this involvement and anger cost a lot of energy?

"Yes, anger can be effective when it is focused in an effective way on a certain goal. Otherwise it's a waste of time. Some say it's no use walking around angry, but I don't share that opinion. Even though I spend a lot of time in my life being angry, it works better for me if it means something.

You only have to read the newspaper, on every page there is something which makes you angry."

About his own mindset Cockburn says:

"For me it's more important to see what anger comes to surface and to act accordingly. All those things which make you angry are also things that need healing. I always had the opinion that life is about learning and the growth in yourself. I don't feel I succeeded yet. It's an ongoing process. Sometimes nothing grows and at other times you feel it happen. This is one of those times that I feel it happen and I can say: it feels good".

Cockburn laughs. The bartender still cleans the glasses. You can see him thinking: "He definitely has a familliar face".

Gerard Vos

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This page is part of The Cockburn Project, a unique website that exists to document the work of Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Bruce Cockburn. The Project archives self-commentary by Cockburn on his songs and music, and supplements this core part of the website with news, tour dates, and other current information.