3 June 2010
by Greg Quill - The Toronto Star - Singer-songer-activist Bruce Cockburn is the focus of Luminato's all-star Canadian Songbook tribute Wednesday night at Massey Hall. He'll be the first honouree to take part in the proceedings.
Being the focus of Luminatoís all-star Canadian Songbook tribute on June 16 at Massey Hall makes Bruce Cockburn a little uneasy.
Itís not that he feels undeserving. After 40 years in the music business, more than 25 albums, and a load of profoundly affecting, politically and spiritually charged hits to his credit, the 65-year-old composer and virtuoso guitarist knows it would be disingenuous to claim he doesnít have a place in the festivalís pantheon of great Canadian songwriters, along with previously celebrated peers Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young.
Itís just that he doesnít like being singled out, even though heíll be sharing the stage with musical friends and admirers ó including a killer house band under the direction of Canadian roots music veteran Colin Linden.
"Itís odd to be the centre of that kind of attention," he said on the phone earlier this week from Battle Mountain, Nevada. He was taking a break on a solo, cross-continental drive from California, where heíd spent a few days clearing his head.
"Itís the same reaction I had in high school whenever a teacher called my name: ĎWho, me?í
"Prizes and tributes arenít part of songwriting activity. I never think about them. My focus is on words and music and whether I can sing the notes and communicate with people."
Just who is participating in the event was also kept under pretty tight wraps till late this week when we spoke, even Cockburn was in the dark about the final bill, and whoís performing which of his songs.
The official list of performers, now confirmed, includes Amelia Curran, Barenaked Ladies, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Buck 65, Hawksley Workman, Jason Fowler, Michael Occhipinti, Sylvia Tyson and The Wailiní Jennys.
"Iíve had no hand in the planning," Cockburn said. "Iíve been kept aware of how itís shaping up. I think itís neat that people want to do it."
He does know that heís the first honouree in the Canadian Songbook series to take part in the proceedings.
"Iíve got to work," he said. "I think Iíll have a small spot of my own, and I expect to perform with others, just no idea of the structure. If I had a say in things, it would be to have Barenaked Ladies do ĎCall It Democracy.í "
With a new album due and a book deal with Harper Collins freshly sealed ó a memoir the songwriter said heís terrified of beginning, because "I have to make hard decisions about what to include of other peopleís lives, and I want to keep some of my friends" ó Cockburn may have settled in the stately age of artistic life, but heís still as passionate about exposing human greed and political corruption as ever was.
He gets his kicks on the road, driving long distances alone.
"Itís an obsession that may not be sustainable forever, but for now my carbon footprint in a car is not the same as if I flew everywhere," he said. "I love the peace of the road, especially in the West. I got infected by Kerouacís On The Road in high school. It was like a whack in the forehead, that headlong sense of motion was completely captivating."
Though his latest songs explore the spiritual side of his consciousness ó "but without a particular capital-letter methodology involved," he said ó itís his enduring humanity, outspokenness and activism that have drawn Cockburnís largest audiences over the past four decades.
And keeping abreast of the burning issues that fuel his best songs ó environmental destruction, land mines, financial and political skulduggery, military thuggery, First Nationsí rights, the dilution of democracy ó is easier now for an artist and observer who has become something of a champion of the oppressed and dispossessed.
"Iím one of the few who actually reads the charitable stuff that comes through the mail," he said. "Sometimes itís really interesting. Itís information from a different prospective, with more detail. I get a steady flow of that information now from various sources. Itís just living in the world, looking around, examining what I feel.
"Ongoing involvement in certain causes, like land mines, involves the absorption of knowledge, as well as travel and public speaking.
"But on a songwriting level, itís all about emotion."
He doesnít feel the need to immerse himself in the details of every complex issue he tackles, he added. But it helps to be prepared ó in more ways than one.
"Itís important to know what youíre talking about. Itís sometimes possible to carry it off emotionally without a deep knowledge of the topic, but itís better to have something to back up your opinions, because a lot of people want to talk about what theyíve just heard you play.
"Iíd like to think the songs are truthful, and that means being aware of both sides of the issue."
His political transparency sparks debate in the unlikeliest circumstances.
"People get in my face very rarely these days, but it does happen now and then," Cockburn admitted. "Sometimes they have good things to say, and sometimes their timing is really off, so I never get to find out.
"A while back I was at the Horseshoe, listening to some friends play, and a guy behind me started talking politics. I was polite for a while, then I gave him the brush-off. He got angry and yelled, ĎI think you should stand behind what you say!í
"I was just trying to listen to the music, and he didnít get it. In another context, it might have been a really good conversation. Bad timing Ė that happens a lot."
As one of the darlings of the new 'left,' Cockburn often finds himself being scrutinized for things that have nothing to do with his music of beliefs.
"People are often critical in blogs and Internet news groups of things that have nothing to do with my songs or performance. They donít like the kind of shoes I was wearing at a particular concert, or my clothes. In my head I ask them, ĎIs that all you took away?í
"Itís part of my nature to please people, but I also have a clear idea of what Iím allowed to do as a sovereign human being. It all comes back to this: I try to make art out of what I believe to be true. The rest is bullshit."
Notoriously reticent to discuss his personal life, Cockburn finds that people are more willing to take him at face value these days.
"I donít show up so often in the media any more. As people get older they calm down. Fewer people want to pry or argue. Theyíre generally friendly. Sometimes they want to converse, or for me to sign an autograph. The thing I never get used to is that you never really know when itís going to happen, that public recognition thing."
But sometimes it works to his advantage. When he applied recently to go to Afghanistan to visit his younger brother, John, a doctor who recently enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces, the renowned anti-war activist deliberately played into the hands of military brass seeking a priceless photo opportunity.
"I was proud of my brother, and maybe a little envious," Cockburn said. "It was a shocking move on his part in the family context. Our other brother, Don, wasnít quite as taken with the idea, but John was under the influence of Romťo Dallaireís book about Rwanda, and it made him think about the army in a different way.
"He was looking for a change, and after years as an anesthesiologist in emergency rooms, he thought he could use that experience in Afghanistan. The Canadian Forces were actively recruiting doctors, so he signed up at the age of 50, and did a gentled-down version of basic training in Haiti, helping the flood victims there. I wanted to give him my support.
"In Kandahar the one song they wanted to hear from me was ĎIf I Had A Rocket Launcher,í which I willingly played, while a general walked up behind me carrying an actual weapon and the cameras were whirring and buzzing. It was certainly not in the spirit of the song at all.
"They wanted to make PR capital out of it. But they took the thing away pretty fast when my finger started moving toward the controls Ö"
Bernie Finklestein has been Bruce Cockburnís relentlessly fierce and protective mentor/manager for the Canadian songwriting legendís entire professional life. No one knows Cockburn as well as Bernie does. No one gets to hear Cockburnís songs before Bernie. And over the years, Bernie says he has been rocked, shocked and enlightened time and again by the depth and potency of Cockburnís politically charged compositions. We asked him to name five that have left the deepest impression. Hereís Bernieís list:
"If A Tree Falls" ( Big Circumstance, 1988)
All you need to know about global warming and the environment, written and recorded 22 years ago! And it was a hit as well.
"Call It Democracy" ( World Of Wonders, 1985)
Bruceís take on the international banking system and more. The first verse sums up the situation pretty well and the song gets more insightful from there. Too bad nothing has changed.
"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"
"Stolen Land" ( Waiting For A Miracle, 1987)
We were doing a benefit concert to help the Haida nation in their fight to stop the logging on the Queen Charlotte Islands, and Bruce wanted a song that would relate broadly to the situation. He nailed it. Not his only song about the Aboriginal people and their circumstance, but probably his best.
"If I Had A Rocket Launcher" ( Stealing Fire, 1984)
Written in a fit of anger and depression over what he had been witness to in Central America. We almost didnít record it, but thankfully it made it to record and people are still listening to it, still recording it. Marty Balin, ex of the Jefferson Airplane, is the latest to do it, and itís a bit like time travel ó like the Airplane in the í60s doing Bruceís song from the í80s. This song will certainly outlast me, and Iím planning to be around for a while longer.
"Slow Down Fast" ( Life Short Call Now, 2006)
I love this song. Bruce is still laying things squarely on the line. Take it or leave it but here it is:
"L ron N ron every kind of ron con
Neo-con old con got to put the brakes on
Slow down fast
Lights out veins plugged zap it with another drug
Genejacker pharma thug say hello to superbug
Slow down fast"
~ from The Toronto Star, by Greg Quill, June 3, 2010.
~ bobbi wisby