Brothers in a Dangerous Time
Folk-rock icon Bruce Cockburn may be mellower with age, but he's still as vital as ever
by Paige Aarhus

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7 October 2010 - Bruce Cockburn is an artistic warrior of the 1970s and '80s, one of Canada's first and best-known activist musicians, but these days he sounds, well... a lot mellower.

The man who first turned heads in Canadian folk music with his self-titled solo album in 1970, the first of nearly 30, still has strong political beliefs, but he's not yelling from the mountaintops anymore.

"I don't know if there's been much of a shift in my politics. The songs come as reactions to the stuff I encounter, and unfortunately that same stuff keeps repeating itself," said the 65-year-old Ottawa native.

Cockburn's been on the scene since the late 1960s, but made a name for himself with 1979's Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws, which spawned his first Billboard hit, Wondering Where the Lions Are. An appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1980 showcased Cockburn's spiffy guitar work and songwriting skills, making the Canadian upstart a hit on both sides of the border.

Though much of his early work contains subtle Christian references, Cockburn is better known for hits like Lovers in a Dangerous Time and his political activism, which expressed itself throughout the 1980s in songs like If I Had a Rocket Launcher, the result of a visit to a war-torn refugee camp in Mexico.

Since then he's travelled the world, visiting countries including Mozambique, Iraq, and most recently, Afghanistan to play for the Canadian Forces.

Though Cockburn continues to use his music and celebrity for causes like David Suzuki's Songs to Save the World, he admitted he's calmed down a little bit over the years. Speaking about his activism now, Cockburn sounds neither angry nor totally resigned. For him, it's all about focusing on the good as well as the bad.

"Fortunately, there are still beautiful things all around us. I don't even know what hope means, I don't know if I'm hopeful or hopeless, but I sure value the small interactions between people that happen all the time. Those things are treasures," he said.

It's been six years since Cockburn released a studio album, due in large part to his more relaxed attitude - the pressure has eased and he's taking his time.

"That's the way it works. Nobody's pressuring me to do this now. Back in the day we used to expect an album a year, but it's been a long time since that scenario. Now it takes a year and a half to do the touring, plus it takes longer to write songs. I'm as stuffy as I ever was and I don't want to repeat myself," he said.

And even after all these albums, songs, tours and causes, he's still got a few tricks up his sleeve - listen for a song called Call Me Rose from his upcoming album Small Source of Comfort at a trio of shows he has planned in New Brunswick.

"I woke up one morning with this song in my head almost complete. Richard Nixon is singing in person, having been reincarnated as a single black woman. The song was in my head and I had to write it down," he said.


On Canadian politics: "Look at poor old us, there we are with Harper, who is like Bush Jr., he wishes. He has more of a brain than Bush, but the same sort of policies, and there's nobody to vote him out - unless you're in Quebec. But they're on the wrong side in a federal election. I'm very distressed at the state of the opposition. The Conservatives have been very good at throwing up distractions. Just when they're about to lose a big vote they'll throw up something like the flag or the national anthem, and it's important, but it's not top priority."

On the political climate in the U.S.: "The problem is there's a terrible cynicism these days. You can't spend any time in the states and not be aware of it. There's some really amazing examples of the worst of human idiocy, and it's kind of shocking actually how polarized it is and along such stupid lines. There's no debate, there's no reaching out to communicate with each other. Which is of course nothing new."

On the Obama administration: "The economy's put people on edge, which is understandable. But during the elections, there was that heady atmosphere of hope, we heard about the people who were hopeful and excited, but we didn't hear about the rumblings from the other side. There are people who were genuinely uncomfortable with an African American president. The Tea Party is people taking things into their own hands because they're getting screwed by a distant government. It's a difficult situation and Obama hasn't followed through on everyone's expectations. It would've been impossible for him to fulfill the expectations entirely, but at the same time he could've done one or two things."

On the war in Afghanistan: "There's our soldiers dying and putting themselves on the line in a very impressive way; I was very proud of them, but look at what they're doing. They're fighting a fight that they think they could win if they had long enough, but no one's going to give them 30 years. I have no sympathy whatsoever for the corrupt assholes who run the place or the Taliban."


If I Had A Rocket Launcher.... And the time that he did.

Cockburn's most famous hit, 1984's If I Had A Rocket Launcher, established him as an outspoken political activist, even if it was censored on Canadian stations. The song was inspired by Cockburn's OXFAM-sponsored visit to Guatemalan refugee camps that had been hit by helicopter attacks after dictator Efrain Rios Montt was overthrown. In it, Cockburn gets salty with the lyrics, vowing that "some son-of-a-bitch would die," if he could take matters into his own hands. Expect this song at any of Cockburn's concerts; his upcoming tour will feature a selection of his greatest hits as well as lesser-known tracks. But there's a funny story about If I Had a Rocket Launcher - while visiting Afghanistan in 2009, he actually got a chance to live his dream. Sort of.

After his last performance for the troops, which included a rendition of If I Had a Rocket Launcher, Cockburn was surprised when a general actually presented him with one-live and loaded.

"It seemed like a good song that they would get, and they did, and the appreciated it. Then as I'm finishing the song, the general in command comes up behind me and hands me a rocket launcher. Obviously it was just a photo op, but I was fiddling around with the buttons and whatnot, and it was in a war zone and the thing was actually loaded, so they took it away from me," he recalled.

Clever army.

~ from an article in Herenb, by Paige Aarhus.

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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.