Bruce Cockburn on awards, raising hell and his critics: 'I donít want to be hated'
By BRAD WHEELER - The Globe and Mail

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12 November 2012 - Is the pen mightier than the rocket launcher?

On Nov. 19, singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn will receive a lifetime achievement award from the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN). From his home in San Francisco, he spoke about old songs, new books and raising (as well as catching) hell.

Bruce Cockburn in 2010 by Peter Power The Globe and Mail

This SOCAN award isnít your first trophy, and it wonít be your last. But how does it feel?

It feels good. Itís nice to be highly thought of, or even thought of at all. I like that this isnít a competitive thing. Iíve never been big on imposing competitive attitudes on music.

Youíll be recognized at Mondayís gala at Roy Thomson Hall with Joel Zimmerman (a.k.a. deadmau5) and Trooper. The latter spoke for a generation, I think, when they sang "Raise a little hell, raise a little hell, raise a little hell." Are you familiar with that song?

Familiar might be overstating it, but I do remember hearing it.

In your own way, with your music, have you raised a little hell?

Well, itís in the spirit of rock and roll to do that. And I came into the world of music influenced from a few different directions, rock and roll being one of them. If you stand outside the mainstream and offer any kind of social critique, then there is a certain amount of hell raising, in the way I think you mean it.

I mean it in a If I Had a Rocket Launcher kind of way.

There was a Toronto critic, when Stealing Fire came out in 1984, who basically said that all the copies of If I Had a Rocket Launcher should be rounded up and melted down. [The critic was The Globeís Liam Lacey]. He hated it. He called it vile.

Thereís something to be said for that, isnít there? Even if itís negative?

I donít want to be hated. At the same time, if you speak what you believe to be true, youíre going to get a reaction from people. Not everybody is going to have the same idea of what is true. To me, the writer clearly didnít understand where the song was coming from. But anybodyís truth certainly can smack anybody else in the face, in ways they donít like. So, if you offer that, you stand a chance to be both praised and maligned.

When music fans hear a favourite song from the past, it can strikes them powerfully, euphorically. Do you feel that same kick when you perform those songs?

Itís an interesting question. The answer is that itís not the same when youíre doing it for a living. For me, I have an emotional connection with the events that inspired the songs. So, I donít like to sing If I Had a Rocket Launcher, for example, because I donít want to go there. But to properly perform the song I have to. The same is true for Wondering Where the Lions Are, or for any song. I remember where I was when I wrote it. Sometimes thatís bittersweet, sometimes thatís fun and sometimes itís plain horrible.

Youíre revisiting those contexts now, as you write your autobiography. Howís that going?

Iím working with a co-writer. I originally wasnít, but I was getting bogged down, and the publishers were getting anxious. I found that it was really easy to write about the early stuff, partly because the memories are simpler and more stark, and partly because theyíre distant in time, and many of the participants are dead. You donít have to worry about offending them.

Your long-time manager Bernie Finkelstein released his autobiography recently. Did you read it?

I did. I thought it was surprisingly gentle. I was expecting some things that I would have to be nervous about. But heís so gracious to everybody in the book. I found it quite touching, actually.

What would you be nervous about?

Heís been a very necessary buffer between me and the business. Itís interesting in his book how involved he gets in the Canadian Content issue, and I found the insider view of that to be very interesting. I found myself thinking, ďwell, gee, it would have been nice if Iíd been more there for him emotionally for some of that stuff,Ē because heís always been so supportive of me.

Heís not a shy guy. Has he given you any tips on writing an autobiography?

[Laughs]. No, not really. He hasnít seen any of it. I know heís dying to, and Iím sure Iíll hear about it when he does.

from - The Globe and Mail, by BRAD WHEELER. Photo by Peter Power, Globe and Mail.
This interview has been condensed and edited.

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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.