Bruce Cockburn opens up as new documentary (Pacing the Cage) about his life screens at Whistler Film Festival
By Glen Schaefer, The Province

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2 December 2012 -

Bruce Cockburn shows up at the Whistler Film Festival for a screening of the documentary Bruce Cockburn: Pacing the Cage, and it occurs to me that he always seems to be moving.

The Ontario-born singerís career has been defined by songs that reflect restless travel to far-off places ó Mozambique, Guatemala, Afghanistan, or B.C.ís Haida Gwaii.

"Let me pull off a couple of layers," Cockburn says, coming in from the cold. With a heavy overcoat, granny glasses, white hair and an earring, the 67-year-old looks like a hip granddad.

But, in fact, heís a new father, and despite the documentary ó which got a full-length screening for the first time this weekend ó and last monthís lifetime achievement award from Canadaís Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers, Cockburn isnít one to look back.

"Iím not very interested in retrospect," he says. "Iím more inclined to look at what Iím doing now and what Iím doing next than where Iíve been, in general."

Director Joel Goldberg followed Cockburn on a solo tour in 2009, and intersperses that footage with interviews from admirers ranging from writers William Paul Young and Brian Walsh, to fellow musicians Bono, Sylvia Tyson and Colin Linden. The tour also produced the Cockburn live CD Slice Oí Life. Itís the talking part that makes Cockburn nervous.

"I do some talking and other people do some talking about me ... which makes it mildly embarrassing to sit through in the presence of witnesses at least," he says. "Itís a different kind of spotlight, less comfortable, I have to say, than being on a stage where you get to interact with an audience."

Cockburn was as interested as anyone else about what other people said. Writers talked about his spirituality ó heís gone from a Christian world view to something more all-encompassing, a shift reflected as well in his music.

Heís clearly pleased at what his fellow musicians have to say: "Colin Lindenís comments about my guitar playing are very nice."

I wonder whether all that travel, and the curiosity that goes with it, is a key to his creative longevity.

"Iíve noticed that myself," Cockburn says of the sense of place that marks much of his work. "It wasnít something I set out to do. ... If you listen to the first couple of albums, theyíre really inside my head, not tied to a place or a set of events."

By the time of songs like the mid-í80s hit, If I Had a Rocket Launcher, Cockburn was writing like a war correspondent. In the 1990s, he wrote The Mines of Mozambique after a trip to that country.

"Itís not journalism, in that Iím not under the obligation to pretend to be speaking objectively," he says. "Itís my emotional response to what I encounter that triggers the songwriting process.

"Itís my attempt to share the way those things have touched me. I donít take any of it for granted. I could end up not writing another song for the rest of my life as far as I know and that could have been true from day one. But when the ideas come, I try to grab them."

He went to Afghanistan in 2009 to play for Canadian troops and see the life being lived by his younger brother John, a doctor who volunteered to join the army at age 55.

British Columbia remembers Cockburn best for his activism and a benefit concert in the mid-í80s on behalf of the Haida in the then-Queen Charlotte Islands, as they manned blockades to oppose clearcut logging on Lyall Island. The issue of land claims was settled in the Haidasí favour, and the island chainís old name has been relegated to history.

"Iím sporadically in touch with the Haida folks," says Cockburn. He played at Haida Gwaii to mark a recent anniversary of that campaign, and "every now and then some emails go back and forth."

Cockburn cites his experience with the Haida in how his own spirituality as changed over time.

"Iíve been through phases in my life where I had more of a narrow view than I do currently," he says. "What the Haida and other native cultures have to offer ... is the recognition of and respect paid to interconnectedness. Thatís something the western faiths have lost sight of."

But there are no saints or sinners in Cockburnís view.

"The Haida were like the Vikings of the West Coast, raiding up and down, taking slaves. Nobody is free of taint, but in a way that makes us all in it together," he says. "We need to put those understandings together if weíre going to survive."

Now living in San Francisco, where his new wife has a career, Cockburn says heís watching the current debate over oil tankers near Haida Gwaii and a new pipeline through B.C.

"I hope that pipeline does not happen, but history tends to suggest that it will," he says. "More often than not, the bad thing does happen, but youíve got to keep working at it anyway."

Does that mean a new round of activism and benefit concerts?

"It hasnít been discussed at all, but if it was necessary and appropriate, sure. Thereís a lot of these trouble spots everywhere in the world and this is a big one."

~from Glen Schaefer, The Province December 2, 2012. © Copyright (c) The Provincen

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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.