22 September 2017 - Bruce Cockburn sounds vaguely bewildered.
He's 72-years-old, decades past his commercial heyday, an album artist in a sea of streaming singles — let's be blunt, a dinosaur — and yet somehow, inexplicably, young people keep showing up to hear him play.
For a guy with no false modesty who keeps expectations to a minimum, it's like finding out the tooth fairy is real.
"There's a scene in an old movie called 'The Ruling Class,' with Peter O'Toole, where he takes his place in the British House of Lords," allows the Ottawa-born singer-songwriter with self-deprecating humour.
"Some are still alive, some are just cadavers with cobwebs. I pictured this 'getting old with my audience' thing a bit like that."
He laughs, making it clear he would have no issues.
"But luckily there's always been new interest. In the last couple of years, there have been a greater number of younger people coming to shows and, strangely, a lot of them tell me they grew up with my stuff.
"Their parents played it."
His own parents, he points out, played the soundtrack to the Broadway musical "My Fair Lady" and the Victorian operas of Gilbert and Sullivan — old school bombast the young Cockburn loathed with a passion.
"I would have gone miles out of my way to avoid having to go to a show of any of that music," he confides from his home in San Francisco. "And yet, here are people who experience my music in the same context, but they're coming.
"It's great . . . (befuddled sigh) . . . I don't understand it."
There's a lot of things he doesn't understand, and none of it makes any difference.
Cockburn is Cockburn — always has been.
Sensitive and softspoken — almost to the point of apologetic — the 12-time Juno winner speaks in vague generalities, hesitates before committing himself to a single argument and weighs the pros and cons of everything, always tempering, balancing, on point.
He's the Clark Kent of Canadian Folk Rock.
But hit on a sensitive topic, elicit an emotional reaction — environmental devastation, the welfare of indigenous peoples — and his veneer of gentle deference turns to a sort of jaded resilience.
"I don't feel compelled to write about Donald Trump," he glowers when I imply the controversial U.S. president is ripe for the picking, protest song-wise.
"He gets enough attention."
"There's some scary stuff going on, but it's been going on for a long time."
Needless to say, he has little faith humanity will save itself.
"The environmental stuff has been around for decades and nobody does anything," he grouses with frustration. "People in positions of authority who could make meaningful decisions are not making them, and have not been making them.
"Every now and then it gets a little better and a little worse. Now we're in a phase where it's a little worse. People can't make up their minds. Are you gonna give up the money or are you gonna give up the planet?"
I can hear his bile rise over the phone: "You can't have both. You can't have oil and a healthy environment. It's that simple. And yet, it's not simple to execute. The will isn't there."
He sounds resigned, but after 47 years of activist songwriting with a string of hits that include "Wondering Where the Lions Are," "If A Tree Falls" and "Lovers in a Dangerous Time," he remains mysteriously unplacated, ready to go head-to-head at a moment's notice.
"I never thought of myself as an activist," he notes in his humble, unassuming way.
"I just write the stuff that comes to mind. I'm confronted by things the same as everybody else and I get an emotional response that, if I'm lucky, will trigger a song."
Take "If I Had A Rocket Launcher," his '84 hit about the plight of Guatemalan refugees, the most virulent, righteous, God of Thunder cry of rage and despair ever concocted by a Canadian songwriter: "If I had a rocket launcher, some son-of-a-b--ch would die."
"It wasn't a protest song," he offers, almost embarrassed.
"It was a song from my heart about something I saw. It's not theoretical."
Also not theoretical is that Cockburn, seven years past official retirement age, has a five-year-old daughter and finds himself, improbably, living the life of a man in his 30s.
"It does make you look at the world in a new way," he concedes openly. "I'm an old guy. If they blow up the world now, I've had a life."
"But a world without water, without air — those are big concerns. I don't know that having a child really changes that. The world has always been beautiful and precious and fragile. It's always seemed like that to me."
Which begs the question: What's more terrifying, the imminent destruction of the planet, or getting called to the office because his kid is acting up in kindergarten?
"No matter how you feel about the big one," he concedes happily, "you gotta deal with the little one . . . no matter what.
"Obviously, it puts the nature of the world into sharp relief. I want her to be aware of things in as positive a way as possible."
While his new album, "Bone On Bone," avoids direct commentary on headline issues, his bent toward social justice and spiritual faith, in typical Cockburn style, are never far from the surface.
"As you get older, your life becomes more complex," he reasons. "And therefore whatever art you're producing becomes more complex too."
Some things, however, stay the same: his principled cynicism, his humanitarian zeal.
And in a turnaround from his '80s stance against the regressive views of the religious right, the quietly spiritual songwriter — who once identified boldly as Christian — is no longer boycotting the word.
"During the Reagan era the association between a certain kind of Christianity and American politics became inescapable," he laments softly.
"In conversations with (then musical partner) T Bone Burnett, we said 'should we actually go around calling ourselves Christians at this point?'
"Because the people waving that flag with the greatest vigour were people we didn't agree with at all. We didn't want to be seen promoting the stuff they're promoting."
With the U.S. increasingly polarized under Trump, I point out, it's worse now than it was then.
"Yeah, but you know what? Screw them!" he says gruffly. "At a certain point, it's like 'OK, I'm not gonna hide from that!
"At one time I just got tired of having to explain to people 'Yeah, I'm a Christian, but I'm not THAT Christian.'"
At some point, he says, you have to stand up "because these other people got the megaphone and somebody needs to take it away from them and say more truthful things.
"I don't know if I'm that person, but all of us who have gone through these kinds of feelings owe it ourselves to take that position."
It's a classic Cockburn response. Follow your own path. Don't take the easy route.
"It's never seemed very hard not to take the easy route," he points out. "Because it's always seemed like just doing the next thing."
"In hindsight I suppose I could do this differently or that differently and maybe there'd be a bigger audience, but I'm not sure a bigger audience is really necessary."
A man of modest expectations, he mulls this over for a moment, then admits he's content with the "significantly sized audience" he has.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, I suspect, he's also thankful that after five decades, his body of work exists on a different plane than the soundtrack of "My Fair Lady."
~from Joel Rubinoff - Waterloo Region Record.