3 November 2017 - Bruce Cockburn’s new album, "Bone on Bone," released last month, is the 33rd in the long and illustrious career of the Ottawa native, but it took a little spark to help get the songwriting going.
That was simply because Cockburn, the writer of over 300 songs, had devoted himself to penning the autobiographical "Rumours of Glory - a memoir," and he’d also become a father for the second time in 2011. But when he was asked to contribute a song for a documentary on the late Canadian poet Al Purdy, Cockburn began reading Purdy’s work, and inspiration came quickly.
Cockburn, 72, will be performing with his band Thursday night at the Wilbur Theater in Boston, part of his 14-date November tour of the East Coast.
"That turned out to be a great gift,” said Cockburn, calling from his San Francisco home before the tour started. "It served a very timely purpose, as I was sitting around wondering if I was going to write songs again, and wanting to write songs again. They asked me and I said yes, and began looking into his work, and that got the ball rolling."
Cockburn’s song "3 Al Purdys" is a real treat, designed to reflect a homeless man ranting in the street. This fellow has devoted his life to the poet’s work, and the tune is book-ended by a spoken word introduction and coda, where Cockburn is reading Purdy’s actual lines. As the song goes on, the man’s rants make more sense, until by its end we’re all persuaded that his declaration that he’d trade "3 Al Purdys" for $20 would be a very good deal indeed.
Many local music fans may not know that Cockburn has some Boston-area ties, as he spent three semesters at Berklee College of Music between 1964-66. Leaving to begin playing with a band of friends, Cockburn bounced between several groups, including one called Olivus, which opened for both Jimi Hendrix and Cream in 1968. But by 1969 Cockburn was following his own muse, writing and performing as a solo act, and releasing his eponymous folk-rock debut album in 1970.
Cockburn was popular almost right away in Canada, but it took some time for his appeal to translate to the United States. His 1979 album "Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws" helped get him a foothold in the States, and even led to an appearance on Saturday Night Live. By then Cockburn’s songwriting had taken on more topical issues, and his 1984 song "If I Had A Rocket Launcher" became one of his best-known tunes. While touring Central America, Cockburn had seen a refugee camp for Guatemalan refugees, just across the Mexican border, and while he was there the camp was attacked by helicopter gunships from the Guatemalan military. In 2009, Cockburn traveled to Afghanistan to visit his brother, captain John Cockburn, who was serving with the Canadian troops over there. Inevitably, after performing, the troops had Cockburn pose with a real rocket launcher.
That song, and another one that became a sort of folk-rock standard, "Lovers In A Dangerous Time," helped make Cockburn’s "Stealing Fire" album one of his most popular. Ironically, their cover of “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” became the first hit for his Canadian compatriots, Barenaked Ladies. By the end of the 1980s, a passel of Cockburn admirers among his fellow musicians had put together “Kick at the Darkness,” a tribute album where they performed their favorite Cockburn songs. Cockburn has continued writing and performing through the years.
Some more recent benchmarks were the 2003 album "You Never See Everything," where he was joined by guests like Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne and Sam Phillips, and the 2005 " "Speechless," a compilation album of Cockburn’s best and most loved instrumental songs.
In 2013 he was the subject of the documentary "Bruce Cockburn: Pacing the Cage." Now living in San Francisco, where his wife is an attorney, Cockburn’s humanitarian work has also included working with Oxfam, the Committee Against Landmines, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, and the Unitarian Service Committee.
The latest album has all the hallmarks of Cockburn’s best, from the delectable finger-picked guitar textures framing "Looking and Waiting" to the topical, ecological theme of "False River," to the intense self-examination of "States I’m In” with its infectious chorus about "sights I’ve seen, places I’ve been, each one reflected in the states I’m in."
Looking back at that Boston period, we were intrigued by some lines from Cockburn’s acceptance speech when he went into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in September. "I was seduced away from the pursuit of an education in jazz composition by songs: creations that combined music with something like poetry," he had said. A line in "3 Al Purdys" also seemed revealing, when the singer says "the beauty of language set a hook in my soul."
"I went to Berklee with that notion, studying jazz composition," Cockburn explained. "My parents had been pushing me hard to go to college for music, and Berklee had just begun awarding degrees. I was an avid reader of Downbeat magazine, which was always referring to Berklee, so it became a ‘path of least resistance.’ It was a good thing for me overall. But I had always been interested in other kinds of music too, playing guitar with rock bands and folkies. The education at Berklee was all about gaining a solid theoretical base, and getting deeper into the jazz idiom. But what also worked for me was the atmosphere there, being surrounded by music and musicians, all of them inquisitive people into exploring other kinds of music."
"My Berklee time was very fruitful," added Cockburn. "Boston was also at that time in the latter stages of the folk boom, so I spent a lot of time at Club 47 and The Unicorn, and also knew a drummer who had free jazz jams at his place every Saturday. I was also in a jug band. So it was not a big step for me to go into songwriting. I had been a big fan of The Beatles, and Bob Dylan, and the old blues guys like Reverend Gary Davis, so I had plenty of variety to explore. I was also writing poetry, probably since about fifth grade, which was mostly horrible, but I’d been bitten early by the poetry bug, with evocative stuff like ‘The Highwayman’ really grabbing me."
Some of the new tunes continue the self examination and reflective nature that has always marked Cockburn’s work, like the gentle ballad "40 Years in the Wilderness," which seems to speak of a search for meaning, the ruminative "Looking and Waiting," the joyous "Jesus Train," and the old gospel flavor of "Twelve Gates to the City."
"I think ’Forty Years’ is reflective of the path I’ve been on, which is by nature spiritual," Cockburn said. "What it asks of me, I don’t really know, but you take it one step at a time and perhaps when you can look back, you can see how it all makes sense. ‘Twelve Gates’ was an old gospel blues I remembered from Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, which had come back to me and seemed like a good one to learn. I only ended up using the first verse, because the later verses were darker and more folkloric, and didn’t fit me. So I wrote a couple new verses to use after that first verse, with implications more pertinent to this time in history. ‘Jesus Train’ was based on a dream I had, of an actual train as a representation of divine power, sort of like an old Blind Willie Johnson song – one of my early musical heroes. His work was always so energetic and straightforward, and yes, that song is supposed to be joyful."
Cockburn still plays "If I Had A Rocket Launcher," although he’s not exactly thrilled it still resonates.
"I wish it were otherwise, that it was not still appropriate to sing it," Cockburn said. "I stopped doing it after 9-11, because I felt it played into the wrong feelings. A couple years after that, it seemed OK to do it again, and people react strongly to it. Unfortunately, we can never over-state the darkness of the human condition – there is joy and light too – but the inhumanity is always there."
The title cut for the new album is an instrumental, but a lively, surging piece of guitar mastery that is more compelling because there seems to be undercurrents beneath the bright melody. In truth, the title refers to a very human condition.
"When you’re writing without words, it’s all about the feel of the song," said Cockburn. "There are elements of my jazz background in there – I loved the theory of jazz, I was just not good at playing it, or developing the technical chops you need. Once I had that piece we needed a title, and ‘Bone On Bone’ seemed to fit, and it does fit the visceral quality of this album. But the irony is that, the older you get, the more you hear doctors telling you about joints without any cartilage left, and I have some of that in my fingers, so it’s apt in that sense too."
~ from Poetry provides the inspiration for Cockburn - By Jay N. Miller/ For The Patriot Leder.