21 September 2020 - For a few years in the 1980s, it seems that everyone was trying to hand Bruce Cockburn his very own rocket launcher.
Rarely has such an angry song about the atrocities of defenceless wartime human slaughter been so perfectly articulated in song as in the Ottawa-born Cockburn’s 1984 hit “If I Had A Rocket Launcher.”
But it seems as though a few people misinterpreted the lyrics.
“There were actually three incidents,” says a chuckling Cockburn, on the line from the San Francisco residence he occupies with his wife and daughter.
Cockburn, who celebrates half a century as a recording artist with the Sept. 25 release of the vinyl-only, five-disc collection “True North — a 50th Anniversary Box Set,” recalls an incident in Afghanistan after he had just finished performing the song to Canadian troops stationed in Kandahar.
“General (Jonathan) Vance” — currently Canada’s chief of defence staff — “appeared at my shoulder with the rocket launcher and handed it to me,” he recalls.
“It was loaded — it was one of those little single-use anti-tank rocket things, but there I am, cradling this thing in my arms and there was this picture in the paper — I’ve got this enormous grin and it looks like Christmas.
“But that was the best of those moments.”
Cockburn, 75, remembers a second incident, following a concert in the southern U.S. around the time of the song’s release, when a radio station sent some employees to join him for a pre-show photo opportunity.
“They’d brought a rocket launcher that they’d rented from the National Guard — and they wanted to pose with it. They thought it was cute,” he remembers. “At this point, the song was fresh and I found it really offensive. I told them so. They didn’t get it. The song doesn’t say, ‘I wish I had a Rocket launcher. It says, ‘if!’”
But the scariest occasion occurred after a show in Bellingham, Wash. “We were crossing over the border into Vancouver after the show and while I was in the parking lot, a guy says, ‘I have a gift for you but you have to come to my car to get it.’
“The guy — over six feet tall, very muscular, very short hair — pops his trunk and has three rocket launchers in there. He wanted to give me one.”
Cockburn thanked him and politely declined. “If I had said, ‘yes,’ there would have been a checkpoint somewhere. I think it was a trap. He had ‘cop’ written all over him.”
These are just some of the adventures the noted troubadour and respected guitarist has enjoyed since 1970, when he helped launch the True North Records label with the self-titled “Bruce Cockburn.”
Over the course of 26 studio albums, four live recordings, three compilations and the 2014 box set “Rumours of Glory,” the 13-time Juno Award winner has expounded upon the folk idiom to include blues, roots, rock, pop and — for want of a better word — Americana. Cockburn, a member of the Order of Canada and the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, has also expanded his topical horizons, writing hundreds of songs that are as intellectually stimulating and thoughtful as they are emotional, informed by a Christian faith that is neither intrusive nor sermonizing.
His songs range from mystical to introspective to philosophical to romantic to political to playful to sober, from roaming idyllic moods with “Wondering Where The Lions Are” or expressing environmental concern with “Radium Rain.” He’s tackled political effrontery in “Call it Democracy” and raised awareness of inhumane treatment by government regimes in “Nicaragua,” his observations recorded from first-hand visits to war-torn territories.
“He’s a fearless explorer,” notes Nicholas Jennings, author and music historian who has provided liner notes for Cockburn’s entire remastered catalogue, including the new box set.
“His curiosity is incredibly deep and he’s always looking for answers. He’s always looking for new truths. He’s a seeker in the full sense of the word … He is always trying new things. That’s what keeps him fresh and maybe that’s what’s kept him a vital, meaningful artist.”
In terms of his role in sounding alarm bells about human rights transgressions over the years, though, Cockburn is clear.
“I know that the songs have affected people … because I hear from the people,” he states. “They’ve had a role to play in terms of drawing people’s attention to situations that needed addressing … But in terms of affecting the whole situation, it’s a drop in the bucket. I think all of the drops in the bucket are meaningful — and mine is one of them.”
Cockburn’s love for music occurred at an early age but wasn’t set in stone until later in life. By the time he dropped out of Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, “I knew then that my life was going to be tied up with the guitar one way or another.”
He met Bernie Finkelstein, his manager of 50 years, when Cockburn’s band then, The Children, opened for The Paupers and The Lovin’ Spoonful at Maple Leaf Gardens. Finkelstein was managing The Paupers. Cockburn says he and his future producer Eugene Martynec were having a coffee in Yorkville, agreeing they’d like to make a record in the style of blues veteran Mississippi John Hurt, with Cockburn as artist and Martynec as producer.
“Gene said he knew somebody who wanted to start a record company, so he goes and talks to Bernie. Bernie said, ‘this could be the first True North Records album’ — and it was. That was the first time we had actually talked to each other.”
Cockburn became True North’s flagship artist.
“As far as the management end of our business goes, Bruce and I never had a contract,” Finkelstein says from his Prince Edward County home. “The joke I often make with Bruce is, ‘If we had a contract, it probably would have ended and he would have left. But because we don’t have one, he doesn’t know how to leave.’”
Although the new box set consists of only three albums — “Bruce Cockburn,” “The Charity of Night” and “Breakfast In New Orleans … Dinner In Timbuktu,” — lovingly remastered by Colin Linden and the latter two albums making their vinyl debuts — it’s important to note the set also marks the 50th anniversary of Toronto-originated True North Records as a label that helped establish folk singer Murray McLauchlan, sexually provocative rockers Rough Trade, and roots trio Blackie And The Rodeo Kings.
“What I was always interested in was originality, the ability to perform and great songwriting,” Finkelstein says of his signings. “I think our label stood for that and I think we stood for it in a way that — at least during the early years — that no other label really did. We made our own world.”
Cockburn says the inclusion of the double disc, coloured vinyl sets of “Charity” and “Breakfast” — limited to 750 copies and individually signed by the artist — is by design.
“Those two albums stand out for me as among the best I’ve done,” says the artist, who has written three songs towards a potential new studio album. “I went through a lot of personal life stuff that ended up in those songs. Travelling in developing countries with a deeper sense of what I was seeing made a difference.
“It made it more complicated because it’s easier to write passionate songs about things you don’t know very much about. Whether it’s a first love or a first encounter with a situation, the feelings are simpler and more vivid.
“As you get to know things, it gets deeper and the motivations to say things are a bit more complicated. There’s more to say.”
“There was a lot of love stuff and just different experiences in life that ended up shaping those songs.
“I’m kind of grateful and glad that my songs have touched people the way they have.”
~from Don’t try to give Bruce Cockburn a rocket launcher. It’s been tried — three times by Nick Krewen.