-- Use Me While You Can --
released 1999

Found on:

Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu (1999)

Rumours of Glory - box set Disc 6 (2014) [compilation album]

There's a black and white crow
on the back of a two-toned sheep
in a field of broken yellow stalks
below looming cliffs.

High above the plains
little grey houses blend
with giant jagged boulders
and pale weathered stumps.

Life in the ghost of the bush.

Wind whips the acacias and strange forked palms
That cluster around the water hole

Suddenly, out of the blowing sand
A milk-white camel appears.

Turbaned rider, blue robe billowing,
bounces with the shambling trot;
wears a sword and a rifle on his back,
and hanging from his neck, a transistor radio...

You blink and like ghosts, they're gone

Under the wan disc of sand-masked sun
A woman grins - spits expertly
Into the path of a struggling black beetle
Six feet away
Hoists her water bucket onto her head
And strides off up the trail...

Sun a steel ball glowing
Behind endless blowing sand
Sun a steel ball glowing
Dust of fallen empires slowly flowing through my hands
Use me while you can

Pearl held in black fingers
Is the moon behind dry trees
Pearl held in black fingers
Bird inside the rib cage is beating to be free
Use me while you can

I've had breakfast in New Orleans
Dinner in Timbuktu
I've lived as a stranger in my own house, too
Dark hand waves in lamplight
Cowrie shell patterns change
And nothing will be the same again

Bullet in a sandstorm
Looking for a place to land
Bullet in a sandstorm
Full heart beats an empty one
In the deck they dealt to man
Use me while you can

Known comments by Bruce Cockburn about this song, by date:

  • August 1999 - "It's about the passage of time and the inevitability of that, and about the need to seize the moment. All the images are about the transitory nature of things. In that part of the Sahara you really have the sense that when you pick up a handful of sand, that it really is the 'dust of fallen empires,' and of cultures that came and went. There were people living there when it was grassland. An ancient presence is there, and yet it can only be felt because there's no sign of it now, no living vestige of it, other than what's left of Timbuktu. Which relates to what our lives are all about. We're here, then we're gone. So if you're going to get anything out of me, get it now."
    -- from "Bruce Cockburn, Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu", Ryko press release, undated, circa August 1999. Submitted by Nigel Parry.

  • 6 February 2000 - Commenting on the influence of traveling to Timbuktu in Mali during the filming of the video River of Sand:

    BC: The experience in Mali was fantastic. It is such a nexus, in a way, a historical nexus of all kinds of cultural strains. Timbuktu was the site of a major university in the Middle Ages, an Islamic university. Timbuktu itself, at this point in history, isn't a very impressive place, other than by its isolation and the kind of exotic quality of the buildings and what people are wearing, but you can't escape that feeling of history, that sense that the sand that's blowing around contains grains that were part of various empires.

    (Soundbite of music)

    BC: There's a black and white crow on the back of a two-toned sheep in a field of broken yellow stalks below looming cliffs. High above the plain, little gray houses blend with giant jagged boulders and hail-weathered stones.

    HANSEN: The last tune on the CD is a very haunting one, "Use Me While You Can." I mean, is it something that you're saying, as a songwriter yourself? This is the gift that I've been given. Use me.

    BC: Yeah. I'm saying it, not to God, but to anybody else who's interested in the basic things. It's kind of a reflection on the temporariness of things inspired, in part, by what I was talking about earlier, by that sense of the transitory that you feel around Timbuktu. The song goes on to kind of make reference to numerous comings and goings and each chorus--each verse, rather, ends with 'Use me while you can,' you know, 'cause whatever we got going here isn't going to last forever so let's make the most of it.


    HANSEN: Mm. There's the kora player and you're playing your guitar up against it so you have that beautiful blend.

    BC: The kora player is a man named Daniel Jank(ph). He's Canadian and he studied in West Africa and he's familiar with a number of different styles on the instrument. And I just--after playing with Tumani in Mali, I thought that the instrument had to be on this album and particularly in that song because of the debt that we're owed to the Malian landscape. It just seemed like one that the kora should be in and Daniel did a great job of putting that in it.

    (Soundbite of Bruce Cockburn song)

    BC: (Singing) Pearl held in black fingers, the moon behind dry trees. Pearl held in black fingers, bird inside the rib cage just beating to be free. Use me while you can. I've had breakfast in New Orleans, dinner in Timbuktu...
    --from "Bruce Cockburn, Musician, Shares History and Songs of his New CD, Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu" by Liane Hansen, Weekend Edition Sunday, National Public Radio, February 6, 2000. Submitted by Suzanne Capobianco.

  • 14 March 2000

    OJ: ..I noticed on your most recent album which is Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu, there are a couple of tracks that have African kora.

    BC: Yeah! And the kora is there because of that trip to Mali, as we probably talked about there, we did some filming with Tumani Djoubati, as your listeners may know him from, I don't know what all kinds of things your station plays, ....

    OJ: We do play Tumani.

    BC: Yeah, he's a brilliant musician and I had heard him on record but never met him and then we set up some jamming time to film together and that music makes up much of the music soundtrack of the film and there's some footage of us playing together.

    Playing a song of mine and a piece of his, and the guitar and kora fit together so beautifully, finger style guitar, so much so that you'd sorta' swear that the guys who invented finger picking were originally kora players, because the right hand technique is almost exactly the same and kora is, of course, a harp, its not a guitar, but its approached with similar rhythmic principles and so on and so the instruments just fit together beautifully and sounded great together and I thought, "I gotta' have this on the next album!"

    We were unfortunately not able to get Tumani, but a Canadian guy by the name of Daniel Janke was able to come in and played really nice kora stuff on the album, so I was very happy with that. There's other elements too from Mali. There's the song "Use Me While You Can". Its made up entirely of images from there, from around Timbuktu and from the Dogon country which is where we spent more time while we were in Mali.
    -- interviewed by Ousman Jobarteh for "Mostly Manding", WERU-FM in Blue Hill, Maine, Tuesday 14 March 2000. Submitted by Suzanne Capobianco.

  • 14 May 2000

    "I've never gone on the kinds of trips that have been most productive for songs looking for songs," Cockburn said. "I think if you do go to a country to bear witness to the problems of that country, it would be sort of obscene to go there with an agenda other than that. But sometimes I get lucky and the experiences in those places trigger songs."

    "Use Me While You Can" is a particularly good example of that. Cockburn draws a vivid picture of the images collected from his time in Mali and subtly intertwines them with the theme of making every moment in life count. The line, "Dust of fallen empires slowly flowing through my hands," seems to coalesce those two trains of thought.

    "The thing that made the connection with the imagery of Mali was standing around in the area of Timbuktu - this is a city that once had a university with 60,000 students, that once had a population of 100,000 people - that now I'd be very surprised [if] there's 5,000 people living there," he said. "The sand is taking it over - there's not much left of whatever glory had been there.

    "You're very aware of the big-picture passage of time in the presence of these things . . . . [And] the way desertification is encroaching on people's lives in another illustration of the impermanence of things," he said.

    He says he's become more aware of the need to seize life's moments as he's gotten older.

    "Having been through many moments and seen them come and go -never mind the issue of death and that kind of passage of time - after a while, you start learning if you don't grab things, they go," he said. "And if you don't appreciate the things that are around you, you won't have them. You may not have them anyway, but at least you'll have the appreciation if you notice them well enough. So it's that kind of thing."

    - from "Bruce Cockburn: Canadian will bring his band to Whitaker Center," by Kira L Schlechter, The Patriot-News, Harrisburg, PA, May 14, 2000. Submitted by John Peregrim.

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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.