7 June 2014 - The intent wasn't to talk with Bruce Cockburn about Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Jean Chretien and Richard Nixon on Friday, hours before he received an honorary doctorate from Laurentian University.
The interview was to be about his 50-year career, his latest album, Small Source of Comfort, his memoir, Rumours of Glory, to be published in November, and the words of wisdom he intended to impart to graduates that afternoon.
But carefully crafted questions left at the office and an admission that encounters with heroes like Trudeau haven't always gone well prompted Cockburn, 69, to recall his own dealings with PET.
The first was in Cockburn's hometown Ottawa shortly after Trudeau was elected prime minister in 1968. The young singer-songwriter met him at a party thrown by mutual friends.
Cockburn asked Trudeau, whose Quebec lieutenant died shortly after he was elected, if the job was less exciting than he thought. Trudeau looked at him as if he were from another planet. When Cockburn's girlfriend, Kitty, whom he later married, spilled beer on Trudeau, he was gracious, though.
He next encountered Trudeau at a Winnipeg hotel where they were both staying and where the PM was being picketed by disgruntled farmers.
"I liked him. I mean he had his problems, things I disliked about his policies, but in general, I thought he was a great presence on the Canadian political scene and an interesting guy, so I sent a bottle of cognac to his room. The next thing I know, I'm in the Order of Canada."
Cockburn laughs after that anecdote, as he does frequently during a 30-minute interview in the dining room at the Holiday Inn.
Cockburn met Jean Chretien once and he said he was impressed. "He had a really great vibe in person." He liked the fact Chretien "took on that protester," referring to the incident in 1996 in which Chretien applied what became known as the "Shawinigan handshake" to a protester who got too close to him, grabbing him by the neck and shoving him down.
Cockburn admits if the protest had been about an issue he cares about deeply, such as the environment, he might feel differently.
In his speech to graduates, Cockburn intended to touch on a few issues.
"They've just spent years in a collective atmosphere and they're going to go off and ... probably are hungry to get away from that, (but) there's a lot of dark stuff looming on the horizon."
The way to respond to looming crises is with community, not with the individual, "not with every person for themselves."
He planned to make a passing reference to another theme: "The less virtual things are, the better they are ...
"You're going to get out there and get into relationships and have kids and try to have a career ... and it may not go the way you want it to and, even if it does, it's going to be tricky at times.
"We're not trained for that these days. We're trained to be doing everything with our earphones on."
It is quite a different world today's graduates are facing than when Cockburn was singing "Going to the Country" in 1970.
"It wasn't globalized, and even though there was news from everywhere and there was a war on, it didn't come home to us the way it does now."
With social media, people can say they're got a Facebook friend in Tehran, and that has a good side and bad side. While you might get to know what's going on in their part of the world, they're not really a friend.
"You're not going to be there for them when the cops come to the door, and they're not going to be there for you when you lose your job."
First, last and always, Cockburn is a singer-songwriter. He lives in San Francisco now and tours mostly in the U.S. at theatres and clubs.
He will play Northern Lights Festival Boreal this year, where he last performed in 1998.
You can't resist asking about the song "Call Me Rose" on his latest album; about Richard Nixon reincarnated as a single mother of two children living in a housing project. "I have no good answer for that ... I woke up one morning with that song in my head."
It begins: "My name was Richard Nixon only now I'm a girl. You wouldn't know it but I used to be the king of the world. Compared to last time I looked like I've hit the skids, living in the project with my two little kids. It's not what I would of chose. Now you have to call me Rose."
When he wrote it, there was an American campaign to rehabilitate Nixon's image. Cockburn recalls one pundit saying: "Richard was vastly misunderstood. In fact, he was the greatest president of the 20th century and possibly ever."
Cockburn, a Christian, says it's a song of redemption, "the idea that redemption is there, no matter who you are. You might have to pay for it ... so the price of his redemption is having to live this life of poverty and femaleness. Even then, he says at the end, 'Maybe the memoir will sell,' so he's still Tricky Dick.' "
His memoir is cowritten with journalist and friend Greg King, whom Cockburn enlisted when he got stuck around the 100-page mark when he was finding it difficult to address the complex issues of adulthood.
"It involves other people, which was a really big stumbling block for me. How do I write about other people without causing them pain, but still tell the truth?"
He admits there are people he doesn't worry about that with.
When asked if it was difficult opening up for the memoir, Cockburn says no.
"There's not very much in my life I would worry about anybody knowing. It's not like I've ever shot anybody. There's not very many secrets."
~from Sudbury Star - by email@example.com, go here to view a 2 minute video of Bruce's interview.