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Interview

Canadian singer/songwriter and human rights activist Bruce Cockburn has released twenty-eight albums over the course of a career that now spans more than four decades. His early music was contemplative, broadly spiritual, and grounded in nature, with a folk sensibility, and though he converted to Christianity in 1974, he never fit the Christian music industry mold. 1979’s Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws brought him increased attention, with the Top 40 single “Wondering Where the Lions Are” and an appearance on Saturday Night Live. His 1980 album Humans, released after his divorce, was raw, intimate, and painful, with an expanded musical palette and a genre-defying sound that incorporated folk, rock, jazz, and reggae—elements that still appear in his music today. During the 1980s, his music evolved to explore social and political themes, and he began to travel extensively, often with missions investigating reported humanitarian abuses. His 1983 travels with OXFAM took him to the border of Mexico and Guatemala, where he witnessed a horrific attack on Guatemalan refugee camps by Guatemalan military helicopters. The anguished song that followed, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” was the most unlikely of Top 40 and MTV hits. For the past twenty-five years, Cockburn has continued to travel and write political songs, but he’s also returned to the more introspective spiritual songwriting that characterized his early work. Career highlights include Nothing But a Burning Light, his 1992 collaboration with producer T-Bone Burnett, and The Charity of Night (1997). He has received numerous awards for his musical and humanitarian work, including the Order of Canada (the highest honor accorded to a Canadian civilian) and membership in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame; he has received seven honorary doctorates. He currently lives with his wife and young daughter in San Francisco. His memoir Rumours of Glory was released last November from HarperOne. He was interviewed by Andy Whitman.

 

Image: Your new autobiography, Rumours of Glory, came out this past November. What were your hopes for this book, and why did you write it?

Bruce Cockburn: Over the years I’ve been approached at various points by people who wanted to write my biography, and also by publishers who wanted a biography, whether written by me or someone else. It always seemed too early, or it seemed like it should be my story to tell, not someone else’s, when the time came.
About three or four years ago, HarperCollins approached me about doing what they called a spiritual memoir, and it seemed like maybe this was the time. I’m old enough now that I think my age justifies a book like that, and it seemed like a timely notion, so I said yes.

Then I wrote about a hundred pages, which went fairly smoothly at first. When you’re writing about the distant past, which is where I started, things are more concise and less complex, and the issues around those memories are either nonexistent or simpler. But when I got into adulthood and career and deeper encounters with people, I didn’t know where to go. I got hung up on how I could avoid causing pain to people who were still alive. Then the issue of how to structure the narrative got thorny, so I enlisted the help of a journalist friend named Greg King, who is really the co-writer of the book, and he was able to set up a structure that helped. He would write a sketch of a chapter and pass it to me, and I would finish it in my voice with details I remembered. It worked, but it was slow—the whole thing took about three years to finish.

What do I hope for? I hope nobody kills me over it.

Really I don’t know what to expect. It’s different from an album. People who disagree with records are simply likely not to listen to them again, but people who disagree with books are more apt to take issue with things. If it leads to debate, then that’s good. If it leads to lost friendships, it’s not so good. I wait with considerable suspense to see what happens.

Image: I was struck by how frequently you refer to works of literature in the book. You mentioned poets who influenced you—T.S. Eliot, Pablo Neruda—and I was particularly interested in your comments on how Allen Ginsberg’s imagery was reflected in your own songwriting. I’m wondering if there are other contemporary poets or writers from whom you consciously borrow, or if it’s more of an unconscious matter.

BC: Well, there are cases where I quite literally incorporated poetry into my songs. One song from the seventies, “When the Sun Falls” from Sunwheel Dance, was basically a rephrasing of lines from Robert Graves. I took images from several of his poems and strung them together—I credited him in the liner notes.

There’s a Japanese poet I regret not mentioning in the book, Kenji Miyazawa. He was a big influence on me in the late seventies and eighties. I was introduced to his work on my first tour of Japan in the late seventies. He died of TB in the 1930s, still a fairly young man, just before the start of the Second World War. I found some translations of his poetry and got into it. A bunch of people told me I was his reincarnation, but I think they do me far too much honor. He wrote from a Buddhist perspective, and he had a sensibility of nature that was also in a lot of my own songs at that time. He had been an agronomist as a young man and worked with farmers in northern Japan, and wrote hard-nosed but beautiful, unsentimental but deep poetry. A song like “Incandescent Blue” from Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws is indebted to his work.

Much later I was asked to contribute a track to a tribute album for him. He wrote poetry for adults, but he also wrote a lot of rhyming poetry for kids—or at least the English translations I read rhymed. The album was aimed at a youthful audience, and a number of Japanese artists created songs out of those poems. I was given a crude translation of one, and I put it in slightly better English and wrote some music for it and recorded it for that album.

When the autobiography came out, True North Records also put out a boxed set of all the songs mentioned in the book, along with a concert DVD and a CD of so-called rarities, things I’ve contributed to tribute albums or that have never been released. There’s some old stuff and some not so old stuff. That track, “Song for Touring around the Stars,” is on that CD, so people can hear it.

Poetry caught me in a big way as far back as fifth grade. My friend Bob Lambeau, who played music with me a bit in high school, would discover poetry and pass it on to me, and vice versa. We did that with music as well. It was the use of language that caught me, the combination of language and content. Dylan Thomas, Yeats, all those masters of language. You can say things very prettily and not say much of anything, but all of those guys had a depth. We study them for a reason. Michael Ondaatje, who is most famous as a novelist, also writes fantastic poetry. He started out as a poet. Leonard Cohen is a fantastic poet, and was before he started writing songs.

It always seemed to me that if you’re going to bother putting words with music, you should aim as high as you can in terms of style and content, just as poets do. That has been the starting point for my efforts over the years. How often do you hear a really enticing melody on a record and then the lyrics let you down? You might as well have an instrumental piece and not clutter it up with empty words.

Image: About ten years ago, you told me that you worry every time you complete an album that you’ll never write another batch of songs. Obviously your fears were unfounded then; you’ve released a number of fine albums since then. Do still have that worry? And how you manage to overcome that inertia at the end of a project?

BC: I’m in a new situation now, but the short answer is, yes, I still do feel that. The last time I put out an album was about five years ago. I’ve been writing this book for the last three years, and all the energy from that part of my brain has gone into it. I have some instrumental pieces, and some lyric ideas here and there, but I haven’t completed anything, and everything is still too busy for me to sit back and digest and reflect in the way that I need to do to write songs—at least the kind I’ve written in the past. I don’t know what will happen now. I hope to resume songwriting, but I haven’t yet.

Image: I know there was a time when “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” which is probably your best-known song, caused you to grimace a bit. You earned a fair amount of fame and recognition from that song, recorded in 1984, but I also know that people used it for sloganeering purposes, and that was the opposite of what you intended. For instance, the US military played it while trying to oust Manuel Noriega. As I recall, you stopped playing it for awhile during the early years of the Iraq War because you feared that it would be misheard. I’m wondering what your relationship with the song is these days.

BC: I do still feel that discomfort, but I don’t want to keep making the same speeches over and over again. I do perform the song, and I think it’s been around long enough now that people who are not of a militaristic persuasion can step back and see it for what it is, so I don’t worry as much about its effects.

In the aftermath of 9/11, it just didn’t feel right to sing a song that suggested that response to violence (“…I’d make somebody pay”). There was enough of that around already. It is still around, of course. I feel it too. I look at these Islamic shitheads in Syria and Iraq cutting people’s heads off, and I’m having the emotional response that they have invited me to have. One part of me thinks, “Let’s get rid of those people!” But on the other hand, I don’t think that’s the solution to anything. We have seen enough examples over the many centuries we’ve been alive. It’s been well demonstrated that violence begets more violence, and that is what we can expect if we take them on on their terms. But I don’t have a better idea, so there it is.

In any case, I think the global political scene now is more in flux and ambiguous than it was after 9/11. I don’t mind singing the song. I sang it for Canadian troops in Afghanistan, and they loved it, of course. It was the song of mine they best related to, for all the wrong reasons. At the same time, they’re out there risking their lives and doing what they’re supposed to be doing for the rest of us, so if they want to hear it their way, that’s okay. I’m glad that it didn’t start out like that, at least. The songs have long enough histories now that I don’t really worry about one person’s take.

The most disconcerting thing that I’ve encountered in a concert was singing that song at the Greenbelt Festival in England, in a tent with two thousand people in it, and they all started singing along. To hear two thousand people sing “some son-of-a-bitch would die” is very disturbing, but they were singing it with great gusto and loved the song. They were a bunch of Christians. They got the song. They understood where it was coming from, as a cry of pain, really, so they were singing along with that. After that, everything else was kind of okay.

Image: In Rumours of Glory you write: “God is not a social phenomenon. When a group of humans try to make him that, their faith slides into superstition, often pathological.” I’m wondering if you think it’s possible for groups of God-seeking people to gather, to worship together, to share their lives with one another, and if so, what that would look like. Perhaps a different way to ask that would be, what would an unsuperstitious communal spirituality look like?

BC: I’m not sure what it would look like, but I think the tendency to make our glimpses of spiritual understanding into superstition is very strong in humans. It’s part of our makeup, I think. And when you get a group of people who decide they share the same concepts, then it’s very likely to happen. I won’t say it’s inevitable, because I think there are cases where spiritual communities have existed without it, or at least existed without it becoming an impediment to them. But I think it would require a state of constant vigilance from that community.

I think this is part of the DNA of most spiritual groups. I forget which grumpy TV evangelist—Falwell or Robertson, someone of that ilk—I heard argue, “Okay, young people, you like your rock singers, and there is some great music out there, but don’t get your theology from those songs, because those are just artists and they don’t know anything.” Whoever said that had a clearly defined theology in mind, and he was arguing in defense of that theology because he was threatened by the notion that people would come up with alternatives and distort it.

If a set of spiritual understandings becomes popular enough to become a religion, then it is going to draw in people who don’t have the spiritual understanding, but who want to be part of it. And there has to be some structure to accommodate those people. Then you end up with a church that has rules and rituals, and the church eventually becomes dominated by those people who don’t have the spiritual understanding because they outnumber the ones who do. Eventually you end up with the historical church.

It doesn’t mean that someone can’t discover God in the context of that church, but it does mean that the church is likely to become a burdensome social entity. I think it’s important to try to head that off at the start. Maybe it’s impossible to avoid it because it’s the way people work.

At the other extreme, you can’t be exclusive and say, “Well, we have the understanding and you guys don’t, so bug off,” as esoteric traditions from all faiths have done over the centuries—the Cabbalists and the various Christian mystical sects, the Sufis, and so on. Their secrecy is based partly in a fear of persecution, but also because they wanted to avoid this very problem. They made themselves very hard to get to, and only the special few would be allowed in. There is a risk there, too, because those groups become viewed with suspicion. They may be persecuted, or they may be taken over and run like a secret theocracy. There are historical examples of all these tendencies.

I don’t know how you can have a large spiritual community without superstition. It will be a big problem. With a small community, perhaps it will only be a small problem, but it’s going to be a problem regardless because, in the same way that people venerate pop stars, people are going to venerate the leader of their group because they think he knows more than they do, or is just a little sexier than they are, or whatever it is. At any rate, you get a distortion, especially if the leader or founder dies. Then all of a sudden there are all sorts of superstitious manifestations: “I saw him at the Laundromat the other day, shining at me out of the dryer.” Or, “He came to my dinner table and blessed it and my sick child got better right away.” People have these delusions. Or maybe they aren’t delusions, but you get this superstitious stuff happening, like Jesus on a piece of toast.

Image: In Ohio we have a silo that has a rust stain that apparently looks like Jesus.

BC: Well, you know, God made that rust stain, so maybe it does.

Image: The end of the 1970s marked the end of your marriage, as well as a movement from a more introspective, mystical songwriting style to a more outward-focused approach. In your memoir you write: “I began to understand that if an artist’s job is to distill the human experience into something that can be shared, then the political, as much a part of that experience as God or sex or alienation, deserved to be seen as raw material. The arts contribute significantly to social movements and cultural cohesion.” You write a lot about political events you’ve witnessed, many of them horrific. Have you ever witnessed political events that give you hope, that make you think that humans are working together for the kind of positive social change that might reflect something divine?

BC: I have seen far less of that than the other. Once in a while you run across something that really feels good, but these are small things. I worry about the big picture, but you never know. The small things may add up. There will be a Christian community here, a group of environmental people there, people pulling together to get something done. It’s usually a very specific goal or vision, and sometimes communities are successful.

The only thing that I’ve been involved with that achieved anything like that was a campaign to ban landmines. It wasn’t universally successful, but it certainly bore fruit beyond any other campaign with which I’ve been involved. An international treaty was signed by some 160 countries foreswearing the use and manufacture of landmines. That’s a big chunk of the world that we don’t have to worry about now, at least until somebody like ISIS comes along and doesn’t respect that.

And we still have the big holdouts. The US hasn’t signed that treaty, nor have Russia, India, or Pakistan—the obvious suspects. But even so, a lot of others have. That was a case where a campaign had enough momentum behind it and a broad enough base to be successful on a large scale.

But it took imagination, too; it wasn’t just a case of having a lot of people. Basically, it took the then foreign minister of Canada, Lloyd Axworthy, doing an end-run around the UN and around the various international structures that exist to address the issues and going straight to the NGO community and the church and the non-structured communities to get this done. And he did get it done. I haven’t seen much like that around other issues. With environmentalists, you get a success here and a failure there, another success here and a failure there. The failures seem to be to be outweighing the successes at the moment. We can hope that that will change.

I was just reading about the KXL Pipeline in Nebraska. There are many people who don’t want it, and I think they should have their say and be heard. I personally hope the pipeline does not go through, but the amount of waffling coming from the White House on down is kind of disgraceful and bizarre given the relative simplicity of the concepts involved. This is a fight that has a good chance of being successful, at least for a time. The problem is that money interests never go away, so the issues never go away. BP got a big black eye for that oil spill in the Gulf, but another ten years will go by and nobody will remember that, and they are going to come back and do the same thing again. They will get lax. Right now they are probably on good behavior, but how much good behavior can you depend on when you are dealing with that amount of money, and with issues like that that can inflict damage on such a scale?

Image: You write that war has proven itself to be humankind’s dominant trait. But I also know that your songs are filled with hope. Even on a fairly bleak album like You’ve Never Seen Everything, where the title track is a litany of horrors, you offer a hopeful song at the end. How does hope figure into the equation these days, both in your own life and in terms of survival on the planet?

BC: I have hope in God for us as individuals. I have hope that doesn’t stand up to rational scrutiny. Of course, I still hope we get by as a species. I hope we don’t kill ourselves off. I hope we don’t destroy things to the point where life on earth becomes even more hellish for many of the people who currently live on it.

I hope all those things, but what do I base that on? Not much. Just what my heart tells me that I need. But I believe that as individuals we have the ability to transcend that stuff through a connection with the divine. That connection can be nurtured and brought to life, or it can be ignored. That’s a choice. That’s what freedom of choice is, I think. Perhaps “free will” is a better theological way to put it. God is out there. God is in here. God is the flow of everything, and you can align yourself with that flow or you can stand in resistance to it, in which case it will flow right over you. If you are successful enough at resisting it, you will just become collateral damage to the flow, I think. But maybe not. Maybe you just have to flow along further before you get redeemed.

These are bigger questions than my brain can wrap around. Certainly that promise is offered to Christians, at least. That to me is where the hope is. I don’t think we should even waste energy hoping for somebody to fix the problems. We can keep trying, and we must keep trying to make everything better; otherwise it’s all going to get worse even faster. But I think that real hope for meaning can only come through a relationship with the divine. Otherwise meaning is just going to be temporary. You can feel like you did a meaningful thing the other day; you helped somebody, or you painted a great painting and it affected ten thousand people in a positive way. That is meaningful, of course, but it doesn’t last. If we want something that lasts we have to go to the source.

Image: You’ve had to deal with labels and stereotypes throughout your career. Early on you were labeled a Christian singer/songwriter, and I’m sure a few people since then have labeled you a left-wing commie sympathizer. How do you deal with people who want to put you into a box, whatever that might be?

BC: By ignoring them, mostly. Every now and then I feel like I have to argue because of some context or another, but I mostly ignore them. I’m more concerned about myself and inflicting my own stereotypes on other people, so I don’t think about the other side of that all that much.

It’s always rankled me to feel stereotyped. In the memoir I wrote about being typecast as a back-to-the-land, folky, hippie songwriter in the early seventies and how I reacted to that on the album called Night Vision. And then Night Vision worked too well, too many people liked it, and I recoiled and went back the other way because it kind of freaked me out. There was a little inner rebellion going on. I cut my hair short and started wearing the shoes that I used to wear in high school instead of trying to be fashionable according to the time. Being typecast felt to me like being a butterfly pinned on a board. I wanted to be free to move. I suppose it still happens, but for the most part I don’t really care now.

Image: The late seventies and early eighties were a time of profound change for you. You describe your life shortly after your divorce, when you moved back to Toronto, and you talk about flipping a switch and starting to consciously look for solidarity in a community of stumblers and screw-ups. Looking back on that transformation, what advice would this newly enlightened Bruce Cockburn offer to the old Bruce Cockburn who was more of a rules-oriented, black-and-white thinker? And, turning it around, what cautions would the old Bruce Cockburn offer to the new Bruce Cockburn?

BC: The new Bruce Cockburn would say, “Lighten up,” and the old Bruce Cockburn would say, “How?” That’s the gist of the inner battle that was taking place.

I had a conversation at one point with an artist in Toronto whose studio space we were using. We were shooting a video, I think. We were chatting, and he said something like, “Having fun is what it’s all about, after all.”And I just looked at him like, “What?” “Well, isn’t it?” he said. And this other guy with a heavy German accent said, “We’re supposed to be having fun.”

It had never occurred to me that anything was supposed to be about having fun, other than very specific things like watching a movie. At the time, my conclusion was that this was a worldview that this guy had embraced. And my worldview was about duty. It was not about fun at all; it was about doing what you were supposed to do. If I stepped back from the idea of duty, from the perhaps neurotic or unduly Victorian element of it, for me, life was ultimately about doing the next appropriate thing. Whether I thought of it is as duty or embracing the possibilities, appropriateness had a lot to do with it.

But being hung up on duty can interfere with your appreciation of the appropriateness of something that comes up spontaneously, and that would be a caution that the new Bruce would offer the old Bruce. The old Bruce would say, “It’s all about doing what you’re supposed to do. There’s a job to be done, and the job is to be the right kind of human being. People who have no moral base, or who don’t have one that I can see easily, are wasting their energy and time and pissing away their God-given talents and souls on having fun.” The new Bruce would say, “Yeah, but they’ve got something you don’t. They’re open to others and they can hear each other, and you’re not, and you can’t.”

It wasn’t black and white. The old Bruce could be open to and hear a lot of things, but a lot of life felt so heavy, and I simply stopped feeling as heavy when I started seeing things differently. The big change wasn’t so much the embrace of other people, although that did have a huge effect, but the fact that God basically said it was okay to get divorced, that it was okay to break a promise made in his name and in his presence. It was okay, don’t worry about it. That was the big earth-shaker. From there, I started to think that some other ideas I had about how things were supposed to be needed to be looked at, too. And sure enough, a lot of us worry about a lot of things we don’t have to worry about. I’m not arguing in favor of a hedonistic, devil-may-care lifestyle, but there is enough real stuff to worry about without burdening yourself with details—although it varies from person to person.

I got kind of intoxicated, I suppose, with this sense of freedom, and I am still working on that. I have so much baggage that keeps me from being as free as I think God would like me to be, and I am still struggling with that. But big doors were opened back then, and every now and then they still are.

Image: I love many parts of your story, but I will confess that’s my favorite part. I think that the notion of finding solidarity in a community of stumblers and screw-ups is one that is very freeing.

BC: It was such a relief, you know. To find solidarity of any sort is a big relief, especially when it seems to be so deeply rooted in such reality. You can find something to share with people on all kinds of levels—sports, or what kind of whiskey you like to drink, or whatever—but sharing a communal understanding that people are broken, and fully capable of loving and being loved anyway, made a huge difference.

I had a dream much later, maybe ten years ago, where I was looking for directions in a town I didn’t know, and I had taken a shortcut through an alleyway. The alleyway led to a courtyard, and the courtyard was full of beautiful young people milling around in the moonlight, having some sort of event. An older guy came up to me and asked, “Can I help you?” And while we were talking a strikingly beautiful young woman, kind of punkish and tall, walked by me, and when she turned, one side of her face looked like those World War I trench victims with half their faces blown away. It was shocking, but then I realized that everybody in the place was like that in one way or another. They were all damaged and trashed and beautiful, and I can’t remember whether the older man said this to me or whether I just understood it, but somehow I came to understand that it’s the scars that bind us. This is what binds us to the people in ISIS, to our enemies, to everything. It’s what every human has in common, regardless of ideology or lifestyle or clothing style or anything else. We’ve all got these wounds. I suppose the wounds of Christ are archetypes for these wounds. It’s in our woundedness that we have our connection point.

Now, I suppose you can imagine a roomful of people sitting around and saying, “I’m fucked up this way or that way,” and others saying, “No, you’re not.” You can make something horrible out of that, too. But in this case it was such a revelation. You don’t have to be perfect to get along with people. In fact, nobody ever is. Anybody who claims to be is as wounded as everyone else and their wounds are making them say that.

That was a big revelation, and it confirmed my understanding of the bumblingness of everyone and the fact that I was right there in the middle of it. I wrote the song “You Pay Your Money and You Take Your Chance” around that time, and it addresses some of the same ideas.

Image: I realize that your life is far from complete, but if you had to sum it up now, what do you think your legacy might be? What is the mark that you’ve left on the world, and what would you still like to do with the life you have remaining?

BC: I’ll answer it backwards. I have a two-year-old daughter, and I hope to be around for enough of her life to have a positive effect and be remembered. That’s really the biggest issue for me at present in terms of legacy. I have an older daughter who I love and who is a product of at least part of me, but she has her own life. She’s a grown-up. She’s turned out to be a cool and interesting person, and so I don’t worry about her. I don’t think I have any control over how people are going to see my work. For most of my life, I’ve felt that the only real meaning that my presence has had on the earth has been there in the songs.


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