Strange Waters: A Conversation with Bruce Cockburn

A recent post at Pop Dose devoted to “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” reminded me of this interview I did with Bruce Cockburn nearly four years ago. Time flies. This conversation was originally published in Issue 14 of Beyond magazine and is republished here with their permission.

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“If ever there was a need for a Jeremiah to come along and to rant at us, it’s now.”

I actually laughed when he said it—partly because, in context, it was funny (he laughed too); partly because it’s exactly the type of thing one expects to hear from Bruce Cockburn, a songwriter who has devoted the bulk of his four-decade career to documenting our many strange failings and fears. The temptation when writing about Cockburn is to transform him into just such a prophet, to imbue his songs and his public persona with a moral seriousness that unfairly eclipses all that makes his music so wonderfully human. If Cockburn’s characters, like the Old Testament Jeremiah, occasionally weep and wail against some approaching doom, they are just as likely to be touched by humor or mischief or lust, and they nearly always manage to transcend the circumstances of their daily lives, if only for a moment.

Cockburn also writes great love songs and plays a mean guitar.

After studying at the Berklee School of Music in Boston and gigging with a string of rock bands around Ottawa, Cockburn released his first collection of original material in 1970. His list of accomplishments since includes more than 25 albums, eleven Juno Awards, three honorary Ph.D.s., and a membership in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. Cockburn has also been honored for his humanitarian work, which has taken him, among other places, to Nicaragua, Mozambique, Cambodia, communist Europe, and, most recently, Iraq. Each experience has eventually found its way into songs like “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” which rages against the injustice of America’s military intervention in Central America, or “Last Night of the World,” which marvels at an encounter with “hope among the hopeless.”

Violence shone a different light on everything

Suddenly it’s repression, moratorium on rights
What did they think the politics of panic would invite?
Person in the street shrugs — “Security comes first”
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse

— The Trouble with Normal” (1981)

Cockburn is finally home again. In June 2003, he set off on tour in support of his latest CD, You’ve Never Seen Everything. It’s a typical Bruce Cockburn album: a collection of songs built from journalistic images and virtuoso musicianship that documents our world with equal measures of wonder, anger, awe, and exasperation. The post-9/11 world, these songs suggest, is a place of grave danger, irrational fear, and, as Cockburn sings in the title track, “unbelievable indifference.” But there is also, despite it all, a blossoming potential for spiritual and political awakening. “I’m still here,” Cockburn intones on the opening cut. “I’m still here.”

After nearly a year-and-a-half and multiple swings through North America, Europe, and Australia, Cockburn’s tour wrapped in November 2004, the same month that saw the re-election of George W. Bush. Given the timing of our conversation and the content of You’ve Never Seen Everything, the U.S. presidential election seemed a logical place for us to begin.

Beyond: Does the political climate in which you’re touring affect the shows in any specific ways?

Cockburn: Normally not, really. I guess it obviously affects the mood of the audience to some degree, but I don’t notice that when I’m on stage. I mean, people are into the show or they’re not. And most of time they are, so that’s what you feel, more than the specifics of what they brought with them.

But it affects me, too. I wasn’t totally surprised by the outcome of the election, but obviously it was disappointing. We have to live with what we have to live with for the foreseeable future. Another four years is going to take a long time to correct. We’re going to be living with the Bush world for a long time. That’s the way it is, and it’s regrettable, but we have to find some way to deal with it.

Beyond: There’s something especially maddening about Bush’s use of “moral values” rhetoric to sell a political ideology.

Cockburn: It’s toxic as all get-out. These guys, these smug [pause] people—polyester-clad people … [laughs] I guess it’s not fair to imply that kind of designation because other kinds of people wear polyester, but, you know, it’s the smugness that is just rank. If ever there was a need for a Jeremiah to come along and to rant at us, it’s now. These people need to be shaken, and I’m afraid that they will get shaken, but in the process they’re going to make sure that the rest of us get shaken too. And in some very ugly ways. It’s worrisome.

Beyond: I would imagine that there are particular songs that people want to hear right now. Like, I think I would be disappointed if you didn’t play “The Trouble with Normal.”

Cockburn: [laughs] Well, the same old, same old. That song’s twenty years old and it still fits. It could be fifty years old and it would still fit, probably.

People have their own particular preferences. The songs I hear people hollering out for most are the personal songs: “All the Diamonds,” “Pacing the Cage,” “Waiting for a Miracle.” Occasionally, someone will call out for “The Trouble with Normal.” And “Rocket Launcher,” of course. If I haven’t played it in the show, it’ll get a big howl for the encore. A lot of people are relating to that song. Everybody associates the frustration and anger they feel with “Rocket Launcher,” I think.

Beyond: Generally speaking, it seems that your more explicitly political songs take one of two paths. One path I think of as “snapshot songs,” where you just shine a light on a particular moment and bring it to life. Like, I was thinking of “Dust and Diesel,” where you capture something of the political climate of Nicaragua in that image of a smiling girl directing traffic with a .45 strapped to her cotton dress. And then there are songs like “The Trouble with Normal” that seem to be a more polemical voice of righteous anger.

Cockburn: Yeah, and they’re more general in their targeting. “Call It Democracy” would be in that category, too. It’s specifically aimed at the policies of the International Monetary Fund, but that’s representative of a whole system of things, which is the real problem. “Rocket Launcher” fits that former category, too, of trying to capture a moment. It was how I felt when I experienced a particular . . . the sense of being with those refugees who had experienced those things.

I don’t rationalize that much before I write a song. After the fact I can kind of tell what, if any, category it belongs in. But when I’m writing a song, I’m thinking about whatever feelings I have that want to be written down. Sometimes it’s anger, sometimes it’s hope, sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s sex, sometimes it’s encounters with the Divine, which certainly qualify as expressions of a moment because the contact generally doesn’t last long. I write all of the songs the same way, the mechanism’s the same. Different feelings come up, different triggers switch that get those feelings moving.

Beyond: You seem to have an obsession with images of light and dark. There’s a certain metaphorical quality to that, of course, but what most attracts me to those moments is that so many of your songs are composed like a photograph or like a sequence in a film. Was that an organic development for you?

Cockburn: It grew over time. I don’t think it started out like that. “Going to the Country” [from Cockburn’s debut album] is sort of a proto-version of that approach, maybe. Most of the songs on that album are a bit less focused. “The Bicycle Trip” is sort of goofy, and I don’t really count that, but “Spring Song,” “Man of a Thousand Faces,” “The Thirteenth Mountain”—they’re describing a state of things, and it’s a state that is sometimes sought after, it’s a state that happened already.

But over time the angle of approach shifted slightly, and I began to write more and more in a style that I think you rightly described as “cinematic.” I think of it that way, sometimes, when I’m thinking about it at all. It’s evident to me that that’s what I’m doing. Putting a song together in terms of little scenes. And the chorus, if there’s a chorus, will tie them together or bridge them. I do that a lot. I watch a lot of movies. Maybe that’s why. [laughs]

Beyond: “Tokyo” seems to fit that category. There’s even a line where you’re describing a car accident and it actually says, just like a screenplay, “Cut to crumbling guard rail.”

Cockburn: I started writing “Tokyo” on a plane home from what I think was probably the second trip to Japan, in the late-‘70s. That accident scene that it describes—I mean, I didn’t actually see it going into the river—but, on the way to the airport, we drove past that. I don’t know if it’s as true now as it once was, but touring in a place like Japan made one’s emotions open, made your heart open, because you’re so dependent on people. Not only do you not understand the words that you’re reading, but you can’t understand the letters they’re written in. So you’re completely dependent upon the people around you for everything. That state of dependency, I found, made me particularly vulnerable. So passing that accident scene at the end of what was really the fantastic experience of this whole tour seemed to . . . well, it was particularly intense because of that state.

I was feeling it out on the plane after I’d left and just tried to capture something of what it felt to be in Tokyo with that included. The accident scene stood in stark contrast to everything else about Japan. Everything else that I experienced was positive, pretty much. Even the drunk guys pissing in the street. It was colorful and amusing and down-home in a funny kind of way—all these guys in business suits acting like this. So even that was positive. And here was the violence of this accident, which shone a different light on everything.

Beyond: Like “Tokyo,” so many of these “snapshot” songs are tied to the place that either inspired them or where they’re actually located. Inner City Front, for example, plays like a map of Toronto.

Cockburn: Yeah, it’s really geographically specific, down to the street names. I was living on Smithern Avenue when I wrote that, in the neighborhood that it’s describing. That “cinematic” thing, it may have started with the Humans album: “Tokyo” and a few other songs on that album. I’m not sure. I’d have to dig back and see if it was as apparent before that. But by the time we get to Inner City Front, it’s really full-on, conscious, “I’m painting a scene now, and the next verse is going to be a different scene, and they’re related in various ways.”

The eternal things are eternal

There’s a rainbow shining in a bead of spittle
Falling diamonds in rattling rain
Light flexed on moving muscle
I stand here dazzled with my heart in flames

— “World of Wonders” (1985)

You Pay Your Money and You Take Your Chance,” the opening track of Inner City Front, includes one of Cockburn’s most striking images. It’s a street scene at night, and the narrator has been drawn from his apartment by the sound of a screaming woman.

By the time I reach the corner they’ve all vanished
Just a deaf kid talking like Popeye to a large fleshy laughing man in a blue shirt

Like a Flannery O’Connor story, the song is an intersection of grotesque characters that ends with an unexpected glimpse of grace: “And through it all, somehow, this willingness that asks no questions.”

Cockburn: Yeah, well, grace. Grace lives in the dirt, you know?

Beyond: Right.

Cockburn: If you want to call it “dirt.” I don’t know if that’s exactly how I think about it. If you’ve got to wait until you’re sitting out on a mountaintop somewhere to experience grace, you’re probably going to miss it. [laughs] It’s not really grace then. You’ve constructed an atmosphere for yourself to get in touch with an aspect of yourself. But it’s that gleam in a “bead of spittle.” That’s where the grace is. It’s all over the place.

Seeing it in other people, for me, has always been more difficult than finding it in a landscape or in something that happens to me or in some other subjective thing. But occasionally I get lucky and I get to see it in people, too. Or, at least—I mean, I see it in people fairly often—but I see it in a way that can be translated into part of a song.

Beyond: Those moments are sprinkled throughout your songs. Like, “In the Falling Dark,” with its images of the “hard-shelled husbands and wives”—these mundane images of everyday life that are illumined by something sacred. And then all the way up to You’ve Never Seen Everything with “Everywhere Dance”: “The Dance is truth, and it’s everywhere.”

Cockburn: Not everybody hears this, but I think the song “You’ve Never Seen Everything” is talking about that, too. The whole point of that song is, this shit is happening all around us and we can’t ignore it. And we shouldn’t try to ignore it. We should deal with it. But you’ve got to remember that that’s not the only thing there is. The song kind of goes at it from a negative perspective, because it’s saying “here’s all this stuff and we don’t see the light coming down everywhere,” but it is. The implication is that it is coming down everywhere, but we’re not looking.

Beyond: You seem to retain a sense of hope despite it all.

Cockburn: Well, the eternal things are eternal. [laughs] Love and God and even the planet, in any terms that matter to us. I mean, the planet will go on without us, if need be. Indefinitely. Until the sun dies, or whatever. But there’s a rhythm to things and . . . I’m getting tired of using the word “interconnectedness,” but it’s the only word I can think of. The realities of life are so much bigger than the shit we’re stepping in that it just doesn’t matter.

Nobody makes a living being a poet

Don’t let the system fool you
All it wants to do is rule you
Pay attention to the poet
You need him and you know it

— “Maybe the Poet” (1982)

In January 2004, Cockburn visited Iraq as part of a delegation whose purpose was to assess and document the humanitarian situation there, or, as he would later describe it, to experience “American empire building” first-hand. By the following summer, he had added a new song to his touring repertoire: “This is Baghdad,” which he describes as a “landscape,” like “Tokyo.” Cockburn has consistently shrugged off suggestions that his political engagement is some kind of mission, instead comparing it to an “organic urge” to tell the truth about important—and often unreported—aspects of human experience.

Beyond: In “Maybe the Poet,” you remind us that “the poet shows you new ways to see.”

Cockburn: At the time I wrote that I was aware of the phenomenon in the Soviet Union of dissidents being incarcerated in psychiatric institutions, which, of course, is utterly sinister. An evil way of treating dissidents. And, of course, poets tend to be dissidents if they’re saying anything truthful because the truth is always inimical to authoritarian regimes and to people who like power, generally. So you go telling the truth and you get in trouble.

In the Soviet Union they were institutionalizing people and really fucking them over, but in North America we don’t do that. We just buy them off. Or bury them under layers of the commercially available substitute. And so you take someone like Allen Ginsburg, who was as much a prophet as anyone in the Bible. Here’s a guy who is really saying what people need to hear, and some people are listening but not the majority. Of course, there are far more poets, and Ginsberg was good enough and lucky enough to get some sort of public profile early on and to keep it, to a certain degree. But there are all those people trying to tell the truth as they understand it.

Nobody makes a living being a poet. [laughs] You do something else, and you do that on the side. Or you do something on the side to put food on the table. That’s where I was coming from [in “Maybe the Poet”]. Illustrations of how we shut out people who are trying to tell the truth.

I sang that song in East Berlin. We had an East German translator—this is in the early-80s, before we had even a hint that the wall was going to come down—and I was told later by people who were in the audience that the translator was doing a pretty good job of summarizing what I was singing about and talking about until we got to that song. I said something about the Soviet Union, basically what I just told you, and that part didn’t get translated. [laughs]

Beyond: Your career has taken you to some remarkable places, which leads me to my last question. I have to ask you about “Strange Waters,” which is a song that I can’t seem to stop listening to. It’s another of those “cinematic” lyrics.

Cockburn: “Strange Waters” was a reflection on something that was another recurring thought. Around the time that I first started thinking of myself as a Christian, I tried to understand what that was by reading the books that were available and by listening to a lot of people. In a way I tried to be a fundamentalist, but it didn’t really take.

One reason it didn’t really take was that, over time . . . I officially became a Christian in ’73 or ’74, but by the end of the ‘70s, I’m watching these . . . I turn on the TV and I see these people coming on shows like 100 Huntley Street and they’re testifying that they were an alcoholic, they’d lost their job, and then they found Jesus and everything was okay now. He’s healthy. He’s working again. He’s not drinking.

And my experience was the exact opposite. It was just so obvious that the journey that we are invited to embark on as spiritual beings—whether we approach it through Christianity or anything else, any other door—that journey is a journey fraught with peril. It’s intense, it’s not . . . in no way are you ever invited to sit back and go, “Whoo, I’m okay now.” It’s just not part of it.

“Strange Waters” is really addressing that. It’s just a list of all these bizarre things I’ve encountered, and I’m saying to God, [laughs] “Somebody said you would lead me beside still waters.” But that hasn’t been my experience. These waters are fairly troubling. And yet it’s going where it has to go, and so clearly. It feels clear to me, anyway.

Sidebar: Recommended Albums

In the Falling Dark (1976)
A landmark album both because it signaled a transition from Cockburn’s earlier acoustic music to the jazz- and rock-infused sound of the 1980s and because it is generally considered the most eloquent exploration of his newfound Christian faith. Cockburn calls “Silver Wheels” an ode to the “headlong, highway rush-type poetry” that Allen Ginsburg was writing at the time.

Humans (1980)
Written during a period of great change in Cockburn’s personal life, the songs on Humans are an expression of his evolving desire to test his faith in action. Along with “Tokyo,” the album also includes “How I Spent My Fall Vacation,” a travelogue from Cockburn’s harrowing encounter with a gun-toting policeman in Rome. “Fascist Architecture” is an audacious allegory for his failed marriage.

Stealing Fire (1984)
The back jacket of Stealing Fire features a portrait of Cockburn in disheveled green fatigues. His 1983 visits to Central American refugee camps generated this, his most vitriolic collection of songs, including “Maybe the Poet,” “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” and “Dust and Diesel.” The success of its single, “Lovers in a Dangerous Times,” made Stealing Fire one of Cockburn’s best sellers as well.

Nothing But a Burning Light (1991)
In the early-1990s, Cockburn signed with Sony, who built his reputation in the U.S. by re-releasing his back catalogue and by actively promoting this album. Produced by T-Bone Burnett and featuring guests such as Jackson Browne, Sam Phillips, and Booker T., Burning Light is a deliberately “rootsy”-sounding album that features a blistering cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of a Man.”

The Charity of Night (1996)
Fans at recently voted The Charity of Night their favorite Cockburn album. Accented throughout by Gary Burton’s vibraphone and by backing vocals from Ani DiFranco, Jonatha Brooke, Patty Larkin, and Maria Muldaur, it is a jazzy album that features several of Cockburn’s best spoken word songs, including “Get Up Jonah” and “Birmingham Shadows.” Charity closes with “Strange Waters.”

You’ve Never Seen Everything (2003)
Cockburn’s post-9/11 album is by turns angry, exhausted, and hopeful. “Trickle Down” is a seething indictment of globalization and corporate welfare, but it’s balanced by songs like “Open” and “Everywhere Dance,” which direct our attention to the sacred beauty of the everyday. Collaborators here include jazz pianist Andy Milne, who co-wrote two songs, and Emmylou Harris.