Musician in a dangerous time

Bruce Cockburn talks about land mines, "adult" entertainment and being an '80s musician in the '90s.

By David Bowman
September 30, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Maybe, just maybe, Bruce Cockburn will turn out to be a musician of the '90s.
In the 1980s, he made good records, but early this decade he made
two great lyrical albums with producer T-Bone Burnett, "Nothing But Burning Light" (1991) and "Dart to the Heart" (1994). These works explored aspects of Americana with songs about Kit Carson, Robert Johnson's
crossroads and Mexican truck drivers. Then, with new producer Colin Linden, "The Charity of Night" came out in '96 and used catchy, melodic, high-tech
global pop to examine political and sociological issues from Birmingham, Ala.,
to Mozambique (hardly the vacation spot that Bob Dylan sang of on "Desire").
Now Cockburn's new album, "Breakfast in New Orleans,
Dinner In Timbuktu" (also produced by Linden), continues Cockburn's exploration of global politics and even ventures into biblical terrain, hinting that Eve tempted Adam with a
mango while Eden itself was located on Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill."

Writing this, I realize there really is no term to describe
Cockburn's style of music, his pop genre. Should we call it post-Jackson
Browne? Post-Don Henley? It's a combination of acoustic and electric
instrumentation with cutting-edge production. Meaningful lyrics, sometimes too meaningful -- Cockburn tends to include a track or two
that's just him ruminating about an issue over music.
("Sometimes ideas don't want to be reduced to rhyming couplets," he says.)
But then -- as Cockburn reveals -- he's a word man. Every song begins with
language, not a riff.


I've been following you for years and I know nothing about you.
Where did you get your musical start?

In Ottawa, '66. I played in a rock 'n' roll band made up of some of
my folkie friends. That was when I really started songwriting. For
the next four years, I was in and out of bands -- they operated slightly above
the garage-band level, but only slightly. During that time I accumulated a
small body of material that worked better when I sang it alone. And I ended
up making the choice to start performing that way. Very soon after, I got a
chance to record, at the end of '69.

Did you think of yourself as a "folk singer"?


In the Ani Difranco sense? Yes. I was never as comfortable
with the term as she is. But I played folk festivals and I performed with
acoustic guitar so other people called me a folk singer. But as one of the
old blues guys once said, "It's all folk music. I never heard a horse sing a

It seems like there's not many people doing satisfying -- I don't
know what it's called nowadays -- adult music?

I think of it as music that's aimed at an audience of people that
like to be entertained by things that ask them to think a bit. Not everyone
feels that way about their entertainment.


I hate to say this but I think my favorite song on the new record is
"Blueberry Hill."

It's a good song. I have a band called Bambi and the Deerhunters
-- sort of an extracurricular thing that we do. Bambi's mandate is to play
songs that we don't know. In rehearsal, I was fooling around with that
particular sound on the guitar and started playing "Blueberry Hill." We
played it in a gig in Toronto early this year and it worked.


I always read about you being in some far-off corner of the world -- Vietnam, Cambodia. Why do you travel to those places?

In connection with land mines. There is work to be
done to make sure the countries that have signed [the treaty to remove land mines]
all play the best part that they can. I'm not at the center of this issue, but I'm involved enough. I'll stay involved until we make headway.

The only people who think that we need land mines are the people who are making them.


Do you have some grand activist plan?

No, things just come along. I have concerns -- as most of us do --
of various aspects of the state of the world. The extent of those concerns
is governed by what I think I can actually address. My function in all these
instances is just as a mouthpiece.

This might sound corny, but are you especially compassionate?


Ha ha. I don't think so. I think I'm quite a prick actually. I
don't know. Compassion? Am I compassionate? Maybe more than some. Probably
not as much as some. Kind of depends how vulnerable I feel at any given moment.

Do you suffer much to make albums?

Suffer? That doesn't quite compute.

Go into creative agony. Is making a record easy or hard?


It feels exciting. Enjoyable. Occasionally difficult, not usually.
My dark night of the soul happened in 1990. It had been a year and a half
since I'd written a song. I took the year off to see if I was going to write
any more songs or I should think about a new profession. As soon as I took
the year off, I started writing.

Do you get lyrics first and then melody?

Yeah. The lyrics are virtually always first. I got a bunch of
images or ideas or bits of stories, whatever, that have to be supported by the

You made two records with T-Bone Burnett and now two with Colin
Linden. Why the initial switch?


There's a danger in any combination of people working together for
too long. It becomes harder to avoid your own clichis. You need to kind of
keep on having new life into it somehow. Coltrane had that amazing band with
Alvin Jones and McCoy Tyner for years and then he need to do something else.
He started playing with Pharaoh Sanders. It's allegorious to the following of
the road that might be asked of you in life.

I was talking with Richard Thompson and told him how glad I was he dumped longtime producer Mitchell Froom. He said, "Lots of friends have told me that."

What kind of friends are those, right? My assumption when I hear music is: Unless I know something to the contrary, the artist and the producer did what they wanted to do. So I either like it or I don't. It's my problem, not theirs.

Do you have friends who can say that you're messing up?


Most of the people I'm close to are able to say, "That sucks." Then
I'm capable of hearing that. I don't have to agree with them. I get pretty
good feedback from various quarters. It's not foolproof. I might look back at
something I did five years ago and think, I wish I had done something
different. Wouldn't it have been nice if someone could have told me that?
Who knows. Everyone is hearing it their own way.

Do you care about record reviews?

No. I generally don't read them. I read them at the end of the tour
to see what the overall vibe was. Usually I try not to read reviews because
I find them distracting even if they are favorable. They'll say something
about a particular song and I'll be trying to sing that song for an audience.
Then I'll have that stupid phrase ... in front of my eyes from the review. [With mock drama] Oh, the tribulations of a Canadian songwriter/performer!

David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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