BRUCE COCKBURN at Massey Hall (178 Victoria), Friday (October 20). $39.50-$49.50. 416-872-4255. Rating: NNNNN
My idealistic parents once dragged my reluctant sister and me to a Bruce Cockburn concert during his Nothing But A Burning Light tour in the early 90s. As if going to a gig with the 'rents weren't shaming enough, I was a teen with punk rock starting to infect my blood, and a sit-down soiree with a Canadian folk-rock icon was not on my fuck-the-world agenda.
I didn't leave the show wanting to buy a trench coat, pierce my ear and buy a classical guitar, but Cockburn certainly did rattle my young nihilism. He was riotously raging in a polite, unassuming Canadian kind of way about the environment, land mines, Third World economic oppression, whatever, and this was at a time when things were going relatively well compared to the shitstorm we live in now. It wasn't overbearing, self-righteous or preachy, just a musician genuinely giving a damn more than most about what goes on in our world.
That's why Cockburn is an affecting kind of dude. His conscious passion is infectious and, judging from a phone conversation with him 14 years later, unlikely to be extinguished.
"The subject matter hasn't gone out of style," says the 61-year-old Cockburn. "The names have changed, and Guatemala isn't as bad now, but the same kinds of things are still happening all over the world."
He's referring to If I Had A Rocket Launcher, a song inspired by his harrowing eyewitness experiences of the bloody U.S.-backed civil war in Central America during the early 80s, and one of the biggest hits of his career. Though it's a staple on his current set list, he retired the song in the emotional aftermath of September 11.
"I felt it was playing on the wrong kind of feeling, especially in the States," says Cockburn. "It's back now. People get it and relate it to the war in Iraq. But after 9/11, people wouldn't have gotten it. They would only get the anger and the 'Let's go get 'em' vibe. Now people can distance themselves to some degree from the emotion of that moment. People can hear it the way it was intended."
Speaking of Iraq, Cockburn made an excursion to Baghdad in early 2004. The trip was so widely documented, I'm hesitant to prod him any further for details. Besides, everything he really wants us to know is on the new record, Life Short Call Now (True North), where in a song like This Is Baghdad he skips the sensationalized drama for a more true-to-life tableau of everyday life, or delivers Judgment Day warnings to Bush in Tell The Universe.
But don't assume Cockburn intentionally seeks out settings of geopolitical calamity for song material.
"Everywhere I go I always hope I'll get an idea," he says. "I can't let that be a motive for going places. It's not like, 'Hmm... let's go look at people in pain and write a song about it.' That would be a little obscene. I'm always on the lookout for ideas and I always take notes, and sometimes the notes become songs. With a place like [Iraq], I felt like I wanted to write a song because I had something to say that wasn't getting heard."
My younger self would've asked Cockburn, "Why bother with it all, though? The world is totally messed up; you can't really do anything about it even if you want to, so just leave it alone and go get wasted, right?"
"The problem is, that doesn't really work," he says. "Things like this have a way of coming to find you. When I started, I didn't really care; I wasn't that interested. These assholes are going to do what they want, there's not much we can do about it and it doesn't belong in music anyway. I didn't like the idea of being a propagandist, which is what I thought happened when you mixed music and politics."
He pauses reflectively.
"But obviously I've changed my mind on that."