BRUCE COCKBURN at Convocation Hall (31 King's College Circle), Saturday (November 29). $34.50-$42.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
the man who attacked reagan-spawned atrocities in Central America in anthems of righteous indignation like If I Had A Rocket Launcher and Yanqui Go Home has never shied away from criticizing U.S foreign policy. So where was Bruce Cockburn after 9/11?
"I was just struck dumb," admits Cockburn before a gig in Chicago. "I felt a kind of pathetic impotence, like writing a song was the stupidest reaction to a horror like that. Of course I don't believe that now, because good songs can give people a rallying point. All the songs that came out immediately after were crap. The emotion in them seemed suspect."
What triggered his eventual response wasn't the event itself but the reactionary fallout. Late one night, Cockburn watched fundamentalist Jerry Falwell on TV blaming the fall of the Twin Towers on "gays and lesbians and people who've had abortions."
"All I could think was, 'Man, you self-serving son of a bitch!'" Cockburn rants. "After reflecting, I realized that, by wanting to attack him, I was falling into his trap. So I wrote the song Put It In Your Heart instead."
In contrast to the indignant rage of a tune like Rocket Launcher, Put It In Your Heart resonates with the sound of a man fumbling for the strength of love and compassion to combat communal fear and ignorance. It's a graceful spark of optimism that glimmers amidst the chronicles of hope and helplessness on You've Never Seen Anything (True North), Cockburn's most recent album.
True North's new remastered reissues of 1971's High Winds White Sky, 1980's blistering, reggae-tinged Humans, and Stealing Fire, the 1984 album that gave us Rocket Launcher and Lovers In A Dangerous Time, bring You've Never Seen Anything into sharper focus.
What strikes you is Cockburn's evolution from the acoustic coffee house folk of High Winds White Sky through 80s worldbeat to the avant-jazz experimentation on his latest disc. The singer/songwriter also manages to stay relevant, both musically and politically. Sure, he'll straight-out attack Dubya, but on You've Never Seen Anything, Cockburn comes off sounding like a mystic poet who's matured past his blunt, didactic rage.
He's treading familiar territory, mapping out greed, global injustice and his own spiritual struggles as a self-aware Christian.
"Humanity is in kind of a race with itself, between an identification with the divine in a healthy way and our innate urge to self-destruct," Cockburn explains. "We either have to situate ourselves in the cosmos in a way that's positive and conscious, or else we die.
"The Bush administration is clearly in the service of self-destruction, and they have a lot of company. But we need to understand our interconnectedness. That's what will save us."
Cockburn's candour about his own beliefs, both religious and political - he admires pacifists but feels violence is inevitable - is refreshing in such an image-conscious society.
And though you might not realize it from his songs, Cockburn's not entirely doom and gloom. I mean, he's the man behind the theme song for TV's Franklin The Turtle cartoon.
"It was fun enough, but there were so many consultations. There's one verse, right? The line about Franklin wearing his house on his back? It took two weeks of discussion to figure out whether that was appropriate. It was too much like doing a commercial to make me want to do that kind of work on a regular basis.
"I wouldn't mind trying a grown-up series sometime. But they're not making any more Buffys, so I'll have to wait and see."