“I’m no good at sound bites,” Bruce Cockburn admitted with a laugh following yet another lengthy response to a question.
The esteemed singer/songwriter was taking a break from recording his 24th album of previously unreleased material — and his first for Rounder Records — to chat by phone.
Except that Cockburn, 57, is not a man who chats. His mind latches onto a subject and caresses it until it shines; when he’s finally spoken his piece, you understand that his music comes by its characteristic depth quite honestly.
Cockburn has been a professional musician for more than 35 years, and his most recent output ranks among his best. A lifelong activist, he gets as fired up as ever over causes he believes in, like the worldwide ban on land-mine use (see “Explosive Content”).
He began his career inauspiciously enough, dropping his jazz-guitar studies at Berklee College of Music in Boston in the mid-1960s to join the first of a series of short-lived rock bands in his native Canada.
Cockburn’s first group, The Children, boasted a fan club — The Children’s Revolutionary Army — of about six teenage girls, he recalls. Olivus, one of his final groups before going solo, featured a young, bell-bottomed Cockburn playing end-of-show guitar solos with his teeth.
“It was ludicrous,” he says with a chuckle.
Cockburn’s early albums are, by contrast, true starry-eyed folk, pretty and often sweetly naive, with spare, inward-looking lyrics expressing growing spiritual concerns.
But with the release of the transcendent Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws (Columbia, 1979) — with its gorgeous single “Wondering Where the Lions Are” — Cockburn’s music seemed virtually reborn.
Spiritual references had become decidedly Christian. Musical arrangements were fuller, framing Cockburn’s precise, shimmering guitar. Lyrics were denser, and often unabashedly poetic, displaying a heightened sensitivity to word choices and startling images that often recalled the earthy romanticism of Chilean master poet Pablo Neruda.
And gone was the overt navel-gazing: Cockburn’s focus was shifting to the world outside.
His increasingly global outlook peaked with a trio of essential Columbia Records releases — The Trouble With Normal (1983), Stealing Fire (1984) and World of Wonders (1985). The music was big and insistent, its lyrics frequently pitting Cockburn’s humanistic Christian faith against global military and economic forces responsible for acts of appalling atrocity, particularly in Latin America.
Cockburn knows the music opened some listeners’ eyes to ugliness they’d never imagined — “the evils they are unwittingly a part of,” as he puts it — but he prefers to view his impact in more optimistic terms.
“In the early ’80s, I heard from a lot of people who cited my songs as an inspiration to get involved with Nicaragua and, in many cases, to go there and work on coffee-picking brigades and that kind of thing,” he reveals. “Music has the capacity to do that; if people are ready to hear a certain thing, then music can be a catalyst for all sorts of action.”
The pinnacle tune from this period remains Stealing Fire’s misleadingly beautiful “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” The song, based on Cockburn’s trips to shanty camps in Mexico where U.S.-funded Guatemalan soldiers in helicopters strafed their own refugees, builds to a fevered declaration of hate.
“If I had a rocket launcher,” Cockburn — a staunch pacifist — snarls at the song’s sudden end, “some son-of-a-bitch would die.”
“It’s one thing to see these things on TV and have a vague sense of what they must be like,” Cockburn comments now. “It’s a whole other thing to be in it, and to be surrounded by people who had fled something as horrendous as what those particular refugees had fled, and [who were then] living in the most desperate conditions imaginable, but still maintaining a sense of hope and integrity within themselves.”
A set of lyrics in “Last Night of the World,” from Cockburn’s most recent studio album of new material, Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu (Rykodisc, 1999), revisits the memory:
“I’ve seen the flame of hope among the hopeless/ And it was truly the biggest heartbreak of all/ That was the straw that broke me open … “
Cockburn left that refugee camp, he says, convinced that succumbing to hopeless is an act of pure decadence.
“In our North American/Western culture, we have that luxury, and we indulge it,” he elaborates. “As youth, we certainly do: ‘Oh, it’s all hopeless. Everything’s f••ked up.’ And, y’know, here were people who were dealing with the real stuff, and they [weren’t] hopeless.
“The sense that hope is available to people — sometimes maybe because of being confronted with the darkest, heaviest things — really changed my way of looking at the world.”
Cockburn’s recent recorded output charts a shift in focus back to the internal, though his best work, including the often sublime Breakfast in New Orleans, strikes a balance between the external world and the one within.
That sense of balance may help explain how Cockburn, who wears his faith openly but doesn’t wield it, has achieved a most peculiar distinction: He’s popular even among declared nonbelievers.
How does he pull it off?
“Faith, to me, isn’t about Christianity, and certainly not about the church,” Cockburn observes. “It’s about the fact that there is something divine, and it matters whether I pay attention to it or not. That’s the starting point for my songs.
“I came by my faith honestly,” he adds. “I didn’t start out with it. My parents are agnostics, and I grew up in a household that put no importance whatsoever on religion. We went to church because the neighbors would talk if we didn’t.