Cockburn comes to terms with life
The composer will be feted by his peers in the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame
Bruce Cockburn, the angry Canadian composer of “If I had a Rocket Launcher,” has been living in the land of Donald Trump for the past eight years, surprisingly content.
Cockburn is on the phone from his home in San Francisco to talk about his new studio album “Bone on Bone” and his upcoming Canadian concert tour that will take him and his band to Hamilton’s FirstOntario Centre on Sept. 30.
OK, San Francisco isn’t exactly the land of Trump. It’s actually an oasis of liberalism in a nation that happens to be run by that very unliberal guy who recently told the United Nations he was prepared to destroy North Korea and it’s little dog, too.
I’ve been interviewing Cockburn for many years now. He doesn’t shy away from political fencing. He always seemed ready to do battle with the world’s injustices. If there was a tree to hug, both arms were wide open. If there was a whale to save, Bruce was aboard. And if a Junta needed taking out … well … there was that rocket launcher.
So after the usual pleasantries, our conversation naturally turned to some carefree banter about the new America.
“It’s a crazy country,” Cockburn admits with an understated laugh, noting that his time in the U.S. has made him appreciate his native country. “Canada, for all of its issues and there are many, is the single island of sanity in the Western hemisphere.”
But he is not grabbing for the nearest rocket launcher. His wife M.J. Hannett has a law career in San Francisco and their five-year-old daughter Iona has just started Grade 1 there. Unless things get really crazy in America, he’s there for the long haul.
He admits to concern about the polarized nature of American political discussion, on both the right and the left.
“The unwillingness to see the other guy’s point of view is very common,” says Cockburn, a native of Ottawa. “That’s part of the energy of the country. On the positive side, we know that the U.S. has great energy and great things get done here.”
At 72, the iconic songwriter is sounding more like a moderate than an iconoclast. Trump is a setback, but things will work themselves out. Right now, Cockburn has more important things on his mind. He’s looking at life from the narrow end of life’s road.
“What seems urgent now is not the same that seemed urgent in 1980,” he says. “I know some stuff I didn’t know then, and I have a sense of how much I don’t know. I see this threshold approaching that requires a different sort of attention than the stuff you notice when you are younger.
“Bone on Bone,” released Sept. 15 on the Waterdown-based True North Records label, is Cockburn’s 33rd album,
the first from a studio in six years.
Produced by Colin Linden of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, the album is filled with the brilliant guitar playing and beautiful lyricism that have become Cockburn trademarks. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment for an artist whose career spans more than five decades.
The album’s 11 songs reflect an awareness of where the writer stands in the arc of life. When Cockburn decided to call it “Bone on Bone,” he was thinking of joint pain.
“It’s about having lived this long,” Cockburn says without hesitation. “I think of it as a kind of darkly joyous exercise in noticing where you are. At this point, what’s ahead of you is shorter than what is behind you.”
There are some lighthearted tracks like “Café Society,” filled with snippets of conversation from the local coffee shop, and “3 Al Purdys,” written for a documentary about the life of the great Canadian poet.
There are also songs with a strong gospel tinge — not preachy, but traditional, as if borrowed from a southern Baptist church. Cockburn attributes the gospel sound to his return to the church.
“I had just hit a point in my life where that had become a dominant theme again, so it’s a dominant theme in the songs,” he explains.
Cockburn was a church goer in the ’70s and that spirituality is embroidered into much of his work during that era. In 1980, however, Cockburn stopped attending church and took a more humanist, often political, approach to his art.
Three Christmases ago, things changed with the death of a close family friend in a house fire. Cockburn’s wife took solace in San Francisco’s Lighthouse community church. She asked him to accompany her.
“One day I finally gave in and I was completely captivated,” he says. “I stepped through the door and there was this wall of love and great music, a small congregation with no pretences. Everyone that goes there goes because they want to be there. The vibe was great, very democratic and welcoming.”
“Reconnecting with that particular approach to spirituality led to what’s on the album.”
The release of “Bone on Bone” comes at a time when interest in Cockburn’s extensive catalogue is burgeoning. On Saturday, Sept. 23, he will be inducted into the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame along with Neil Young, Beau Dommage and Stephane Venne at Toronto’s Massey Hall. Hamilton’s Tom Wilson, who will be among several artists performing tributes to Cockburn at the ceremony, says it is time Cockburn receives such recognition.
“He’s an iconic messenger who is known all around the world,” Wilson says. “He’s done so many things with his art.”
Bruce Cockburn performs at FirstOntario Centre Sept. 30.
Cover of Bruce Cockburn’s new album "Bone on Bone."
Bruce Cockburn, 72, lives in San Francisco but calls Canada “the single island of sanity in the Western hemisphere.”