Cock­burn comes to terms with life

The com­poser will be feted by his peers in the Cana­dian Song­writer’s Hall of Fame

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - GRA­HAM ROCKINGHAM grock­ing­ham@thes­ 905-526-3331 | @Rock­atTheSpec

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.”

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