Bruce Cockburn has never shied away from the spotlight.
An Officer of the Order of Canada, 11-time Juno Award winner, Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee, singer-songwriter and master guitar player, Cockburn is not only a national icon, he’s an international activist, using his voice and celebrity to shed light on the suffering of people around the world.
Topics like politics and religion are never taboo for Cockburn, who has made it his life’s work to not only share his music, but to share the stories of people from every corner of the world from Africa to Central America.
In fact, Cockburn has put his life on the line on several occasions to travel to war zones, seeking out the story for himself, only to share the plight of the people he met through music. His hit song If I had a Rocket Launcher is just one of the many songs that came out of those trips.
“I started writing it during my first trip to Central America in ‘83 and finished it when I got back to Toronto. I visited the Guatemalan refugee camps in southern Mexico,” says Cockburn. “The government wasn’t allowing anyone to work with those refugees … We had to sneak in. There were 100,000 refugees from some of the most brutal repression anyone’s faced anywhere. I spent a few days in two camps and, in a nutshell, the incredible dignity that they were able to maintain in the face of extreme deprivation, living on a diet of three tortillas a day per person, they managed to hold it together. That was poignant enough, but at the same time, you can hear the sounds of the Guatemalan military’s helicopters patroling the border only a couple hundred yards away and they were known to strafe the camps. The people piloting the helicopters had forfeited any claim to humanity I felt.”
Cockburn began writing If I had a Rocket Launcher when he got back to his hotel “with beds and meals. Yet, the sense of outrage was very strong. Strong enough to produce that song,” he says.
Cockburn got the chance to visit Canadian troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2009 when his brother, then a captain in the Canadian Forces was there on a six-month tour. On his way over, the plane made a stop at Camp Mirage, the Canadian Forces’ staging ground in the Middle East, and Cockburn got a front row seat to one of the most profound experiences of his life — a ramp ceremony.
“Just as we were assembling to get on the plane, a flight came in with two dead soldiers on board, so we became a circumstantial part of the ramp ceremony. It was very, very moving. The whole group was in tears. The Governor General was crying as the coffins came off, carried by the deceased’s comrades. The whole thing was so sober — completely free from hysteria or grandstanding.”
On the “Morale Mission,” Cockburn played a set for the mostly French-Canadian soldiers at the Kandahar Air Field, before going “outside the wire” for some smaller performances at Forward Operating Bases throughout the province. Instead of being afraid as most civilians would be, Cockburn was excited at the chance to get out and see more of the country and visit with troops. “We were traveling with Walter Natynczyk, so we got the best security they had” he says, referring to the former chief of defence staff. “There was a funny moment at the end of one performance,” he says. “I sang If I had a Rocket Launcher… They related to that song the best in that context and got all excited over the last line of the song. Then someone came running over … the general was standing on my left and hands me a shoulder-fired missile launcher. So there I am holding a rocket launcher for a photo op … but the minute I reached for the controls did he ever take it away fast.”
Two songs from Cockburn’s latest album, Small Source of Comfort, were written during that trip.
Cockburn has also travelled to Mozambique, Nepal, Cambodia, Vietman and Iraq over the years.
“Each trip has had own specific reasons, but in general it’s all about education and adventure I suppose, having grown up with the travel bug in me,” he says, crediting the writers of the Beat Generation with inspiring him to keep moving. “Ginsberg and Kerouac in particular,” he says.
Cockburn grew up in Ottawa, but left in the ‘70s and never looked back. But he still very much considers himself a proud Canadian.
Of all the accolades, awards and honours, Cockburn says it’s the Order of Canada that stands above the rest — even though he thought about sending the medal back when he heard Brian Mulroney was inducted.
“I felt like it meant something bigger than that, even though he’s a politician that I vehemently disagree with. It means a lot to me to have that recognition from the nation. It reflects my love for Canada. I don’t live there now because I have a family in San Francisco but I feel very much a Canadian. … All the other stuff, the music business awards, they’re a nice compliment but that’s not what I do music for.”
He’s received seven honourary doctorates from Canadian universities, including UVic (Doctor of Law, 2007).
“It was funny — I got that degree at spring convocation and at the same time, my then girlfriend, who’s now my wife, was getting a law degree in New York after struggling for three long years. She found it pretty amusing.”
At 68 years old, Cockburn has found himself a father for the second time around. When he’s not touring, he’s a stay-at-home dad to 19 month-old daughter Iona.
His older daughter is now 36, and the mother of four kids of her own — four grandchildren who call his new daughter auntie.
Between practising for his upcoming tour and writing a “spiritual memoir,” due by the end of July, Cockburn has got his hands full.
“I try to practise, but with the baby it’s very difficult. I have to negotiate with God just to take a shower,” he says with a chuckle. “My wife works a regular job. I take the baby to and from day care and have a few hours to do what I can during the day — regular things like laundry, groceries and email. That will change of course. It’s a temporary condition.”
With 31 albums over four decades, Cockburn’s career as a singer-songwriter is enduring.
“If someone asks what I do, I tell them I’m a singer-songwriter, but that’s become problematic. In the beginning it seemed exactly the right term, but now people refer to Katy Perry as a singer-songwriter, so I don’t know if I can be called that or not. It’s what I do, but if I had the chance to explain further, I’d explain that the lyrics are really important and there’s a lot of guitar in what I do.”
His extensive career is the subject of Pacing the Cage, a documentary recently released by True North Records featuring appearances by songwriters Jackson Browne, Sylvia Tyson, Bono, Sarah Harmer, Colin Linden, best-selling authors Michael Ondaatje, William Young, Lt. Gen Romeo Dallaire and his manager Bernie Finkelstein.
Cockburn still spends a lot of time on the road touring and is looking forward to coming to Victoria’s Butchart Gardens Wednesday, Aug. 14 with a three-piece band.
“With a band there’s more opportunities to stretch out on some things,” he says. “There’s a lot more you can do with the jam factor.”
The show starts at 7:30 p.m. and is included with general admission to the gardens. Twelve-month pass holders will get a 25 per cent discount on this special event. Capacity for the outdoor concert maxes out when the parking lot is full. Advance tickets are available online at butchartgardens.com, which essentially secures a parking spot. Those coming by bus won’t have to worry about a sell-out. There is no assigned seating. Bring a lawn chair or a blanket and go early to get the best spots. Take advantage of Butchart’s gourmet picnics available by pre-order and stick around after the concert for the night illumination show — a play of light and shadow set against the backdrop of the world-renowned gardens.
Bruce Cockburn live Aug. 14 at Butchart Gardens