Bruce Cockburn: Written in Fire

On Wednesday, March 6 at Vermilionville, serious music lovers will have the opportunity to fall into the vision of one of the best songwriters in the English language.

A few years back, local men's clothier and music lover Frank Camalo realized that he was traveling farther than he wanted to hear the music he loved. So he made the decision with his friend, fellow music lover Tony Morrow, to do what he had to do in order to hear what he had to hear: bring the music to Lafayette. They got their feet wet in the dicey promoting game with a few house concerts, then dove into the deep end and underwrote the Lucinda Williams concert at the Acadiana Center for the Arts. There followed shows featuring Alejandro Escovedo with Chuck Prophet, Graham Parker and Paul Thorn.

Different artists all, but what unites them are unique visions carved into highly individual songs that only they could have written. And on Wednesday, March 6 at Vermilionville, serious music lovers will have the opportunity to fall into the vision of one of the best songwriters in the English language, Ottawa native Bruce Cockburn.

You may be unfamiliar with his work or have never heard of him, but our neighbors to the north have chosen to honor him with his own postage stamp. That alone is no reason to hear anyone, but as a little measuring tool to help you decide how to spend an upcoming Wednesday evening, you might ponder that.

With a career that spans 31 albums, 11 Juno awards and decades of activism towards a better world and against the Madness, Cockburn has never let up an inch in offering us songs of stunning power built with melodies that engage on all levels. And the songs are thrust upward by some of the most happily ferocious guitar playing you and I will ever hear.

In New Orleans in the mid-80s, my college friend Shadrach Weathersby pulled out a record and told me to sit down and listen to a song. "No, really," he said seriously. "Sit down." The album was Stealing Fire and the song was called "If I Had a Rocket Launcher." I sat stunned. Whoever the singer was, he wasn't just rearranging the elements of drama for the sake of a good song. I was hearing the son of Dylan's Masters of War, and the son was going further. Dylan's song had teeth; the son had sharpened his to points. The last line was "If I had a rocket launcher, some son of a bitch would die."

Shad lifted the needle from the vinyl and stared at me. I was staring at the wall. This isn't done, I thought. Where am I?

"The rest of the album's pretty good, too," my friend said.

It was.

The song "Dust and Diesel" comes to mind, and "Nicaragua" and "Peggy's Kitchen Wall," as in who put the bullet hole in it? There was some dangerous music back in the 80s, punk and anarchy, but not much - and this was different, it wasn't wild emotion. It was controlled.

The songwriter also knew what he was talking about; he hadn't just made up songs about Guatamalan refugee camps from the newspapers, he had been there and seen the devastation up close. So it wasn't a flailing about and screaming into a microphone kind of rage, rather a contained, purposeful, directed fury like an arrow sprung from lives ended flying toward the end of another life. That kind of rage.

Not all of the songs were like that. Cockburn can write about anything and writes about everything, and occasionally does it in French. And if, like most people, you ignore what's being said, there's still this fascinating music that ranges far, soaring through our Western sensibilities and on into other cultures. It's folk music, yeah, but I'm afraid it's not the kind that that the average folk can do. It's a massive body of work fired up by massive ambition and dedication. But not every album was Stealing Fire, and nothing with that much rage has come through him since. Instead his talent grew and his vision became even more clear. It's been decades since he's written a series of songs with as much overt aggression, but a life full of that stuff isn't possible or desirable for an artist unless burning out young is an option. He has said that the rage may be less but the outrage remains, and he's written many, many songs as powerful as those on Stealing Fire.

Case in point: Cockburn's latest album is Small Source of Comfort, one of his best albums in a long string of best albums. It includes the song "Each One Lost," written after a trip to Kandahar, Afghanistan to visit with the Canadian soldiers and his brother, an ER doctor who joined the military later in life. The song was a direct response to the death of two Canadian soldiers as Cockburn stood on the tarmac for the solemn procession when the two coffins were flown home to their final resting place. It's an aggressively loving song.

A collection of songs from a thoughtful and on on-the-scene observer will have such moments, yet it's hardly a bleak album. "Call Me Rose" concerns the writer's dream of Nixon awakening as a poor single mother in the projects. It's a party, a really smart one. The song Radiance, a short, sharp portrait of a woman, is probably about a soldier, probably a helicopter pilot. The music is Eastern in nature and sounds very, very old. And there are other songs that I hope you hear soon.

A supporter of Canadian troops, he expresses "skepticism" about the war itself, a word he probably chose carefully, yet he also carefully examines, from a Christian perspective, that perhaps it's beholden on the strong to prevent the weak from being bullied and preyed upon - or, as he says, how best to love one's neighbor. This ability to examine the darkest ethical conundrums of the human condition and express it in song is why he is so popular in his native Canada - a gentle, advanced country and not, on the whole, rabidly concerned with the fear inspired by the animal parts of our nature.

The traveling to troubled parts of the world continues.

Another thing to know is that Bruce Cockburn is a very spiritual man, and has spent most of his adult life seeking in both traditional and unorthodox ways. In published interviews he speaks about the matter with an elegant concision burnished with humility.

For many of us, when the Rodgers and Hart era gave way to Lennon and McCartney, Dylan, Cohen, Joni, Waits and Newman, good songs that could change your world view were always piled up in many American living rooms. Bruce Cockburn is one of those people, and they seldom come to Lafayette.

Sunset is an angel weeping
Holding out a bloody sword
No matter how I squint I cannot
Make out what it's pointing toward
Sometimes you feel like you've lived too long
Days drip slowly on the page
And you catch yourself
Pacing the cage

Bruce spoke to me from his room in Orlando, where he was lodged on this current tour. He had his wife and young daughter with him, and happy squealing could be heard in the background.

SB: Since you write your own songs, your body of work is now so large that I view it as a  philosophy, questions from an earthling and sometimes even answers, even if they're not presented as such. Given that you've traveled hard and seen the best and the worst of us, and given that you've got an album called Humans, I think it's fair to ask your opinion: what's wrong with us?

BC: (laughter) That's a complicated question. I think we have genetic problems we have to deal with. (I laugh) Our DNA has been affected by our origins. The Bible sort of colors it in certain ways in the myth of the Garden of Eden, and I don't think there was a state of perfection like that, that we fell from. If there is such a thing as that former state of perfection, it's the animal infancy that we grew out of. And as animals, before we evolved into the complicated creatures that we are, we were able to navigate our way through life with a simpler view of things. But we're this weird combination of prey and predator, and we're almost the only species like that, that I can think of. I think that affects our psychology in a huge way in that we're consciously going back and forth between the peace-loving, grass-eating side of us and the carnivorous, aggressive side, and most of us have trouble reconciling those things. At the very bottom of it all, I think that's the issue, and not one that we're going to solve satisfactorily, so we've developed all these other ways of getting through and around the effects of it; they work sometimes and sometimes they don't.

SB: The fear that comes from being the prey - that's allowed me to get over my thing about ideology and just look at us as animals. That's a deep down place to go to look for an answer to my question. I don't think you can go any further than that.

BC: I can't, anyway. You can ascribe various attributes that we have to demonic or divine influences but I think that's after the fact, I think that's part of the attempt to rationalize the complexity that we've inherited. I do think those things exist, I think there is evil in the world and I think there's a God, and that the evil is largely a product of our own pathology, and the divine has to work through us in the state we are (in). The divine manifests in the electrochemical processes in our brains; just as much as any other experience, we can have those. The materialist in us and the spiritually inclined are both right. The people who deny the existence of God and say it's all chemistry are correct, as far as they're going, and the people who say there is a God are also right. To me it's a simple equation; it shouldn't be as hard to get along but it is. But as I said, basically the only way the divine can touch us is through who we are. When we experience a flash of inspiration, or a flash of insight into the workings of the cosmos, that flash happens in your brain, it happens to the chemical, electrical firings in your brain. It's all the same thing. You can't separate it out.

SB: You grew up in a religiously shaped environment but you mentioned about having a flash of experiencing the divine. Were you overcome with some sensation like that?

BC: I've had encounters like that more than once in my life. It's not a regular occurance; it would be nice if it were. But the most dramatic example perhaps, was in the end of 1969 when I got married for the first time. We got married in the Church because my wife thought that was a good idea and I liked the idea because I was fascinated with medieval things and I liked the idea of a stone church and stained glass and all that stuff, and I was interested in spiritual matters but I didn't consider myself a Christian particularly. We got married in an Anglican church, or what here would be an Episcopal church, and I liked the ritual, all the exterior stuff of it. But right at the moment when we were exchanging rings we're standing at the altar and there were very few people there: my immediate family and her immediate family and that was it, and the priest of course, and as we were exchanging rings I became aware that there was somebody else there that I couldn't see but I was absolutely convinced there was a presence on the altar with us, that was as palpable as if they were visible. And I figured, well, we're in a Christian church, it's gotta be Jesus. Who else would it be? It was really stunning I mean it didn't knock me down; I wasn't unable to complete the ceremony and that sort of stuff, but it was very deeply affecting. And it gave me pause for thought. I had to say, okay, if there's somebody who's that real to me, who shows up like that, then it's really someone I had better begin paying attention to.

SB: That would get my attention.

BC: Before then, I hadn't, because my interest was much more intellectual before that. I felt the reality - I don't know when it started, I think it was in my teens that I got the idea that there was a lot more to the universe than meets the eye. Then it became a question of speculating and studying up on what that might be. I read a lot of philosophers and a lot of religious stuff not so much Christian stuff because I'd grown up in, not in a religious household particularly, but churchgoing, like a normal American upbringing for the time.

SB: You paid attention to it on Sundays.

BC: Basically that's right. And to some extent at other times. We had teachers who would talk about it a little bit, and we said the Lord's Prayer in the morning at the school

SB: Was that a Catholic school?

BC: No, it was a public school.

SB: And you said the Lord's Prayer every morning?

BC: Yeah, this in Canada, right? Where we don't have a constitution that says you can't do that. That's probably changed by now. Don't forget, this was 50 years ago or more I started going to school, so things were somewhat different. But we said the Lord's Prayer; we did not pledge allegiance to the flag (laughter). It was quite a different atmosphere than my peers in the US might have experienced, but other than that it was probably the same, kids are kids. So there was enough of that to bring familiarity with the language and trappings of Christianity but it didn't really go deeper than that, so when I got interested in spiritual things I got into the occult, and Buddhism, the alternative stuff that was floating around, that was beginning to be widely visible in that era, in the sixties, from 1950 on. But when this thing happened at the wedding, I had been kind of leaning closer to Christianity anyway, and it brought me closer still. I didn't become a Christian then officially to myself on that date that came later with another encounter - but it it really reinforced that and nudged it along in a big way. And now, I don't know if I think of myself as a Christian at this point - there's too much about organized Christianity that is political and all the rest of it but there's no question in my mind that there was a divine presence.

SB: I have a problem with the things that humans have added on to Christianity.

BC: That's another thing you can't separate out, I mean the only records we have of it - other than what appears in your own heart - are records that were written down by people long after the fact, and people have fought and killed each other over what was going to be in those records. And it's not coincidental to me that three thousand years before the Christian story is set, there was a guy in Egypt who was born of a virgin and had twelve disciples and was killed and rose from the dead.

SB: Oh my God. Who was that?

BC: That was Horus, the Egyptian god Horus. It's the same story. Three thousand years earlier. So it keeps coming back, or it's another story using the same death. And I don't know what the answer to that one is, I don't think there's enough to have any sense of competence around that. But that knowledge has, among other things, made it difficult for me to categorically say that I'm a Christian, but I have tremendous respect for it and I leave open the possibility that I may be coming back around to that.

SB: Maybe it's a passion play that continually repeats through human history.

BC: It might be, or it might be something that we have to make up for ourselves, that appeals to us in a way that makes it something we perpetuate. I mean, I don't know how these things work; there's a lot of mystery in the world, especially when you start dealing with the issue of God and the interface between God and people. Things get very mysterious indeed.

SB: I thought that when I got to be this age that I would actually understand a few things, but instead, mysteries get wider.

BC: Yeah, we start to understand - at least in my case; I can't speak for anybody else - the understanding that comes with age has more to do with human behavior (laughter). I know a lot more about what I can take at face value and what I can't in terms of what to expect from people.

SB: You've been really forthcoming when people pose these kinds of questions for you, you've been very honest about it. What about down here on the ground?

BC: The most pressing issues to me are environmental ones. Water is the thing that's in the most jeopardy. People in the southeastern US, it's hard to imagine the shortage of water. In the Midwest, in Canada there's been a drought for years now. The big snowfalls they're having right now in that area are not enough to offset that drought. There might be more that could happen of course. But the environmental changes that we've brought on ourselves to me the vast weight of scientific opinion counts. It says that we're a major contributing factor to the climatic change that we're experiencing. And we're not doing anything about that. We're arguing about it instead of fixing it.

SB: Nobody can figure out how to make any money from it.

BC: It comes down to greed again, then, doesn't it? Self-interest, the same thing. I worry for us because of that. I think that the world's not going to get any better anytime soon because we aren't doing enough. People are trying, but so far no one in a position of power, decision-making power, seems to be in that group.

SB: Have you heard that the CEO of Exxon admitted that global warming is real?

BC: Wow. I had not heard that, but maybe there's a small ray of hope.

SB: Well, he said "it's an engineering problem with an engineering solution." At least you can say to skeptics that the CEO of Exxon said it's real. That should put an end to the argument right there.

BC: You'd think.

What then followed was a fun discussion about why aren't oil companies investing in the solution so they can profit from it? And on futures speculation and the economic gambling done by "really smart people." Much of my recording is marred by a passing train. That happens a lot.

SB: You're a hell of a guitar player and you were when you were quite young. You're capable of some rarified harmonic richness, yet you remain accessible enough to maintain a huge fan base. Are you doing exactly what you like to do, or have you ever felt constrained at times by this accessibility factor?

BC: No, not really. To some extent I think the way I'm attached to the way I use them (harmonies) is out of habit as much as anything. But no, I've never felt that I had to tone something down for the sake of making sense to people. In the context of a given song, yeah, because the song has to work as a whole. Like writing a song like Pacing the Cage and throwing in an atonal bridge might be wrong. (laughter) But I don't feel constrained, it's based on the choice of  style I'm working with.

SB: The great American songwriters several of whom are Canadians Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young don't seem to sell that well once they age. Joni Mitchel would rather paint. You've been supported in every decade of your career by the Canadian fan base. Is there something about Canadians in that they're more willing to follow a songwriter down into some demanding territory? Do they really not care how old an artist gets? What I'm trying to ask, is the Canadian audience less dumbed down than here?

BC: (laughter) I'm not sure. It's tempting, to want to say yes to that, but I don't know if I can justify it with fact. They would not show my videos if I had them and we do; over the years I've made quite a few, but not lately, because nobody's going to show them.

SB: Oh my God.

BC: It is an issue in Canada too. But I think you're mistaken about Leonard Cohen, he's as big as he ever was; he's in the middle of an arena tour. But if you measure his record sales, it's probably not what it once was.

SB: Where is he doing those arena shows? In the States?

BC: All over the world. He had a tour that lasted three years. His monitor guy, who used to work for me, I was out on one of the shows, and it was terrific. I saw it in Oakland, California, in a big theater, a three thousand seater, and it was jammed to the rafters. He put on a fantastic show. That was one stop that was almost the last stop of a three-year tour that he'd been on. So he got finished with that then he decided he wanted to do the same thing only he wanted to do it in arenas, so that's what he's doing now. I don't know how well it's going for him. But that theater tour was very successful.

It's not an across the board observation you can make about that, but certainly Joni's less active, Neil appears to be less active. It's hard to generalize, because you never know when they're going to surprise you with something.

SB: It's just gratifying to know that people are still buying records from artists who have had long careers. I'm thinking you'll have a good show here in Lafayette. They'll get what you do.

BC: I look forward to being understood.

Lafayette-based guitarist/songwriter Sam Broussard performs internationally as a solo artist, accompanist and with the popular Cajun band Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys.