Clip: Bruce Cockburn's Speechless
IN QUIET PROTEST
Sunday, November 6, 2005
It's an amusing metaphor. On the cover of his latest album,
"Speechless," Canadian folk firebrand Bruce Cockburn is just that. The
famously outspoken 60-year-old singer-songwriter peeks from behind the
neck of his trusty acoustic, his mouth obscured by the guitar body.
The record is an anthology of his instrumental-only work, dating back
to his third album in 1973, with three new numbers ("Elegy," "The End
of All Rivers" and the bluesy stroll "King Kong Goes to Tallahassee")
added. The 15 songs are gently finger-picked in styles ranging from
jazz to flamenco to fey English folk.
For fans of this composer's typically vitriolic invective, a nonvocal
set might come as a shock. As far back as 1984's Central
America-themed "If I Had a Rocket Launcher," Cockburn has railed
against social and political injustices, often visiting the foreign
lands he sings about to more fully empathize with their problems. It's
difficult for anyone to keep this Canuck quiet.
So how has he managed now to keep himself muzzled?
"When I write songs, I write lyrics first, then look for music to
carry the lyrics," he says. "It's similar to scoring a film, where you
have a landscape of some kind with characters in it, and that needs to
be supported by the music. But with the instrumental pieces, it's a
whole different thing. I never really sat down and analyzed how it
works, but sometimes I'll get an idea when I'm playing the guitar and
it'll just turn into a piece. And that's what you're hearing on
"I've seen reviews of my albums that say, 'Too much political bull --
. What does this guy know? He's just an artist.' Like somehow
journalists are the only people who are qualified to write about
Within five minutes of discussing "Speechless," Cockburn's muzzle
unstraps, and his powder keg of leftist opinions explodes.
Yes, he acknowledges, he's been quite busy in this new
neocon-controlled, pro-religious-right, anti-science-and-environment
era. Already, he has enough incendiary new material to fuel an album.
And with 2,000 U.S. soldiers now dead as a result of the Iraq war,
Cockburn's classic "Rocket Launcher" feels as if it were written only
"And it's the same old thing, really," sighs Cockburn, who's been
inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and made an Officer of
the Order of Canada. "It isn't that the song is more relevant. It's
just that more people are aware of this war than they were of the war
in Guatemala. The Guatemalan war that inspired that song was being
carried on by proxy, while Iraq is a more hands-on American war. And
by proxy is how everybody would like Iraq to go, but it certainly
isn't going that way."
Years ago, Cockburn growls, he was trying to warn listeners via songs
like "Gospel of Bondage" about the encroachment of evangelical
"It was totally clear to me then, even though Pat Robertson had not
yet said, 'Go out and kill that Venezuelan head of state because he's
an annoyance.' But he had said equally ludicrous and equally
un-Christian things over and over again, and people were still
respecting him as this Christian leader."
So what's happening today isn't new, Cockburn adds. "And everybody
outside of America saw this stuff coming decades ago."
Cockburn used to deem himself a devout Christian, too -- much of his
earlier work is suffused with spirituality. He's no longer affiliated
with any one church, he says, thanks to "my understanding of
spirituality being added to that, a lot of things that didn't come
from Christian sources."
And the environmental apathy and human-rights violations he's
witnessed in his travels transcend any single religion. In 2001, the
singer bravely played a gig in war-zone Kosovo. He also journeyed to
Vietnam and Cambodia as part of the Campaign for a Landmine Free
World. Last year, Cockburn even dropped in on Baghdad for a week
(fully documented in his new anthem "This Is Baghdad") and was
horrified by what he found.
So obviously, he adds, in Iraq and elsewhere in our global-warming
world, "there's no shortage of stuff to be concerned about. And if I'm
lucky, maybe I'll get songs about it."
But Cockburn isn't singing "The Bird Flu Blues" just yet. And even
though he's currently "Speechless," he still believes in the power of
a single human voice.
BRUCE COCKBURN performs at 8 tonight at the Great American Music Hall,
859 O'Farrell St., San Francisco. $25-$30. (415) 885-0750,