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Clip: Bruce Cockburn's Speechless

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  • Carl Z.
    IN QUIET PROTEST Tom Lanham Sunday, November 6, 2005 It s an amusing
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 5, 2005


      Tom Lanham

      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,
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