Bruce Cockburn launches a hit

Fired by Christian pacifism, the Canadian singer targets new, worldwide success

by Steve Pond

This article originally appeared in Rolling Stone, May 23, 1985. Transcribed without permission. Please buy a copy of Rolling Stone.

Bruce Cockburn sits down at a table in a Toronto diner, reaches into his shoulder bag and pulls out a gun. Then he uses that gun - which is all of two inches long - to light his pipe. "The East German border guards," he says with a grin, "got a real kick out of this."

The gun is appropriate: after fifteen years of acclaim in his homeland of Canada, Bruce Cockburn has finally broken through in the rest of the world with "If I Had a Rocket Launcher", the outraged cry of a pacifist who is confronted by so much horror that he vows, "If I had a rocket launcher / some sonofabitch would die."

Cockburn takes pains to say he isn't condoning violence, but other songs on his Stealing Fire album are similarly urgent and similarly political. The material on side two ranges from "Nicaragua,", which praises the embattled Sandinista regime, to "Dust and Diesel,", a description of scenes on the Pan-American Highway. Stealing Fire's political bent, in fact, has led some critics to describe the record as "the new Bruce Cockburn."

"I'd just say I'm older," says the forty-year-old Cockburn. "I don't see this as a big departure. On my last two albums there's the same sense of a world in imminent danger. I just didn't get very specific about it, because it wasn't until I went to Central America that I really felt that political action could be worth the effort."

He may be new to Central American politics, but Cockburn's hardly new to music. His only other U.S. hit came in 1980 with the reggae tune "Wondering Where the Lions Are"; in Canada, however, Cockburn has released fifteen albums albums in the last fifteen years. Most of those LPs were never released in the U.S., although A&M Records has plans to release 1983's The Trouble with Normal.

Before Cockburn picked up a guitar, he halfheartedly studied trumpet and clarinet. "My parents were worried that the guitar might turn me into a hoodlum," he explains, "because for a while I hung out with a strange crowd: our favourite game was to kick the other guys in the balls as often as possible without getting your own balls kicked." When his folks relented, Cockburn studied composition at the Berklee College of Music, in Boston, played in local bands and absorbed influences from classical and Caribbean music as well as jazz and folk.

After he began making records in 1970, his songs became less folky and his imagery more overtly religious, earning him the tag of Christian mystic. "I've seen statistics that one out of every five people in the United States has had what are called ecstatic experiences, which can come from religion or acid or body chemistry," Cockburn says. "I've certainly had those experiences, and on several occasions they've been specifically Christian, involving the person of Christ. If that makes me a mystic, I accept it."

Religion also led Cockburn to spend three and a half weeks in Central America in 1983: "It was all part of the same process, which is that you can't love your neighbor if you don't know who he is." In Nicaragua he was impressed by the grass-roots support for the Sandinista government, but he was discouraged and angered by poverty, repression and the fear of U.S. interventionism. Observing the horrors of refugee camps along the Guatemalan-Mexican border, he went back to his hotel room and cried and wrote in his notebook, "I understand now why people want to kill." Then he wrote "If I Had a Rocket Launcher."

Since he visited the area, Cockburn has been working nonstop, fueled by the urgency of his message and by his first worldwide hit. And while he's not optimistic about the future of the area that inspired his songs, he's maintained his idealism.

"The universe will continue to unfold regardless of what happens to the Sandinistas, or me and you, or Russia and the States," he says. "I also think that death isn't such a horrifying experience. It's like the ecstatic experiences - I think life is like that underneath it all. It's just too bad the rest of it keeps getting in the way."

Douwe van der Zwaag