A Conversation with Bruce Cockburn
Mike Ragogna: Your new release, Small Source Of Comfort, puts your album count at over 30, right?
Bruce Cockburn: I believe the official count of this one is number 31.
MR: Nice. What went into recording Small Source Of Comfort that was different than the previous 30?
BC: Well, every album is the product of its own thing. This album is the product of its own time and place, in a way, and the product of the time between now and when I recorded the last studio album, which was about 5 or 6 years ago. There was a live album in that time that did have one new song on it, but all of these are songs that have been sort of building up inside that period of time. And I don't know if it's different from all of my other albums, but one thing I feel about it is it's more of a return to the "folkier" sound of the early to mid '70s, and if you categorize my albums, it's more like the '80s or '90s stuff that I've done.
MR: Let's go into "Iris Of The World," which says, "I've mostly dodged the dogmas of what life is all about." Have you?
BC: Well... I certainly try. (laughs) Well, it's a complicated thing to express in regular language outside of a song. I do feel a disinclination to be embroiled in dogma. I've flirted with it, certainly, in times. For instance, when I first started calling myself a Christian in the early '70s. I wasn't sure exactly what that meant at the time, so I went with the people who claimed they did, and that involved some dogma. But I got disenchanted with that pretty quickly, and my approach to Christianity remained somewhat outside the pale. At this point, I'm not even sure that I call myself a Christian anymore, but I don't take back any of what I said or experienced during that time. And my relationship with the divine and the cosmos is of paramount importance in my life. I think that shows up in my songs the '70s through the '80s.
MR: In "Call Me Rose," you reincarnate Richard Nixon. Why would anyone do such a thing?
BC: Lord, preserve us! (laughs) I really don't have a good explanation for how that song came into being. I woke up one morning with the song fully written in my head, just the lyrics; the music took a bit longer. But there was a whole set of words, and I thought "Where is this coming from?" I really don't have the answer. It did sort of happen when this previous Bush Administration was trying to rehabilitate the image of Richard Nixon. I specifically remember there being a campaign in the press, and you heard pundits making announcements to the effect that "Richard Nixon was the greatest President that the United States had ever had," and about how he was misunderstood. And what was odd was that after a month or so, it just stopped completely. What that suggested to me was that the American public just wasn't buying it at all, and that they just gave up spending money on it, which was wonderful, actually. So, I suppose, somewhere in the song, there is the notion of speculating about what the actual rehabilitation of Richard Nixon would look like -- not just his image in the press, but his "self," his soul, and there he is in the song being reincarnated as a single mom living in the projects.
MR: What fit justice.
BC: (laughs) It seems like justice! But he's still Richard Nixon because at the end of the song, he's saying "Maybe the memoir will sell..."
MR: And there's "Driving Away," which I can personally relate to. I think everyone has had the impulse to just jump into the car and drive away.
BC: That song was actually co-written with Annabelle Chvostek, who is a young Canadian songwriter who was formerly a member of a group called The Wailin' Jennys that some people in the States may be familiar with. A couple of years ago, she went out on her own and at one point got in touch with me and asked if I would be interested in writing some songs together. I thought, "Actually, yes! I would," because, first of all, I knew she was good, and because I was wondering what I was going to do next, so it seemed like a very timely invitation. When we got together, she had a lot of that song already written. Most of the words for the verses were already complete and some of the melody, so we worked together on it, and I came up with the chorus and some of the lines of the verses that needed expanding. We were also thinking, during the process, about what the calamity of fleeing was here, and we decided to let it remain non-specific and hang in the air because it felt more like life like that. It doesn't really matter. The point of that is that it's easier, more tempting, and more common for people confronted by things that they don't want to deal with to flee than it is to deal. So, really, that's where the song is coming from.
MR: Is Annabelle singing on the track with you?
BC: Yeah, that's Annabelle singing and playing a second guitar part. I'd have to look to see who you'd be hearing on which side of your speakers. (laughs) We basically performed it live as a duet in the studio.
MR: By the way, favorite title? "Lois On The Autobahn," nice.
BC: Well, you know, it's always hard to find a title to go with instrumental tracks because you don't have a handy bundle of words to pull a title out of. In this case, everyone that heard the song thought of driving, including me. It just had the feeling of being on some type of recreational drive because it's not hurried or intense, just kind of mellow. After my Mom passed over the summer and I did not yet have a title for the song, I thought, "You know what? That's my mom," and I put her on the Autobahn, even though I don't know if she was ever in Germany because I wanted the bold image of the Autobahn and the open road with no speed limits, a place where she could just sail on to the afterlife.
MR: Beautiful. And your humor is pretty right on with "Call Me Back."
BC: Well, if you read the liner notes with the cover of the album, what I say about this song is that everybody is just too damn busy these days and, really, that's what it is. I just had an experience, like we all have, of trying to reach someone and they just don't call you back. Then, you find out when you talk to them that they were just up to their ears in something and moving too fast trying to keep up with life, so they didn't call. At least that's the story we get. I've had that experience myself, and there have certainly been lots of times when I was the one who didn't call someone back. But it just seemed like such a typical experience of these times that it deserved a song, and so on this one occasion that it happened, I thought of this song. When I started writing it, I had to think about where to take it because it should be a humorous song since I didn't want to get too serious and deliver a sermon on not calling people back, so I just made everything progressively more absurd as the song goes along. In the song, I start thinking, "Maybe there's a reason he's not calling me back. Maybe he's got some problems or is going through a divorce or had a triple or quadruple bypass. Maybe his mother is in trouble with the law." So, that's kind of where it started, and obviously, with lyrics like that, I wanted music that was raw and ragtime-y, and that's how that song came to be.
MR: So, what's happening in your brain at "5:51" in the morning?
BC: The song is a real Brooklyn song. My girlfriend was living in Brooklyn for a few years and I was making frequent trips down there to visit. It compresses a couple of events down into one song because no one needs to hear an epic. But it's about the business of being awake at that hour seeing daylight come in and thinking, "Yeah, this is where a small source of comfort comes from." The fact that this sun came up is a small source of comfort, because the song talks about not taking those small things for granted anymore because of all the things that are falling apart. So, that's where the song starts, and there are references to things around the urban scene -- the smell of diesel or chemicals when no one is awake, and you know that someone is doing something they're not supposed to.
The business about the cops coming to your door in the middle of the night actually happened. We were just getting in from a movie around midnight, we were getting ready for bed, and my girlfriend was in the shower and I was standing around unclothed. All of a sudden, there was a massive pounding on the door and I wrapped something around myself, went to the door, and there were four New York cops standing there, all looking mean. Then they said, "We've had a complaint that there's some trouble here," and I was very confused for a moment, but they were actually quite nice once they realized that nothing was going on. As it turned out, one of the neighbors called them thinking they heard a break-in taking place or something when it was actually just us coming home. I never did get a straight answer about why my neighbor called.
MR: And are you still "Wondering Where the Lions Are?"
BC: (laughs) Uh, no, not in so many words. But the song is still around and I'm quite happy to own up to it.
MR: Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration for what, I suppose, was your first international hit, and can you describe for us what went on in that song?
BC: Well, yes, the song came about because I had dinner with a family member who was very deeply embroiled in the intergovernmental security establishment. He was a liaison between the Canadian security establishment and Washington during the Cold War era, and he was very knowledgeable about a lot of things that he couldn't talk about. At the time, China and Russia were coming to blows on the mutual border and he was saying that nobody was too worried about what Russia would do because Russia and the West spy on each other and there was so much information passively shared that neither one was going to surprise the other. China wasn't a part of that equation and no really one knew if China had nuclear weapons or not. Nobody knew under what conditions they would potentially use them, and nobody knew what their choices would consist of. So, he basically said, in so many words, that we could wake up tomorrow and the world would be ending. And when I woke up the next morning, it wasn't. (laughs)
So, I ended up driving down a road somewhere on a bright sunny day, and the opening lines of the song came into my head. From there, it was just a matter of pulling together imagery that went with that. The second verse of the song talks about a dream I had in which the streets were full of lions walking around, but that was also in contrast to a dream that I had where lions were walking around but they weren't very threatening. They were pretty much maintaining their distance and they weren't attacking anyone. So, that's what got this whole thing going. Then, once you're wondering where the lions are, you're looking at the world saying, "This is all great, but where are those lions? And what are they going to do next?"
MR: (laughs) So, you're really not wondering where they are.
BC: Not so much. I've done a lot of digging into my own psyche over the intervening years, and I'm not so ignorant about where those lions are. But I still think it's appropriate to be wondering.
MR: That song is just such a classic, and you seem to have many of them, all songs that I related to so much when I first heard them, especially "The Trouble With Normal," "If A Tree Falls," "If I Had A Rocket Launcher," and "Lovers In A Dangerous Time." That song, in particular, still gives me the chills because I think we're still in dangerous times considering global warming, etc. This song is about hanging on together to get through the hardships, right?
BC: Yeah. When I first got the idea for that song, my daughter was quite young and I began thinking, as I was watching her and her friends in the schoolyard, that these kids are growing up with a completely different worldview than the one that I grew up with. When I was young, we went through grade school with the threat of nuclear war and all of the stuff that went with that -- nuclear testing and so on. I remember having the nuclear air raid drills where we hid under our desks from the nuclear bombs. (laughs) But as a child, it never seemed very real, and yet, the children in my daughter's generation were not only experiencing the prospect of war, which never really goes away, but the degradation of the environment, AIDS, all kinds of dark things, and a different kind of atmosphere that seemed to be potentially heading in a more depressing era than what I grew up in. I began asking myself, "How do you love with so much fear being hurled at you all the time?" The song has a bit of a message of hope for that generation, but, of course, it applies in other ways as well. In the early '80s when the song came out, AIDS was looming very large on everyone's radar, so it may even be interpreted as being about that as well -- especially the last part of the song. I also enjoy the fact that people can relate to this song, or any song of mine, through their own experiences. I feel that that is not only completely legitimate, but inescapable. That song got quite a lot of attention, and I'm very happy that it did.
MR: What was also great, to me, was the fact that through your music, you were one of the voices of reason. When I look at a period like the second Bush's eight years and I realize that people like Keith Olbermann and Jon Stewart... well, all of you were, in a sense, "carrying the flag of sanity" during some very trying times. And in the '80s, you were -- and I believe you still are -- one of those voices of reason for many people. For instance, there was "Call It Democracy" and "If I Had a Rocket Launcher" whose lyrics, in particular, have such strong sentiments. "If I had a rocket launcher, some son of a b***h would die..." I think that these songs showed the passion and anger that was present in the American public during the first Bush administration following eight years of Reaganism.
BC: I agree. A lot of people felt helpless. Even in Canada, we were looking at the effects of that administration. It was a difficult time because we weren't able to vote, so we were just left watching the U.S. with no ability to influence it in any real way, and with Americans, there just seemed to be this head-long momentum in a certain direction and any dissent from that was not welcomed.
MR: You're absolutely right. For instance, I remember a pro-choice rally being held at the Capitol where numbers in the media were being vastly under-reported, whereas the numbers for the anti-abortion protests -- that phrase later being "Luntzed" into "pro-life" -- seemed to be broadcast as having millions of attendees. It's amazing that a country that is so smart can seem to fall for the propaganda such as this, and, I suppose, we're still falling for it. I guess what happened during Hurricane Katrina woke us up from our Bush nightmare.
BC: Hurricane Katrina was a graphic representation at home of the way that calamity is dealt with in official circles, and it seemed to directly parallel what was going on in Baghdad. People who were affected weren't allowed to fix their own houses, and yet we had the same "money-makers" getting paid to go down there and do nothing, just like they were in Baghdad. So, people got to see -- though I'm not sure everyone made the connection -- that kind of behavior on the part of the higher powers. And I don't think that deception was confined to either Bush Administration--you will see that phenomenon rising and falling, but it never completely goes away. I believe the interests of corruption and greed are too well entrenched. But, of course, the more popular resistance there is to it, the more it has to happen.
MR: Yeah, and one of my favorite things that Keith Olbermann did was draw the connection between those who were the loudest resisters to health care reform and the monetary contributions they were getting from the industry.
BC: Absolutely. It's not surprising, really. What is more surprising is the fact that we let it happen. It's a part of human nature to feather your own nest and do as well as you can in the process. But there are supposed to be state institutions that prevent us from falling headlong into that, and that's where things tend to come apart--and lack of media coverage and scrutiny plays into the hands of those motivated people.
MR: I agree. It's funny, we all know to "follow the buck" to discover the truth, and yet no one really wants to.
BC: Unless they think they can get a hold of it. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) Exactly. Bruce, what's happening in the news right now that has your attention?
BC: Well, you know, I'm watching what's going on in the Middle East with interest and apprehension like everyone else. It may shake down to something like the status quo or it may represent real change of some kind. It does represent a certain instability that's disturbing because of the amount of worldwide attention and energetic investment in that region because of oil and so on. The Islamic world, which of course extends much further than the countries that we see in turmoil at the moment, is looking very hard at those things. To the extent that the Islamist (extremists) are likely to gain ground through this kind of stuff... to that extent, we should be worried. I don't think that they represent interests that we are going to like very much, and they have their counterpart in the so-called American Christian right. They really are, I believe, cut from the same cloth, they're just operating in a different fashion. But if you gave them half a chance, they would be doing what the Taliban did in Afghanistan or the equivalent. So, the more that kind of extremism comes to influence the course of things, the more precarious the freedoms that we love are, and that bothers me. I'm pretty attached to women being equal with me and to my freedom of speech and movement, and the more that the other crap goes on, the more that freedom is encroached upon. Even without the fanatics coming into ascendancy, it's just my way of reaction. As we saw after 9/11, everything tightened down, and all of a sudden, there was this institution called Homeland Security that is in charge of everything. So far, the effects of that are pretty benign, but I don't think it's a given that it'll stay benign.
MR: And there was a time that it wasn't so benign, especially when we were water boarding.
BC: Exactly. There's that dark side of it that you don't want to get any bigger. And the more we're confronted with extremism, the more we'll be confronted with extremism on our side of the fence as well, and it's worrisome. But you never really know how these things are going to shake down, so it's not appropriate to be hopeless.
MR: Do you have any advice for new artists?
BC: (laughs) Well, not very meaningful advice because the whole scene is so different now than when I started. But one thing I will say is that if you have a sense of what you want your art to be, stick to it. Don't let other people tell you that it's not acceptable or not appropriate or not the way to get ahead. Go with your gut on that stuff.
The other piece of advice would be to hang on to your publishing if you're a songwriter. Don't give it away. Although, as I said everything is in such a different state that this may not be as widespread, historically, there have been record companies who have asked you to give up your publishing in exchange for a record contract. Personally, I'm not sorry to see some of the bigger record companies go down because they have been screwing people for so long that they had it coming. The problem is that the things that are taking them down are also making it difficult for the rest of us. But as far as artists go, I would encourage them to hang on to their songs -- keep owning them because that gives you some creative control over what happens, and it also may be a potential source of income down the road. If you get lucky, someone high-profile may record your songs or you may become high profile enough yourself to generate royalties. Then it's more meaningful.
MR: So, you've had songs in quite a few movies, and you have been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame where all sorts of people paid tribute to you. How does it feel to be one of the major veteran singer-songwriters of Canada and to look back at your career and catalog? Sorry for using the word "veteran" because it implies some sort of age or...
BC: ... it's alright to imply age when it's actually there. (laughs) Yeah, I'm a legend in my own mind. (laughs) Well, I don't do this very often, but if I look back at my career, it's a surprise to me every time because I didn't expect anything when I started out and then all this stuff happened and it's pretty great. I can also see that having an excellent manager was a large part of that success -- having someone that can operate in the strategic aspect for all these years. But I truly feel that I have been lucky and blessed with the ability to keep going when a lot of people have not, and I'm very grateful for that.
MR: Well, I wish you even further success because it's so important artists like you, especially artists who are as socially conscious as you, keep reminding us through your music about what is going on around us.
BC: (laughs) Well, as long as I can I will, I guess. There's nothing else that's likely to happen.
MR: Thanks for being as candid as you were.
BC: Thank you for being interested.
1. The Iris Of The World
2. Call Me Rose
5. Five Fifty-One
6. Driving Away
7. Lois On The Autobahn
9. Called Me Back
10. Comets Of Kandahar
11. Each One Lost
12. Parnassus And Fog
Transcribed by Evan Martin