I was wrong. Having, in 2014, held Canadian singer/songwriter and guitarist Bruce Cockburn hostage in Berkeley’s Hillside Club during a nearly two-hour interview, previewed/attended his last Bay Area appearance in 2019, twice read cover-to-cover his 530-page memoir and found myself in a forever relationship with a Cockburn fan who, upon realizing he lacked one of the multi-award-winning artist’s 34 albums, was visibly distraught—I’d thought I’d heard every Cockburn story and tune there was to hear.
I told myself I’d tickled out the whys and wherefores behind poetic lyrics written with monk-like sparseness and music that embraces folk, jazz, blues, rock, world beat, Renaissance, Romantic and 21st-century classical-music styles. His work speaks to universal themes related to family, love, self-determination, spirituality and faith. I was “insider” enough to know Cockburn has, for five decades, been active and sings in bold protest to human-rights violations worldwide that include indigenous land exploitation, ecological devastation, corporate crimes, nuclear buildup, geopolitical and military conflicts, war and more. His albums have decorated Cockburn with 13 JUNO wins, two Hall of Fame inductions, multiple honorary Doctorates, positions such as Officer of The Order of Canada and a recent induction into Canada’s Walk of Fame.
So, on the occasion of his Dec. 3 double-album release of Bruce Cockburn – Greatest Hits (1970–2020), and in anticipation of his “second attempt” North American 50th Anniversary Concert Tour that was originally stalled by Covid-19 and includes live appearances in two shows Dec. 9-10 at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage, it was natural to expect mere updates and well-trodden repeats.
Instead, in response to a question about experiences that most shook him up or tilted his career and altered or affirmed his relationship to poetry, words and songwriting, Bay Area–based Cockburn tells me a brand-spanking-new story about his dad. The near-tears choking sound that enters his throat fleetingly at the very end of the story is pure Cockburn: it’s a sonority that’s not performative, overly sentimental or self-indulgent. It’s the real deal, expressed in language composed with raw sounds and abstract symbols, but deeply human, like his music.
“I had an experience with my dad,” Cockburn says. “He was at home, in Ottawa, and I’m in Boston [attending Berklee College of Music], and he came down at the end of the term to pick me up. We were talking about what we were going to do over the summer. I told him I’d got a summer job offer, but I turned it down. This is the truth; a guy was a friend of one of my dorm mates. He’d come back from Vietnam, and he had a plan to go down to Central America and make a lot of money over the summer, running guns to Cuba. He wanted to know if I’d go with him and watch his back. With hindsight, that’s the most ridiculous thing. It would have been suicide. At the time, I just thought it was an interesting thing to be offered. It seemed like it was going to be lucrative, but then I thought, ‘No, I don’t want to do that.’ My dad, he was horrified that I’d even consider it—[I’d be] basically facilitating people being killed. My dad had been in the Canadian army and didn’t see action during World War II, but he understood what was being talked about far better than I did. My response to him was, ‘What do you care about what I do anyway?’ I was a typical teenager. There was silence. Then he said, ‘Well, a father loves his son.’ I could say nothing. It was the first time I’d ever heard my father say the word ‘love.’ Nobody in my family ever said they loved each other. We did love each other, but nobody expressed it.”
Cockburn says hearing his dad say “love” out loud shocked him. “I’ll never forget that feeling. To use a crass expression, I didn’t know whether to shit or go blind. I had no place to put that,” he says. “I’m glad to have heard that from him, because it’s the only time I did and even then, he couldn’t say, ‘Well, I love you.’ He didn’t have the language, which is why we didn’t talk about those things. But he got to say what he said, and I got to hear it. It was indirectly life changing. I couldn’t tell you the exact effect, but it had to have made a difference.”
Cockburn can’t—or won’t—pin down the difference made by this experience, but an outside observer could draw insight from his reticence. Cockburn has an edgy discomfort with words and their specificity. It strikes me that his lyrics are laid down as if they are secret scratchings that both point to, and cover up, the sacred truths buried within them. Even though his repertoire and his songwriting process depends on words, listeners must dig reflectively into their own hearts and minds to determine meanings and value.
All that makes Cockburn sound elusive or evasive or complicated, and although he expresses ambiguity when we talk about his albums, artistic process, music reviews and other matters, his life is largely relatable. He’s married to an attorney and grateful her steady work during the pandemic stabilized the family’s income. “Some of my income comes from royalties and other things, but the bulk comes from performing gigs,” he says. “Some of our friends are having much harder times. It’s inconvenient for everyone.” The couple also has a 10-year-old daughter. Cockburn says when she recently switched from him waking her up in the mornings, as was his custom, to now using a radio alarm, she told him, “I love music. I don’t know how I could live without music.” His response? “Hopefully you’ll never have to.” She studies guitar and piano, and despite not practicing, baffles him by improving. Which means he doesn’t worry about her music skills. Instead, he worries about her generation’s future.
“The pandemic’s not the only problem: That generation is facing the results of the whole 20th century and beyond,” he says. “They’re going to have quite a lot of trouble. We’re not setting a good precedent. Not in this country.” He names as his biggest concern the world’s dependence on oil. “It really started with the industrial revolution after World War II. Now it’s everything: it’s where we get our energy, our clothes, products in our homes. But [oil] is a finite supply, and it’s going away. We won’t get to Mars fast enough, and it’s unlikely Mars has oil, anyway. We’ll have to find an alternative. We need to go back to growing fibers to make clothes, which still happens somewhat; but increasingly, things are made out of polyester, nylon—and those are petroleum. I’m not trying to be a doomsayer, but the odds are we’ve created major problems that the next generation will have to deal with.”
We decided to lighten up and talk about his new CD. Curating the anniversary album and the set list for the tour, both spanning 50 years’ work, he says song selection took a mere 30 seconds. “It’s all singles that went to radio. There was no choosing involved.” Embarking on a solo tour was largely a matter of money and circumstance. “When we booked these shows everyone was enthusiastic, but nobody was sure if they would actually happen,” he says. “Nobody’s even sure now: We’re all acting like the shows are on. But who knows when there’ll be another lockdown? Fingers crossed!”
In the bank already are 30 songs written using what Cockburn calls “my standard fallback” approach. “I want to write about everything and anything that comes to mind,” he says. “There are things that come to you shaded, in a way that’s new to you. Encounters with art or a person can do that, too. I go around with the intention of being in a state of vigilance, waiting for those triggers. I write things down as I think of them. Sometimes a whole song is born quickly, and other times an idea seems good but has to wait decades for other elements to make it work. I go around harboring the intent.”
I ask him to jump onboard to comment on six tracks I’ve selected. About 1973’s All The Diamonds in the World, he says, “I think of it as marking the point I decided to self-identify as a Christian. The song for me belongs in a photo album commemorating that moment. I wrote it following the stress between me and my [ex-]wife. I found a degree of helplessness within myself to deal with the situation, the standard kind of stuff that happens between couples. I keenly felt my lack of self-sufficiency. I prayed, and the prayer was answered. It’s not written exactly about that, but it’s more a celebration of the fact the prayer was answered than about the issue itself. The setting is in a boat in the Stockholm archipelago. It was a beautiful day, and the sun sparkled on the water; it just set that song in motion. The feeling of what I’d experienced the night before, the prayer answered and the beauty of the day, just combined to produce that song.”
Rumours of Glory, written on the cusp of the 1980s, captured a scene in New York City’s East Village when the bleak, empty streets suddenly teemed with people leaving work. Twenty minutes later, everyone having dived underground into the subway system, the hubbub of life disappeared. The sunset cast the sky in pink; two contrails left by planes formed a cross in the sky. “It was too good to pass up,” he says.
In 1995, Pacing the Cage was a song a lot of people related to. “I certainly wasn’t thinking of this [Covid] trap when I wrote it, but it has resonance this time, for sure. It’s another song immediately triggered by a visual image,” he says. “I was living on a horse farm in Western Toronto. It was a situation that started out great, exciting; but it lost that luster in a big way. It’s not just about being in a domestic trap, but in yourself, in your habits and habits of mind. There’s a sense of suffocation that we all experience. The imagery; I turned into the driveway of the farm, and there was a sunset that looked like an angel weeping and holding a bloody sword. There was the song, right there. I didn’t have to make anything up. Seeing it: that’s the trick. It doesn’t feel like trickery; when it happens, it feels like a gift. Not everyone has it, nor do I, so when I get it, it’s precious.”
Anything Anytime Anywhere (1992) is a straight-ahead love song with unusual origins. “The title and phrase actually came from a want ad in Soldier of Fortune magazine,” he says. “The magazine is a kind of fashion magazine for mercenary wannabes. In the ’80s, when the U.S. government was telling us there were no wars in Central America, you could open up Soldier of Fortune and read accounts written by soldiers fighting there. It was enlightening in that sense. It was common to see ads for military people looking for work: they were willing to do anything, anytime, anywhere. In a love context, it felt like what you can ask: You can ask me for anything, anytime, anywhere.”
One song on the new CD is a happy accident. Instead of the 1973 solo version, a recording made in 1987 of a live concert has Cockburn singing “Mama Just Wants to Barrelhouse All Night Long” with the late Kathryn Moses. “Somebody goofed, and the record was mastered with that version,” he says. “We could have corrected it, but it seemed like it was meant to happen, because Kathy Moses died last year of cancer. It seemed fitting she be on the record. I’m glad the mistake was made.”
Cockburn says he hopes his music has and will always speak the truth and draw enough attention to become a medium for sharing, for human exchange—then backtracks with, “it’s safe to say it’s always the best I can do at the time.” He finds music reviews, even self-administered ones, troublesome. “Passing judgement—we all do it, I do it—but I don’t want to inflict it on anyone else,” he says. “It’s better to let people figure it out for themselves. Once in a while, over the centuries, I’ve actually read one or two reviews that taught me something. Mostly, they’re just a guy’s or a woman’s opinion, and I don’t even feel I was at the same show.”
While first discovering jazz, Cockburn bought albums based on DownBeat magazine reviews. Eventually, he realized he and the reviewers liked the albums, but for different reasons. “I also remember a big controversy in the ’60s in DownBeat magazine, about whether or not you could have jazz written in 3/4 time. The musicians are playing it, and it’s the reviewers who are going, ‘This isn’t jazz,’ and another saying, ‘Oh, yes it is.’ It was a stupid thing: If a guy is playing jazz in 3/4 time, what’s it to you? It’s an example of what’s wrong with the institution of reviewing. It’s all very subjective … so, actually, it’s nice not to be reviewed.”
We touch on four new songs produced during the pandemic. “Those songs I wanted to get out, because two of the four are particularly applicable to what I feel is going on,” he says. “I don’t talk about Covid; though one of the songs mentions Covid, in passing. One of them is called ‘Orders.’ The chorus is a list of all kinds of people and behaviors we may or may not approve of. The chorus goes: ‘Our orders said to love them all.’ Another song is called ‘Us All’: It’s a plea to be kind to each other. It seemed to me those songs should be out there being heard. The other new songs are more like all of the rest of the stuff I do. Just Cockburn songs.”
Hopefully, when he writes a few more—he has almost enough songs for a new CD—Cockburn’s next album will be accompanied by another never-before-heard story. A tale filled with mystery and ambiguity; love, pathos and pain; and words destined to be infused with melody.