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Bruce Cockburn Brings His Slice O Life to L.A. Acoustic Music Festival
By Terry Roland
Bruce Cockburn may be one of Canada's best kept secrets. In 1966, while his career was in its infancy, other Canadian musicians were making the trek across the border to find fame and fortune in United States. Names like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson and Leonard Cohen have come to rest in the American psyche as though they belong to us. Even the quintessential Americana band, Dylan's backing musicians, The Band, consisted of four Canadians and one American.
By the time Cockburn's first release came out in 1971 the quiet Canadian invasion had slowed down. But Bruce carried on. In his native land he has maintained critical and popular success. In the United States his music took hold with the 1979 classic, Wonderin' Where The Lions Are, and the controversial, If I Had A Rocket Launcher. His music is a Gestalt of the best of art as a singer-songwriter. Upon hearing his work the diverse streams of his art come together in one flowing river: he is at once a stunning instrumentalist on electric and acoustic guitar, a writer of reflective folk songs, an impossible-to-label Christian mystic who has an open disdain for any form of fundamentalism; he is an advocate for international human rights, an environmentalist, a photo journalist, a blues enthusiast and interpreter, a hard rocker, and a constant commentator and poet-documentarian of world affairs and the human condition. On albums such as Breakfast in New Orleans Dinner in Timbuktu, Life Short, Please Call, ...., and his latest live solo album, Slice O Life, you will hear reflections of all of these sides of Bruce Cockburn.
Recently I spoke with Bruce on a phone interview. He was especially excited about performing at Pete Seeger's 90th birthday party in New York the week before. His thoughts remain outside the beaten path of mainstream Christianity and the more conservative worldview of many of those in the Church, he writes and speaks with great compassion for the less fortunate and also acknowledges that many of those with opposite views of his are perfectly likable. On his last studio album, Life Short, Please Call he speaks of the assurance of mystery. While his views may reside outside the historic doctrine of church history, his compassion, insights and devotion to his art and audience speak of someone who knows the land of Narnia where we all live, move and have our being. As we spoke, he came across as a gentle, clear-eyed, and insightful artist who cares deeply about his world and his art.
TERRY: There's been much ado about the release of Slice O Life. It is the fourth live album you've released in your career. Can you tell us what the buzz is about?
BRUCE: Well, I don't know
about the buzz. I usually don't hear that. I think it's that this is the
first solo live album. I'm used to playing solo. I'd say I do about 50%
solo. I think with the album, the challenge was to bring something fresh
to each song. I always try to bring something to all the songs along especially
with the ones most people would be expecting; you know Lions, Lovers
in a Dangerous Time, Rocket Launcher. But, the best thing about
a live album is it's in the moment. Even though you practice, the feeling
comes out in the performance. I'll get a vibe going with the audience and
a song like "Lions" will come alive in a fresh way.
TERRY: I think maybe I'm trying to say this in terms of your authenticity. You bring your experience on stage with you. When Dylan wrote "Masters of War," it was still conceptual, but when you wrote "Rocket Launcher," you were there, a witness to the slaughter of the refugees in Mexico.
BRUCE: I think "Masters of War" is a fantastic song and influenced me quite a bit, but it's different when you're up close to something. My job is to write about what I've seen up close...and songwriting sometimes takes a strong emotional charge to stimulate creativity. But, it's my job to take a look at the whole of life and tell what I see.
TERRY: In many ways, describing your music and its development over the years is elusive. The word I kept coming up with is Gestalt. There's wholeness to it--art, politics, introspection, spirituality, activism, environment, relationships. Your body of work is not about any one of these but paradoxically, as a whole, it's about all of them.
BRUCE: I never really thought of myself that way. But you're right. I don't expect anyone to go out and listen to everything though. I've been known as a political songwriter because I got the reputation back in the '80s. But, I have always written about what I know and what I see in the world.
TERRY: In 1994 you went to
Baghdad, resulting in the song "This is Baghdad." What were your impressions?
BRUCE: There was a Folkways record from back in the 60s, a compilation of blues and old spiritual songs. I heard Blind Willie and it was chillingly beautiful. I mean, his voice, and he played slide guitar. I fell in love with him and "Soul of a Man," the dramatic way he performed it.
TERRY: Did you know his story?
BRUCE: I'm not a fan of biographies and don't often go into the lives of the people. I'm totally focused on the music. He stands out from the rest. There's also Robert Johnson and Son House, but Blind Willie was unique. It's like you can hear other musicians from the time and hear their influences. But, Blind Willie sounded like no one else. He was original.
TERRY: In the past you've been described as a "Christian." In America, there is an almost assumed position that if you label yourself a Christian, you are by definition a political conservative.
BRUCE: I've talked to people who believe we really should stop using the term, "Christian." It's been co-opted. It's fundamentalism really. It's a problem in the human character. Fundamentalism of all kinds, be it Islamic, Christian or any other ideology that says everyone who doesn't believe like me is wrong. They say the answers are simple, but the world isn't simplistic. They try to cut the edges off everything that doesn't fit. As soon as you've decided you have something no one else has and the rest of the world has to have it, you've crossed the line into something evil. Fundamentalism of all kinds is evil.
You know, I always knew the Bible was embellished here and there, but there's a book called, The Pagan Christ by a Canadian author, Tom Harpur, who shows that the stories in the gospels, the virgin birth, the savior who dies for sins and resurrects, was a part of Pagan culture 3000 years before Christ. It calls into question whether there ever was a Jesus.
I don't know why that is. Maybe every three thousand years we need new dreamers.
TERRY: I was reading an interview from several years ago and you said it's important to separate ego from your anger. What did you mean? Do you remember saying that?
BRUCE: No I don't. But, it sounds like something I'd say. I do this all of the time. You really have to deal with the anger. Some people are pro-choice, some are on the opposite side, then, frequently people on the other side of an issue are totally likable. It makes it hard. Where do I put my anger? It's important to deal with it creatively.
TERRY: Who has influenced
your guitar playing?
TERRY: When I met Pete at a Carnegie Hall concert back in the '90s, he seemed to have no sense of his own celebrity.
BRUCE: I noticed that. He is conspicuously absent of that. It's who he is.
TERRY: Well, that's folk music