April 15 2015 – In our current issue, Andy Whitman interviews legendary Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn, who is this year’s recipient of Image’s Levertov Award and will play a live concert on April 23, 2015 at 8:00 p.m. Read the full interview in issue 84.
Image: The late seventies and early eighties were a time of profound change for you. Looking back on that transformation, what advice would this newly enlightened Bruce Cockburn offer to the old Bruce Cockburn? And, turning it around, what cautions would the old Bruce Cockburn offer to the new Bruce Cockburn?
BC: The new Bruce Cockburn would say, “Lighten up,” and the old Bruce Cockburn would say, “How?” That’s the gist of the inner battle that was taking place.
I had a conversation at one point with an artist in Toronto whose studio space we were using. We were shooting a video, I think. We were chatting, and he said something like, “Having fun is what it’s all about, after all.” And I just looked at him like, “What?” “Well, isn’t it?” he said. And this other guy with a heavy German accent said, “We’re supposed to be having fun.”
It had never occurred to me that anything was supposed to be about having fun, other than very specific things like watching a movie.
At the time, my conclusion was that this was a worldview that this guy had embraced. And my worldview was about duty. It was not about fun at all; it was about doing what you were supposed to do. If I stepped back from the idea of duty, from the perhaps neurotic or unduly Victorian element of it, for me, life was ultimately about doing the next appropriate thing. Whether I thought of it is as duty or embracing the possibilities, appropriateness had a lot to do with it.
But being hung up on duty can interfere with your appreciation of the appropriateness of something that comes up spontaneously, and that would be a caution that the new Bruce would offer the old Bruce. The old Bruce would say, “It’s all about doing what you’re supposed to do. There’s a job to be done, and the job is to be the right kind of human being. People who have no moral base, or who don’t have one that I can see easily, are wasting their energy and time and pissing away their God-given talents and souls on having fun.” The new Bruce would say, “Yeah, but they’ve got something you don’t. They’re open to others and they can hear each other, and you’re not, and you can’t.”
It wasn’t black and white. The old Bruce could be open to and hear a lot of things, but a lot of life felt so heavy, and I simply stopped feeling as heavy when I started seeing things differently. The big change wasn’t so much the embrace of other people, although that did have a huge effect, but the fact that God basically said it was okay to get divorced, that it was okay to break a promise made in his name and in his presence. It was okay, don’t worry about it. That was the big earth-shaker. From there, I started to think that some other ideas I had about how things were supposed to be needed to be looked at, too. And sure enough, a lot of us worry about a lot of things we don’t have to worry about. I’m not arguing in favor of a hedonistic, devil-may-care lifestyle, but there is enough real stuff to worry about without burdening yourself with details—although it varies from person to person.
I got kind of intoxicated, I suppose, with this sense of freedom, and I am still working on that. I have so much baggage that keeps me from being as free as I think God would like me to be, and I am still struggling with that. But big doors were opened back then, and every now and then they still are.
Image: I love many parts of your story, but I will confess that’s my favorite part. I think that the notion of finding solidarity in a community of stumblers and screw-ups is one that is very freeing.
BC: It was such a relief, you know. To find solidarity of any sort is a big relief, especially when it seems to be so deeply rooted in such reality. You can find something to share with people on all kinds of levels—sports, or what kind of whiskey you like to drink, or whatever—but sharing a communal understanding that people are broken, and fully capable of loving and being loved anyway, made a huge difference.
I had a dream much later, maybe ten years ago, where I was looking for directions in a town I didn’t know, and I had taken a shortcut through an alleyway. The alleyway led to a courtyard, and the courtyard was full of beautiful young people milling around in the moonlight, having some sort of event. An older guy came up to me and asked, “Can I help you?” And while we were talking a strikingly beautiful young woman, kind of punkish and tall, walked by me, and when she turned, one side of her face looked like those World War I trench victims with half their faces blown away. It was shocking, but then I realized that everybody in the place was like that in one way or another. They were all damaged and trashed and beautiful, and I can’t remember whether the older man said this to me or whether I just understood it, but somehow I came to understand that it’s the scars that bind us. This is what binds us to the people in ISIS, to our enemies, to everything. It’s what every human has in common, regardless of ideology or lifestyle or clothing style or anything else. We’ve all got these wounds. I suppose the wounds of Christ are archetypes for these wounds. It’s in our woundedness that we have our connection point.
Now, I suppose you can imagine a roomful of people sitting around and saying, “I’m fucked up this way or that way,” and others saying, “No, you’re not.” You can make something horrible out of that, too. But in this case it was such a revelation. You don’t have to be perfect to get along with people. In fact, nobody ever is. Anybody who claims to be is as wounded as everyone else and their wounds are making them say that.