July 7, 2017 –
It has been 33 years since the release of Bruce Cockburn’s darkly infectious hit, If I Had a Rocket Launcher, a stirring commentary on the injustices the Canadian singer-songwriter experienced during a visit to Central America.
Today, the song remains as valid — and potentially misunderstood — as ever.
“A lot of people relate to it currently, in terms of Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria, any number of places,” Cockburn said in a recent interview in advance of his July 15 appearance at the Vancouver Island Music Festival in Comox.
“Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be running out of war and pain.”
Cockburn recalls the “scary” experience of playing the song for 2,000 Christians at a music festival in England in the 1980s, and everyone enthusiastically singing: “If I had a rocket launcher … some son of a bitch would die.”
For reasons like that, he is not comfortable with people singing along to the song.
“There’s nothing joyful or celebratory about it. It’s truthful, but that’s not a pleasant truth to me. I don’t like reliving it.”
Cockburn also appeared in Santiago, Chile, to support banned artists during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. A Chilean singer repeated each line after Cockburn in Spanish. “When we got to the end, the audience was on its feet. That was also quite chilling. These people had a different perspective on it.”
The Ottawa-born Cockburn wrote Rocket Launcher after visiting a refugee camp in Guatemala.
“Most people relate to it for close to the right reasons. It’s a cry of outrage. Very few people understand it as a call to arms.”
Ultimately, what does he hope to achieve from a political song?
“I hope to write a good song and have people hear it. That’s it. I don’t think songs change the world. People change the world and if people embrace a particular song as a kind of anthem, then that song becomes part of the process of change.”
Cockburn is talking over the phone from a Starbucks in San Francisco, where he’s lived the last eight years and where his second wife, M.J. Hannett, works as a lawyer. This afternoon, he’s with his five-year-old daughter, Iona, and apologizes for the interruptions.
“Sorry, I am using a carrot to try to spread peanut butter on a piece of bread. Actually, I’m quite proud of myself.”
Over the decades, Cockburn has drifted between Christianity and spirituality, spurning the trappings of formal religious dogma and the unyielding conservatism of some movements. He’s found some solid ground at San Francisco Lighthouse Church.
“I am kind of coming back to calling myself a Christian again,” he says. “It’s a vibrant, alive place, and kind of free thinking. Everybody is here because they really want to be, not out of habit or social convention.”
Cockburn is an accomplished lyricist and guitarist who, at age 72, endures arthritis in his hands.
A few songs such as the instrumental Foxglove are now too difficult to perform.
“It’s not enough of an impediment to stop me from performing. If you come and hear a show, I won’t think, ‘Oh, he doesn’t play like he used to.’ ”
Cockburn has 32 albums to his credit. Some of his best-known songs include Tokyo, Lovers In A Dangerous Time, Wondering Where The Lions Are, The Coldest Night of the Year, and If A Tree Falls — a 1989 song that touched environmentalist David Suzuki.
“I was blown away by it because we were involved in a big battle to stop a dam in Brazil,” Suzuki recalls. “It was a powerful demonstration that music transcends language and culture and cuts straight to the heart.”
Cockburn’s 33rd project, Bone on Bone, is scheduled for release in September. He says fans can expect spiritual undertones, a “bluesier and rougher” sound than on past albums, with a political song about oil called False River.
What propels him at this stage of his life?
“The words demand the music. It’s not a deliberate process. The songs take the shape they do.”
Saturday, July 15, 1 p.m. & 8:15 p.m. | MusicFest 2017, Comox
Tickets and info: islandmusicfest.com
Credit: By Larry Pynn, Vancouver Sun
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