Music News & Reviews

Bruce Cockburn riffs on poetry, politics and an unlikely hit song

The traditional lullabies that parent sing to their children have sometimes been known to include disturbing images: babies in cradles fall from trees, children fear dying in their sleep, that kind of thing. But none, as far as we know, have involved assault weapons.

Until recently, that is, when singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn was contacted by a fellow Canadian who’d made international headlines last October.

A revered singer-songwriter, Cockburn is best known for his unlikely mid-80s hit, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” According to “Rumors of Glory,” his 2014 autobiography, Cockburn had been visiting Guatemalan refugee camps, and after returning to a hotel room, was in tears as he wrote the song. While many who’ve heard the song may not be familiar with its back story, there was no overlooking the song’s infamous last line: “If I had a rocket launcher/Some son-of-a-bitch would die.”

“I was forwarded an email from Joshua Boyle, who I don’t know at all, but he’s the guy who was rescued from captivity in Afghanistan just recently with his wife and three kids,” the singer-songwriter said of the recent interaction. “He’s a Canadian guy who is married to an American woman, and they were captives of the Taliban for five years. And during that time, he sang ‘Rocket Launcher’ to his kids as a lullaby. They were just toddlers, so they wouldn’t get what the song’s about at all. But you could get what he was feeling, though – or, I can surmise at least, you know?”

Over the course of his career, Cockburn has won 12 Juno awards — the Canadian equivalent to the Grammy. Last year, he was inducted into the Canadian Hall of Fame last year, an honor that coincided with the September 2017 release of his 33rd album, “Bone on Bone.”

While it’s been largely underplayed in his music, Cockburn turned to Christianity early in his career, and, apart from a period in which he became fed up with the intolerance of the evangelical right, has remained so to this day. A rock musician whose music has incorporated elements of folk, jazz and world music, he’s been hailed as one of contemporary music’s most gifted guitarists, yet sings and plays in an understated way that complements lyrics that can be both poetic and polemical.

“On the coastline, where the trees shine, in the unexpected rain/There’s the carcass of a tanker, in the centter of a stain,” he sings on the new album’s poignant “False River,” while other songs slip in the wry sense of humor that sometimes rises to the surface: “Cafe society, a sip of community/Cafe society, misery loves company/Hey, it’s a way, to start the day.”

Taken together, the album is musically engaging and, in its own way, spiritually uplifting, something that will come as no surprise for his legion of fans. It also showcases his exceptional skills as a guitarist, as well as an occasionally more gritty side to his vocal style.

Cockburn talked about making the new album, the idea of releasing “Rocket Launcher” in Trump’s America, and what projects he would like to do in the future.

Q: How do you think the response to “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” would have been different if you released it today? I mean, that song was in heavy rotation on a lot of American stations, but the line “some son of a bitch would die” is a little extreme. I could see that sort of being quietly banned now.A: I could see that, but I wouldn’t assume it automatically either, because I thought it would be banned back then. Like when it was suggested that it be sent out to radio stations as a single, or as the lead track from the album, or whatever it was, I said, “Nobody is going to play that, like, this is ridiculous.” And yet we know what happened. But the thing is, I think actually, if anything, it might even be more popular now, because everybody’s mad. I mean everybody is overtly angry now. And back then, it wasn’t popular because so many cared about Guatemala – I mean, there were those who did – but I think a lot of people liked it because it was an expression of outrage, of a sense of what they would feel as their own rage at life.

Q: Were there specific circumstances that inspired you to write the song “False River”?

A: There were, but they’re not what the song describes. It’s a composite of images having to do with that kind of stuff, but the trigger for the song was a request from a woman named Yvonne Blomer. She’s the poet laureate of Victoria, British Colombia, and she put a book together of environmental-related poetry as part of the movement specifically against the pipeline that they want to put right close to Vancouver there, across the Rockies. There’s another one further north that’s also very contentious and probably will, sooner or later, go through. I mean, eventually they usually win. But there’s a lot of opposition to put both of these in. So she asked if I would contribute a poem. And I don’t really write poems, but I thought, well, maybe I can do this?Q: All you have to do is leave out the music and that makes it a poem.A: Well, that sometimes is true, and I think in that case, it was. Most of the times if I were writing for the page, it would look a little different, because you do a lot of things for rhythmic reasons you wouldn’t necessarily do for the visual on a page.

But, in my mind, when I was writing that song, I had a kind of hip-hop rhythm, which informed the pacing of the lyrics. So it was written as a poem for that collection, but it was obvious to me, even before I finished it, that I was probably going to try to make a song out of it. And so I did so.

Q: A number of your vocals on the new album feel bluesier than usual, even though the music is still kind of all over the place. How do you view this album musically, especially in light of the 30 or so that came before it?

A: I don’t spend much time thinking about that kind of comparison, but it’s kind of where I’m at now – whatever that means. The lyrics invite the music for the most part. There are other decision-making factors, but a set of lyrics will tell me whether they want to be performed on an electric guitar or an acoustic guitar, or whether they want to have a certain kind of rhythm. So a song like “Cafe Society” just wanted to be bluesy.Q: So after this tour, what will your next recording project be?

A: There are no plans to record right away – this album hasn’t run its course and I’m still feeling good about singing these songs – so that’s it for the time being. But two things that we’ve talked about doing as long range, somewhere-down-the-road projects are another instrumental album. We did one called ‘Speechless’ a few years ago that was a mixture of new pieces and previously recorded ones, and we might do a volume two of that, which I would quite like to do. And I’d also, if I don’t die first, like to eventually do an album of other people’s songs. But I don’t know.Q: Any artists in particular?

A: No, lots of different people. People that I admired. (Bob) Dylan would be there, and Elvis (Presley) would be there, and whatever other things I might dredge up from the depths.

If you go

Bruce Cockburn

When: 7:30 p.m., July 25

Where: Crest Theatre, 1013 K Street, Sacramento

Tickets: $30-$55

Info: 916-476-3356;