When it comes to live shows, Bruce Cockburn has no shortage of songs to fall back on. There’s the ’80s hits like “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” and “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” the steady stream of albums that followed in their wake (which won him ten Juno Awards in his native Canada) , and a few unreleased songs that he will be debuting on his current tour.
But a shot that Cockburn won’t playing is “If I Had a Rocket Launcher”, a song he wrote after visiting Guatemalan refugee camps in 1984. It was Cockburn’s best-known hit in America, as well as his most controversial, with a accompanying video that described the genocide carried out against Indian villagers by the Guatemalan military, with which the CIA had close ties.
While MTV aired the music video frequently, radio programmers were less likely to add the single to their playlists, not least because of its closing line: “If I had a rocket launcher, a son of a bitch would die .”
The song has long been a staple of Cockburn concerts, but that changed in March when Russia fired more than 30 cruise missiles at a Ukrainian military base.
“I had played it on all the US dates, but stopped during the Canadian shows, because I just felt like it had gone too far that way,” Cockburn says. “It always made me uncomfortable when people clap for this song. And I don’t mean applause at the end because it was a good performance or something. But just when I sings the various lines – like even at the end of the first verse, “If I got a rocket launcher, I’d make somebody pay” – and there’s invariably someone – a man – in the audience screaming, ‘YEAAHHH!’ And I hate that, because that’s not what it’s about. And if they thought what they heard, they wouldn’t do that. And I just didn’t want to play on that genre feeling in the current situation.
This isn’t the first time Cockburn has felt the need to quit singing. “The same thing happened after 9/11,” he says. “I didn’t sing it for a long time after that, because, you know, people were just looking for motivation to go out and do really bad things. Not that anyone in my immediate audience was likely to go and do this, but it just played into the wrong part of the heart.
While Cockburn wrote many songs about human rights abuses and Third World exploitation, he always did so with a poetic sensibility and emotional depth that set him apart from more political songwriters. didactics. He’s also a phenomenal guitarist, which is particularly evident on a pair of instrumental albums that prompted Acoustic guitar magazine to place him on the same level as Django Reinhardt, Bill Frisell and Mississippi John Hurt.
“When I was learning to fingerpick, I did my best to emulate Mississippi John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb, and other guys like that,” Cockburn says. “Brownie McGhee was also an influence. I saw Brownie and Sonny [Terry] played dozens of times at this Ottawa club where I hung out regularly. Well, it probably wasn’t dozens of times, but it could were, because they came twice a year. I love this music, and it’s still part of what I do.
Cockburn was 14 when he found the dusty old guitar in his grandmother’s attic that would set him on the path to a life in music. Another pivotal moment, he says, was dropping out of Berklee College of Music.
“I was headed for a Bachelor of Music, which would have allowed me to teach music in high schools, which I had no interest in doing,” he says. “I was interested in the content of what was taught, but not in its use as a teaching career. And then I got to the point where I had this realization, ‘I have to get out of here, this isn’t where I’m supposed to be.’ And I listened to that and acted on it.
The other main influence on Cockburn’s life has been his spiritual beliefs, which carry over into his lyrics without knocking you over the head with them.
“I think my relationship with God is the most important thing in my life, and the one I most likely struggle with too,” he says. “I wasn’t connected to a community for a very long time, but by a coincidence in San Francisco, I started going to church again after not going to church for maybe 30 years, 40 years. It was a small non-denominational church with all these really welcoming and loving people. The congregation was racially mixed – you know, people of all kinds of Asian backgrounds, African Americans, white Texans and Samoans – all kinds of different cultures mixed in there. And that was accepting homosexuals and, you know, whatever else – people who think, like me, that their relationship with God is of paramount importance.
“When I arrived, they didn’t know who I was. I was just the old man with a pretty wife, who had discovered the church before me, and finally persuaded me to go. Then they discovered that I played guitar, and I ended up integrating into the band and becoming more or less their guitarist. But then COVID, of course, killed that. So new things have happened since, but there was definitely a sense of community.
This is all a far cry from the divisive — or, as Cockburn puts it, despicable bullshit — sermons that come out of the religious right.
“If you start using the Christian faith as a reason to hate people, that’s completely contrary to what it’s about,” he says. “And yet, historically, of course, it has been used time and time again for that.
“But, you know, I don’t think anyone paying attention to what I have to say is going to confuse me with these other things. The challenge, of course, are they going to listen to what I have to say, or just write me off? Anyway, I won’t stop calling myself a Christian. And if you can’t handle it, well, that’s your problem.