Hoopla

Cockburn slips poetry, protests into music

Award-winning Canadian singer/songwriter performs Oct. 25 at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City. (Daniel Keebler photo)
Award-winning Canadian singer/songwriter performs Oct. 25 at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City. (Daniel Keebler photo)

The traditional lullabies that parents sing to their children have been known to include disturbing images: babies in cradles falling 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 in the United States for his unlikely 1984 hit, “If I had a Rocket Launcher.” According to his 2014 autobiography, “Rumors of Glory,” Cockburn had been visiting Guatemalan refugee camps. After returning to a hotel room, he was in tears as he wrote the song and its infamous last line: “If I had a rocket launcher/Some (expletive) would die.”

It’s a line that still resonates.

“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,” Cockburn said. “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, or I can surmise at least.”

A rock musician who incorporates elements of folk, jazz and world music, Cockburn has been hailed as one of contemporary music’s most gifted guitarists, yet he sings and plays in an understated way that complements lyrics that can be both poetic and controversial.

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

In the following interview, Cockburn talks 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.

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Q: How do you think the response to “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” would have been different if you released it today? That song was in heavy rotation on a lot of American stations, but the line “some (expletive) would die” is a little extreme. I could see that 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 — 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 Columbia, 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 farther 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: 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.

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