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Artsy Activist

Slinging a guitar and the New Testament, Bruce Cockburn preaches the gospel of progressive politics

For Bruce Cockburn, it has become routine for interviewers to ask why this New Testament-packing Canadian folk troubadour has spent years tromping around the world's political hot spots and then cataloging his experiences in six-minute musical minidocumentaries.

So he seems somewhat enthused (in restrained Canadian fashion, of course) when, during a recent conversation, a healthy chunk of time is not spent talking about how he works death squads, rocket launchers or impending ecological disasters into his lyrics. Instead, he's trying to explain his underappreciated ability to create beautifully intimate, resonant harmonics or jarring heavy licks with his hybrid fingerpicking style. And in the course of the same conversation, he mentions his desire to record, someday, a jazzy, all-instrumental album.

Creativity is as big a part of Cockburn's life as is the need to draw attention to the thousands of unexploded land mines in Mozambique. The former just doesn't get the same headlines or piss off politicians. Catch Cockburn at sound check, and you'll find him, along with bassist Steve Lucas and drummer Ben Riley, a pair of refugees from Toronto's jazz scene, riffing through Coltrane-style 6/8 tempo improvisations. With Cockburn, who turns 55 this month, devoting so much time to his social causes (or lost causes, as he'll say), he finds that sound checks offer him a rare opportunity for complete, unfettered artistic freedom.

Though he has learned not to hit people over the head with his loaded 
messages, Bruce Cockburn still believes in the power of music to transform
Kevin Kelly
Though he has learned not to hit people over the head with his loaded messages, Bruce Cockburn still believes in the power of music to transform

"I like any type of music that has a sense of exploration, but with a solid grounding in the chops you have in your head. It's a joy for me to play with good musicians who are always tolerant of a bozo like me getting in their way," says Cockburn, flipping back into that north-of-the-border, self-deprecating vibe. "Over the years, I've put a lot more thought into all kinds of little subtleties, not only in the lyrics, but musically as well. The process just takes a lot longer now, because I'm always waiting longer for an idea to come along."

That may explain the two-and-a-half-year gap between his 1997 album, Charity of Night, and his most recent CD, 1999's Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu, a smorgasbord of inventive riffs and disparate, jangly melody lines that alternately clash with, or complement, lyrical images. Two complex instrumentals are included, as are a couple of duets with Lucinda Williams. The mystical "Use Me While You Can" is a tuneful combination of images Cockburn recalled from a visit to Mali in 1998, as well as a reflection of his own philosophy of living every moment like it's the last.

Obviously his newer music has a reflective quality that comes from the mind of an artist who has strong, yet hardly mainstream, Christian beliefs, and who is not too far from 60. Though he can pause to look back, Cockburn has always said that his spiritual and emotional journey will never end, that he constantly hopes another revelation will be just around the next corner. Whether it comes when he steps out of a rickety plane onto the African desert or in the arms of a loved one, he's never sure. As Cockburn and Williams sing so convincingly in the reggae-tinged "When You Give It Away": "Trouble with nations / Trouble with relations / Where you gonna go / To find illumination / Too much to carry / Too much to let go / Time goes fast / Learning goes slow."

Perhaps his epiphany that the journey is never over explains why Cockburn's latest record is slightly more optimistic than some of his previous efforts, which have clobbered the listener over the head with pedantic messages.

The song "If I Had a Rocket Launcher" put the bespectacled, white-haired beat poet on MTV in 1984 because he dared to suggest that Central American death squads themselves should be killed. Two years later, when he released the album World of Wonders, he took a swipe at then-president Ronald Reagan in "People See Through You," while another cut, "Call It Democracy," drew the ire of Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource Center. World of Wonders quickly became one of the first albums subjected to the wrist slap of censorship, not for dissing the U.S. government's exploitation of underdeveloped countries, but for using the F-word.

Cockburn has been writing and recording music for nearly 30 years now, most recently for Rykodisc; his trick, such as it is, is that he composes tunes that have one constant: They appeal to "that fringe where you find people who want songs to hook their emotions rather than have it just wash over them." It's probably no coincidence that Cockburn chose music as his outlet; he has always been quick to say that he has better luck conveying his emotions and thoughts through song than through private conversation.

Cockburn believes that music should be used to make people think and take political or personal action; he has felt this way ever since he first heard a Bob Dylan record and realized you could create a song with a message behind it.

Not that Dylan is a primary musicalinspiration. In fact, while many young American men sought refuge in Canada during the early days of the Vietnam War, Cockburn sought musical inspiration in the United States, studying jazz composition at Berklee College of Music. In 1997 he returned to his alma mater to receive an honorary doctorate degree and to address the graduating class. He pleaded with the young grads to stay in tune with world events.

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