The rehearsal room was an austere warehouse in the industrial heart of Scarborough, far from glittery downtown Toronto. Working with a bass player and a drummer, pop star and political activist Bruce Cockburn warmed up for a North American tour that opens this week in Hamilton. Cockburn gently kicked some chimes and called for Chaos, signalling the band to launch into the jagged rhythms of Going Up Against Chaos, his 1983 song about the conflicts in urban life. Then the guitarist began a new, deceptively sweet number about politics and religion. “God must be on the side of the side that’s right,” he sang. “And not the right that justifies itself in terms of might/least of all a bunch of neo-Nazis running hooded through the night.” That song, Gospel of Bondage, is one of several on his latest album, Big Circumstance, that deal explicitly with social issues. They reaffirm Cockburn’s commitment as a rocker with a mission—a troubadour for the common man.
Cockburn, 43, is not alone among rock musicians in delivering political messages through his music, or in espousing social causes. Such stars as Bruce Springsteen, who headlined last year’s highprofile Amnesty International tour in support of political prisoners, sing in the cause of oppressed and deprived people or of public issues. This week, after his Hamilton concert, Cockburn himself flies to Los Angeles to join other artists, including Tina Turner, in recording a song to raise funds for a campaign to preserve tropical rain forests. But Cockburn, who lives modestly in downtown Toronto, also plays an active role outside music. He informs himself by touring such troubled regions as Central America and then uses his celebrity to publicize issues. Says Bernie Finklestein, Cockburn’s longtime manager: “Often, while people are out doing those tours, Bruce is working in the country they’re singing about.” Indeed, although invited, Cockburn was unable to take part in last September’s Toronto Amnesty concert because he had already agreed to make a fact-finding tour of Mozambique.
Some of the stronger political views expressed in Cockburn’s music have provoked controversy and criticism in the media. After his first trip to Central America in 1983, where he witnessed an attack on a refugee camp in
southern Mexico by Guatemalan military helicopters, he wrote If I Had a Rocket Launcher. The angry song was interpreted by some as a call to arms. Subsequent visits by Cockburn to the region later inspired more harshly worded numbers, including Call it Democracy, an indictment of the Washington-based International Monetary Fund that includes an obscenity in describing its attitudes toward “people in misery.” Some radio stations banned the song, while a number of U.S. media critics labelled Cockburn anti-American. Meanwhile, his videos became so hard-hitting—one featuring an image of South America caught in a meat grinder—that Toronto critic Jonathan Gross was prompted to accuse Cockburn of becoming “overpoliticized” and “heavy-handed.”
Still, Cockburn denies that he uses his songs to fulfil a revolutionary political agenda. Before setting out on his tour, which crisscrosses North America over the next four months, the singer who once focused on spiritual concerns told Maclean's that “the songs are not part of a crusade,” adding, “It’s just me mouthing off about what’s on my mind.” But Cockburn, a 10time Juno Award winner who was named a member of the Order of Canada in 1983,
discussed his views on socially conscious rock during a break from his pretour rehearsals. Sipping tea from a United Steelworkers coffee mug and dressed entirely in black—T-shirt, leather pants and boots—Cockburn quietly argued that songs can be a catalyst for social change. “They can help to crystallize popular sentiment,” he said, “and add another voice to a particular issue.”
Big Circumstance's songs speak out on a number of weighty matters, including the environment. If a Tree Falls, the album’s first
single, tackles the topical issue of rain forest destruction with dramatic urgency, while the bluesy Radium Rain laments the fallout from the Soviet Union’s 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. And Where the Death Squad Lives is a dark examination of right-wing violence in Central America. But Cockburn—who is divorced and has a daughter, now 12—also explores romantic themes on the aching Pangs of Love and the gentle Don’t Feel Your Touch.
Fans who have followed Cockburn since the early 1970s will hear echoes of his early acoustic music on parts of the new album. And some of the songs arose from a 1987 journey he made to Nepal on behalf of the overseas development agency USC Canada (formerly the Unitarian Service Committee), which Cockburn has been associated with since the late 1960s. When he returned from Nepal, where he observed aid projects and visited schools, Cockburn made a USC promotional slide show of his trip and wrote Tibetan Side of Town, a jazzy acoustic portrait of the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, and Understanding Nothing, a moody expression of cultural bewilderment.
Cockburn’s music began shifting its focus from Christian mysticism after he toured Cen-
tral America in 1983 on behalf of the international development group OXFAM. On his return, Cockburn and other tour members met with then-External Affairs Minister Allan MacEachen to discuss their recommendations that Canada assist Guatemalan refugees and support Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. Although little came of that meeting, more visits to the region in 1985, 1986 and 1988 intensified Cockburn’s pronounced opposition to U.S. intervention in the area. “The U.S. regards the region as a colonial area and treats it accordingly,” said Cockburn. “We should recognize that Canada is in much the same boat.”
During his 1986 visit, Cockburn visited the country’s Caribbean coast with Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians, who were in dispute with the Sandinistas over their earlier resettlement and the terms of their return home. Still, Cockburn—who actively supports the land claims of Canada’s Haida Indians—was encouraged by the Nicaraguan government’s willingness to
settle with the Miskitos. And he was impressed by the country’s leader, Daniel Ortega, and told him during a meeting that he thought the Sandinistas were “doing a good job.” Songs on Cockburn’s albums Stealing Fire (1984) and World of Wonders (1986) reflected his growing disdain for U.S. policy in Central America— and his support of the Sandinistas. Indeed, he expressed his optimism about the country’s revolution in the 1984 song Nicaragua, when he sang, “You’re the best of what we are.” Cockburn, who says he is bored by much of the protocol on his fact-finding journeys, admits that being chaperoned by officials may cut him off from ordinary citizens. During his Mozambique trip last September for Co-operation Canada-Mozambique (COCAMO), an umbrella organization that includes church and nongovernmental aid groups, Cockburn asked to drive a truck on one of the armed convoys that run medical supplies through the war-torn country. Said Cockburn: “I don’t know how to
drive a big truck but I was sure I could figure it out. I thought it was a way to understand what it felt like to be a Mozambican.” In the end, COCAMO officials did not want Cockburn to face a possible ambush by rebel forces fighting the country’s Marxist government. Still, he did eventually travel in a potentially dangerous 32km convoy to a displaced-persons camp.
Taking risks in such trouble spots attests to Cockburn’s commitment to the issues. And although Finklestein jokes about how “a flesh wound would be great for record sales,” Cockburn admitted that he made out a will before his first Central American trip. “You do wonder what might happen to you,” said the singer. “I can always say, ‘Don’t shoot me, I’m a pop star from Canada and it’ll be bad for your publicity.’ But that may not do any good.” When asked whether he would take up arms if a situation arose in one of those countries, Cockburn answered cautiously. “Possibly. I’m not a Quaker and I don’t have a rule against that,” he
said. “And while I don’t think it’s a good thing, it would depend on the circumstances.” Earlier this month, Cockburn was trying to put his Mozambique tour behind him to concentrate on music. He had already given a cross-Canada speaking tour about that trip last November, accusing South Africa of “destabilizing” Mozambique. But newspaper reports revealing Canada’s increased trade with South Africa, at a time when Ottawa was denouncing apartheid, brought him angrily back to the subject—“What hyprocrisy,” he said. Cockburn leaves no doubt that he will come back to that and other issues as he takes his music out on tour this week. With benefit concerts for Third World, peace and environmental groups included on his itinerary, and armed with a new arsenal of message songs, Canada’s activist rock star has just begun to speak out—and sing out—for his causes.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.