It's ironic that after 12 albums and 10 Junos (Canada's equivalent of the Grammy), singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn may become widely known in America for an atypical song, "If I Had a Rocket Launcher." Part of a trio of stark political songs inspired by a visit last year to Nicaragua and to Guatemalan refugee camps in Mexico, its refrain is a catalogue of reaction to the social injustices Cockburn witnessed firsthand:
I don't believe in guarded borders and I don't believe in hate
I don't believe in generals or their stinking torture states
But when I talk with the survivors of things too sickening to relate
If I had a rocket launcher . . . I would retaliate.
Over the past decade, Cockburn (who performs at the Wax Museum on Sunday) has been been one of the most intelligent and consistently innovative songwriters in North America. His lyrics are mature, provocative, tinged with a positive mysticism, so he's slightly bemused at all the attention being paid to his "new political awareness." One writer described him as "politically aroused and not at all amused."
"It means they're taking note of what's being said," Cockburn says calmly. "It also suggests they weren't really taking notice of what was being said before, because there was a lot of political content in the earlier songs, though I have to admit the emphasis was different. I was more concerned with the interior workings and the effect of those things on the person. Now it's the other way around -- what can you do about those things?"
His new album, "Stealing Fire," continues Cockburn's transformation into a full-blown rocker, stylistically years away from his folkie career origins, connected mostly by his rich, soft-focused singing and outstanding guitar playing. Still, his explorations of the human condition remain intensely moving, and the march from mystical street poet to human rights activist has been subtle.
If one of "Rocket Launcher's" suggestions is not only that anger can signal a beginning of commitment but that such anger can get out of hand, Cockburn is quick to point out that it reflects a very personal experience. "Aside from airing my own experience, which is where the songs always start, if we're ever going to find a solution for this ongoing passion for wasting each other, we have to start with the rage that knows no impediments, an uncivilized rage that says it's okay to go out and shoot someone."
Like "Nicaragua" and "Dust and Diesel," "Rocket Launcher" came directly from Cockburn's visits to Guatemalan refugee camps in Mexico. "I can't imagine writing it under any other conditions." He had gone to Mexico and Nicaragua in early 1983 with several other Canadian artists at the invitation of OXFAM, the world hunger organization; OXFAM had sponsored a similar trip the year before with members of the Canadian Parliament. According to Cockburn, "the idea was to reach a different audience than the politicians by having us go and observe, using the relative visibility that we have to educate the Canadian public to what we had seen and to raise money for projects that OXFAM has in the region."
Cockburn was already involved in the issue, having spent time reading the poetry of Ernesto Cardenal and a report by Pax Christi, the Catholic human rights organization, on its investigation of alleged church persecution in Nicaragua. His three weeks in Central America confirmed some opinions, but also aroused the kinds of frustrations evidenced in "Rocket Launcher."
Ironically, the political stance it inspired is linked to a similar public position Cockburn took several years ago, when he confirmed that he was a born-again Christian. "One is directly responsible for the other," he says, though he insists neither commitment defines his work. "I don't consciously or not consciously write certain kinds of songs," Cockburn says. "In fact, I almost didn't put 'Rocket Launcher' on the album because of the ease with which it could be misinterpreted."
That happened briefly when his Christian stance became better known. "Becoming a Christian is what gave me the motivation to get interested in the people around me in the first place," Cockburn says, but when his albums didn't break through stateside in the early 1980s, his American labels tried to push him in the Christian bookstores. "For the people who frequent those places, I wasn't Christian enough," he laughs, "so I was caught in the middle." And though he had an American hit in 1979 with "Wondering Where the Lions Are," he never broke through here -- in fact, last year's brilliant album, "The Trouble With Normal," is available only as an import. "A number of companies told me it was a great album but it wouldn't sell, so they passed on it." "Stealing Fire" has been released here on Gold Mountain/A&M.
Working with a hot band, Cockburn will undoubtedly draw from his large catalogue of songs at the Wax Museum. And though he may explore the dark side of the human condition, he will close his concert with one of his most beautiful and optimistic songs, "Joy Will Find a Way."
"We've got to have hope," he says. "Otherwise you really won't survive very well, though each of us has to find our own thing to hope in. I hope in God, and as a result of being in Nicaragua, there's hope, or at least there's the possibility, that people can accomplish something -- not anything perfect, but workable. For the first time in that country, I witnessed virtually a whole nation of people working together to better their situation, willingly and in a spirit of commitment, a positive spirit."