It’s appropriate that Bruce Cockburn recorded his 29th album, Life Short Call Now, at National Treasures’ Studio, at Puck’s Farm, about a half-hour north of Toronto since he enlisted the vocal help of treasures-in-waiting Ron Sexsmith, Damhnait Doyle and Hawksley Workman (who has said Cockburn is the reason he began singing), and uncompromising US political poetess Ani DiFranco.
Cockburn is one of a handful of iconic artists in our country whose names are synonymous with their politics—for using their talents to keep Canadians informed and, sometimes, in check. He’s also one of the only musicians whose liner notes include lyrics in both our country’s official languages—and have done since his third album, Sunwheel Dance, came out in 1972.
“I don’t think it makes that much of an impression on people these days,” Cockburn says over the phone from New York. He’s on a short break from his cross-country tour, which arrives at the Rebecca Cohn on October 14. “It always just seemed like an obvious thing to do in a country where 20 percent of the population is francophone.” Dates and locations also accompany each song—another Cockburn album trademark, inherited from poets he admires such as Allen Ginsberg. “I started doing it for that reason but sometimes it actually makes a difference. Some songs are the product of a certain landscape. Perhaps it’s helpful to know they were written in that landscape as opposed to being fictional inventions.”
For instance, “This is Baghdad”—stark words about a city under destruction contrasted against a richly orchestrated ballad—was actually written in Montreal. “It would be nice if ‘This is Baghdad’ was written in Baghdad, but it wasn’t,” he says, laughing dryly, “because I wasn’t there long enough and it took a long time to put my notes from the trip into sing-able form.”
He composed the instrumental “Jerusalem Poker”—named after a favourite novel by Edward Whitmore, “an American author of unparalleled obscurity”—before a trip to Israel last spring. He found the song’s title even more apt after the visit. Jerusalem “convinced me that there will never be peace on earth. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to have it, but it’s never going to happen just because people are too weird,” Cockburn says, after observing first-hand the complexity of the conflict. “You stand there in this city and it’s ancient and it’s beautiful and of course, there’s the obvious modern problems that stare you in the face too. But the sense I had was standing on the edge of a vortex of human spiritual hunger and it accompanies madness that just swirls there…It’s quite mind-blowing to be there in the middle of that much intensity, but at the same time, we had a great time.”
Life Short Call Now reflects the thoughts of a man who loves to travel, who needs to see things for himself, who is sick of “oil wars water wars” and commercial interests reigning over humanity. But it’s still a distinctly Canadian album—how many other artists question CSIS in their lyrics?
“I feel like a Canadian for sure,” Cockburn says. “I identify myself that way, inwardly as well as outwardly, but I feel like a citizen of the planet as much as I am a Canadian.” The album isn’t subtle in that message either—on the back cover there’s an image of a missile blasting through a balloon earth.
He has written out of anger before, most famously in “If I Had A Rocket Launcher.”
“I could safely lash out verbally in that way because I did not have access to a rocket launcher. It just became an expression of the outrage that I felt. I don’t want to make enemies and I don’t want to incite hatred but when it comes to corporate interests or when it comes to the less-than-human actions of government that sometimes happen, I don’t think it’s necessary to stand back and be balanced about those things,” he says. “The important thing there is to expose your feelings and to say, ‘Look, you guys think you’re getting away with this, but you’re not.’ And it’s sometimes necessary to stand up and say, ‘These people purport to be speaking for me, but they’re not.’”
So be thankful, Canadians, that Cockburn continues to speak out and sing loudly.
Bruce Cockburn, October 14 at the Rebecca Cohn, 6101 University, 8pm, $38.50, 494-3820.