An Interview with Bruce Cockburn

by Thomas Hauner

11 May 2011


"The Comets of Kandahar"

Describe to me the scene for which you wrote “The Comets of Kandahar”.

Well an instrumental piece isn’t really about anything, but you have to come up with names for these things. So the title came from something one of the Canadian soldiers said to me while we were standing there watching—what I learned was kind of a nightly pleasure for a lot of people on the base—the jet fighters taking off constantly, twenty-four hours a day, for missions or patrols. They go off in pairs, thirty seconds apart, and after dark you can’t see them; you just hear a roar. But a moment later you’ll see the flame, from the tail cone, coming out of the fighter. And that’s all you can see. There’s this glowing purplish cone flying across the sky. Everyone stops to look at this because it’s a beautiful sight. So there we are standing, a bunch of us, and we’re all looking at it, and the soldier standing next to me said, “The comets of Kandahar.” So that became the title of the piece.

The song sounds very light and buoyant. Like the imagery in title, in the context of war it’s an interesting juxtaposition.

Yeah, it’s a paradox. I’ve found that in war zones while there are terrible things going on there are also beautiful things going on—not enough to mitigate the terrible things though. You don’t go to certain wars so you can have a vision like that or support wars for that reason either. But the fact is that, whether it’s in Nicaragua in the early ‘80s or Mozambique, I’ve discovered that the troops fighting the war had a sense of humor, and they were glad to see us, and some of them had guitars. I was with Sandinista soldiers on this occasion, and I also visited a couple of other bases in Nicaragua. I think in a way that the closer you are to acknowledge that you could die, or the awareness of death, the more important it is for the individual to have fun. It’s not like sitting around thinking, “Well how am I going to go have fun today?” But if you look and see the beauty around you, whether it’s a leaf or the dust storms that come up somewhere, all these things that are a part of what could be a very threatening landscape become beautiful in themselves.

Finding small sources of comfort you could say.

Yeah, I suppose so.

I also wanted to ask you about “Gifts”, the last track on the record. You wrote the song in 1968. Why record it for the first time now?

“Gifts” was just a short little one-verse song that used to close shows in the 60s. After a few years I had more songs and it kind of fell out of the repertoire and never came back for a long time. But in 1969, when we were recording the first album, Bernie Finkelstein, who was my manager but also did sound on those records, asked, “What about that song ‘Gifts,’ should we put that on the album?” I didn’t really feel like putting it on the album. I though it was fine without it and so I just said, “I’m going to put that on the last album.” And at that point, obviously, none of us knew how many records there would be. So here it is, 40 years later. I don’t know whether this is the last album or not, but it feels like it’s getting to that stage in things where you don’t know for sure. I mean this could be. My hands could stop working or you never know what could happen. It won’t make this the last album, but I thought, “Let’s put it on there just in case.” We did it in such a way that we didn’t tell Bernie until he was listening to a playback of the whole thing. We got to the end and Bernie says, “Is there anything I should know?” And we all just had a laugh and I said, “No, no! I did it just in case.”

In the album notes you cite an initial desire for an “electric and noisy” record with “gongs and jackhammers” and distortion. Can we expect something like that in the future?

It’s hard to say for sure, but it’s possible. I still need to get that out of my system. It’s definitely there in me to do it, but it requires the right setting. You can’t be sitting around a bunch of apartments surrounded by a bunch of loud amps. So it’s become difficult to put something like that together, but it could happen still.

Getting completely off the subject of your records, I have some questions to get off my chest. What is the etymology of your last name?

It’s Scottish, and it actually translates as “rooster creek”. “Cock” is as it is in English generally, but a “burn” in Scottish dialect is a creek. So it’s a place name like so many people’s names that identify someone according to a place. If it was an English name it’d be pronounced “Cock-burn,” but as a Scottish name the c-k in the middle becomes a sort of guttural sound. So it just got kind of shortened over the years or centuries. Sometimes when I went out the bar girl would start making fun of going out for “co-tails”. So this is what I’ve been living with.

I imagine it was not always an easy childhood.

[laughing] You know my dad, when I was a little kid in grade school, he said to me, “Do kids ever call you Coke? When I was little in grade school the kids used to call me Cokeburn.” If they had called me Coke I would have thought that was just fine, instead of making the obvious jokes that they did make. But it says something about the difference in generations, from his to mine. Of course it’s gone much farther than that now, the difference in the way kids talk and the way people think

Did you play hockey as a child growing up in Ontario?

I played hockey for one year. I was a terrible skater and I could only skate while I was holding myself up with the hockey stick. So as soon as I took a swing at the puck I fell down. So it never got better than that. I skied a lot. That was the thing that we did as a family.

Nordic or alpine?

Both, because at the time it wasn’t yet as differentiated as it is now. But the places we went skiing didn’t really have these large hills compared to Western North America; just a hill to learn and do some downhill skiing. But they did have miles and miles of trails, so we used to mix it up and do downhill in the morning and then cross-country skiing in the afternoon. In those days you didn’t have different skis; you just adjust the binding so that the heel could come up.

You were a glaring omission in the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic ceremonies.

Yeah, I kind of noticed that too! [laughing]

Why the snub? Did they think your politics were already aligned against the Olympics and you wouldn’t accept?

I don’t know what they thought. You’d really have to ask Bernie about what kind of approach we may have gotten. Steve [Dawson] produced an album of covers of the Mississippi Sheiks on which I participated and he tried to put together an evening—a Mississippi Sheiks cover concert basically. So that was the closest that I came, and I don’t know if it happened or not. I’m not sure if there was ever really any more talk than that. I did think it was kind of funny that everybody seemed to be there but me.

So you didn’t necessarily agree with those who were criticizing the presentation of indigenous culture during the games?

There’s always some controversy around stuff like that. I think the organizers went out of their way to offset that by including a lot of Native American stuff in the eventual ceremony. Generally speaking, these things are touted as a great benefit to the city for the foreseeable future, but after it they’re paying off the enormous debt from it. I think that will be true with Vancouver too. It certainly was with Montreal.

The Olympic stadium in Montreal has simply become a huge liability for the city.

Down there everybody calls it the Toilet Seat. I think it’s a nice stadium, I guess. I used to go by it when I lived in Montreal. The people who love these events are the developers who make the quick buck building all this stuff.

There’s a significant amount of myopia required.

Yeah, willful myopia. It’s not that hard to look at the precedents, the other cities who have done something similar, and all of them have had the same problems. It just seems to be something that’s agreed that certainly brings visibility to a place globally. But it disrupts and changes the face of where you are. Who does it benefit? It benefits the contractors and the developers and nobody else really.

Back to Ontario. I know both you and Neil Young are from very near each other in Ontario and you’re both nearly the same age. Have you been able to form any sort of special bond over this?

Not really, no. I met Neil after Buffalo Springfield had come apart and he was starting his solo career. He used to come by and play this local coffee house where I hung out. So I talked to him a few times. That was a very interim phase for him. I was in Toronto and in that scene, but not really at the same time that he was.

Finally, I must ask, and only because you’re Canadian and tremendously affable, what are your thoughts on Justin Bieber?

[laughing] I don’t know much about him. I wish him well. The little bit that I’ve seen of him, most of it performing and a little interview here and there, he seems like a very reasonable young guy and I hope he does okay. But I’m not a fan of that music. Good for him if he can do it.

He seems proudly Canadian so I don’t anticipate him defecting, for what it’s worth.

We think of Neil as a Canadian and Neil as a Californian. We think of Joni Mitchell as a Canadian and Joni as a Californian. Leonard Cohen, well I don’t know where Leonard lives now, but he’s lived all over the place. That’s not to take anything away from their Canadian-ness, because I think you can see it and hear it in their music and everything; that is, define Canadian. But it had been a situation where an artist who wanted to get any kind of attention at all had to go to the states; you couldn’t do it in Canada. You could start in Canada, but if you wanted to get on the radio you had to go to the states and then come back because there was no music scene in Canada—or rather music business. There were lots of people playing music, but the majority of people playing music want people to hear it.

There are exceptions, like Paul Anka. Paul Anka went to the states, to New York. He was from Ottawa, younger than me, and there he was. Well maybe he was a couple of years older, but anyway it doesn’t matter. But that could happen. It was a rare thing. But then all of a sudden all these Canadians were saying, “You know what? It isn’t bad coming from Canada. Look at Joni and Neil” and all these people that were doing well. The inferiority complex kind of evolved into national pride. Combined with CRTC regulations and all that, it was a very creative community in the music industry which allowed people to get heard. Back then, being Canadian—those of us who decided to consciously stay in Canada—it wasn’t that we were anti-anything else; it was just ridiculous to not be able to do what I wanted to do in my own country first, and then go somewhere else. At that time it was really important to me to hang around in Canada and do whatever could be done there before looking elsewhere. After a decade or so of that I did start to go outside of Canada. It mattered to me that I was from Canada, but I don’t think it mattered much to anyone else—at least not outside of Canada.

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