Boundless: An Interview with Bruce Cockburn

One of the most prolific singer-songwriters to emerge from the '60s, Bruce Cockburn is also the most eclectic, very likely the most honest, and certainly the most overlooked.

Bruce Cockburn

Small Source of Comfort

Label: True North

Above: Press photo. Photographer unknown.

One of the most prolific singer-songwriters to emerge from the '60s, Bruce Cockburn is also one of the most eclectic, very likely the most honest, and certainly the most overlooked. His steady output -- be it reggae, jazz, rock, blues, folk or country -- never dissolved into the solipsism that plagues breakout success. Instead, Cockburn sang about injustice and condemned imperialism, without sounding sanctimonious. And while other contemporaries had moved south to the United States to advance their fledgling careers, Cockburn always remained committed to being a Canadian artist. His faithfulness was rewarded when he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2002.

Upon the release of his 31st studio album, Small Source of Comfort, PopMatters had the opportunity to talk with him about his new record, his career, and even Justin Bieber.

* * *

Let's talk about your new record first, Small Source of Comfort, and the title. I'll bite; what is your small source of comfort?

It's actually a line from one of the songs, a song called "Five Fifty-One", that says in it, "a small source of comfort, dawn was breaking in the air, you don't take these things for granted when you think of what's in need of repair." So we're grateful for this thing that came up, but we've also been messing with things to such an extant. So it has an ironic application, but if people want to think of the album as a small source of comfort they're welcome to.

I noticed you meted credit, in the sleeve, to the NYPD and U.S. Department of Homeland Security. What was their contribution to the record?

All the credits are directed at entities that actually had something to do with the making of the songs. There's a reference in "Iris of the World" about crossing the border, so that's the Homeland Security part of it. And the New York Police Department also figures in that song, "Five Fifty-One", where in the middle of the night there's a pounding on the door: "What's going on in there?" And, in fact, nothing was going on but my neighbor had said there was. So they get some credit in there.

What is the actual drive you're alluding to on "Iris of the World"?

Most of the time I was driving between Kingston, Ontario and New York. For several years my girlfriend was living in New York, so I was commuting, though commute isn't the right word. I was making frequent drives from my house down to Brooklyn. A lot of the imagery from that song is a product of that driving. But I've done so much driving over the years that long-distance drives figure a lot in this album. Not just that song, but in "Boundless", for instance, there's a lot of that kind of reference.

Do you do a lot of writing on the road, literally?

I don't do enough writing to be able to say that I do a lot of it anywhere, in any particular place [laughing]. But it can happen on the road and historically it has. It's less of whether I'm traveling or not and really whether I've encountered something that affects me emotionally to get the process going. And then, whether I have a quiet space to focus on it. But that can kind of happen anywhere under any circumstance, as long as those two requirements are met.

So there's no static routine you employ to write?

No, not really. I tried for a while way back, decades ago, to be "disciplined" and write something every day and write in my notebook. I did that for about a year, and at the end of the year I had about as much usable stuff as if I had just sat around waiting for good ideas. So that was the end of discipline.

There are a significant number of instrumentals on the new record. How did those come about?

I'm not sure why that is. They came about very differently than the songs with words, where I can always start with lyrics and then find music that suits it. Without the lyrics then it's really just what comes out of the guitar while I'm messing around. I'll discover something, and an idea then leads to another idea leads to another idea.

There are also a significant number of collaborations. How did those pairings happen?

I'll take Jenny [Scheinman] first. Well when she's not on the road she does a weekly Tuesday night gig at this little club called Barbès in Brooklyn. So she asked me to do a couple of those with her and we had so much fun doing that. Then we got approached to do a demo for a film that was in need of some music, after the director had come to one of our shows and thought it might work. So we collaborated on that for a couple weeks, but it came to nothing in the end and they didn't use our music. But we came up with a lot of great ideas during that time and I felt, I don't know what Jenny felt like, but I felt that it stretched in a positive way. To be working with somebody as distinctive as she is and as creative as she is, we had enough of a common background, a common language, I was hoping she would be a big part of this album.

And of course the other collaborator on the record is Annabelle Chvostek, who is a former member of a group called the Wailin' Jennys. She approached me one day and asked if I would be interested in writing songs with her. I hadn't written anything in a while, and I hadn't done very much collaborating of that sort over the years, but I was familiar with her music from the Wailin' Jennys. So we got together and I contributed a few lines and we got talking back and forth before we arrived at the final version [of "Driving Away"] you hear on the record. After we did that I thought, "That worked well we should try another one!" So I came back in with a bunch of lyric ideas that didn't really have a proper fit and we got together and came up with "Boundless".

One of my favorite tracks is "Call Me Rose". You hadn't been listening to John Adams' Nixon in China had you?

I'm aware of its existence, but I've never heard it. I had friends go see Doctor Atomic once in New York and I heard the music on the radio, which is amazing, but I'm not familiar with the music of Nixon in China. I'm not really sure where that song did come from. I woke up one morning and it was just in my head, almost complete in the form that you hear it. The lyrics, I'm not sure where that comes from. From your sleeping brain, you know?

When that song was written -- it was a few years back -- someone from the Bush administration, not too long before that, had campaigned to bring back the image of Richard Nixon. There were all these pronouncements being made by various pundits in the press that he was the "greatest President ever" and that he was misunderstood and all this baloney. And the interesting thing was nobody bought it.

They kept doing this for a couple months and then all of a sudden it just disappeared; which suggested to me that somebody had paid to get this campaign going and once it hadn't born fruit just cut it off. I was pleased to see that the American public was not taken in. As those of us who can remember, other than the fact that he made a very important gesture in terms of establishing communications with China -- there's no taking that away from him -- he was a crook and a scumbag and no one should think otherwise.

The fact that he was also an intelligent man doesn't really mitigate the crookedness, or the carrying on of the war, etc. etc. The idea that you could bring him back as the "greatest president ever" was absurd. So I suppose somewhere in there I might have been thinking, "What would it take rehabilitate actual Richard Nixon?" Not just his image. So in the song he's re-imagined as a single mom living in the projects. I guess it's kind of like Groundhog Day.

Perhaps in a similar tactic conservatives are currently lionizing Reagan more than ever.

Reagan at least avoided being caught in a sleazy scandal. Whatever else was going on he managed to stay away from the crookedness. I think he understood that his power came from other people. I don't think Nixon understood that at all. In spite of the fact that Reagan was guilty of all kinds of policies that led to serious human rights abuses and lots of death and mayhem, he came across as a reasonably honorable guy. I'm leaving out the part when he ratted out his colleagues during the McCarthy era [laughing]. I guess we have to factor that in too, so maybe he wasn't better than Nixon.

Tell me about visiting Canadian troops in Afghanistan and the inspiration for writing "Each One Lost" and as well as the instrumental, "Comets Over Kandahar".

"Each One Lost" I wrote the day after I got home. My week in Afghanistan was a very short trip, but it was a powerful experience.

Had you traveled to a war zone previously?

I'd been to several war zones before, but never with the Canadian forces -- always with NGOs or non-profits that are doing work in third-world countries. I was in Central America in Nicaragua during the contra war, and I was in Mozambique during their civil war. And if you traveled in Italy in the late 70s it was like being in a war zone because people kept pointing guns at you everywhere you turned. So I'm not exactly a stranger to that kind of atmosphere.

But this was the first time that I had been on a Canadian base and I was excited about that because it's nice to have a sense of what my own country is doing and what these young Canadians are doing. These young people, these young Canadians, are at the age, right now, where they kind of feel like kids and make you feel a kind of solidarity with them. But I was excited to be able to go and see them working and experience what it felt like to be there, even for just a short period of time.

My brother, who is only a few years younger and has had a career as a doctor for most of his adult life, joined the army a couple of years ago. He got sent to Afghanistan for a six month tour. When that happened I thought, "Well here's a chance to visit, a connection. It would be really cool to be able to go over while he's there." So I asked what he had to say about it, and he liked the idea because somebody from here wants see what he's doing there.

So we badgered the army and they let me join this morale boosting group that was going over there -- just some musicians and some sports people and various others. We went and performed for the troops at some of the operating bases and rode in some helicopters with a couple of gunships escorting us. As tragic as war zones are, there's an adrenaline factor that's kind of addictive.

Other than the dead and the wounded -- of course they're not numerous by global standards but they're numerous enough if you're looking at it from the Canadian perspective, and there's nothing fun in tragedy -- the fact is that the people who are not dead are capable of having fun. And the rush of sitting in that helicopter, flying over the desert, looking out at a machine-gunner, at the landscape, was a precious experience. It was exciting and stood in short contrast to the seriousness of what's really going on.

That seriousness was brought home with me -- the subject of "Each One Lost" -- when our group became part of a ramp ceremony honoring the remains of two young Canadian soldiers who had been killed. On our way into Afghanistan we stopped at a NATO base in Dubai for a few hours for a plane change. As we were getting ready to board our plane from there to Kandahar, another transport plane came in from there with the bodies of these two soldiers on board that had been killed that day.

So we were already on the runway and became part of the ramp ceremony and it was a bit of a nightmare. I tried to capture that in my song.

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Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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