(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )
Bruce Cockburn must surely hold the record for the most consecutive album-cover appearances in the same pair of round, wire-rimmed spectacles.
For twenty-five albums now, beginning with the his self-titled 1969 debut and continuing with his just-released Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu (Rykodisc) (well, on the back cover anyway), the Artist Formerly Known As Canada's Best-Kept Secret has peered out at his steadily growing audience with a confrontational forthrightness entirely appropriate to his confrontationally forthright songs.
Glasses aside, however, little else about Cockburn has remained constant. His music has grown from acoustic folk to folk-rock tinged with jazz and Third-World rhythms to electric rock tinged with amps cranked to ten. As for his lyrics, no one else in the "pop-rock" category has made so much out of Christianity, left-wing politics, and eros.
Breakfast in New Orleans, however, despite revisiting themes long present in Cockburn's oeuvre, breaks new ground, most notably on "Mango," Cockburn's first-ever paean to what he euphemistically calls "the great, cosmic, female thing." "It was the juiciness and the sweetness, I suppose," Cockburn laughs. "A banana was never in question."
Gynecological fruit metaphors aren't the album's only firsts. Another is the appearance of an actual golden oldie, "Blueberry Hill." But Cockburn's decision to tackle Fats Domino has less to do with the "New Orleans" in the album's title than it does with Bambi and the Deer Hunters, a Toronto group with whom Cockburn occasionally performs and whose only mandate, he says, "is to do only songs we don't know."
The Deer Hunters didn't know "Blueberry Hill."
"I've always liked the song," recalls Cockburn, who was eleven when Domino's version hit. "So it has some sort of sentimental resonance that way. But, more to the point, the sentiment that it expresses is reasonably current for me."
Exactly what that sentiment is Cockburn won't say, but on an album in which the mango represents the "great cosmic female thing," blueberry hills begin to seem like great cosmic female things themselves. One thing's for sure, Cockburn's performance of the song as a duet with the Cowboy Junkies' sexy-voiced Margo Timmins only intensifies its latent sensuality.
Cockburn isn't known for latency. For years, in fact, he has boldly striven to prove that a polysyllabic vocabulary and a feel for humanity's earthier urges can not only coexist but also complement each other. Like most musical experimentalists, he's notched his share of failures; unlike most, his successes far outweigh his duds.
Perhaps his best-known formal innovation is his introduction of spoken-word recitation into a format famous for accommodating singing. "Some ideas and words just don't want to be squeezed into a melodic framework," he explains. "So they end up spoken."
Cockburn traces his awareness of the technique to a most unhip source: Wink Martindale and his 1959 novelty hit, "Deck of Cards." "Wink Martindale did nothing but talk," Cockburn remembers, "but at least he knew how to do that. So there is a precedent for spoken-word even in the poppier side of music. I've never made a conscious attempt to emulate Wink Martindale, but I probably wouldn't have thought of it if I'd never heard 'Deck of Cards.' Who knows?"
Cockburn likes asking questions. His most notorious ones have been directed at the military-industrial complex, often in rather inflammatory language. "If I had a rocket launcher," he sang in his 1984 song of the same name, "some son of a bitch would die," and, two years later, "You don't really give a flying fuck about the people in misery" ("Call It Democracy").
"The Sex Pistols [used such language], but people like me didn't," Cockburn says, laughing. "But those words are not used lightly in any of the points where they appear. They're there because they're the right word for that spot. Besides, I think there are more explicit lyrics [in my songs] that aren't cuss words."
Recently Cockburn has lent his energies to the Vietnam Veterans Of America Foundation and their campaign to make the production, sale, export, and deployment of anti-personnel land mines an international crime. Land mines, however, have nothing to do with "Let the Bad Air Out," Breakfast's most political song. The "piss-off" behind that song, as it turns out, just happens to be the same one behind Pat Buchanan's presidential candidacy: NAFTA.
"Most Canadian industry," says Cockburn, "just about died within the first year of the original Canada-U.S. Free-Trade Agreement, which was a total sell-out of Canadian culture, identity, and economy. Companies moved their headquarters elsewhere, and [after NAFTA] they could move not only to the States but to Mexico too and get even cheaper labor.
"It's not just us that are suffering from it, of course," he continues. "It's a generalized transfer of power from elected governments to boards of directors around the world, governments that have become the servants of those other powers, most of them willingly so. And, unfortunately, people have bought into it."
Bleak thoughts, no doubt, but not utterly despairing. What keeps even Cockburn's angriest songs from pessimism is their undertow of what can only be called Christian hope.
Breakfast contains no overtly religious songs, but in the context of Cockburn's body of work, a song such as "Last Night of the World" takes on a spiritual dimension: "I learned as a child not to trust in my body," he sings. "There's a day when we all have to be pried loose."
"I still tend to think in terms of a Christian framework," says Cockburn, "but it's a framework that's been stretched and pounded considerably by experience. And it continues to be stretched and pounded, broken open here and there, in lots of ways.
"It's an on-going process," he adds. "I do think the job of life is to get ready for graduation, as it were, and when the time comes, we leave these bodies behind and graduate to something else.
“I don't necessarily think that that needs to mean an immediate arrival in front of the Pearly Gates, but it may."
Note to St. Peter: Cockburn will be the guy in the round, wire-rimmed specs.