Cockburn thinks rock lyrics should have meaning

IT'S a little ironic. After 14 years in the music business -- much of it spent as an unsung hero outside his native Canada -- Bruce Cockburn finally scored a worldwide hit. The only problem is, he hates to play the song. Not your standard rock music dilemma, obviously. But it all begins to make sense when you realize that the song -- ``If I Had a Rocket Launcher'' -- recounts the anguish Mr. Cockburn both witnessed and experienced himself during a trip to Guatemalan refugee camps in southern Mexico. It was an experience so disturbing that it moved the soft-spoken songwriter to pen words of outrage like, ``If I had a rocket launcher, I would retaliate.''

``It describes a set of feelings that I don't like to relive night after night,'' he explained during an interview after a show in Boston on his recent nationwide tour. ``I hate playing it.''

But he does play it. The song is not a call to arms, at least not to guns and grenades. It's more of a call to action -- part of an urgent message that Cockburn has been trying to deliver ever since he first went to Central America in 1983 on a trip organized by Oxfam.

Cockburn returned to Canada so upset by what he'd seen and learned -- especially about American training of Nicaraguan contra forces, which was receiving very little publicity at the time -- that he wrote and recorded an entire album of his feelings and experiences. It was called ``Stealing Fire,'' and it includes the song ``If I Had a Rocket Launcher.''

Since that time, the tall, lanky musician has become an outspoken critic of US policy in the region. And he's followed up his last album with his recent work, ``World of Wonders,'' which continues his critique of Western geopolitics.

``I don't think anybody's an objective truth teller,'' says Cockburn, when asked whether he thinks his music offers an objective view of Central American politics. ``What I'm saying to people, I'm going to put in a different way than a journalist would. I'm not delivering cold, hard facts. I'm delivering what I felt and saw.

``But I'm not going to sit down and write revolutionary anthems, because that's not what I do,'' he continues. ``I'm more like a reporter in that way, in that I think the first responsibility is to some kind of truth, with a capital T.

``Obviously some people are going to hear these songs, and say they're propaganda,'' he admits. ``They're not going to believe my version of what I've seen in Nicaragua or Guatemala. I want to be able to say to them, `No, it's true. I didn't make any of that up.' There's almost nothing on the last two albums that's invented.''

Cockburn has expanded artistically in many ways since he was a student at Boston's Berklee School of Music in the 1960s. He's made an album a year since 1970, creating music that's a m'elange of influences, from folk and jazz to reggae and Caribbean rhythms.

Over the years, he's explored many themes, moving from a more introspective style of writing to his more recent outspoken political stance. Throughout it all, his lyrics have been highly evocative, finely crafted lines that reflect the sensitivities of a poet.

``It's always struck me that if you're going to bother putting words and music together, the words might as well say something about something,'' he says. ``The starting point for my approach to writing is that we're all human beings who are thrown into this world and we have to learn to get along with each other somehow.''

His work -- and his view of the world -- are also profoundly influenced by his religious beliefs. Although his music doesn't preach spirituality, his convictions provide the foundation and framework for his wrestlings with a world he sees in need of change.

``As a Christian, I feel the first and foremost obligations are to love God and to love my neighbor,'' he explains. ``And obviously loving your neighbor is the part of it that affects the rest of the world, and how you view your world. I'm told by my faith, by the Bible, that everyone is my neighbor.

``So when I see people in Nicaragua or Ethiopia or anywhere else, who are in trouble, my impulse is that something should be done to help them,'' he continues. ``The next thing is: I'm inclined to look for why they're in trouble, because there's no way to solve anyone's problem without knowing what the cause of the problem is.

``I keep running up against the fact that we are the cause of the problem -- we as citizens of the developed world,'' he argues. ``We're not the only cause by any means, but we're certainly one of the major factors. And we're in a position, by altering our approach to those countries, to help affect people's lives for the better, or to at least stop influencing them in a negative way.

``I also think, just from a pragmatic point of view, that if we don't make changes we're going to wind up being everybody's bad guy,'' he says. ``And when it gets to be many billions of people looking at us this way -- well, that's not the world I want to hand my daughter.''

Cockburn is not overly optimistic about the way he sees things going, although he doesn't think it's ``appropriate to give up all hope at this point.''

He says he feels encouraged by the sincerity and efforts of people at both ends of the political spectrum who are trying to find an answer to the problem. And though he's wholeheartedly committed to working on the Central American issue until that answer is found, he looks forward to exploring the ``world of wonders'' he's written about.

``I'm curious about everywhere else,'' he says. ``I'd love to go to Africa or China. My original love for travel revolves around the different ways people think, the fact that every different language carries its own thought patterns with it -- the fact that everywhere you go in the world, people look at things a new way.''

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