A guy from Canada

Bruce Cockburn brings his storied career to Olympia

By Rev. Adam McKinney on April 28, 2010

In the 1970s, a Canadian folk-rocker named Bruce Cockburn released almost an album a year for the entire decade. He missed 1977, but this was most likely due to a shortage of notebook paper he suffered after penning seven albums worth of material - so get off his back. My point is that this gentleman is just about as prolific as any musician currently in circulation, with an amassed archive of 22-29 albums, give or take live contributions.

Have you heard of Bruce Cockburn? Maybe. You've definitely heard him.

Most would know Cockburn by his breakthrough hit "Wondering Where the Lions Are," a classic slice of bouncy folk that features what may be, as he notes, the only instance in which the word "petroglyph" has appeared on the Billboard charts.

Maybe you know Cockburn from his furious protest song, "If I Had a Rocket Launcher" - an unusual standout in his canon. Sprinkled with synthesizers (it was the '80s!), there's a much harder edge than is usually found in his work. He is sickened by the way governments in third-world countries treat their citizens.

As evidenced by "Rocket Launcher" and its bed of synths, Cockburn may be a folk-rocker at heart, but he's never been afraid to change up his sound. Over the years, Cockburn has experimented with world-beat rhythms, synth-rock and jazz.

"There's a certain element of conscious decision-making that goes into all that, but it really starts with the songs," says Cockburn. "If there's a lyric that really wants a jazzier treatment. ... Or, I suppose, that's my subjective judgment. Maybe it's just that I'm bored with whatever it was I was doing the week before."

More than anything, though, melody is king with Cockburn. His beautiful guitar playing and lovely instinct for songwriting are what won him fame in the first place. On top of that, Cockburn has proven himself to be as expressive a lyricist as he is a guitarist.

I suppose I can't write about Bruce Cockburn without addressing Christianity. It figures strongly in a lot of his work, whether obliquely or right in the foreground. Though he spent his early life as an agnostic, Cockburn turned to Christianity shortly after he began his music career.

However - and I say this as an atheist who has a hard time warming to music with religious overtones - Cockburn's expressions of awe for and love of God never come off as non-inclusive or judgmental to those who don't believe as he does. He's a Christian in the best sense of the word: a person who loves humanity and wants nothing more than for us all to get along. His God strives to create beauty, not hate.

This is evidenced not only by Cockburn's lyrics, but by his noted stance as a staunch supporter of liberalism in politics. As Cockburn's career went on, his politics began to play a larger role in his songs.

"The good idea comes from an emotional response to something that I'm confronted by, whatever that might be." says Cockburn. "It might be romantic, it might be political, it might be a spiritual wakening, as the case may be. It could come from a number of different sources, but the common denominator is that it has to trigger some kind of strong emotional response, and that's what gets me creating."

In light of recent events, I took advantage of the opportunity to speak with Cockburn to ask him about pay-to-play. If you haven't heard, and without getting into the whole brouhaha, Tacoma's Girl Trouble is being sued by a company in Ohio called Gorilla Productions, because Girl Trouble's Bon Von Wheelie runs an anti-pay-to-play Web site.

"It's always been a problem," says Cockburn of pay-to-play. "It's been abused over the years. ... I hope that the lawsuit will be thrown out, before it starts costing [Girl Trouble] any money."

Bruce Cockburn, in real life as well as in song, has earned a reputation for caring about people - really caring. It shows in his songs through the compassion with which he draws his characters, and it shows in life where he sticks his neck out for the little guy. It's because he first knows himself.

With or without 29 albums, in the end Cockburn is just a guy from Canada.

Bruce Cockburn

Friday, April 30, 8 p.m., all ages

$35, Capitol Theater, 206 Fifth Ave. SE, Olympia, 360.754.6670