40 Years in the Wilderness: God’s Search for Bruce Cockburn (in 27 Songs) – Part 2

This is the second in a 3-part series on Bruce Cockburn. To read the first part, […]

Ben Self / 4.3.18

This is the second in a 3-part series on Bruce Cockburn. To read the first part, go here

Act II: The Struggle Against the Darkness of the World (1980-1986)

Three dramatic changes occurred in Cockburn’s life around 1980: (1) his 10-year marriage to Kitty—which had included the birth of their daughter Jenny in 1976—ended in divorce, (2) his music caught fire in the U.S. and brought him fame he’d never had and was ill-prepared for, and (3) he moved from his 1970s home in rural Burritt’s Rapids, Ontario, to downtown Toronto, Canada’s largest city. Perhaps as an effect of these changes, it was also around this time that Cockburn stopped regularly attending any particular church consistently, though he continued to identify as Christian. After his divorce, the move back to Toronto was, as one reviewer put it, “a deliberate test of his faith.” As Cockburn explained: “I moved with the express purpose of absorbing myself in human society… If, as a Christian, I was being asked to love my fellow human beings, I couldn’t love them very well if I didn’t know anything about them.”

Of course, these life changes were mirrored by changes in his music. Rejecting the “‘gentle folkie’ tag that was often applied to him,” Cockburn’s musical style started to become heavier and more rock-oriented. In the words of one biographer, “driving, orchestrated electric-guitar pieces like ‘The Trouble With Normal’, brimming with anger and outrage, mark a turning point… an embrace of global realities and urban sensibilities.” Cockburn’s lyrics began to become more political, less focally Christian, and more preoccupied with loss, struggle, and social injustice. There’s a sense in many of his songs during the 1980s that Cockburn feels he is, to use the title of a 1981 song of his: “Going Up Against Chaos”. As he later reflected: “Things got a little darker… The focus shifted from nature and the spiritual to people and the spiritual. It was more outward directed. The light shifted; there was a lot less light.”

The religious fervor that had pervaded much of his music from the 1970s didn’t so much evaporate as evolve. He began to channel his faith in outward concern with social issues, which showed up, sometimes clumsily, sometimes obliquely, in a number of songs off the albums Humans (1980), Inner City Front (1981), and The Trouble With Normal (1983). As Cockburn explained in a 1999 interview, “The tone of the albums really changes with Humans… the songs there come from those first travels in Japan and Italy… and the greater understanding of human interaction en masse, which translates into politics…” This newfound political consciousness grew into an all-consuming fixation in early 1983 after Cockburn took part in a fact-finding mission to Central America as a representative of OXFAM. What he witnessed on that trip—including the hardships of Guatemalan refugees in Mexico being attacked by their own military’s helicopters—not only led to a flurry of groundbreaking songwriting and the hit album Stealing Fire (1984), but also cemented Cockburn’s interest in leftist politics and social activism.

Unsurprisingly, the less-than-subtle political turn in Cockburn’s music alienated some fans (especially on the then-ascendant Christian Right) but gained him many more, while launching him into the presumably exhausting role of public-artist-crusader. That said, Cockburn ostensibly never viewed these “political” songs as being significantly out-of-step with the rest of his catalogue—for him, they were born of much the same kind of longing as religious or romantic songs. As he reflected in a 1994 interview: “To me, politics is an external expression of something that people carry round in their hearts. The songs I wrote in the Eighties touched on [political] issues because they had… touched me emotionally in a very personal way. There’s no great difference between the mechanics for songs like that and for love songs.”

8. Fascist Architecture (1980)

Fascist architecture of my own design
Too long been keeping my love confined
You tore me out of myself alive

Those fingers drawing out blood like sweat
While the magnificent facades crumble and burn
The billion facets of brilliant love
The billion facets of freedom turning in the light

Bloody nose and burning eyes
Raised in laughter to the skies
I’ve been in trouble but I’m ok
Been through the wringer but I’m ok
Walls are falling and I’m ok
Under the mercy and I’m ok

This tune was written at a time when Cockburn’s marriage was in its final stages, a time for Cockburn of likely intense heartache, resentment, and—not least because he’d been labeled as a “Christian” musician—shame. He elaborated here on the song’s central metaphor:

[The break-up of my marriage] broke a lot of things in me. The image of ‘fascist architecture’ came from Italy. It was stuff that was built during Mussolini’s period that was a particular style where the buildings are really larger-than-life and what is supposed to celebrate the greatness of humanity actually dwarfs humanity. It makes you feel tiny and helpless next to it. And everybody hates this stuff. It seemed to me a suitable image for the things in ourselves, the structures we build that are built on false expectations or pretenses. The things we pretend to ourselves. And then when some catastrophe comes your way, like a marriage breaking up or some other thing, those things crack and you get glimpses through them, the light comes through them. It’s not a comfortable thing.

This concept of the “fascist architecture” of our minds is particularly compelling to me, because it’s remarkable how ruthless and hateful we can be to ourselves. We set such high expectations, or absorb them from others, and then when we can’t but fail to live up to them, drown in self-hatred and shame. Thank God there’s a Voice that can break through that cycle…


 9. The Coldest Night of the Year (1981)

I was up all night, socializing
Trying to keep the latent depression
From crystalizing
Now the sun is lurking just behind the Scarborough horizon
And you’re not even here
On the coldest night of the year.

I took in Yonge Street at a glance
Heard the punkers playing
Watched the bikers dance
Everybody wishing they could go to the south of France
And you’re not even here
On the coldest night of the year. […]

I watched the all night TV show in the all night bar
I drove all the people home
I was the one with the car
Now I’m sitting here alone and sleepless and wondering where you are
And wishing you were here
On the coldest night of the year.

I lived in Toronto a few years ago and Yonge Street is one of those bustling commercial/social hubs downtown I passed along a hundred times. (I actually used to go to a church called The Sanctuary just off Yonge.) The lyrics from this catchy tune obviously call to mind Cockburn’s conscious effort at this time to “immerse [himself] in human society.” It also, perhaps, speaks to a heightened sense of being single on what must have been—if it was really the “coldest night of the year” by Toronto standards—probably a pretty damn cold night. Of course, the absence he feels so keenly in this song could as easily be interpreted as a different, spiritual, sort. 

10. Dweller By a Dark Stream (1981)

It could have been me put the thorns in your crown
Rooted as I am in violent ground
How many times have I turned your promise down?
Still you pour out your love
Pour out your love

I was a dweller by a dark stream
A crying heart hooked on a dark dream
In my convict soul I saw your love gleam
And you showed me what you’ve done
Jesus, thank you, joyous Son

Musically, this song has, to my ear, a country gospel vibe. Lyrically, it hearkens back to the more explicitly religious phase in Cockburn’s songwriting, but it’s also darker, in the sense of being preoccupied with sinfulness and the need for salvation. And that’s probably why I like it. Of course, if you’re not a “dweller by a dark stream / A crying heart hooked on a dark dream”, I guess this song won’t much apply to you, but it sure does me.

 11. If I Had a Rocket Launcher (1983)

Here comes the helicopter—second time today
Everybody scatters and hopes it goes away
How many kids they’ve murdered only God can say
If I had a rocket launcher […] I’d make somebody pay […]

On the Rio Lacantun, one hundred thousand wait
To fall down from starvation—or some less humane fate
Cry for Guatemala, with a corpse in every gate
If I had a rocket launcher […] I would not hesitate

I want to raise every voice—at least I’ve got to try
Every time I think about it water rises to my eyes
Situation desperate, echoes of the victims cry
If I had a rocket launcher […] some son of a bitch would die

This is probably Cockburn’s single most famous song, and also, understandably, his most controversial. Cockburn wrote it after experiences he had in Central America in early 1983, particularly his encounters with Guatemalan refugees in Mexico (“On the Rio Lancantún, one hundred thousand wait…”). As Rolling Stone explained: “[After o]bserving the horrors of refugee camps along the Guatemalan-Mexican border, he went back to his hotel room and cried and wrote in his notebook, ‘I understand now why people want to kill.’” As one biographer continued, “The specter of helicopters crossing that border to strafe desperate refugees awakened deep anger [in him], and Cockburn’s honest expression of that anger came very close to a call to arms.” Indeed, Cockburn struggled with the song’s implications:

I wrestled with it so much before I recorded it. Morally, I mean. I had this song that was my truth, but it just seemed utterly shocking the idea of singing that for people, and the risk that it might incite the wrong kind of emotion in listeners seemed too big. So the learning experience there was the understanding that to not sing your truth is wrong… a kind of self-censorship.

Of course, that may sound like a nice bit of self-justification, but it’s clear at least that Cockburn wants us to understand the song primarily as an emotional response to injustice. Predictably, as it became one of his most successful singles—reaching No. 88 on the Billboard Hot 100 and garnering him more radio and MTV play than any other of his career—Cockburn found himself having to emphasize: “[T]his is not a call to arms. This is… a cry.”

As a cry for justice, at least for me, the song is indeed thrilling, and for what it’s worth, fun to listen to. From a Christian perspective, I would also argue that there is at least some room for “righteous rage” (though I obviously can’t hear Jesus ever saying, “If I had a rocket launcher […] some son of a bitch would die”, can you?). And yet, the song still strikes me as perhaps thrilling for partly the wrong reason—for how it draws so sharp a line between the righteous and unrighteous. It’s a line not much softened by some of Cockburn’s later comments. As he put it in 2001, “Up to that point [in 1983], I had not been particularly supportive of the violent overthrow of government and that sort of stuff. But there I was in this refugee camp… The desperate condition these people were in, and their dignity in the face of that desperation, all this horror made me feel the people in those helicopters had surrendered their humanity.”

Ultimately, this song, and the album—the first and best of his three politically-charged “North-South” albums from the mid-80s—illustrate aspects both of Cockburn’s songwriting style and the philosophy behind his approach to music. As he explained: “Art… deals with little fistfuls of feeling. You can’t expect to do much more in a song than hand little bundles of stuff over to people… [Y]ou’re dealing in pretty graphic little images and as strong a shot of feeling as you can put into it.” Which makes sense of a lot of Cockburn’s music, at its best and at its worst.

 12. Dust and Diesel (1983)

Guitars and rifles in blue moonlight
Soldiers stretched out on sparkling grass
Engine broke down—they took us in
Now we make music for the time to pass
Tired men and women raise their voice to the night
Hope the fragile bloom they’ve grown will last
Pride and passion and love and fear
Burning hearts burning the boats of the past

Dust and diesel
Rise like incense from the road
Smoke of offering
For the revolution morning

This is another of the Stealing Fire songs based directly off of Cockburn’s experiences in Central America in 1983—in this case, in Nicaragua. In fact, “Dust and Diesel” was, as Cockburn put it, “straight reportage, really. All I did was make a list of things that happened and put it to music.” His visit to Nicaragua took place just a few years after the Sandinistas had overthrown the Somoza regime and established their own revolutionary government, and was no less formative for him than his time among Guatemalan refugees. As he summarized it in 1985:

In Nicaragua I witnessed a whole nation of people working together to better their situation. In contrast, the Guatemalan refugees are the terrible but obvious outcome of a society where people don’t have a voice. Seeing this made me realize why we had politics at all—and why this is really worth working at.

This realization produces an interesting contrast in Cockburn’s music during this period—outrage at injustice side-by-side with optimism at the promise of politics, even revolution. By the mid-1980s, it’s clear that an empowered Cockburn feels as much on fire for justice as for Jesus, and in fact, views the two as very much intertwined: God is with the revolution.

 13. Lovers in a Dangerous Time (1983)

Don’t the hours grow shorter as the days go by—
You never get to stop and open your eyes
One day you’re waiting for the sky to fall
The next you’re dazzled by the beauty of it all
When you’re lovers in a dangerous time
Lovers in a dangerous time

These fragile bodies of touch and taste
This vibrant skin—this hair like lace
Spirits open to the thrust of grace
Never a breath you can afford to waste
When you’re lovers in a dangerous time
Lovers in a dangerous time

When you’re lovers in a dangerous time
Sometimes you’re made to feel as if your love’s a crime—
But nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight—
Got to kick at the darkness ‘til it bleeds daylight
When you’re lovers in a dangerous time
Lovers in a dangerous time

Somehow “Lovers” never even cracked the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S., and yet as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the catchiest songs of the 1980s. Cockburn wrote it after seeing teenagers holding hands in a schoolyard; it pits the joys of young love against what Cockburn saw as a backdrop of despair and foreboding at that juncture of the Cold War. As he later explained it:

I was thinking of my daughter. Sitting there wanting to hold hands with some little boy and looking at a future, looking at the world around them. How different that was when I was a kid when, even though we had air-raid drills, nobody took that seriously that the world would end. You could have hope when I was a kid. And now I think that’s very difficult… It was kind of an attempt to offer a hopeful message to them. You still have to live and you have to give it your best shot.

Although unintentional, the song also worked well as a “meditation on the dawning reality of AIDS” amid the related hysteria of the early 1980s. Whatever the source of dread, an underlying message in Cockburn’s music at this time—exemplified by the song’s most famous lines, “[N]othing worth having comes without some kind of fight— / Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight”—is that the best response to chaos and injustice is a kind of activist self-reliance. As Cockburn later summed it up: “[W]e can’t settle for things as they are… if you don’t tackle the [world’s] problems they’re gonna get worse.” And yet, while I’m all for doing your part, that model of individual responsibility does place rather a heavy (and unrealistic) burden on a person, and one Cockburn must have felt intensely at the time.

 14. Call It Democracy (1985)

See the paid-off local bottom feeders
Passing themselves off as leaders
Kiss the ladies, shake hands with the fellows
Open for business like a cheap bordello

And they call it democracy
And they call it democracy
And they call it democracy
And they call it democracy

See the loaded eyes of the children too
Trying to make the best of it the way kids do
One day you’re going to rise from your habitual feast
To find yourself staring down the throat of a beast
They call the revolution

More than any other song on this list, this one sounds to me like something a Jill Stein supporter would write. The lyrics attempt to take on the IMF and neoliberal world order with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer (and I left out the more cringe-worthy bits). But I would say two things in its defense: (1) at our own present political moment—given the outsized influence of the wealthy, corporations, lobbyists, super-PACs, etc.—there is something that rings uncomfortably true about the notion that our democracy is a bit of a sham, and (2) if you were ever to spend much time looking at the human impact of IMF-supported policies in many developing countries during the 1980s and of authoritarian regimes propped up by Western powers, you’d probably share a little of Cockburn’s rage. This song was, in his own words, “an attempt to vent.” Through his travels, Cockburn had by 1985 gained a recognition of the inequity “of North-South relations… Wherever you look you find the same financial interests at work. Working to get rich without controls, at the expense of the poor. When the poor complain, out come the troops, and then the arms companies get rich too.” The song’s radio-censored lyrics reflect this intense frustration (and growing despair?) that Cockburn felt at the time.


 15. Where the Death Squad Lives (1986)

Goons in blackface creeping in the road—
Farm family waiting for the night to explode—
Working the land in an age of terror
You come to see the moon as the bad news bearer
Down where the death squad lives […]

Like some kind of never-ending Easter passion,
From every agony a hero’s fashioned.
Around every evil there gathers love—
Bombs aren’t the only things that fall from above
Down where the death squad lives

Sometimes I feel like there’s a padlock on my soul—
If you opened up my heart you’d find a big black hole
But when the feeling comes through, it comes through strong—
If you think there’s no difference between right and wrong
Just go down where the death squad lives

Though again less-than-subtle in its politics, this 1986 song off Cockburn’s eclectic 1988 album Big Circumstance showcases some of his more compelling lyrics from the period and illustrates perhaps a renewed recognition for Cockburn—embodied in the fantastic lines: “Around every evil there gathers love— / Bombs aren’t the only things that fall from above”—that some Higher Power may be necessary to help bring about social justice. The song is one of the last to come out of Cockburn’s preoccupation with Latin American politics in the mid-1980s, and deals with the prevalence of so-called death squads—vigilante groups, typically sponsored by the military or wealthy elites, that conducted “extrajudicial killings” for the purposes of terror and political repression—operating in a number of Latin American countries during the period, most notably under authoritarian regimes in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and El Salvador. Each of those countries saw thousands of death squad victims over the course of the decade.

16. Waiting for a Miracle (1986)

Look at them working in the hot sun
The pilloried saints and the fallen ones […]

Somewhere out there is a place that’s cool
Where peace and balance are the rule
Working toward a future like some kind of mystic jewel
And waiting for a miracle

You rub your palm on the grimy pane
In the hope that you can see
You stand up proud, you pretend you’re strong
In the hope that you can be
Like the ones who’ve cried, like the ones who’ve died
Trying to set the angel in us free
While they’re waiting for a miracle

Struggle for a dollar, scuffle for a dime
Step out from the past and try to hold the line
So how come history takes such a long, long time
When you’re waiting for a miracle

In Cockburn’s words: “The second trip to Nicaragua produced this song. Three years of low intensity conflict since my first visit—the revolution was getting tired, not over all, not hopeless, but tired.” This “wistful” song, as one commentator described it, put “a reflective coda on his Nicaragua experiences.” Its lyrics are almost somber—the vision of political liberation that had so captivated Cockburn on his 1983 trip has now been left obscured by the reality of the revolution on the ground three years later. The dream of a society “[w]here peace and balance are the rule” seems distant and perhaps unattainable here, at least without a “miracle”; Cockburn even wonders aloud, “how come history takes such a long, long time?”

This song was released prior to Big Circumstance (1988) as one of two new songs (and the title track) on Cockburn’s 1987 compilation, Waiting For A Miracle. In many ways, it was a fitting time for a compilation: Cockburn’s music was nearing the end of a phase—his most politically focused and commercially successful—and beginning the transition to a new one. By 1987-88, one can begin to sense the political triumphalism of the previous few years starting to recede in his music. Of course, 1988’s Big Circumstance—the third and final album in his “North-South trilogy”—is still packed with pointed political subject matter: alongside “Where the Death Squad Lives” were songs dealing with deforestation (“If a Tree Falls”), the plight of the Tibetans (“Tibetan Side of Town”), the fallout over Chernobyl (“Radium Rain”), and the corruption of the Christian Right (“Gospel of Bondage”). Nevertheless, years of intense travel and activism had taken a toll on him.

For Cockburn, the longing at the heart of “political” songs was never that different from the sort that produced love songs or religious songs, and with all such passions comes the potential for a kind of necessary emotional and spiritual hangover. My guess is that something like that is probably what happened to Cockburn next.