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An Interview with Bruce Cockburn

"We’re All Lied To"

by MIKE FERNER

Oriental Palace Hotel, Baghdad

Recently I interviewed singer, songwriter and musician, Bruce Cockburn, at the end of his weeklong visit to Iraq hosted by the American Friends Service Committee. As I write this introduction in a Baghdad hotel on Karrada Street, a diesel generator roars on the sidewalk below, providing power for an electrical system savaged by a decade of sanctions and two wars. The generator is drowned out only when U.S. fighter planes and helicopters roar overhead.

Cockburn’s latest release, "You’ve Never Seen Everything," is one of over two dozen discs the Montreal artist has released, including "Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu," "Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws," and "Trouble with Normal." Cockburn had a few choice comments on some of his favorite topics and then we got down to some questions.

On what he hears from people in Iraq:

Increasingly, people will tell you that they feel one dictatorship has been replaced by another; that they have more freedom of thought now than they had before but they don’t have freedom of movement.

On truth in advertising:

We were all lied to. The Iraqi people were all lied to. And I guess we’re still being lied to. I mean, Tony Blair is still trying to say there were weapons of mass destruction even when the Bush administration is admitting little by little that there weren’t. It’s so much bullshit and at such a price.

Q: Why are you here in Iraq?

A: Officially I’m part of a delegation that includes Bishop Gumbleton of Detroit and we’ve come here to assess the humanitarian situation in Iraq. I just wanted to see it up close and I want to understand as much as I can of what’s going on here. I don’t think the media has given a very fair reporting of what’s happened, although the Canadian media has generally been better than the U.S. In a way, that’s an after-the-fact rationale, because as an artist, I feel it’s my responsibility to witness things and try to grasp them. Once in a while I get lucky and my understading of those things become songs. That’s not a given and I think it would be self serving to the point of obscenity to come to a place like this looking for song material, but I hope that a song can be inspired by what I see

Q: During the U.S.-backed war against the government of Nicaragua in the 1980′s, you wrote the song "Rocket Launcher." if it’s fair to say that that was an angry song, a) what were you angry about when you wrote it; and b) do you feel as though you’d write a similar song today?

A: "If I Had a Rocket Launcher" was written about a particular time and place. The situation that inspired it called for outrage–at least that’s what it elicited from me. I think it’s fair to say that outrage is an appropriate response. Had I had a rocket launcher on that particular ocassion, I don’t know that I’d have used it and I’m glad I didn’t because I didn’t have to make the choice.

The situation was that I’d spent three days in a couple of different Guatemalan refugee camps in Chiapas, in southern Mexico. All the while we were in one of them we could hear one or more helicopters patrollling the border. The week before we were there and the week after we left, this helicopter strafed the camp–as if these people had not suffered enough with the incredible violence they were fleeing in the mountains of Guatemala. The eyewitness accounts they told us were just horrendous…their food ration was only three tortillas a day… no medicines…but still, sitting there with courage and a capacity to celebrate. When they found out I was musician, they brought a marimba that they had carried in pieces from their village…they all got out their best clothes, the kids danced, and they had a party.

It just made me cry and still does when I think about it. That spirit they showed in face of such incredible difficulty…the implications of that helipcopter going back and forth, made me feel that the people in the helicopter had forfeited any claim to humanity and I just felt this incredible outrage…I felt it much more strongly than the Mayans did. I didn’t hear a word of anger from anyone about anything they’d experienced, but I felt it. After I got out of the camp I was sitting in my hotel, drinking and crying and writing that song. For me, writing the song was just to get it off my chest and I wrestled with whether to record it or ever perform it in front of anyone. I thought if I don’t, that’s self censorship which is inherently bad, but also, the feelings I had were probably not very much different from those that anybody of my background would have had in those circumstances, so it seemed important to share it with people of my background–with my audience. I think most people understood that it was not a call to arms but a cry of outrage. Yes, it was cathartic for a lot of people. I remember meeting Charlie Clemons, a doctor and a Viet Nam vet, when Rocket Launcher was being played on the radio. I felt a little sheepish, because here was this guy who’d been in a war, and I had not, and he’d decided to be a pacifist. I felt kind of weird knowing he was in the audience when I was singing this song, and I asked him about it later. He said, "It was what we all wanted to hear!"

I don’t know if I’d ever write another song like "If I Had a Rocket Launcher." That experience (in southern Mexico) was really my first experience with the real third world. That first time in the refugee camp was my first experience seeing such poverty up close like that. Since then I’ve seen it lots of times in lots of parts of the world, so things don’t hit me with quite the same vividness after the first time. But that being said, there’s a lot going on here to be outraged about, certainly, among them the hypocrisy of the American administration who claim to be Christians and operating from a basis of faith, and who are conspicuously not loving their neighbor in this country. It’s hard to get words around the enormity of what’s going on here, and I’m not sure if I have much perspective on it yet, but clearly the war in Iraq was not about freeing the people of Iraq from an onerous dictatorship. It was not about weapons of mass destruction. It was not about a relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaida. That’s obvious without coming to Iraq, but it’s doubly obvious when you come here and you see who’s paying the price for this war. Aside from the American taxpayers, who I don’t think fully realize the price they are paying, it’s the people of Iraq that are paying–the increasing numbers of homeless people living in bombed-out buildings, whole families strugling as best they can with 60% of the population out of work, the economy just absolutely shattered and nothing being done to rehabilitate it…who knows what the future holds, but from the point of view of the aveage Iraqi it’s clear that everything being done is about Bush’s potential in the next election. Every Iraqi I talk to says that. It’s very clear to them that it’s all about electioneering.

Q: What difference does it make if an artist expresses anger or dissatisfaction with political policies?

A: In terms of commenting on government policy, I’m a citizen talking, not an artist. I’m a citizen of Canada but also a citizen of the world and obviously, the decisions made by the United States effect all of us greatly. As an artist I feel it’s my job to grasp whatever I can of the human condition and distill it into some communicable form, through song, and in so doing, create a vehicle for the sharing of experiences among people. Everybody filters a song through their own experience when they hear it. But allowing for that, there’s still a common bond especially in a live performance, where you have a group of people in a room together and the song then becomes a vehicle for the sharing of their feelings in that room at that time. I think that’s a really important part of what I do. With that in mind it’s down to me to try to grasp as much of the human experience as I can and keep that distillation process going.

Q: What do you feel you’ve gotten from the people of Iraq while you’ve been here, and what do you hope to give?

A: Well, I’d like to think I can offer some help to people who can use it. We will have made a great step forward if we can communicate the humanity of people here to the human instincts of friends back home. Too often I think North Americans see Iraqis as a bunch of camel herders. I don’t think people have a very good idea of who lives here. And who lives here are just like the people of North America–doctors and lawyers and architects and farmers and laborers and people of all walks of life, just like home. The educational system, until the sanctions took hold in the early 90′s was just exellent, so there’ a lot of really well educated people in this country. But that’s another sore point with the Iraqis–none of that education and technical ability is being tapped by the Americans at all. Iraqis aren’t being tapped for anything other than menial jobs and security forces in the case of the police. There are people here in this country perfectly capable of rebuilding the country if they just have the resources, but they’re not being allowed to participate.

It always gives me a big boost to be in a place like this. It kind of reminds me of what I’m here for, if I was in danger of forgetting it. I’ve been touring from June until mid-December, and have another tour starting two days after I get back. In that context, it’s sort of easy to lose sight of the real world sometimes. So just from a personal point of view it’s been very beneficial to be here and keep my feet on the ground. Being face to face with the need of the homeless people we spent time with yesterday, and being in the presence of the clear manifestation of earthly power–these are sobering things. The human spirit, the resourcefulness that people show…the way people have used these bombed out building to try and create some semblance of home for themselves is at once impressive and terribly touching because they’re working with so little. Even there, there’s pride. People have gone out of their way to make it as pleasant as they possibly can and something to give a sense of privacy. The fact that people are willing to die for these horrible hovels…what do you make of that? On one hand it’s a testimony to the human spirit, to people’s willingness to hang on to their self respect at all costs. I guess why I brought that up is that issue of the human spirit is the biggest gift that the Iraqis could ever give me…to be reminded of our capacity to get by in even the worst of circumstances. On the personal level that’s what I hope to take back. Of course I hope to have some effect beyond my personal interest and what I can take back. But whatever else happens I know that much.

Q: As an artist that actively addresses his concerns, do you find it frustrating that more of your colleagues don’t use their craft in a similar way?

A: I can’t make choices for anybody else. I think it would be more useful if there were more people in the arts willing to be heard on these kinds of issues–but there are a lot of people who are. I mean, if I start feeling alone, all I have to do is look at Ani DiFranco, and I know Ani feels alone sometimes, too. We all do. But there’s two of us that are doing this kind of thing on a regular basis. There are other people who come and go from it on specific issues. Around the landmine issue, for instance, we did a series of concerts for five years starting on the anniversary of the treaty banning landmines, that were the brainchild of Emmylou Harris. There was a sort of changing cast of characters in these concerts, including songwriters like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sheryl Crow, Steve Earl, Nancy Griffith, John Prine, Emmylou, me, Chris Kristofferson–there were a lot of people. There’s Jackson Browne, who’s always working on stuff behind the scenes or publicly, to mention a guy who really spends his time on things that matter. They’re around. So while on the one hand you’ve got the artists who are being celebrated on MTV, hustling products, and up to their neck in cross-marketing, there’s a lot of us that are actually offering something that I consider to be of greater integrity. But I don’t claim to be able to judge the choices that other people make. It’s not for me to say. I don’t know what their background is or where they’re coming from; what colored their experiences to make them make those choices. I think if you’re going to call yourself an artist–and there’s a lot of things we can call ourselves–we can be entertainers or this or that…I grew up in an era when art was considered to be something that had value that transcended its commercial value. I feel that way about it and I feel like what I want to do with my songs is something that isn’t about the commercial value it has…that’s my choice.

MIKE FERNER spent the month of February, 2003 in Baghdad and Basra, with Voices in the Wilderness, a Chicago-based campaign to nonviolently resist economic and military warfare against Iraq. He returned recently to write about the current situation in Iraq. He is a former Navy Hospital Corpsman and a member of Veterans for Peace. He can be reached at: mferner2003@yahoo.com