No other semi-pop performer’s repertoire prefigures our post-September 11 woes and worries as well as Bruce Cockburn’s. The emotional and numerical center of his new career retrospective, Anything Anytime Anywhere, is held down by three mid-’80s takes on the developing world: “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” (punchy and timely enough to get rotation on MTV), “Call It Democracy” (blunt and specific enough to get banned), and “Waiting for a Miracle” (catchy enough to get covered by Jerry Garcia). Bracketed by two new songs, the remixed, cleaned-up, digitalized compilation lays out, in historical order, the Ottawan’s 14 singles since 1979—conveniently ignoring his first nine recording years, when he was unknown in the States, and letting the chronology begin with “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” his earliest successful fusion of spirituality, global politics, and everyday life.
This mix of inner life and complex outer world expands both Cockburn’s music and his subject matter. Verse-chorus-verse folk rock morphs into recitations over droning but beat-driven grooves—neither oh-haven’t-I-become-intelligent jazz nor aren’t- those-native-people-so-authentic worldbeat—an accessible but sophisticated match to his themes. The album culminates with its final single, 1999’s “Last Night of the World,” a deceptively random flow of despair and hope, agape and eros, words and riffs, particular and general, first world and third, riding a musical progression full of rock drama and working as a broader, more sober retelling of “Lions.” The release sums up his career so well that you wonder if it’s effectively marking a creative end.
But in a standing-room-only Bottom Line earlier this month, the anticipation moved beyond the problems of summing up. Cockburn, of course, was preaching to the converted. The question was: Could he preach a new sermon that spoke to the converted’s experiences in the last six months?
Bandless for this tour, Bruce was alone with his acoustic guitars onstage—a world-wandering loner, a low-maintenance music-biz survivor, and a finger-picking virtuoso. The night’s opening solo and subsequent instrumentals are a little hard to describe musically—Marc Ribot jamming with Sandy Bull? Mississippi John Hurt and Wes Montgomery at the same time on the same strings?—but easy to describe as stagecraft. They established a unity of tone, stirring out the lumpiness that can sometimes develop in selections across a 30-year career. They provided, to go Christian for just a moment, grace.
It wasn’t a candles-on-the-piano evening of soft-rock inspiration, though. The 20-song set appropriately opened and closed with numbers about hope, and Bruce had announced two weeks earlier that he wouldn’t be performing his revenge fantasy, “Rocket Launcher.” (“I’m too close to this country, there’s too many people I love, there’s too many connections with this country, for me to feel comfortable slapping people with the dead fish of their own ignorance,” he joked during our interview.) But he did include, for example, his anti-IMF classic, “Call It Democracy,” preceded by the night’s only unrecorded new song, which he said “in a tangential way arose out of the unfortunate events of last September.” He then quoted a friend: “If we’re going to have a war on anything, let’s have it on fundamentalism.”
If I describe the evening as a critique of globalization wrapped in a critique of fundamentalism wrapped in love songs wrapped in an analysis of the mechanics of hope, it’s not to suggest that these are distinct Cockburnian categories, but to show how skillfully he reworked his set list to meet the audience’s post-WTC needs. For instance, he juxtaposed his new song—about “tunnel vision” constituting corruption—with one from 1981 that begins, “What’s been done in the name of Jesus?” and then runs through Buddha, Islam, man, liberation, civilization, race, and peace, before concluding, “Everybody loves to see justice done to somebody else.”
“OK it was shocking; it shocked me, and it’s horrifying,” Cockburn observed when we talked about September 11. “But what gets left out of the equation is the why.” He continued with a nuanced description of third-world resentment of U.S. domination and the role of “proxies” like bin Laden and “shitty little demagogues,” ending with the observation that “the Axis of Evil doesn’t just stop with the three countries Bush mentioned. It kind of runs right through the whole human experience.”
Cockburn braids compassion, identification, desire, and pleasure together, sometimes all in one song. Spirituality, politics, sex, and music are just different ways he makes those connections. Greed, fear, despair, ignorance, and repression (both inner and outer, erotic and political) are ways to destroy them. From that perspective, “anti-globalization” is really the wrong way to describe his politics. If anything, his work looks for a globalization of thoughts and feelings, or at the very least, an awareness of the global connections that are already there, for worse and better.
And that’s why his attack on fundamentalism and self-righteousness is also, well, fundamental to his perspective. The downtrodden don’t serve as surrogates for unowned anger, as they often do in the worst first-world polemics; they’re fellow travelers, and we’re “Waiting for a Miracle” with them. Demagogues are not excused for exploiting legitimate anxieties for their own ego trips; they’re the outward manifestation of the internal bad guys we carry around inside us. And fundamentalists aren’t hardcore co-religionists—they’re hindrances to spiritual access.