Bruce Cockburn’s biography excerpt…


What follows is an excerpt from Bruce Cockburn’s book which you can now pre-order on Amazon. It deals with one of his most famous songs, the controversial “If I had a rocket launcher”, written after a trip to the Guatemalan refugee camps on the border with Mexico.

The dreadful history of the massacre, torture and terrible atrocities done to poor native American communities by forces supported by American money and weapons (and to protect American business interests) is one that I would know nothing about, if not for this song. And we need to know. All these second hand wars fought in the the name of ‘freedom’ … 

You can read the full excerpt here.

It seems possible to view the genocide against Mayan people as an extension of thehistoric U.S. policies of extermination at home against Native Americans. The atrocities were not unique. They were part of a pattern of depravity that surfaces again and again all over the globe. In southern Mexico we found raw evidence of the banalityof evil. Not only was it horrible, but for the most part it wasn’t even creative.

Not much has changed in the realm of mass murder since biblical times. Though the tools of the trade have become more sophis-ticated, when we get down to it, it’s somebody bashing someone’s head with a hammer or a shovel, or herding folks into a church and setting it ablaze. Same old shit. The difference for me was that this aspect of us had leapt off the page and become flesh and blood.

Asking God how he could allow such brutality seemed like an irrelevant question. Here, splayed before me in ways I had previously only imagined, were the “juicy bits” from the Bible. Here was the horror, Conrad’s heart of darkness, Thanatos projected, all too real.
I felt the violence pulsing through our DNA. These actions are embedded in our social, religious, and political traditions.

A decade later, surveying the mine- strewn beauty of a Mozambican landscape ravaged by the same evils, it struck me that war is the default position of mankind, peace an aberration.In San Cristóbal I bought a bottle of cheap whiskey and holed up in my bare hotel room. I needed the simple whitewashed walls. I didn’t want to see anyone. I kept reliving the terrible stories, trying to breathe them into some comprehensible order. The quiet courage, the fierce determination and dignity of the refugees, the children still
being children after all they’d seen— all of it hit me like an ice pick to the heart.

When I thought about the perpetrators of those deeds, especially the anonymous airborne ones, I felt all- consuming outrage, a conviction that whoever would do such things had forfeited any claim to humanity. I envisioned myself with an RPG, blowing them out of the sky. In the hotel room, through tears and under dim light driven back from night’s rippled windows, I began writing.

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 launcherI’d make somebody pay

I don’t believe in guarded borders and I don’t believe in hate

I don’t believe in generals or their stinking torture states

And when I talk with the survivors of things too sickening to relate

If I had a rocket launcherI would retaliate

On the Río Lacantún, 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 victim’s cry

If I had a rocket launcher

Some son of a bitch would die

Save the world, become a vegetarian…


I have been a vegetarian for about 26 years. I would like to pretend that this is for the highest moral purposes, fueled by compassion for the suffering of creation, but this would not be truthful. The fact is, when I was a student, desperate to find some kind of place of belonging in a world in which I was a rather dysfunctional outsider, I found myself surrounded by people who did not eat meat. Most of them were more confident, better looking and certainly more socially gifted than I was. One of them subsequently became my wife- and she was a passionate anti-vivisectionist who regarded eating animals as a kind of murder. Given that she still loves me after all these years might suggest that I made the right choice- one that we have both continued with even though this is more through developed habit than passion.

Our vegetarianism is not really about health benefits- despite all the concerns about red meat and larded-clogged arteries. After all, chips, chocolate, crusty bread and butter with deep red cheese and sugar loaded pickle are still every bit as challenging to my waistline.

If asked about the reason for my choice to eschew the burger and the lamb chop I could not have honestly claimed to be angered by the death of little furry creatures for our glutinous pleasure. As we look out there, we see a vast ecosystem of flesh clawing at flesh. Killing to eat is not something that I can find any real philosophical, theological or moral objection to- even though I have never killed anything on purpose then eaten it.

This is part of the problem- I became increasingly convinced that if I could not see the chain of meat production managed in a caring, responsible way, including the killing and the butchering, then how could I take my responsibility as a steward of the earth seriously?

sheep, snow, hills

Since then there have been many reasons to be concerned about the weird world of meat production. Foot and Mouth disease, horse meat in beef burgers, the use of rotten ‘reconstituted’ chicken in hospital food, etc etc. All these scandals seem to be what happens when the messy business of killing is conveniently out of sight and enslaved to profit margins and the demands of the big supermarkets.

However, back in my student days, with pomposity and self righteousness that I blush about now, I would also mention another fact that influenced my lentil-love. I would point to the fact that land usage in some of the poorest parts of the world was being dominated by pastureland to produce beef for our burgers. In fact, rain forest was being cleared at alarming rates just for this purpose too. In those days I could probably even quote you numbers- read in the magazine New Internationalist. At the time McDonalds were forced to announce a change to their meat sourcing, insisting that beef came from local sources.

My musical hero also encouraged this view- remember the song ‘If a tree falls’ from Bruce Cockburn?

Cut and move on
Cut and move on
Take out trees
Take out wildlife at a rate of species every single day
Take out people who’ve lived with this for 100,000 years
Inject a billion burgers worth of beef
Grain eaters, methane dispensers.

Through thinning ozone,
Waves fall on wrinkled earth
Gravity, light, ancient refuse of stars,
Speak of a drowning
But this, this is something other.
Busy monster eats dark holes in the spirit world
Where wild things have to go
To disappear

The argument then was that our meat machine was wasteful, took productive land out of crop production, depended on stupidly high energy use and it was all for markets thousands of miles away from where the animals were raised. The alternative was to encourage local sustainable food production, local markets producing what local populations needed. Damn it, we might even be able to do this in the UK if we really wanted to- let alone in South America.

This all came back to me again when reading an article in The Guardian by Ian Jack.

An academic paper in the new issue of Nature magazine’s Climate Change journal warns of the consequences of eating red meat, not in terms of cholesterol levels and heart attacks but for its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Domesticated ruminants are the largest source of anthropogenic methane and account for 11.6% of greenhouse gases that can be attributed to human activity. In 2011, they numbered approximately 1.4bn cattle, 1.1bn sheep. 0.9bn goats and 0.2bn buffalo, an animal population that was growing at the rate of roughly 2m a month. Their grazing and feeding takes up a greater area than any other land use: 26% of the world’s land surface is devoted to grazing, while feed crops command a third of the total arable land – land that might more usefully grow cereals, pulses and vegetables for human consumption or biomass for energy production.

The paper’s authors argue that, with more than 800m people chronically hungry: “The use of highly productive croplands to produce animal feed is questionable on moral grounds because this contributes to exhausting the world’s food supply.” Other well-known consequences include tropical deforestation and the erosion of biodiversity, but unless governments intervene (the paper calls for “increased awareness among public and policy makers”) it seems unlikely that the demand for animal flesh can be curbed. But which popularly elected government will ration meat or deliberately price it as a luxury? More and more people, especially among the newly prosperous in India and China, have the taste for it. Animal meat production stood at a global figure of 229m tonnes in 2000 and at present rates of increase will have more than doubled to 465m tonnes by 2050.

The Japanese appetite for whale meat has disgusting results, as does the Chinese fascination for ivory trinkets; but elephant and whale slaughter is surely no more than a peccadillo in the context of the great, ever-expanding, overheating slaughterhouse that the world feeds from. Animals with single stomachs such as pigs and chickens produce negligible amounts of methane; perhaps – setting aside the cruelty question – we should rear and eat more of those.

The arguments are stacking up. If you want to save the planet, start by changing your own patterns of consumption. A vegetarian diet is no panacea, but it starts to make a lot of sense when you take a long look at it.

Others are starting to reduce their meat consumption, or pay-more-buy-local- finding out where the meat comes from, how it was looked after etc. Some are even doing that admirable thing- producing their own. We have chickens and a veg patch, but some of my friends keep pigs and sheep too.

People often ask me if I miss meat. I can honestly say that I do not. The smell of bacon in the morning is still a pleasant smell however, even though I doubt I could actually eat it. Burgers always look disgusting these days, cooked or uncooked. I have never enjoyed fish even before becoming vegetarian, although Michaela sometimes eats it. There are of course as many problems with over fishing and farming as with land meat production.

Pass me a carot will you?


Greenbelt 2012…

I am half man, half compost- as will be most attendees of this year’s Greenbelt festival.

This is partly the highly digestive social-spiritual mulch that Greenbelt always is, but also down to more corporeal matters;

I live in a place famous for rain sweeping in from the sea and using us as blotting paper, but the rain that fell on the festival on Saturday was something else. Half the site was flooded and thirty thousand feet mixed anything not tarmac to gloop. The less stoical left, but the rest of us had more room to skirt the deepest mire and enjoy still some fantastic music, conversation, art and poetry.

Highlights for me;

Social- meeting up with friends from Lancashire, from Wales, from London, from Leeds etc. Sharing many a cup of tea and catching up with lives lived at a distance.

Spiritual- I managed to miss all the well known speakers like Tony Campolo, Tom Wright. I enjoyed Dave Tomlinson talking about a being a Bad Christian. Jonny Baker was really good on ‘A different world is possible’ too. I also loved being in the old Cathedral for the pre festival feast hosted by Feig (thanks guys!)

Musical- Bruce Cockburn– my guru for decades – was like a comfortable woolly jumper on a dark night. I knew every song, and most words too. Phantom Limb (Country, R and B, Eagles-like harmonies) blew me away. Then there was the folk fest on the last day- dancing in the mud to the Imagined Village (simply brilliant) and the wacky theatricality of Bellowhead. Martin Joseph reduced me to tears with one song.

Art- LOVED Si Smith’s new work on the book of Job.

Aoradh’s contribution to the festival was characterised by technology issues! Our sculpture/soundscape installation became, well, just sculptures as the ultrasonic speakers failed to deliver what they promised. They still looked great though. As the weekend unfolded the ground beneath them turned to deep oozing brown sucking mud, but they remained defiant and proud.

Our talk/discussion entitled ‘Don’t do it like us, making real community in small towns and ordinary places’ was very well attended, and we were bombarded with questions. The power failed for half of it so we had to shout!

Another great festival, that somehow, despite the long distances and the conditions, has nurtured and encouraged me.

Now, need to get down to DIY!

Greenbelt 2012 early line up announcements…

Greenbelt festival is ages away. I have a whole load of things between me and it.

However, it looks like I will be doing something this year with ultrasonic speakers- some technology that projects sound on a carrier wave, making it into a narrow focussed beam that you can limit to a spot some distance away, or even bounce off objects. We are going to use it to project poetry and sounds recorded on small Hebridean islands during our up and coming Wilderness retreat trips.

So (you heard it here folks!) the first announcement of the line up for Greenbelt festival- Chris Goan!

I understand entirely if this does not raise the heartbeat, but I was looking at the GB website today, and noticed something that certainly got my attention;

My all time favourite musician/songwriter/poet is there this year- Bruce Cockburn. This man’s words and music have been my companion and inspiration for 20 years and more. So famous in his native Canada that they put his face on a stamp. This is from the first ever album of his I bought back in 1989;

Also confirmed are the wonderful Bellowhead- a collection of musician who play folk/jazz/punk like you have never heard before. We have a few of their albums but have never heard them sing live. Check this out;

Bruce Cockburn does Alan Ginsberg…

Very few people write lyrics that catch in my brain like Bruce Cockburn.

I am sat listening to some old vinyl this morning, toast in hand, before we head out into the lovely Sunday morning, and was captivated by this song again.

It is an outpouring of images and words from the road.

Silver wheels

High speed drift on a prairie road
Hot tires sing like a string being bowed
Sudden town rears up then explodes
Fragments resolve into white line code
Whirl on silver wheels

Black earth energy receptor fields
Undulate under a grey cloud shield
We outrun a river colour brick red mud
That cleaves apart hills soil rich as blood

Highway squeeze in construction steam
Stop caution hard hat yellow insect machines
Silver steel towers stalk rolling land
Toward distant stacks that shout “Feed on demand”

100 miles later the sky has changed
Urban anticipation — we get 4 lanes
Red orange furnace sphere notches down
Throws up silhouette skyline in brown

Sundogs flare on windshield glass
Sudden swoop skyward iron horse overpass
Pass a man walking like the man in the moon
Walking like his head’s full of irish fiddle tunes

The skin around every city looks the same
Miles of flat neon spelling well-known names
Fat wheeled cars squeal into the sun

Radio speakers gargle top 40 trash
Muzak soundtrack to slow collapse
Planet engines pulsate in sidereal time
If you listen close you can hear the whine

Very Ginsberg. But Ginsberg  never played the guitar like this…

Call me a groupie (I do come  close to hero worship with this man) but I came across these clips the other day and could not resist re-posting. He is talking about an album that I reviewed here– and to be honest I was not very kind. By way of some slight redress, I offer these two clips…

Then a little more nodding to Ginsberg-



Review- Bruce Cockburn ‘Small source of comfort’…

I have had this album a while now, and thought I would commit myself to a review. Bruce Cockburn’s poetry and music are sublime- there simply is no-one better. I have loved this man’s music for 25 years, so I will listen to him playing biscuit tins, but…

This album is good, but it is not great. I wondered whether it would grow on me, as others have- particularly ‘The Charity of Night’, which I struggled with at first, but now it is one of my favourite ever albums. However, if anything, ‘Small source of comfort’ is well named- it has slipped deeper towards the back of my record collection, where it is likely to remain.


Well, the production is lack lustre- almost as if musicians were going through the motions. It is competent, but it does not innovate or sparkle. He badly needs a new producer- or perhaps a new challenge.

The songs themselves are similar- some of them OK, but none of them really memorable. Then there is the strange song about the planes returning with the bodies of Canadian soldiers from Afghanistan (‘Each one lost’.) Strange because it is so accepting, so ‘compliant’- asking no questions, issuing no challenge.  Most un-Cockburnesque.

Then there is ‘Call me Rose’- imagining Richard Nixon re-incarnated as a single mother living on a rough estate. A fun idea, but it just does not work as a song- not by his high standards. It is the sort of song knocked out after too much wine that really should be abandoned during the morning hang over.

What I feel like saying is- “Come on Bruce, sharpen your steel. We need you back at your best.” In these strange times, we really need our troubadours, our poets and our prophets.

Because Bruce can write like this (The last song on the album, written in 1968.)

Silver rain sings dancing rhyme
sunlight on blue water
rocky shore grown soft with moss
catches all our laughter
and it sends it back without its edge
to strengthen us anew
that we may walk within these walls
and share our gifts with you

Christmas turns all musical…

What a lovely day.

I have just sat down after being on the go all day- firstly to a local church where William was part of a Nativity play, and playing his Trombone-

Then home to shovel snow for a couple of hours so we could get the car down to the road.

Then around some local residential care homes for older people with some of the Aoradh crowd to sing Christmas carols- a few brass instruments, guitar, violin and piano. And all in all, it sounded lovely, considering our almost total lack of practice.

And finally to our friend’s Paul and Pauline (no they do not have a child called Paulette) for soup, and more music.

I eventually managed to persuade Emily to play some fiddle tunes, then Paul and I started singing through some old songs.

Including this one-

We had to be kicked out in the end. Ah well- good practice for New Year- if you are in the area, bring an instrument round to our house…