On the anniversary of the Canadian songwriter’s classic 13th LP, its relevance remains strong.
The thing about protest songs is, regardless of how ephemeral their specific details may become with the passage of time, their general point stays applicable to future situations.
We must fight the same battles over and over, or as a popular sign at demonstrations puts it, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.” Systemic pressures favoring the interests of the rich and powerful inevitably push back against every gain made by progressives, and sadly familiar situations repeat themselves due to geopolitical forces.
Bruce Cockburn’s 1984 LP Stealing Fire, his 13th album (on Cockburn’s longtime label True North in his native Canada, it was released on A&M in the U.S.), was largely inspired by a trip to Central America the previous year under the auspices of international relief organization OXFAM. He kept a detailed notebook of his observations while there, and was able to quickly write the album from his notes. But one song came out of an experience so shocking that he wrote about it almost immediately – and it turned out to be a career-boosting hit.
The sound of Stealing Fire was perhaps a surprise to those in the U.S.A. who had heard him before. His only U.S. hit (#21 on the Billboard singles chart) had come in 1980 with “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” from his 1979 LP Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws. Throughout the ’70s, Cockburn had hewed to the acoustic guitarist folkie singer-songwriter template, writing personal songs infused with his Christianity, though by ‘79 he’d started incorporating some mild world-music rhythmic touches and electric bass. Still, his biggest hit was pretty, mystical, and acoustic. But on his album after that, 1980’s Humans, he started mixing in political lyrics and sometimes emphasized reggae beats; 1981’s Inner City Front became more political and found him playing electric guitar, though in similar fingerpicking style to his acoustic work. The Trouble with Normal (’83) made the transformation to electric political music complete, its title track (“it’ll all get back to normal if we put our nation first/but the trouble with normal is it always gets worse”) an impassioned plea to defy the status quo and fight for justice, with couplets such as “Fashionable fascism dominates the scene/when the ends don’t meet it’s easier to justify the means” chillingly apt for our current moment.
Upon the release of Stealing Fire, Cockburn explained some of that evolution to Rolling Stone, saying, “I don’t see this as a big departure. On my last two albums there’s the same sense of a world in imminent danger. I just didn’t get very specific about it, because it wasn’t until I went to Central America that I really felt that political action could be worth the effort.” It was while in Mexico visiting a camp for refugees from Guatemala that he witnessed Guatemalan helicopters harassing the camp. “When I wrote ‘Rocket Launcher’,” he later told Goldmine, “I was in San Cristobal de los Casas in Mexico. I was in a hotel drinking a bottle of Scotch the day after I came out of the refugee camps, and I was in tears thinking about it and writing this song. It doesn’t get much more direct than that.”
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
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 launcher…I would retaliate
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 victim’s cry
If I had a rocket launcher…Some son of a bitch would die
Cockburn found a surprising ally in getting this song to an audience beyond Canada: MTV. Somehow, a song that Cockburn had worried was too confrontational had a video made for it. “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” took a while to break through, and only hit #88 as a single. But back then, when it really was Music Television, airplay on MTV was greater exposure than the single’s sales and radio play. One doubts that MTV would have played the video without the musical track capturing some of the zeitgeist, though, and this was definitely not folkie-sounding: an ominous yet propulsive electric guitar pattern, gated snare hits every other beat, and punched-out synthesizer chords make for an irresistible juggernaut of a song.
VIDEO: Bruce Cockburn – If I Had a Rocket Launcher
It’s the eighth song on a nine-song album; Cockburn built up to this powerful statement. The opening track, “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” has similar musical elements, heavier on the bass. The lyrics are more intimate, more personal, oozing the nervous thrill embodied in its title (Cockburn’s comment in his songbook Rumours of Glory 1980-1990: “Aren’t we all and isn’t it always.”). It caught the attention of U2’s Bono, who on the Rattle and Hum highlight “God Part II” semi-quoted it when he sang, “heard a singer on the radio late last night says he’s gonna kick the darkness till it bleeds daylight.” (And an asterisk in the lyrics identifies Cockburn.)
“Maybe the Poet” continues the musical style; then “Sahara Gold” switches locales and musical gears with a touch of flamenco at the beginning, but still the mood is haunting. The more upbeat “Making Contact,” flaunting more syncopated rhythms, juggles multiple meanings and includes the great lines “so many ways to understand / one for every woman and man / been that way since the world began.” It says something about the ‘80s Toronto music scene that Jamaican reggae legend Leroy Sibbles — lead singer of the Heptones and much-recorded electric bassist on a plethora of sessions, but by then living in Canada — sings backing vocals on “Maybe the Poet” and “Making Contact.” Also upbeat in musical tone is side A closer “Peggy’s Kitchen Wall,” with some reggae chicka-chicka, yet the question at the heart of the song, about a real-life incident, is “who put that bullet hole in Peggy’s kitchen wall?”
VIDEO: Bruce Cockburn – Peggy’s Kitchen Wall
Flipping the album over, “To Raise the Morning Star” is a brooding tune written by the band’s bassist, Fergus Marsh, to words inspired by an Australian Aborigine saying. Cockburn’s folkie roots are strongest on “Nicaragua,” one of the other places he visited thanks to OXFAM. In a somber callback to “Peggy’s Kitchen Wall,” Cockburn sings, “For every scar on a wall, there’s a hole in someone’s heart where a loved one’s memory lives.” But the overall tone of the song is hopeful, and in a time when Americans mostly heard vilification of the Nicaraguan government, hearing Cockburn proclaim, “”In the flash of this moment / You’re the best of what we are / Don’t let them stop you now, Nicaragua” was a bold counterpoint.
Then comes “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” As the U.S. nowadays seems to be preparing for action, whether direct or indirect, against another socialist government, this time in Venezuela, listening to this song sends chills down my spine. Let’s not let it become current again. Let’s have Cockburn’s scintillating guitar solo thrill us by itself without the sad frisson of renewed relevance.
“Dust and Diesel” is the epitome of this album’s written-from-notebook lyrics, a simple list of mundane events and impressions enlivened by Cockburn’s wry wit. It gently brings us down from the electric tension that preceded it, while continuing the album’s signature electric guitar sound. But it also humanized the people Cockburn saw in Nicaragua at exactly the moment many tried to dehumanize them. Think about that when you read what’s in the media about Venezuela.
VIDEO: Bruce Cockburn – Lovers in a Dangerous Time (1984)