Virtuoso guitarist Bruce Cockburn talks about songwriting in the era of Reagan, and his experience visiting refugee camps in Honduras.
PAUL JAY: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. We’re continuing our discussion with singer-songwriter and virtuoso guitarist Bruce Cockburn. Thanks for joining us again.
BRUCE COCKBURN: Thank you.
PAUL JAY: And you really are a virtuoso guitarist. We’ve been talking about politics, and the words in all this. But I just need to say that when I listened again to Rocket Launcher-
[Clip of If I Had A Rocket Launcher – Bruce Cockburn]
PAUL JAY: I was really kind of blown away with just how beautiful the music is, never mind all the politics of the words.
BRUCE COCKBURN: You know, that’s, that’s the whole point. You’re going to make the music interesting.
PAUL JAY: It’s the art that makes the words work.
BRUCE COCKBURN: You know, it doesn’t always have to be beautiful, but it always has to have its own weight, you know, and to offer something. Otherwise you might as well just put out a page with words on it.
PAUL JAY: Talk about Planet of the Clowns, 1981.
BRUCE COCKBURN: I wrote that in the Canary Islands. And I was there with my then-girlfriend, and just having a holiday, but exploring the place. And one night out on the beach, just looking at the waves, looking at the sky, feeling like that beach was a beach on the whole cosmos, like that dark ocean, which you could only make out the whitecaps of the breakers, merged with the sky. And it was–it was really this island, Earth, that old sci-fi movie. And I had been reading Doris Lessing’s Shikasta, which is a dystopic–well, I mean, almost anything you can say about it shrinks it in an unfair way. But it’s a really interesting and not very happy look at kind of a sci-fi view of world history and where we’re going. And she didn’t pull any punches. It’s Earth’s history, basically viewed from an alien perspective, by aliens who are continually interfering in the affairs of the planet.
And it’s–anyway, I’d been reading this, and there I was, standing there in this, ind of confronted by the cosmos. And out of it came this song about standing on the beach being confronted by the cosmos, basically.
And Planet of the Clowns, it’s like we just–the evil that we do is, I mean, some of it is overtly and intentionally evil. But mostly it isn’t. Mostly it’s just a bunch of people bumbling. It’s people doing stupid things, rather than evil things. And the stupid things have disastrous effects on others, and sometimes on the perpetrators themselves. But this is, this was a kind of … the aspect of humanity that struck me at that time. So it’s–there we are, all are just these unintentional clowns with our shoes wet from the cosmic sea.
PAUL JAY: In ’85, you write People See Through You.
Some saw Reagan as a clown. But he’s also–under his watch, at the very least–a lot of the atrocities that you witnessed in Latin America-
BRUCE COCKBURN: He was a kind of sinister clown.
PAUL JAY: But is still deified in this country.
BRUCE COCKBURN: Rosario Murillo, Daniel Ortega’s wife, who was at the time that we had this conversation the head of the artists’ union of Nicaragua–this is back in the ’80s–said that they had been to the White House. And they had actually been to see the Reagans. And she said they were received with great grace and hospitality, and that they had a really good time. So you know, you have to–have to take all the pronouncements about everybody with a grain of salt.
But Reagan, yeah. It was–he was called the Great Communicator. What he was was a great deliverer of scripts. And he was good at that. Can’t take that away from him. He had a, he had a style that I kind of wish we had now, because he at least was gracious, and no matter what drivel he was speaking.
But in that era–this is , Canada’s refugee laws changed as a result of the same thing, that there were many people coming. There was a big increase in people coming from Central America trying to get into the States, and trying to get through the States to Canada. Because that was–it was an underground railroad that ran from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. And a lot of people were taking advantage of this. A lot of churches were involved in running it. And this was important to the powers that were. So there were break-ins of churches. There was a kind of subtle terrorism. And it wasn’t blowing people up or assassinating anyone, but it was a break-in where things were totally trashed, but nothing was taken, of the churches that were involved in the sanctuary movement. And this–and the intimidation of people, of individuals, of–you know, having them interviewed by the FBI, or whoever. This was going on. And at the same time there were these official pronouncements coming out of Washington that none of these refugees had any legitimate claim to that status, that they were–it was all about just looking for a better job. They just couldn’t wait to come here and be a maid, or something. Right.
So that that prompted the writing of People See Through You.
And at the time I was also–a friend [laughs] a friend of mine had given me a subscription to Soldier of Fortune magazine, which was kind of fashion magazine for mercenaries that you don’t see around anymore. It might still be in existence. But they got to–they always had some, like, somebody in a very cool-looking uniform with cool-looking weapons on the cover. And in the back you’d find want ads for, you know, anything anytime anywhere, any job done by some ex-military person that was looking for work along the lines he’d been trained for. And in one the magazine got sued, because one of one of the buyers of these ads got hired by somebody who wanted someone murdered, and they got caught before the crime was committed, I think. Anyway, there was a major lawsuit because of these want ads. So they stopped doing those want ads.
But at the time this is–I used to buy the magazine because I was interested in both the military stuff that they talked about, and in the fact that at the same time as Reagan was saying there was no war in Central America you could read articles in Soldier of Fortune by veterans coming back from Central America telling you all about the exploits that they performed, and the kinds of stuff they’d run into. So it was interesting to read from many points of view, for me. So here were these–the death fetish mercenaries that are referred to in the song come from Soldier of Fortune magazine.
But I mean, I remember them advertising a t-shirt that had a picture of a guy in a, I think a U.S. Marine uniform, but something like that. And at his feet are kneeling peasantry from different cultures. A guy in a sombrero, a woman that looks like she may be Polynesian, you know. And it says … I think it was the U.S. Marines. And I–forgive me, Marines. As an institution I have respect for you. But this t-shirt, I’m pretty sure it said ‘U.S. Marines: Stabilizing the third world through conquest.’
I mean, how much more blatant and how funny–how much funnier can you get in the dark–very dark way? And you know, I just–I can picture that ad. So this was the death fetish mercenaries. But it was all–the song was all about the intimidation of, or the attempted intimidation, of people who were trying to help their fellow human beings by people who had no interest in the welfare of any human beings other than their immediate family, presumably, or their–whoever they saw as their peers.
PAUL JAY: The song Where the Death Squad Lives is part of this.
BRUCE COCKBURN: Yeah, it’s part of–it’s from the same time period. In that case I had been down–I have friends who are both Presbyterian ministers, a couple. And they had been living in Honduras for an extended period doing agricultural work, mainly, with people in the back country who were traditionally the–because they were forced to live on land that couldn’t produce enough food for them to feed themselves, they were a source of cheap labor for plantations at harvest time. And that relationship was the product of a system which was being maintained by force. So any time those people tried to live on better land, they were forced off. In some cases they were murdered. In other cases they were just scared off.
And the land that–all the good land was owned by either plantations, or by big cattle ranchers, or whatever, who didn’t even live on the land.
PAUL JAY: You write Stolen Land around this time?
BRUCE COCKBURN: No, that came later. That’s just–that was in response to something, to Haida Gwaii, and what was happening on the Northwest coast of British Columbia.
But Where the Death Squad Lives, I went to Honduras twice in that period; once to visit my friends, who were doing work with very disadvantaged people in the countryside, and one to a refugee camp, a U.N.-run refugee camp in a little village called Colomancagua, that for the first time in the history of the U.N. had been the subject of an attack by the army of the host country. So the Honduran army had raided this camp. They were trying to. Honduras was very worried about refugees from El Salvador. Not for the same reasons that the U.S. is worried about refugees from El Salvador, but because in the ’60s, I guess, there was a war between the two countries called the soccer war. They actually fought over a soccer championship. The countries went to war with each other. El Salvador beat the crap out of Honduras. So the Hondurans were very nervous about attracting heat from El Salvador. So they were making–trying to make sure that the FMLN, the guerrilla movement in El Salvador, was not able to take root among this refugee population. That’s why there was a raid. You can see the logic. But it was still a precedent that–it was a very unfortunate one in U.N. history.
And nobody knew about it. This Canadian church group had been there right when it happened, or right after, and they came back and they talked about it. And I happened to be at their report of this. It was a press conference with, you know, a dozen journalists, and Meyer Brownstone was head of Oxfam Canada at the time. And me and some others–and I happened to be sitting beside Meyer, and we heard this story being told of what had happened. And he turned to me and said, “We gotta get down there.”
OK. Let’s do it. Let’s go. So this was on a–as I recall, maybe a Tuesday. Or maybe a Thursday, something like that. And then the following Tuesday we were on our way to Honduras. Nobody else could move that fast. The U.N. was going to send a delegation to look into this. But you know, take–there’s all these gears that have to start turning, and whatever. So we just went. It was Meyer and me and a Toronto immigration lawyer named Jeff House who did a lot of work with Central Americans.
Interestingly, there–Canada had a Consul General in Tegucigalpa who was a retired banker, and very well-placed in Honduran society, and knew all the generals, and he knew all the top people. And we had a very nice meeting with him.
A congenial meeting. And he said, “Well, I think the general in command of the armed forces, I think we can get him to give you the paperwork to get into the camp.” So so he did. There’s a whole–some convolutions involved. But we ended up in this little place almost on the Salvadoran border where, sure enough, they had gone in, they had killed two people, they shot an old guy. And they stomped an infant to death. And they shot up the houses. I mean, there’s little–the kind of shacks that everybody was living in had bullet holes all over the place.
But that was–those are the only actual casualties. But this–at this time, because the whole idea of the raid on the camp was to suppress the actions of of any Salvadoran guerrilla fighters that might be in the area, they had a curfew, as well. And if you violated the curfew you would have your head cut off in the jungle. I mean, that’s what farm families were living in.
The song talks about this. Farm families were literally living in fear after 5:00 at night. I mean, you dare not go out of your house for any reason whatever. And even if you stayed in your house, if they thought there was the wrong people in there with you, you were subject to attack. So–and my friends were living not in this immediate area, but in similar … surrounded by a similar vibe in the back country in Honduras, where they were regarded as subversives because they were teaching people to feed themselves. Or, I should better say, helping people discover how to feed themselves. And so, you know, it just seemed like there was something worth talking about there.
PAUL JAY: Please join us for a continuation of our series of interviews on Reality Asserts Itself with Bruce Cockburn.