Wednesday, May 28, 2008

1984: If I Had A Rocket Launcher

Bruce Cockburn: If I Had A Rocket Launcher


Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn had been around for a few years, but he made the musical "map" in 1984 after a fact-finding trip to Central America with OXFAM left him reeling with the horror of the death and destruction the Reagan Administration's leadership in the area had brought upon the people. Being a musician steeped in the political folk tradition, instead of coming back and picketing or merely hanging his head in despair, Cockburn turned his anger to social justice through song, heading into the studio in a storm.

The resulting album, Stealing Fire, was both an expression of frustration and a call to action. Taken as a set, the songs of Stealing Fire were so antithetical to the values of the Reagan administration that the album put Bruce Cockburn under suspicion as a sympathiser to the Nicaraguan Contras, and his visa was taken away. Nonetheless, Cockburn's music traveled where he could not. And the fire he fueled made him a star.

I like many of the songs on Stealing Fire; Lovers in a Dangerous Time, especially, is a perfect ode to nervous love amidst the ruins. But if Stealing Fire is folk rock at its political best, If I Had A Rocket Launcher is its angriest outlet, a direct response to Cockburn's visit to a refugee camp which had been recently attacked by the US-backed Guatemalan Army. It was a pretty big hit on MTV, and, though I was only eleven, I remember the song leaving me with a sense that maybe, just maybe, all was not right with the world after all.

Afterthought, and bonus version: I put Cockburn away for a long time after the late eighties; his more recent preference for moody plugged-in soundscapes is great stuff, but it is often too pop-produced for my taste. But a few years ago I discovered this bittersweet live acoustic version, from a 1990 radio session, and it renewed my interest in the song.

Without the crashing eighties production of the original, the stripped down Rocket Launcher delivers such an incredible pain, such a potent cry of impotence, it stands as ageless. And that's good, because we still need such a cry, I think. For if anything, in a world where torture still happens in our name, we are even less empowered to do anything about it than we were when Cockburn wrote this magnum opus.

Bruce Cockburn: If I Had A Rocket Launcher (live acoustic version)


Paul said...

This song is soooooo 80's.

But in a good way. Takes me back.

boyhowdy said...

Agreed, Paul. Generally, I think Cockburn is at his best when he's in stripped-down folk mode.

But I maintain that the acoustic cover reveals a strong song sans 80s-ness. And without talking about the original, I had no excuse to post the radio replay.

Mario B said...

He's very popular in Canada since his mid 1970's albums (folk ones). I never really understood why he's not bigger anywhere else.

Dan said...

Beautiful guitar work. Really gorgeous. Any more of this out there?

boyhowdy said...

Dan: Cockburn is incredibly prolific -- Wikipedia lists 29 albums since his self-titled 1970 release -- but though Cockburn's production has shifted drastically over the years, his incredible guitarplay and his politics are the consistent threads which stitch his long career together.

I recommend both 1999 release "Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu", and Waiting for a Miracle, his double-disk greatest hits 1970-1987 collection, for starters, if you haven't hear him much before. The latter contains several more from the Stealing Fire era, a couple of solid acoustic songs from his earlier work, and a lot of greatness overall.

Dan said...

I have "Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu". I'll have to give it a re-listen.

Sorry to ask you to do my research, but is there any live acoustic like the If I Had A Rocket Launcher that you posted?

boyhowdy said...

I have a few live acoustic cuts from compilations, but most are more singer-songwriter stuff, less Leo Kottke-esque guitar. Here's an exception, originally aired in the early nineties on KSCA:

Bruce Cockburn, Wondering Where The Lions Are

Cockburn's later live albums are predominantly electrified, with band. Which means Bruce Cockburn's live 1977 album Circle in the Stream is probably what you're looking for. Delicate, acoustic, and really well produced. Here's an instrumental from that session:

Bruce Cockburn, Deer Dancing Round A Broken Mirror

If you want the acoustic guitar stuff, though, you don't have to go for the live stuff. Pretty much all of Bruce Cockburn's albums from the 1970s are acoustic albums; each contains multiple tracks with the same amazing guitarplay. Here's the title track from Sunwheel Dance, way back in 1971:

Bruce Cockburn, Sunwheel Dance

Happy hunting...

SlothropRedux said...

This is a post from long ago that I stumbled upon, but I had to correct a misconception in it. Although Cockburn was strongly affected by his trip with OXFAM, he did NOT become a Contra supporter. The Contras were the Reagan-supported right-wing militias that were fighting against the then democratically elected socialist government of Nicaragua. Cockburn was definitely in the ANTI-Contra, pro-Sandanista camp. This post mixes the two camps up, but is otherwise wonderful.