Was there ever a tag more damning in the history of rock than that of "new Dylan"?
What songwriter in his or her right mind would want to be saddled with such a burden? Better to ditch the music career on the spot and start thinking about that Sally Struthers ad: "Do you want to make more money?" Better to be a dental hygienist than the new Dylan. For one brutal stretch during the Seventies it seemed as if every singer with an acoustic guitar who placed the slightest emphasis on lyrical content was tattooed with the impossible title. Most of those who attempted to ignore the label, or, even worse, live up to it, sank like dinosaurs in the tar pits of hyperbolic folly. It was a classic no-win situation -- even Dylan couldn't live up to his own legend.
Bruce Cockburn was a new Dylan for a while, or at least that's how stateside music writers tried to pigeonhole him. "I don't remember being branded that in Canada," Ottawa native Cockburn explains, "so it didn't really affect me very much. I had more problems with comparisons to John Denver because we both wear round glasses. In the Seventies there were comparisons to Gordon Lightfoot, and in the Eighties there were people who compared me to Bruce Springsteen and Bruce Hornsby because we all have the same first name." Needless to say, Cockburn is not exactly in awe of rock critics. "[Rock criticism] is parasitical as an institution, although I've met some fine individuals. I rarely find reviews very useful. Very often the reasons given for praising something are not the same reasons I like it. It's distracting."
It seems as though a certain amount of identity crisis has haunted Cockburn throughout his career. Even the woman at Sony who arranged his interview with this parasite mispronounced his name (it's "Coe-burn"). He made it into the Top 40 in 1980 with "Wondering Where the Lions Are," but megasuccess, the kind that greeted fellow Canadian "folkies" Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, has eluded Cockburn in the U.S. for decades (not that he's gone out of his way to court it). Ironically, it was not until his latest release, at the age of 47, that Cockburn made major inroads into the U.S. market. Not coincidentally, that release, 1991's Nothing But a Burning Light, is Cockburn's first for his new label, Columbia (Sony). It was recorded in the States (also a first for Cockburn) and was produced by the brilliantly idiosyncratic T Bone Burnett. Booker T. Jones (of Booker T. and the MGs) was recruited to lend his warm keyboard colorings to the project, as was master session drummer Jim Keltner. Jackson Browne contributed backing vocals, and was no doubt invaluable in making Cockburn's stay in L.A. a comfortable one.
"It's worked out very well for us so far. This is the first time we've had a major label working for us in the U.S. I've always recorded for True North in Canada. Outside Canada, distribution was always sort of piecemeal," Cockburn says.
Cockburn has been touring nearly nonstop behind Burning Light for over a year. He has found himself in front of some of the largest concert audiences of his long career, as well as appearances on Letterman, Austin City Limits, and the Nashville Network's American Music Shop. A recent highlight was the opportunity to perform a full solo set at the Newport Folk Festival and to join The Band on-stage for two songs. Cockburn's Miami appearance follows on the heels of a twenty-city summer tour with Michelle Shocked, Bob Weir, and Rob Wasserman.
Cockburn's been working the singer-songwriter hustle nearly as long as Hibbing's prodigal son, doing the post-high school, vagabond minstrel trip throughout Europe as a teen before booking stateside passage to study at Boston's Berklee School of Music. His first two albums, Bruce Cockburn and Sunwheel Dance, were instant hits in the Great White North, but south of the Great Lakes they didn't sell nearly as well in spite of favorable notices. It was at about that time that the "new Dylan" tag began to circulate.
The virtuoso guitarist wisely ensconced himself in his native Canada, where Cockburn has won ten Juno Awards (Canadian Grammys). In the two decades following his semi-permanent migration north, Cockburn became a father, and honed his songwriting and his political views sharply; a 1983 trip to Nicaragua with the Oxfam world hunger group resulted in one of the all-time anthems of righteous indignation, 1984's "If I Had a Rocket Launcher." In fact, if there was one quality that seemed to permeate most of Cockburn's work throughout the Eighties, it was political anger.
Much has been made of the fact that Cockburn appears to have mellowed recently. Two songs from Nothing But a Burning Light, "Kit Carson" and "Indian Wars," are straightforward assaults on the status quo as it pertains to native Americans, and would seem to rebut the softer image. "You thought it was over but it's just like before/will there ever be an end to the Indian wars?" he sings on the latter tune. But then there are songs like "Great Big Love": "Got a woman I love and she loves me/and we live on a piece of land/I never know quite how to measure these things/But I guess I'm a happy man."
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"Yeah, I've had a couple of complaints that Nothing But a Burning Light wasn't angry enough," Cockburn admits. "Someone said it sounded too much like Lawrence Welk. Tough shit. Nothing But a Burning Light is mellower than a lot of the stuff I wrote in the Eighties, but not as mellow as most of what I wrote in the Seventies. I notice a difference in the audience when I have a popular song like `Wondering Where the Lions Are' or `Rocket Launcher'; they expect the rest of my songs to be like that. But generally my audience puts up with pretty wide curves. These people are listeners -- I don't get a lot of radio play in general, so my popularity, such as it is, has been built up over time through live shows and word of mouth. Am I happier now? I don't know. What does that mean? I realize that it's a very fortunate position I find myself in."
BRUCE COCKBURN performs at 9:00 p.m. Friday at the Lincoln Theatre, 555 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach, 673-3331. Tickets cost $15.