‘Respectful But Not Overly Reverent’: Bruce Cockburn Tribute at Casa Feb. 10

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It’s 1984 and Steve Zarate is pulling his car over to the side of the road — he’s heard something truly spellbinding pouring from his FM dial.

“I was listening to Q-FM 96, and usually they played your basic classic rock stuff, The Doors, Foreigner, Boston, but then this song, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” came on and it was just unlike anything I had ever heard on the radio, it was Bruce Cockburn, even though I didn’t know it at the time,” said Zarate in an interview with WOUB Public Media just a few days before taking part in a tribute to Bruce Cockburn at Casa Nueva on Saturday, February 10 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The song that Zarate heard is one that Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn was inspired to pen after visiting Guatemalan refugee camps in Mexico after dictator Efraín Ríos Montt’s vicious counterinsurgency campaign of the late ‘70s. Each verse of the song ends with a description of what Cockburn would do if he did in fact have a rocket launcher: he’d make somebody pay, he would retaliate, he would not hesitate, and, the most controversial line of the song: some son-of-a-b*tch would die.

“I sang that song at a political rally once, and I was approached afterwards by someone who said they didn’t like it because they thought it was advocating violence,” said Zarate. “But what I think that song really says is something like ‘if I had a weapon, I would be tempted to use it, but I don’t so I’m going to write a song about it.'”

Not all of Cockburn’s work is topical, although he is commonly categorized into the activist singer-songwriter camp. Only a few years prior to Zarate hearing “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” Cockburn’s “Wondering Where the Lions Are” hit number 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1979, marking his only foray into radio hits in the U.S. That song is more of an existential, cerebral wandering amidst some stunning guitar work rather than a political statement of any kind.

“I don’t go to Bruce Cockburn for topical songs, but it is a feature of his music that I respect,” said Bruce Dalzell, who will also be taking part in the tribute performance. “He has a platform and he has to use it, and I respect that about him.”

Dalzell said the spiritual nature of Cockburn’s work is what appeals to him.

“Christian music, as a category, is pretty forgettable stuff, but this guy just came out with this amazing, passionate, original work,” said Dalzell, who received a copy of Cockburn’s 1977 live double LP Circles in a Stream in the ‘80s from a friend of a friend. “His music is at the same time interesting and cerebral and passionate and heartfelt – and, you know, a lot of religious music is heartfelt, but this stuff is genuinely original.”

Jim Volk, the third musician on the bill for Saturday’s show, said that he fell in love with the music of Bruce Cockburn not for its ability to illuminate societal ills or it’s tendency to touch on the nature of the divine – but just because it sounds so darn good.

“Cockburn is one of my main influences, outside of Leo Kottke and Richard Thompson, and I wear my influences on my sleeve,” said Volk, who learned of Cockburn from one of his close friends in the early ‘80s. “I’m sure (Cockburn) has inspired many poets, too, but just from a musical standpoint his work is stunning. It weaves in polyrhythms into the playing of a guitar in a way that you just don’t see anywhere else. When you’re doing a tribute, you’re trying to be respectful but not overly reverent, so I’m looking to represent some of the more meteor guitar arrangements of his that got me off. Some things I’m going to play on Saturday will be verbatim, and others more interpretive, but I think that the creative liberties I take are ones Cockburn would respect.”