Bruce Cockburn on getting busted in Paris, opening for Hendrix, and having his lyrics mangled by Jerry Garcia
Legendary Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn performs at The Egg in Albany tonight and at the Academy of Music in Northampton Saturday. WAMC caught up with him before the show to talk about some of the unforgettable moments from his five decade career.
Born in Ottawa in May 1945, one of Cockburn’s defining musical experiences came when he traveled to Europe to busk on the streets of Paris in the mid-60s – which he describes as both fantastic and a bit fraught.
“I fell in with two guys, two other musicians, one of whom was a French guy who lived in Paris, a trumpet player, and a clarinet player who was an American on leave on leave from teaching English in Ethiopia with the Peace Corps," said Cockburn. "Those two guys had been doing it, been playing around and they, when we met up, it was like, Oh, we could use a guitar player. My guitar wasn't loud enough to compete with clarinet and trumpet, but somebody around had a six-string banjo that I was allowed to borrow and which was loud. We played kind of blues tunes, old Elvis songs, and trad jazz and whatever. And at that time, it was illegal to play on the street in Paris unless you had a license. And the only people who could get licenses were the basically the bums of Paris, the homeless folks, or very poor, native Parisians. So we were illegal doing this, and we got busted. They'd already been kicked out of every district in Paris except for Montmartre.”
When he returned to Canada, Cockburn fell in with the emergent psychedelic rock scene. His Toronto-based outfit Olivus shared the stage with some of the biggest names to tour North America in 1968.
“We opened for Cream and we opened for Jimi Hendrix," Cockburn told WAMC. "And we also opened for Wilson Pickett at one point. But the Jimi Hendrix one was the most memorable. That was in Montreal in an arena. What I mostly remember was this haze of smoke- Not coming from the smoke machines, although there were those as well. The whole place was kind of alive with pot smoke and Hendrix was amazing.”
At an after party, Cockburn and his friends had the chance to see a more intimate side of the late star.
“Hendrix walks in," he explained. "The whole place just stopped. There was a little stage setup with bands to play in so that the local hot musicians could kind of get up and jam with Hendrix or whatever. And so, you know, in walks Hendrix. He's standing there with us and everybody's staring at him and he looks around the room. He goes, 'I don't know what everybody is looking at, man. I just want to play some music.' He was totally, just like a total normal person. He went and played some music and it was great. And after a while I left. That was my adventure with Jimi Hendrix.”
In 1987, Cockburn released one of his most enduring anthems — the single “Waiting For A Miracle.”
“I wrote that song in Nicaragua. This was maybe my second or third time there. And had I met all these people that were working hard to- You have to kind of be thinking about what was going on in the era, because Nicaragua in those days was a hopeful place if you were not of a conservative mindset. If you were conservative politically, you didn't approve. And the US administration, the Reagan administration, really severely disapproved of what was going on in Nicaragua, because they'd overthrown a fascist dictator that was the friend of the United States. And he'd been replaced by a bunch of young lefties who were friendly with Cuba. So the official America didn't approve. Lots of Americans did approve, lots of Americans empathized with what was going on, because it really was a positive movement at that time. It stopped being that after a while, as will happen in history. But back then, you know, it was a lot of young people, mostly young people, really trying to make their country into a better place. And to some extent, succeeding at it, except that they were being made war upon by the US the whole time. So eventually, that wore them out.”
The song quickly worked its way into the repertoire of another North American musical legend – the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. “Waiting For A Miracle” became one of the few contemporary pieces in the Jerry Garcia Band songbook.
“Well, Jerry didn't sing my lyrics very much," chuckled Cockburn. "I mean, he did, sort of. But I thought the musical treatment of the song was really good, actually. I was really pleased with that. And I was a bit shocked when I heard him changing all my words. But then I realized that on the on that record that it's on, there's a Dylan song that follows, and he did the same thing with the Bob Dylan song. Then I realized he was just kind of spinning off everybody's lyrics in kind of his own way.”
They met just once before Garcia died in 1995.
“It was the the afternoon before they started a weeklong run of shows at Madison Square Garden in New York," said Cockburn. "And I happened to be in New York, and somebody said, 'Oh, you've got to come and meet Jerry,' because the song was out. I was taken backstage at Madison Square Garden, and we had to wait for a while because Jerry was meditating. He was in a tent at the back of the stage. And after a while, he came out, and he was really nice. He shook my hands, he said, 'Oh man, yeah, nice to meet you, it's a beautiful song, I hope I didn't screw lyrics up too much,' he says. I said, 'Well, actually, I was going to wait until the second time I met you before I brought that up.'”
With this tour branded as a half-centennial celebration of Cockburn’s career, he says that even going back to the first time he headlined one of Canada’s iconic music festivals in 1969, it’s been a miracle all along.
“Getting thrust into that headline spotlight at that Mariposa Folk Festival- I mean, I wasn't supposed to be the headliner," said Cockburn. "Neil Young was supposed to be the headliner. But Neil Young got sick and didn't show up. And so they had to put somebody in that slot, and there was me. And, you know, that's just fate. You could say fate with a big fat capital F. So, I didn't have anything to do with it. All I did was happen to be there. And, you know, most of what's happened to me has been like that.”
You can see Bruce Cockburn at The Egg in Albany tonight and in Northampton tomorrow night at the Academy of Music.