To mark the release of Bruce Cockburn’s memoirs, Rumours of Glory, this week I am telling some little known Cockburn tales that you won`t find in the book.
I wasn’t there in 1987, but I doubt the tent had changed much from the previous year when I had watched Mike Peters put on an inspired set as a last-minute replacement for T-Bone Burnett. The tent was a big one, could hold at least a thousand people. The midnight show that was Cabaret Nicaragua came at the end of a long day at the Greenbelt Festival (the first early morning Bible Studies start at 6).
It was not Bruce’s first appearance at Greenbelt, the cutting edge Christian arts and music festival held at the end of August each year. He was well aware of the emphasis on social justice as well as Biblical Christian teaching that set the festival apart from similar American events (with the exception of the Cornerstone Festival, which was modeled on Greenbelt). Bruce played Greenbelt the first time in 1984 and has returned several times since.
Cabaret Nicaragua was part concert, part awareness session. Nicaragua in 1987 was experiencing a civil war, with US backed forces attempting to oust the Sandinista government (and I won`t get into the politics behind that here because that would fill a book, or two!). The midnight shows, and subsequent album, were to raise money for medical supplies. On the album were Big Sur, The Foundation and Soul Doctor, as well as three songs from Bruce recorded at the Cabaret, and a message from Baptist pastor Gustavo Parajohn, founder of the Nicaraguan Evangelical Committee for Aid and Development.
My friend Jan, an Ottawa expatriate living in the UK, was at the show. I had arranged for a press pass so she could interview a few of the musicians for me. (I must dig out those tapes and see if she interviewed Bruce – the one I remember most was her conversation with Amy Grant.) When Jan mailed me the cassettes with her interviews she included a letter, which has probably long since been recycled, but I remember what she said.
She was in the enclosure in front of the stage, open to press, photographers and festival staff, a buffer to keep the fans from being able to climb on to the stage. You get a great view from there of course. It was crowded though, more than you would expect for a midnight show, and it seemed like there was a lot of extra security. Looking around and wondering why, she suddenly realized that the person standing beside her was Bono, lead vocalist for U2, then (and possibly now) the most popular rock band in the world. Turns out he and his wife, Ali had come to Greenbelt specifically to see Bruce perform. (Bono and U2 had performed at Greenbelt in 1981 – you can read about that here.)
By all accounts Bruce put on an inspired show. It is what happened afterward that I have often wondered about. The following year, on the Rattle and Hum album, Bono would make reference to Bruce in “God Part II,” quoting from “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” saying “Heard a singer on the radio late last night/He says he’s gonna kick the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight.” Bruce performed “Lovers” at Cabaret Nicaragua. Did Bono really hear the tune on the radio like the song says, or was that poetic license because he couldn’t think of a word to rhyme with Greenbelt?