The Best of Bruce Cockburn (IMHO)

I was working at the computer, looking out the window at the slowly fading day and my iTunes shuffled to Bruce Cockburn.  It had been awhile since I had listened to him and the music was so perfect in that moment I thought I would write a post about my favorite Bruce Cockburn songs.  These may or may not be his most commercially successful songs, or the songs of critical aclaim. But they are the songs that for one reason or another speak to me.

See How I Miss You

It reminds me of the time when Zuimei and I lived on Crawford street. This would be around 2002/2003. There were prostitutes working across from Trinity Bellwoods park. This lyric sums it up nicely,

I watch this woman in a tight sequined lizard dress —
Tosses her scarlet hair like a sly caress
She got midnight voice like some beckoning saint
She got something special but you she ain’t
See how I miss you

Wondering Where the lions are

I couldn’t find the same version as the one I have. The one I was listening to was live and it has people shouting and clapping and singing along.Written in 1979 it is considered one of the greatest Canadian songs of all time. I wish I was able to find the one I was listening to because when he says, “wondering where the lions are” everyone in the place sings it back to him. It’s really quite beautiful.

Pacing the Cage

Also the title of the Bruce Cockburn documentary, I take this song to be about weariness It was actually the song that inspired this post.

Sunset is an angel weeping
Holding out a bloody sword
No matter how I squint I cannot
Make out what it’s pointing toward

Seems like a perfect January sunset. Slow and sad. It speaks to my entering middle age and trying to come to grips with what is going on in the world. The way “Powers chatter in high places / Stir up eddies in the dust of rage / Set me to pacing the cage

Last Night of the world

i can’t listen to this song without thinking of Kensington Market, on a hot summer night. Probably because of the video although I suppose it could be anywhere. The song is really about Guatemalan refugees according to an interview in 1999.

“With all the millennial doomsday speculations, it’s important to remember that there’s an end of the world for each of us, whether we all do it at the same time or not, and that’s the thing you need to prepare for. And I view it as a kind of graduation; to me, life is a kind of school and when we’re ready, we graduate barring interference with the program by psychopaths and other sorts of things. And that’s really what we should be focusing on. “


I make a point of listening to this every time I go to Japan. It does a good job of summing up the chaos of Tokyo and how it feels to be a foreigner with “Pachiko jingle and space torpedo beams, comic-book violence and escaping steam.”

“The song Tokyo is no attempt at giving a fair or objective portrait of that city. But it does describe some things that I saw and felt. And I find in a place like Japan I get particularly sensitized to other people; because you are so dependent on them. When we go to Japan we are illiterate. You can’t read a street sign, you can’t read subway directions or anything. The Japanese, of course, are extremely hospitable also so they kind of encourage that feeling of dependency and because of that my emotions were always right on the surface…any emotion that dealt with people. And so when we passed by this accident scene it was particularly shocking.”~ from the RCA “Special Radio Series” LP, Volume Two (1980). Submitted by: Steve Brace.

Lovers in a Dangerous Time

My all time favorite Bruce Cockburn song. This the BNL version is the single best cover I have heard of it. The video is a little hokey and silly but you have to remember this was when the Bare-naked ladies just started and they still seemed a little like a joke band. The reason this is best version is two fold. First listen to the tempo of the the song, it starts slow with the deep bass resonating through the whole thing. It lends a certain gravity to the song and then it steadily picks up speed. By the end it is a celebration!

Here is the original by comparison

And an acoustic live version from 2011

According to Cockburn, the song was inspired by seeing teenagers expressing romantic love in a schoolyard. In the song, he contrasts the hopefulness and joy of new love with the despair of a wider Cold War world where notions of the future often carried a sense of foreboding and doom. However, especially in light of Cockburn’s next single “If I Had a Rocket Launcher”, the song has also been interpreted by listeners and critics as referring to the same Guatemalan refugee crisis that inspired the later song, or to the then-emerging HIV/AIDS crisis. Cockburn stated in later interviews that he was pleased by both of these alternate interpretations.

U2 reference this song in ‘God Part II’: “heard a singer on the radio late last night says he’s gonna kick the darkness till it bleeds daylight”.

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One Comment

  1. Eric

    Nice list. One of my favorite lyrics ever is the one you quote from “See How I Miss You”. That record, “World Of Wonders” gets more amazing to me the longer I live. “Lily Of The Midnight Sky”, “Berlin Tonight”, “Santiago Dawn”, and “Dancing In Paradise” are such remarkable works…. Bruce is one of the most genuinely existential writers I’ve run across.

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