They just played this song on the radio station that’s on at work… I remember when I first heard this when I was 11. I immediately sat up and took notice. I loved the shit out of this song (and not just because it says “SON OF A BITCH” in it, which tickled me) so much I even changed my last name at welfare camp that year to Cockburn (I went every year and used a different pseudonym, but this was the first time I changed my last name too!). It cracked me up that the radio announcer just pronounced it “cock-burn” when every music nerd knows it’s “co-burn.”
Even when I was 11 I was taken with the message of the song: “bad shit goes down in Central America, but I’d fuck some shit up if I had the right weaponry.” It was both sad to me and poignant. Cockburn says in his early lyrics “I don’t believe in hate,” yet ends with song “If I had a rocket launcher… some son of a bitch would die.” The last line is sung with such vitriol, in contrast to the more guarded tone of the rest of the song, which becomes more violent with each chorus. The first chorus is “If I had a rocket launcher, I would make somebody pay”, each chorus starts with “If I had a rocket launcher…” and then the last line changes. The second is “I would retaliate,” then “I would not hesitate” then finally “some son of a bitch would die.”
This was the Reagan Administration, and I knew we were messing up stuff right and left in Central America. I went with my mother to protests and rallies and stuff to leave Central America alone (none of which seemed to do anything). So what is the message of the song? To become increasingly desperate so that eventually you fight violence only with violence? Even as a kid this shocked me, being the child of peaceful hippies going to rallies where people discussed passive resistance and such. I was fascinated! I didn’t see that rallies and candlelight vigils and endless petition tables would change anything. I religiously read “Newsweek,” while far from the most radical publication on earth, had the goriest photos. You couldn’t flip through an issue without seeing full color images of corpses, bleeding and raw, from conflicts in wherever held the most interest in the world at the time. People around the world were being butchered, yet a bunch of educated white liberals in central New York were holding a candlelight vigil. I wanted to scream. What could I do? I had fantasies of joining the I.R.A. when I was about that age, but truthfully I have never hurt a flea. I don’t even think I ever smacked my little sister in a fight (and boy did she deserve it!)
I still haven’t resolved what to do about the state of the world. I guess I figured I couldn’t do anything, and went on to halfheartedly attend sporadic rallies and protests. What can anyone do? No really, what can we do? I’ve manned petition tables, started letter writing campaigns, held fundrasiers… Leonard Peltier is still in jail after 30+ years (I remember being the treasurer of my college’s Leonard Peltier Defense Committee in the early 1990s— saying “IT’S BEEN 14 YEARS, BUT HE’S GOING TO GET OUT NOW!” and then recently catching up with some Leonard Peltier activists who were saying “IT’S BEEN 25 YEARS, BUT HE’S GOING TO GET OUT NOW!”
Depending on which statistic you go by, 78-90% of the American population is for background checks when buying a gun, yet did the background check bill pass Congress? Of course not! Our country is too enslaved by the interests of big businesses to care about the regular people. Will this ever change?
It may not have been this song that got me to wake up to reality, but it did make me think about things at a young age. In fact, I was so hooked I even bought Bruce Cockburn’s Christmas album years later… probably not the best decision of my life.