I was eleven or twelve. I was riding with my dad. We were driving back from somewhere. We were listening to the radio. It was just my dad and me. All of the sudden, a strange kind of music comes on. The vaguely-Eastern sounding keyboards and guitar arpeggios sound cool enough, then the vocals start: “IF I HAD A ROCKET LAUNCHER, I’D MAKE SOMEBODY PAY.”
Here was a song about a guy who is singing about getting a rocket launcher — a rocket launcher — and after asking “how many kids did you kill today?” was going to make somebody pay. It was like somebody took the plot to Commando and made a song out of it. Already this was the most badass song I had ever heard, but nothing could have prepared me for that final verse.
“If I had a rocket launcher, some son of a bitch would die!”
This was on the radio! The guy not only said “son of a bitch,” but he said “some son of a bitch would DIE!” He was gonna take that rocket launcher and he was gonna kill that son of a bitch! This was in a song! The most intense lyric I had heard on the radio before that was that “the union of the snake was on the prowl.”
My dad and I got home and I ran into my room, totally energized with pre-adolescent macho awkwardness. I turned on my radio and slowly, very slowly turned the knob up and down the radio dial until I could catch that song.
Well, days went by, weeks went by, months, years. I don’t think I ever heard the song on the radio again. Then, ten years ago, I remembered the song and I went looking for it on Napster.
The artist was Bruce Cockburn, a prolific and respected Canadian singer-songwriter who has been at it since the late 1960s. He never had an American hit, except for “Rocket Launcher,” which made it to #88 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The song was written in response to the plight of Guatemalan refugees during the brutal regime of EfraÁƒn RÁƒos Montt. Cockburn witnessed the atrocities of the Guatemalan Civil War.
I don’t believe in guarded borders and I don’t believe in hate
I don’t believe in generals or their stinking torture states
And when I talk with the survivors of things too sickening to relate
If I had a rocket launcher … I would retaliate
I can’t think of a more impassioned and vehement protest song that has garnered noticeable airplay since this song in 1984. As a dumb kid, with handfuls of action figures in Reagan’s America, I only saw images of cartoon explosions and rocket launchers and flame throwers; Cobra Commander and Snake Eyes.
My dad didn’t say much on that drive home. I knew he understood the song and I am sure he didn’t quite know how to explain to me what it was about. But talk about a powerhouse of a song. I remembered it ten years later. I learned what was going on then. Things that are still happening and continue to happen. I understand that frustration and that horror now. And even more so now, I can appreciate and taste the venom when he spits out the line, “… some son of a bitch would die.”