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.”

Bruce Cockburn — “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” from the album ‘Stealing Fire’ (1984)

About the Author

Ben Wiser

Test of the Boomerang is an in-depth exploration of some of the best material found on the Live Music Archive.

View All Articles