IN CONCERT: Billy Bragg Is Still Brewing Up The Good Stuff
On October 5th, Mr. Love & Justice brought a bit of the working class ethos to the Ivy League
As any fan, friend (or for that matter) foe of Billy Bragg knows, his concerts tend to a) go on a bit and b) feature a lot of politically-inclined, lefty chat. Over the years – and I’ve seen a dozen-plus concerts going back to 1984 – I’d say the percentage clocks in at about 60 percent music/40 percent talk. There have been times when this has worked and times when it hasn’t.
I remember one club gig in Boston where a a guy in the crowd (not me) yelled: “We’re with you, Billy! Play some music!”
But when the audience – yes, the converted who are being preached to – are lapping it up, well, some of them bathe in the luxury of having their views articulated or being reaffirmed by this very sharp, witty man on stage. Who has considered the downside of that.
A couple of decades back, I was talking with Bragg about how he related to his audience and they to him. At times, he said, “it has been too reverential. And it stops your trying. I listened to some of the old tapes and I felt I was becoming a self-parody, winding the audience up. At the time, you’re saying all these things that you think are really smart and then you think: What relevance does this have to the gig? I’m just talking for talking’s sake here. I suppose when you’re drunk you don’t realize it. But, ideally, it’s concise or funny, and if it’s really brilliant, both. . . I do feel, a bit, that there is a place for songs in my set.”
On the last night of his US tour, the third consecutive sold-out gig at the Sinclair club in Cambridge, Mass. Oct. 5th, Bragg nailed it. I’d put the breakdown at about half music/half chat and I’d also say they segued in and out of each other quite effortlessly – with passion, purpose and humor. Bragg is a great storyteller as well as a great songwriter. He recalled early Boston-area shows – opening for Link Wray, two shows, knackered but energized – and then making a parabolic tour of America with his best pal, guitarist Wiggy, opening for Echo & the Bunnymen. Those were the brash days of clang-and-bang – declamatory lyrics and these abrasive/melodic barre chords played by, as Bragg would put it, “a one-man band who still thinks he’s the Clash.”
His old pal Morrissey – yes, they were once friends, together in the left-wing musical/political movement Red Wedge m England, singing with the Smiths – took it on the chin a few times, beginning in the first song, “Sexuality,” Bragg changing, “Don’t threaten me with misery” to “Don’t threaten me with Morrissey.”
On Mozz: During the show, Bragg explained his present-day contempt for the him, using the r-word (racist), but also said he had no problem at all with Morrissey using his right of free speech. What was just as important, though, was others’ ability to strike back at what Morrissey said/posted/tweeted.
Bragg told us during the git that he switched things up every night of this mini-residency. Hey, you pays your money, you takes your chances … He called his third-night self “Ramblin’ Billy Bragg.” So, he focused on songs from the “breakup” album Worker’s Playtime aka “the yellow album.” He explained the backstory – his doomed relationship with one lady named Mary – and he played six of the album’s songs: “The Price I Pay,” “Everywhere,” “The New Spell,” “The Short Answer,” “Must I Paint You a Picture? and “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward.” Serious, sometimes teary and ballad-y stuff, but there two particularly funny bits: 1) Mary’s new boyfriend said he liked Billy’s music, but he talked too much at his gigs and 2) Bragg told us that he felt it was his duty to present her with a copy of the album before it was released, so she could, at least, hear what he’d done. They met at the Thames River and she promptly took it and hurled it into the river. That’s funny, yes, but Bragg’s immediate thought: Damn, if she’d only done that before he’d finished the record, he could have added that great detail to a song!
So, musically, there were mostly songs of romance – budding and bruised – with a few swings toward the political, “Accident Waiting to Happen” and “There Is Power in a Union.” Oh, and the re-worked Dylan song during the encore. More on that later.
As rewarding as that material was, it also meant, dammit, that we didn’t get my favorite Bragg song, the wrenching “Between the Wars,” or other earlier gems, “Levi Stubbs’ Tears,” “A New England” and Leon Rosselson’s “The World Turned Upside Down.” (Everyone at the second night got those, lucky bastards.)
Early on, Bragg asked himself (and us), “What’s the plot?” and answered with “The time has come, the walrus said – it wasn’t the walrus it was a 16-year-old girl” – Greta Thunberg – and went on to praise the climate change school strikers’ self-empowerment, equating them to the punk rock ethos of yore.
He also, pretty astutely, framed music then and now. Back in the punk days, music was crucial, it “had to express everything young people felt. The old idea was music was the be-all and end-all. I don’t think young people feet that way about music … but it can make you feel like you’re not alone,” expressing “the ideas you’ve felt but can’t articulate. That is the power of music. And empathy. We live in a time of a war on empathy.” What he wanted: Was for us to take away from the gig what he did, a “some of that solidarity.”
Socialism? Oh, yeah, Bragg has been proud of that tag forever, but here he explained pivoted slightly to what he called “socialism of the hear”, essentially keyed around empathy, or a philosophy of “organized compassion.” He followed that up with the tender “Brickbat,” with its resonant line: “I walk you down the aisle, you fill my basket/And through it all, the stick I take Is worth it for the love we make.”
Donald Trump (and the Wall) and Boris Johnson (and Brexit) got their knocks. Bragg linked the Wall and Brexit as two things that really didn’t matter to the world leaders – “Brexit is a chimera” – except as proving they could satisfy their base constituency, “their way of pushing their message on society.”
How easy-peasy was all this for the indefatigable Bragg? “It ain’t easy being 61 and doing this shit,” he said, noting that it was easy for people in the crowd to shout out song titles, but more difficult for him because “I’ve gotta remember the chords, lyrics and silly rap.” Say this: The man still has incredible stamina. It was a standup show, and he gently jibed the fellow down front leaning on the stage for support – but also thought maybe there should be those sorts of barriers throughout the club to lend those of us of his generation that support. He said if he was in the crowd, he’d want that.
Bragg encored with “Tender Comrade” (a cappella), plugged his short book ripping libertarianism without accountability, The Three Dimensions of Freedom, and sang “The Times They Are A-Changing [Back]” Yes, he took Dylan’s protest anthem and twisted it: “For the climate is obviously changing/But the fool in the White House says no one’s to blame/The times they are a changing-back … Come Mexicans, Muslims, LGBTQ and Jews/And keep your eyes wide for what’s on the news/For President Trump is expressing his views … In the land of the free and the home of the brave /Martin Luther King is spinning in his grave.”
VIDEO: Billy Bragg at the Sinclair in Cambridge, MA, October 5, 2019
I went backstage after the set and had a jolly catch-up chinwag. Billy introduced me to some of the hotel strike supporters he’d been with the previous night – Billy was talking to them and brought up one of the best moments of my professional and/or political life. I was at a Tufts university gig in the late ‘80s where I introduced Billy to Howard Zinn, the late “radical” historian. (That is, Howard considered not the so-called heroes of history, but the common folk, very much including people who got the short end of the stick or no stick at all.) Howard was just beginning to glean that some modern rockers – Bragg, Eddie Vedder, Tom Morello – really dug him. He took in the set and was impressed.
Howard was a longtime friend of mine, as was Billy, and as it turned out Billy was reading Howard’s A People’s History of the United States on his tour bus when I introduced them. Man, when they met, I just stepped back and let them have at it. I just smiled and took it in.
I went back to something Billy said to me around that time. “I don’t think it’s my duty to change people’s minds, I don’t think it’s my job. The most we can do is to begin the debate, to focus the debate. Rock music can be the catalyst or medium through which ideas are channeled.”
That’s still the work in progress.
VIDEO: Billy Bragg performs at the Battery Wharf Workers’ Strike Rally in North End Boston, October 5, 2019
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3 thoughts on “IN CONCERT: Billy Bragg Is Still Brewing Up The Good Stuff”
A great artist, but I don’t know if I should mix art and politics
Beautiful show, he always rocks!
The story is very moving and well written. inspiring