Mr. Love & Justice: Billy Bragg at 65

Jim Sullivan recounts his adventures with the English folk-punk legend

Billy Bragg on the cover of Mr. Love & Justice (Image: ANTI- Records)

When Billy Bragg started he used to joke/not-joke that he was a “one-man band who thinks he’s The Clash.”

He’s called himself the “the big-nosed bard from Barking,” the latter being the section of London from which he hailed. He’s played brash, clanging electric guitar, sang in a rough-hewn but emotive Cockney-inflected voice, and pushed left-wing politics to the fore. A folk/punker singing songs of oppression, of workers’ rights, of anti-Thatcherism on the streets of England – later its clubs, later still in America. 

As he turns 65 on Dec. 20, he’s still doing, in a very real sense, what he set out to do: Mixing pop and politics, agitating for social change, cracking wise, and going (politically) far beyond The Clash’s well-intentioned endeavors, both in song and via his public actions. 

I met Bragg as a relative neophyte, in early 1985 at a Cambridge, Mass. club where he was the support act for Link Wray. (Not sure how that booking came about but they both played loud electric guitar so there was that.) I’d never heard anyone quite like Billy Bragg.

We met and talked and then again when I went to London later that year. (He played an anti-heroin benefit at the Mean Fiddler under the name Duckbill Pattinson.) My first extensive sit-down with him was in 1988 at a hotel room in Philadelphia, where he and Michelle Shocked were co-headlining a bill. “A little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll,” Bragg had joked from the stage of the pairing. (This was well before Shocked went off the rails.)

 

VIDEO: Billy Bragg Live at Berklee College of Music 1988

When he became a performer, Bragg, a refugee from a little-known punk band called Riff Raff, decided to change his name from Steven to Billy “When I was in school, every Tom, Dick and Harry was called Steven,” he said, “and there were two Stevens in Riff Raff. Also, it’s punk, innit? Billy Bragg sounded a lot better.”

There were many more gigs and interviews over the years (one reported on here three years ago). One of the best moments came after Philly gig, back in Medford, Mass., where Bragg was headlining a Tufts University gig. I was friends with radical Boston University professor and provocateur Howard Zinn. I’d been telling Howard – who was not particularly keyed into pop culture at that point – how several contemporary artists had taken to his work and his politics, Bragg being one. Previously, Howard’s connection had been to the old hippies.

I took Howard to the Tufts show and, though I can’t claim he (or I) understood everything Bragg sang on stage (that accent), he got the gist of it. We met up post-show. Billy didn’t know Howard was coming and was beside himself; Howard was a hero and he’d been reading Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States on his tour bus. It was one of those occasions where, after making the introduction, I just stepped back and let the two of them talk. They each had a lot to say and a lot to listen to. Howard was tickled that some other modern rockers – like Eddie Vedder and Tom Morello – really dug him. His work was reaching a new generation via music.

I’m going to spin backwards and forwards with Billy as I drop a few tales from the trenches. The particulars of what he was supporting and what he was railing against changed over the decades, of course, but the trajectory of his personality and politics did not. There was a lot of controlled anger in what he sang and said on stage – and sometimes what he said made up 40% of the set – but there was also an unfailing undercurrent of optimism, too. It’s worth noting that he didn’t just bash the easy targets, right-wing politicians and regressive politics; he’d go after left-leaning middle-of-the-roaders who didn’t have the courage of their convictions, too. 

“You just have to think to yourself: If I ain’t gonna get and do this, who else is?” he said in that interview in Philly from ’88, about his emphasis on politics. “I have the opportunities to state my ideas in music, short of being a politician, I wouldn’t really have. I really should be using this [job] for something other than just meeting women, seeing the world and making meself incredibly rich and famous. There has to be more to it, and, as far as I’m concerned, that more isn’t changing the world, but coming out and being honest about the failings in all of us, and the hopes in all of us, trying to make some sense out of it all.

“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.”

Billy Bragg publicity photo (Image: Google)

At the moment, he was preoccupied with the belief that Christianity has been co-opted by the right wing and his dismay that so many left wingers have no use for it.

“I don’t have much of a religious background,” Bragg says, “but the New Testament is full of socialist rhetoric — throwing the money lenders out of the temple, a camel passing through a needle’s eye. If Marx was around today, I don’t think you’d find him saying, ‘Religion is the opiate of the masses.’ He’d probably think it’s the old fishtank up there.” Bragg gestures to the television.

“I think our ideology, on the left, socialism, is based on equality, freedom and understanding, whereas theirs on the right is based on greed and selfishness. We know that we’re morally right. Why not take the ultimate moral source, from which all our laws are based, and use that as well? Why be so shy?”

Shy, Bragg is not. On stage or off, he enjoys rattling his sabre. From the show in ’88: Bragg sang songs of conflict and strife; he rewrote “Days Like These” to include a line about the presidential election (“selling democracy down the tubes with the adman’s expertise”); he rewrote Elvis Costello’s anti-imperialist “Oliver’s Army” to damn Oliver North’s army; he warned in “Help Save the Youth of America” that in a nuclear war America’s cities will burn alongside Europe’s; he stated that he lives on what the US administration “considers an unsinkable aircraft carrier.” Racism, sexism and capitalism all took it on the chin; Bragg, who cofounded England’s Red Wedge, an artists’ socialist alliance, is the most radical voice in the rock mainstream, even if he’s playing on its edges.

What did he get from it all?

“Doing this job is a bit like a confessional,” he said. “If you’re going to try and plumb the depths of what you feel, the deeper you can go, the better point of contact you can have with people. You should try and look for the things in all of us that you don’t talk about all the time. When you go out and play and people applaud, they’re not just applauding the song; some of the response is their acceptance of your mistakes or what your perspective is.

“Going out night after night does take the pain away. I wouldn’t have said this a year ago. But I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by walking on stage being that pained-hurt person. I’m not like that, really, anyway. I’m someone who has his pain and hurt but generally deals with it by laughing about it, or going out and getting drunk.”

Speaking of …. Everyone wrestles with contradictions, big and small. Bragg’s struggles are more public, because of who he is and what he represents. Consider this small one: At a Los Angeles gig, the backstage beer the promoters supplied Bragg and his entourage was Coors. Because of its anti-union history and the right-wing activism of the company’s owners, Coors has been targeted for much left-wing protest over the years. It’s a company Bragg continues to knock on stage.

What did Bragg and company do?

“We drank it.”

Over the years, Bragg has tried – successfully I think to mix pop and politics – something he sang about as far back as “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward.” I love “Between the Wars,” “There Is Power in a Union” and “Sexuality,” I also dig “A New England,” “Levi Stubbs Tears” and “Greetings to the New Brunette.” 

The mid-career emphasis on more personal songs also had to do, Bragg said, with the feeling “we were getting a bit one-dimensional with all the politics, and I felt that there’s just more to the job than just the political side. There wasn’t really a conscious decision; it was more like, the majority of the songs I’d written were personal.”

But, of course, when Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, approached Bragg about setting her dad’s words to music, he jumped at it, bringing Wilco aboard and recording Mermaid Avenue in 1998 and Mermaid Avenue Vol. 2 in 2000.

In concert, Bragg has consistently been able to pivot from one cause (or type of song) to another, a maneuver made easier perhaps because of his audience expectations. He does talk a lot. At one Boston show, I recall Bragg was on an extended between-song leftist rant about something and the crowd was getting impatient. Someone (no, not me) yelled, “We’re with you Billy!” with the implicit message: Please go on with some music. This did not stop Bragg from talking; I think he ramped it up.

At one point, against his record company’s wishes, Bragg put the slogan “Capitalism is killing music” on the front of his new album. It was a response to the music industry’s slogan-position — “Home taping is killing music,” a big deal in the ‘80s (how ironic in the streaming age) — with which Bragg vehemently disagreed. Anyway, Bragg raised the obvious contradiction himself: If he’s such a concerned socialist, why charge a prohibitive-to-some admission price to his concerts?

“I recognize that as the old either/or,” Bragg says. “If you’re in a capitalist system, then you’ve got to give away everything, which is like saying socialism is about poverty and you’re expected to leave the capitalist system before it’s been overturned. As far as I’m concerned, I think capitalism is immoral and I have to deal with it all the time. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not the respect of your peers and the understanding of other people and the dissipating of information; it’s money, money, money and more money.”

On stage, Bragg made the conundrum a joke: Fans, he says, can buy a “Capitalism is Killing Music” T-shirt for $35. Such is the irony of the business of music.

 

But is Billy Bragg always the political animal?

“I can turn it off,” he says. “If you can’t it’d be really horrible. Last night at a party, no one knew who I was and it was great. I had a load of beers with everyone, shook hands, had a chat. If it wasn’t like that, I’d feel intensely pressured.”

In the early ‘90s, the tireless Bragg kept a relatively low profile, playing just a handful of dates, such as a benefit in Newport, R.I., in the summer of 1993. Where had he been?

“I was elevated to parenthood around Christmas 1993,” says Bragg. “And I’m proud, I’ve been absolutely wallowing in it.” Had he been touring, Bragg says, “I would have really missed those developments that Jack, my son, has made and they’re not going to come around again. So I’m sure everyone will forgive me for, say, not making an album.”

The author with Billy Bragg (Image: Roza Yarchun)

Plus, Bragg says, it wasn’t a bad idea to tone down his manic pace. Bragg always had a hard time walking away from a fan with a question, or refusing to chat, or putting his work aside. Bragg was, indeed, a working-class hero. But, Bragg found, at times, “It’s 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.”

Remember in 1995 when Hugh Grant was busted for getting a blowjob in his car parked on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood? It’s just after that and Bragg and I are sitting on a couch in Fort Apache studios in Cambridge, just before an invite-only gig, checking out the banner headlines screaming across the front pages of several English dailies.

“I think that he has let down the whole nation of Britain,” says Bragg, soberly.

There is a beat. “No,” he says, laughing. “When you become sort of a tabloid hero like that, you then can see that every hero has feet of clay. I think it’s nice to see that from time to time. I prefer my heroes to be caught in compromising positions. It makes me feel closer to them. I do have certain vices that if they were known to the press.”

Not being the gutter press type, I don’t press him. 

As may be apparent, Bragg has a sharp, dry and self-deprecating wit. For instance, he acknowledges the possible contradiction of his taste for pricey hotels and his socialist politics with this: “When the revolution comes, we’ll all be able to stay in a ritzy hotel.”

But, as a family man – he is married to Juliet Wills — Bragg has found a measure of domestic tranquility. In the past, he says, “I didn’t have anything to ground me at home and I’d get very quickly bored. I felt that I was only alive when doing gigs. And when you are a single person, and you don’t take huge amounts of substances or anything like that, you get an incredible adrenaline high from playing. You can get addicted to anything. But, now, having a family, I don’t have to do that anymore. It is a job . . . a much more approachable job.”

When Bragg began again to play, he says he realized with a shock that there were a few, eh, dicier songs that maybe he shouldn’t be singing, such as “A New England,” with its refrain about “looking for another girl.” “My God, I’m someone’s dad!” he recalls thinking, “I can’t be going onstage. But I’ve got it under control.”

Later, during the interview, in the midst of another baby musing — about missing Jack’s bath time for the first time, if you must know — Bragg says, “I don’t want to get all Dad on you and your readers. People say to me, `Have you written any dad songs?’ and someone said Bob Dylan wrote `Forever Young’ about it and I thought, if that’s a song about parenthood shouldn’t it be `Forever Tired,’ or `Forever Grumpy’ or `Forever Covered in Shit.’ Please. So, I’ve avoided that.”

Bragg was not certain how big his audience and aware he might be “going back to square one. I don’t mind. ‘Cause I really enjoyed that. When it gets to the stage of huge halls and auditoriums, where you can just walk around the stage and everyone claps, well, it gets really boring. I’ve been there a few times.”

 

 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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