Photo by Richelle Akimow
I've been wanting to write to you for a while now, but couldn't get past the idea that it would be a bit of a daft, fanboy thing to do. But after seeing you this past Friday at St Andrews Wesley Church in Vancouver, I figured it really was time to put (virtual) pen to (virtual) paper. The only complication is that I also decided to make this a blog post, so goodness knows what sort of a mess it will turn out to be. I've got the dustpan and rubber gloves ready, just in case.
I was a bit taken aback upon seeing the logo on the sleeve of the t-shirt I bought after the show: "Life's Still A Riot 1983 - 2008." Has it REALLY been twenty-five years? I suppose it has, and I suppose it was just under a quarter-century ago that I first heard "A New England" hometaped onto a C90 by a mate. Discovering your music was as significant to me as seeing The Clash at the 1978 London Rock Against Racism gig was to you. You see, I was the "Saturday Boy" and though I knew the meaning of "unrequited," I couldn't articulate its feeling as you did. And in so doing, you helped a hormonal, teenage FiL cope. On the political front, the short, sharp shocks of "To Have And To Have Not," "It Says Here,and "Like Soldiers Do" helped channel my roiling ideological waters. You see, I was actually a rather conservative lad, but your thoughtful lyrics and kerranging gee-tarr helped convince me to tear up my Reaganjugend membership card. I'm happy to report that I'm now a staunch liberal (with a small 'l'), who cries in front of the TV.
I think I've seen you in concert five times now, which ties you with The Ramones for first place in the "Popular Beat Combos FiL Has Seen The Most Times" sweepstakes. So congratulations on that achievement; you must be very proud. The first time I saw you play was November 1986 at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. I clearly remember sitting right up against the stage by your feet, much like the youngsters did last Friday (this time I was in the sixth row of pews, on the left, natch). I was thrilled that night when you joshingly rebuked us "fucking New Yorkers" for singing too loudly. That was the first time I experienced your fantastic gift of making everyone in the audience feel like you've come along just to hang out with them. Like the lad lying in the aisle between the pews, the one you nicknamed "Lazarus" and on whose state of life or death you commented throughout the show.
Indeed, I've always admired your ability to connect, and to share your vulnerability. Though let me make it clear that you're not the "tuneless bastard" you claimed to be while quaffing Throat Coat tea in the cold confines of the church. When you finally got through "Price I Pay" after wrestling with the capo, I think the applause was of admiration and not relief, as you suggested. With Billy Bragg, what you see/hear is what you get. He does exactly what it says on the tin. No artificial sweeteners or preservatives. You get the crunchy with the smooth. And it's all delicious.
I was struck by the nifty mix of folks who showed up to the church on Friday: hipsters and hippies, pre-adolescents and pensioners, and loads inbetween. At one point I spied a few rows ahead of me a rather rotund, balding man in his sixties nodding and shaking his head with vigour and abandon while you played. I guess he was pew moshing. Then there were the kooky-kool kids dancing in the aisles to "World Turned Upside Down." They impressed me; I never managed to figure out how to boogie to that particular tune. I must admit to myself that I fall into (the young end of) that group of oldies you mentioned; you know, the ones whose grandkids will put "White Man In Hammersmith Palais" or The Specials on the gramophone, just to see Nan and Grandpa do their funny dancing. As an aside, now I'll never be able to listen to The Specials without snorting with laughter while visualizing you doing that creaky, decrepit skank you did. Cheers for that, mate. No, really.
More than anything, Friday night reminded me that your songs are at their most potent when they are infused with the passion and feeling of you playing them live. Every tune was a stunner, even the ones that on vinyl/CD/mp3 don't move me as much as the others. In particular, "The Space Race Is Over" has never been in my top ten, but on Friday I found it utterly heartwarming. And then there was "I Keep Faith," which I am ashamed to say I didn't even recognize as yours when I first heard it played on CBC Radio some months back. But hearing it performed live with such commitment and fervour was electrifying. As for my favourites (i.e. all the rest), well, I thought I had died and gone to heaven with you and Johnny C(l)ash. I think "Waiting For The Great Leap Forward" has become my favourite live song, not least because each time I've seen you perform it it has been tweaked to be bang-up-to-date. Smart bombs in the hands of dumb people scare me too. And I thought singing the late Kirsty MacColl's stanzas during "A New England" was a wonderfully kind tribute
It has been fascinating to watch you, through listening to your music, grow from angry young firebrand into someone exploring the complexities of life, love, politics, and what it means to be human. Each time I have checked in with you over the past twenty-five years, I've found something in your journey that has resonated in mine. I know that becoming a father has been a profound influence on you, as it has on me. When my Dearest Daughter was born, I found myself singing "I Don't Need This Pressure, Ron" to soothe her to sleep. Why that song? Well, because a) I knew all the words, b) "Anarchy In The UK" seemed inappropriate, and c) I was sick and tired of singing "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Bloody Star" over and over. And you know what, it worked like a charm. It did too for my second-born, Little Man. Indeed, both children refer to it now as "The Banging Song" (after the first line, "What was that bang...") and I still sing it when emotions flare and calming is needed.
But in the end what I am most grateful to you for is your inspiration. Every time I have seen you perform live, I have walked out of the venue feeling re-energized, with my cynicism and apathy left stuffed in a wastebin by the exit. And this time was no different. Probably what galvanized me most was the storming "Old Clash Fan Fight Song" and the story of how a skronky rental amp, with it's sole setting of "First Clash Album," led you to the epiphany of that righteous song's creation. Thank you for reminding me that the world is indeed full of possibilities that we can, and indeed need to seize. Thank you for keeping faith, and for helping me to keep mine. Indeed, thank you for everything.
P.S. You were right - it's on You Tube already. See below...
Billy Bragg - Old Clash Fan Fight Song [live @ SxSW 2008] (buy the 7-inch here)
Billy Bragg - I Keep Faith [live @ SxSW 2008] (buy the new album here or here)