There was a time in my life that was Billy Bragg. I can’t say exactly when it was, not the year or time. What I do know is that I was in love for the first time and the boy had made me a mix tape (yes, of course, an actual cassette) and on it he put “She’s Got a New Spell.” Somehow, in my sheltered existence, surrounded by high school friends obsessed with past masters like the Beatles and Zeppelin, I’d missed Bragg. Now here I was, falling in love and finding Billy Bragg at the same time and there was no way on this suddenly brighter green earth that it was pure coincidence. I hadn’t before heard anything quite so raw and beautiful -- his brilliant, poetic, tender, funny lyrics delivered in that rough, working-class bloke English accent. Somehow, it all perfectly expressed the awkwardness and exuberance, the peculiarly deep and specific fumblings of love.
I was also in my teens, itching to matter and belong, aching to fight for something good and righteous and there Bragg was again, singing about unions and justice and war. When I saw him live for the first time, my heart had been split wide open in the way even people who don't know you can see on your face. It was April 1991, and I saw him at Graham Chapel on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis. We sat in ornate wooden pews to listen to his passions fill the hall and it was somehow both righteously ironic and rightly reverent to see him play in a house of worship. It was just Bragg and his pianist/backup singer and when their voices met in the tiny church to sing "The Price I Pay," it hurt so much I couldn't see straight and there was nowhere else in the world I wanted to be. Some years later I saw Bragg again at Mississippi Nights in St. Louis, just after the Mermaid Avenue recordings came out. There was a buzz in the house because the word on the street was that Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy – a native of Belleville, just outside St. Louis – might make a surprise appearance. It didn’t happen. But it didn’t matter.
Tonight, we saw Billy Bragg perform at The Ark in Ann Arbor. Somehow, in our six months here, every show I’ve wanted to see at The Ark has conflicted with a fellowship event or a trip out of town. And so while we lined up in the freezing cold at 6:45 for a 7:30 door opening, I wasn’t sure what we were in for.
The venue, as it turns out, is a teeny thing. With seating for 400, the vast majority is general admission and that meant that, despite not having tickets for reserved seats, we sat three rows from the small stage. When Billy Bragg came out, he was not more than six feet from me.
Something strange happens to musicians – they get older. Billy Bragg’s hair is graying and at my proximity I couldn’t ignore the laugh lines creasing around his eyes. But enough hasn’t changed that he’s a timeless musician, entertainer and, at times, political stumper. In fact, until both war and love are out of fashion, Billy Bragg’s job is secure.
It’s not all fun and games with Billy Bragg. In fact, his critics and detractors will seize on his mixing his left-wing politics with beautiful music, ignoring its rich tradition. Yes, he feeds us history and lobbies for a change in the way the world works – but he also tells us sweet and funny anecdotes about Woody Guthrie and Ingrid Bergman.
Still, I’m wondering if there will ever be a time when anthems like “Help Save the Youth of America” will be less embarrassingly appropriate. It’s been 20 years since the lyrics first called us to self-reflection and they’re perhaps even more jarring than ever before:
Help save the youth of America Help save them from themselves Help save the sun-tanned surfer boys And the Californian girls
When the lights go out in the rest of the World What do our cousins say They're playing in the sun and having fun, fun, fun Till Daddy takes the gun away
From the Big Church to the Big River And out to the Shining Sea This is the Land of Opportunity And there's a Monkey Trial on TV
A nation with their freezers full Are dancing in their seats While outside another nation
Is sleeping in the streetsDespite pleading guilty to a head cold – and his voice cracking in places to illustrate the point – there was no lack of passion (or corny joke-telling) in tonight’s performance. When he sang of love, Billy Bragg stripped away years of experience and my heart, young again, beat faster and lighter for just a moment. When he sang of justice, of calling for accountability for our leaders, I believed again that change was within our reach, and that we could have a good soundtrack for the revolution.
We started this week with a riveting Monday lunch seminar featuring Len Niehoff, attorney for the Michigan Press Association and University of Michigan law professor who specializes in First Amendment Law. In just presenting us with facts, he painted a grim picture of the government’s version of our freedom. He had me, intentionally or not, quaking in my comfy shoes about my rights, which are currently circling the drain.
So while Len Niehoff and Billy Bragg probably share a few of the same ideas, I came away from the former concerned and the latter hopeful, if only in the slightest way. That’s no commentary on the value or validity of what each “speaker” offered me. Both truths are grim and frightening, both require immediate and intensive action. I’m just saying that if you throw in a couple of love songs, nothing seems quite so impossible anymore.