“I played bars thirty five years ago and I’m still playing bars today.”
That’s what Billy Bragg told me when I asked him about the dream, you know, the one where you become rich and famous. He referenced other acts, like the Housemartins, who had broken through, where were they today?
But he’s still standing.
I’d never seen him before. Always knew about him, got the CDs from the label, but never paid much attention, thought he was marginal in today’s winner-take-all world.
But he’s not.
The Troubadour had sold out months before. Steve Martin, the agent, told me they could have done three no problem. But what about the rest of America, outside the city? He was good for almost as many tickets, sometimes more. How could this be?
But the audience was not young, not the boppers propping up the popsters, but rather thirty, forty and fiftysomethings, who knew every word and sang along. They needed Billy. They needed to be there. How did they get the memo?
I still don’t have the answer to that.
But one thing’s for sure, Billy was a star in their world.
So it’s just him. An electric and an acoustic and two amps, nothing more. And for two hours Billy plays and talks and…
He said he had a cold and his voice was shot. To tell you the truth, I didn’t think it was that off, but then he remarked that one of his handlers said they came for the stories not the songs anyway.
And the stories are riveting.
It’s the antithesis of modern showbiz, all sleek and removed. There was little barrier between the fans and Billy, but one thing’s for sure, they saw him as a teacher.
You remember teachers, don’t you? Probably some of the worst experiences of your life. But when done right…
Education is illuminating and stimulating.
And it was last night.
Billy’s a left winger. Dyed-in-the-wool. And he won’t give up. And he doesn’t believe in apathy or cynicism and sings songs to that effect. He’s imploring you to stand up, telling you that what you say and do makes a difference.
And he assumes you’re educated, that you’re not a nitwit, that you keep up with the news. He’s talking about Brexit and Corbyn and America getting bounced from the World Cup and and one thing’s for damn sure, this is not the same show he does every night.
Now normally when you don’t know the material a show is an endurance test. You can’t make out the lyrics and the hooks don’t, hook you that is. But going to see Billy Bragg is akin to seeing a musical, you need no advance study, all the songs are comprehensible, and BRIEF! Normally live the numbers are extended. But Billy’d sing the three minute song and that’d be it. Then he’d go back to politics, his personal life, his history, exuding no star attitude yet his talent shined through, you knew you couldn’t stand up on stage and do this.
So what motivated him to become political?
Before that he did not give a damn.
This is what Billy told me upstairs.
Normally he hangs out with the crowd, for an hour, and I didn’t expect to meet him, it’s usually unpleasant meeting people who don’t know you, if you’re a glad-hander backstage you’re ignored, but Steve said we should go up and after the perfunctory notes about the show, in a moment of silence, I asked Billy about his career, where he was going, politics.
And he had no problem articulating his position.
I was stunned. Most musicians are aloof. Can barely eke out a sentence, never mind an informed one. But Billy walked me through the Tories and Labour and what was gonna happen with Brexit and I could have talked with him all night if they weren’t shutting the place down, if we didn’t have to go.
I guess you can go to the show and have just that, a show. That makes you marvel, that might even leave you with a glow.
Or you can have an experience. That makes you think. That takes you on a a journey. That makes you feel whatever you’re experiencing is personal only to you, tonight, with this crowd.
Now Billy is carrying on. And he’s got multiple projects, he’s promoting a book he wrote on the skiffle sound. He’s making a living. As he told me, he never had a straight job, music has supported him, and that was a victory in itself. But he’s not dominating the chart. But he has a loyal audience. And you wonder…
What does the future hold? Will there be more journeymen like Billy Bragg, or just superstars and complainers who bitch that they are not?
I’m not sure.
But one thing is for sure. I’m continuing to think about last night’s performance. I was impressed by Billy’s passion, his belief, his perseverance.
That was a beacon to me.
And it will be for you too.
I recommend you go.
P.S. Billy does a reworked, topical version of “The Times They Are A-Changin'” that is genius. Start at the one minute mark in this video: