Good Stuff: Fridays with Billy – a love letter to Billy Bragg.

The astute, or indeed, merely sentient reader will have noticed that I’ve been on something of a Billy Bragg kick this week (“who is Billy Bragg?” you ask, as you are likely American and have little idea. This is Billy Bragg – a punk-folk-Motown-influenced singer-songwriter of prodigious talent). The sentient reader will have further noticed that I tend to go through stages with my pop culture, stages in which I am ALL ABOUT THE THING THAT I AM ALL ABOUT for awhile (coughFireflycough).

So, yes, I’m in a sudden All-Billy-Bragg-All-The-Time stage, but I’m kind of always in a Billy Bragg stage. His music is in the warp and weft of my love affair with my husband, and his lyrics are our shared language.

When the husband and I first met, we discovered that we had both just bought two mildly obscure (by Israeli standards) discs: Jesus Jones’s Doubt and Billy Bragg’s Don’t Try This at Home. As is the way with music geeks, this was of course interpreted as a portent. We were meant to be!

But the husband had been a Bragg-ite for a long time when I showed up. He had all the CDs, and could declaim the lyrics off the top of his head — indeed, it was Billy’s lyrics, even more than his guitar playing, that drew my guitar-playing boyfriend into the Bragg universe.

This fact made the portent yet more portent-y for me. We were, after all, in Israel. The husband is not a native English speaker, and when I met him, had lived all of eight months in an English-speaking environment. To have found a man who not only loved the music I loved, but loved the words I loved made me positively swoon. Makes me positively swoon.

See, Bragg does this thing that is utterly rare in English-language pop and rock: He brings word-play, wit, a social conscience, and a sense of wide-eyed wonder — to everything. Take for instance this, from “Brickbat”:

I steal a kiss from you in the supermarket
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

I used to want to plant bombs at the Last Night of the Proms
But now you’ll find me with the baby, in the bathroom,
With that big shell, listening for the sound of the sea,
The baby and me

I stayed in bed, alone, uncertain
Then I met you, you drew the curtain
The sun came up, the trees began to sing
The light shone in on everything.
I love you.

This from the same man who wrote “It Says Here”:

It says here that the unions will never learn
It says here the economy is on the upturn
And it says here we should be proud that we are free
And our free press reflects our democracy

Those braying voices on the right of the house
Are echoed down the street of shame
Where politics mix with bingo and tits in a money and numbers game
Where they offer you a feature on stockings and suspenders
Next to a call for stiffer penalties for sex offenders

(words he wrote, BTW, in the early 1980s — they sound a wee bit au courant, am I right?)

Then there’s the voice with which the words are sung – not classically beautiful, yet so beautiful (just listen to him in “You Make Me Brave“). Twenty years ago, his accent was more pronounced as he sang – he appears to have modulated it for singing purposes, because in more recent releases he sounds almost American (until he starts to talk. No worries there!) – but either way, there’s always an urgency and a sincerity that is often entirely missing from our singers’ voices.

And finally, there’s the guitar. He’s taken to producing albums with more and more instruments, and in these cases, the songs often feel like the scores to short films, the musical dips and turns creating a larger picture, painting the colors — but the truth is, Billy Bragg really doesn’t need any of it. The man fills a song with his electric guitar in a Jack White fashion (and Jack, after all, needed Meg on the drums).

His guitars are the only instruments Bragg brings on tour (well, that and numerous cups of tea); I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve seen him (four or five-ish). I would go every week, if we could. I often just stand there with tears streaming down my face, because he’s singing my husband’s love for me, or the world’s injustices, and he and his lyrics and his guitar run in my veins.

So. I decided yesterday to start a new feature: “Fridays with Billy,” in which I’ll present one clip per week. They won’t all come with this long introduction (!), and I suspect there will be no real order. Just you know: Fridays with Billy. For my enjoyment, and I hope yours, as well!

Our first installment is “A New England,” which I love for many reasons, but in particular for the chorus: “I don’t want to change the world/ I’m not looking for a new England/ I’m just looking for another girl” — because dude is totally trying to change the world, is totally looking for a new England! But not in this song.

I give you the live version, because it’s so… him! Enjoy!



  1. caoil

     /  December 2, 2011

    Ha! I know just what you mean, about the ‘meant to be’. When my current partner and I met, it came up very early on that we were both huge Depeche Mode fans, and that pretty well sealed the deal.

  2. ralphdibny

     /  December 3, 2011

    I love love love love love this song. That is all.

  3. Fleem

     /  December 3, 2011

    Just logging on to concur. “Milkman of Human Kindness” makes me cry.

  4. Not to be too picky, but I think you mean ‘warp and weft’

  5. Aah, Billy. I saw him at First Ave in Minneapolis ’round about the time of “Don’t Try This At Home.” Six or twelve bucks, full band, opening act Disposable Heroes of Hip-hopcrisy, with a comedian to take over the stage as the bands switched over. Everybody danced.

    Yes, we danced to a folk singer, because this folk singer and his band damned near ordered us to with his beats and his heart and his humor and exhortations. And then at the end of this two or three hour concert, the demure keyboardist with a turtleneck and her hair in a bun stepped out from behind her instrument and took the mic as Billy, the band, the Disposable Heroes, and the comedian (clanking a cowbell) tore into a twenty-minute long version of Dee-Lite’s “Groove Is In the Heart.”

    God love ’em! (so sayeth the agnostic)

    • Well, if there is a God, you and I both know that S/He/It would most assuredly love Billy Bragg and every single thing you just described. So.

      PS And now, we’re in each other’s time lines! I love when this happens with people I know but don’t know — Don’t Try This at Home came out is exactly and precisely when I discovered Billy Bragg, and now I know where you were when I was doing that – you were dancing at First Ave! (Which, sadly, I know of only from the stories, though I spent a year of my childhood in Wayzeta, and a year of college in Northfield).

    • Fleem

       /  December 5, 2011

      I think I was at that show. I remember they did a song about burritos.

  6. Darth Thulhu

     /  December 4, 2011

    Thanks for the introduction to Mr. Bragg. Looking forward to the weekly feature.

    And thanks for prompting a relisten to Doubt. Seriously good album, start to finish. (Did the Israeli release have Are You Satisfied? on it, or was that only the U.S. release?)

  7. if I could write as beautifully and as intensely as he does with just an electric guitar I’d be a happy woman indeed.

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