Billy Bragg: Polaroids that hold us together

Drunk on Goon, sitting in some messy room. Out in Wulguru. A little record player. My friend DB beside me. Going through records. Teenagers.

Then DB’s brother gets home from wherever he’s been. We’re not wondering for very long, as he begins to describe in graphic detail  the kinds of things he’s just been doing with his ladyfriend. I laugh uncomfortably. Once he starts illustrating with movements I think I’d like to go home. I like my mate DB, but I don’t like this town.

The older brother retires for the evening. DB puts on a new record. The guitar clanks rudely. A braying south London accent starts singing about being in love with a girl at school. A trumpet cuts through and my heart lurches. Upwards.


Who is this? It’s Billy Bragg. The stark album cover doesn’t tell me much, but its bland industrial design is like a set of instructions for an intriguing device.  DB loves the song too. He knows what he’s doing. Sharing treasure. This song from so far away, speaks to me directly. Like a traveler you’ve never met who arrives with intimate information about your own life.

I ask for, and receive, a tape of this album. With biro I write on the label: Brewing Up with Billy Bragg. The song is The Saturday Boy. It’s surrounded by two other knockout love songs: St Swithin’s Day and ‘A Lover Sings’

So a love affair begins.

I learn how to play his songs and sing them under the clothesline at backyard parties. He’s also on about political stuff too. These songs are less appealing, but there’s an incisive wit and anger here that turns me on to issues I’ve never thought about before. I’m wearing a ‘Talking With the Taxman About Poetry’ T-Shirt when I meet the woman who turns out to be the love of my life. A revolution was indeed ‘..a T-shirt away.’

I play a BB song at my first ever solo gig at the Story Bridge Hotel in Brisbane. Susan came to see me play. I go see BB play live at Easts Leagues Club in 1988 at the bitter end of Joh Bjleke Petersen’s reign. The gig is like a cross between a love-in and a political rally. There are all sorts there. Billy plays solo, slamming away at the same crappy looking guitar I’ve seen pictures of.

Billy Bragg

Despite being surrounded by others, it feels like he’s playing just for you. Inbetween songs he talks. It feels like he’s speaking just to you. After the concert I hang around and meet Billy, who’s squatted on the edge of the stage, talking sweatily with a dozen or so folks. I can’t remember what we talked about. I shook his hand. Having nothing to sign, I ask him to autograph the shirt I’m wearing. I flaunt it at university the next day, but my friends think I’ve written it myself.

Billy Bragg Shirt 1988

Listening to a live concert on ZZZ radio, I capture a new song on cassette: Valentine’s Day is Over. Wow, this guy writes amazing songs. They’re rough but full of heart. I note that some of the stuff he says between songs is the same as the concert I attended. When he was ‘speaking just to me’. There’s a ‘drop’ as I realize what felt so authentic was a kind of punk showbiz, but then there’s a recognition that showbiz and authenticity aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s a delicate showmanship at work here, despite its knockabout exterior.

The idea that you can write your own kind of song, that it can be rough, poetic, and contain details from your own life that have potential to speak beyond your immediate frame of reference. This idea starts me writing my own songs, amongst the scores of others that I’m learning. They’re not much chop. But they’re mine. Meanwhile Billy’s got Johnny Marr from the Smiths to play on ‘Greetings to the New Brunette’. My ears are in heaven. So many layers of guitars. And there’s another trumpet solo to die for in ‘Levi Stubbs Tears’. Billy writes a song that voices the story of another. And I believe it.

Billy releases ‘Worker’s Playtime’, an album chock full of gorgeously sad love songs. The line ‘…oh,  we used to be so brave’ in ‘Must I Paint you a Picture’ wrenches me as I can hear he’s dignified the mess of a break-up with a song. I’ve had my own break-ups by this time, so I know what he means. I can hear hope in the sadness and it makes me feel better. Me and Susan sing ‘She’s got a New Spell’, tipsy at a kitchen table, she sings sweet harmony and I’m under her spell.

I’ve got a little band. Two guitars and a cello. Our cover version of ‘The Only One’ features regularly in our set. It’s got a cello in it. I go see BB play Festival Hall. It’s more of a rock show. It doesn’t seem to suit him, but I can see that instead of repeating himself he’s pushing forward, writing outwards into bigger themes and sounds. I’m an artist too and there’s something to be learned from this.

I’m thinking of starting another band. With a real singer. We bond over Bragg. We do a demo session, which includes Tank Park Salute, Billy’s song of loss. We do our own kind of justice to it. Later we cover Birds and Ships from Mermaid Avenue, playing this tender little song as people barge past us to the bar at Ric’s.

Travelling in Edinburgh I buy a cassingle of ‘Upfield’. I carry it home. Billy’s a father now and on the album that follows he sings of listening to shells and looking at stars with his child. These songs say it’s OK to write about the profound change that parenting brings to your life. When it happens to me I give it a burl once the dust settles.

Billy writes a book. In it is a passage about his 12 year old self’s profound introduction to music. He’s returning home from a school trip on a bus with his classmates, having just made contact, through the window, with some girls in a neighbouring bus

“…But suddenly we are across the river. The ferry unloads and the girls are gone. Our sense of enchantment is shattered and we struggle to contain the feelings that our brief encounter has unleashed. However  at twelve years old, none of us has the language to deal with such powerful emotions and a pensive silence descends on the back of the coach. None of us wants to let on how moved we have been by what happened. Fearing I might blurt out something embarrassing,  I move away to find a seat by myself and spend the rest of the journey with my head pressed against the window, gazing into the middle distance.

….I couldn’t talk to my mates; I couldn’t run to my teacher; my parents wouldn’t understand. Where could I turn to for comfort?  And then this happens: from above my head, a descending guitar line comes tumbling out from a tiny speaker

I am just a poor boy, though my story’s seldom told…

Some Dutch radio station is providing the perfect soundtrack to my mood. The music draws me in. when the singer is joined by a harmony vocal my heart lifts and I know instinctively that this song is about me. As the song builds to a string-drenched crescendo, it is as if somewhere someone has turned on a tap in my emotions. My eyes fill with tears and I am overwhelmed by the poignancy of my situation, a bitter-sweet feeling that both troubles and comforts me.”

The Progressive Patriot by Billy Bragg p88)

Moved, I read myself in it & I’m back in Wulguru. Maybe you have a musical moment like this as well?  More albums follow, and I follow. I get an autographed box-set and listen to the tender, often crap starting points and alternative versions of these tunes I’ve loved.

BB returns to Brisbane, playing one concert at a comfortable Performing Arts Centre, and another at a beer barn. My lover and I go for comfort. There are all these people at the concert. Greyed, frayed, midriffs pushing boldly at faded band T-Shirts. How many of these were at Easts Leagues Club 24 years ago? They’re all… um… old. But they’re the same age as me. What has happened? Maybe they feel as young inside as I do. After remarking with a gentle irony the role his songs have played in the lives of young guys, Billy sings.

That line comes in St Swithin’s Day and I squeeze Susan’s hand.

7 responses to “Billy Bragg: Polaroids that hold us together

  1. I think you’ll find that the recorded concert you heard on 4zzz was the very concert you attended.

  2. I was at that Easts’ show. Either ’87 or ’88. It was amazing. I’m going to see him today in Seattle and found your blog trying to fix the date. Saving this to read later.

  3. I loved this post – took me back to Brisbane, Uni, my early adult-hood. Your cover of “Tank Park Salute” was quite lovely. And Billy was in fine form today – three songs from his touring set with Joe Henry. I miss the fire of the 80’s though, haven’t enjoyed anything he’s done since, quite as much as that early, passionate body of work.

  4. On the off-chance that you are still reading this blog, I met Billy for the first time last night, at the first of three shows he’s doing in Seattle this week. He remembered that show at Easts’ – he said he felt the love, the desperate, loving rabble from the leftie periphery clustering about him as we battled our way through the Joh & Flo years. He is a gem, hilarious, insightful, still passionate. He played newer stuff last night, and tonight and tomorrow will be chronological romps through all his work.

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