Oct. 25, Grand Ballroom at Manhattan Center, 311 W. 34th St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.), 212-279-7740; 8, $40.
“Do you mind my paraphrasing one of your song lyrics to you?” I ask Billy Bragg, who answers cheerfully, “Go right ahead.” It’s from “Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards,” off Bragg’s 1988 LP, Worker’s Playtime, and in two short lines it perfectly captures Bragg’s mission statement, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and a sense of humbleness that carries over into these one-on-one interactions. “Mixing Pop and Politics he asks me what the use is,” sings Bragg. “I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses.”
“It was really me just reflecting the difficultly of trying to create a discourse in a medium as fluffy and trivial and pop music.” Bragg is happy to re-examine the 20-year-old song lyric. “I’ve always [felt] that I’m not really a pop musician. I’m a folk musician. I just happened to choose an electric guitar. Folk music is sturdy enough to write about anything.”
All of these decades later, as most of his contemporaries have long since redefined or otherwise abandoned the ethos that drove punk rock in its earliest incarnations, Bragg is at home packing, readying himself for a tour of the States he’s deemed “grassroots,” due to the inclusion of a number of stops in smaller towns, and timed to spread his gospel in the lead up to the presidential election.
“There’s an opportunity, as a foreigner to bring a perspective, if only, ‘think when you go vote that you’re voting for a leader for all of us, not just yourself,’” he explains. “There are some people who don’t like that message, who don’t care what I think. The urge for those of us in other countries to comment on the U.S. election is [great] because the United States is the most powerful democracy in the world. There’s an election in Canada, but I don’t need to be going over to the Canadians saying, ‘Watch out who you elect,’ because the parliament of Canada is not going to have a huge effect on our world.”
One wonders, of course, whether or not those who tend to lobby such criticism against the singer are really the type to go out of their way to attend a Billy Bragg show.
“You can’t stand at the door and throw out the people who are sympathetic to your politics, because you’d end up playing to a lot of rather soppy men who just want you to play ‘Greetings to the New Brunette’ all night,” he says, laughing. “Which is quite fine, I can do that, but it wouldn’t be fair to those who want to hear a bit of politics. My experience as a fan of The Clash, back in the ’80s, when I went to “Rock Against Racism,” was being with a bunch of people who shared my beliefs. It made me realize that I wasn’t the only person in the world who was opposed to racism. Where I worked, that’s how I felt. I was working in an office with a bunch of guys older than me, who were casual racists, sexists, homophobes. I never said anything about it, because I thought I was in the minority. When I went to see The Clash, I realized that not only was I not in the minority, but this issue of discrimination was where my generation was going to make its stand in the way that the previous generation made its stand against Vietnam. What I’m hoping to do is draw in those people who do share my politics … and then send them out to carry on with the struggle, rejuvenated.”
After 30 years spent playing music, Bragg himself has surely required the same manner of rejuvenation, and fortunately he’s able to harness it from similar means. “I’ve had my moments of cynicism, I helped get Tony Blair elected, for fuck’s sake. But I’ve managed to overcome it by standing out on a dark stage, playing songs.” And of course, the occasional signs of social progress matters a touch as well.
“A black man stands a very good chance of becoming the President of the United States of America. You’ve got to be proud of that, because if you’re not proud of that, we’re proud of that for you. It’s the embodiment of the idea that your country was built on.”
That old lyric, it seems, still stands; and while he admits to having altered it slightly, it’s still undeniably Billy Bragg. “I have changed the lyrics a bit—I now say, “mixing pop and politics/ they ask me what the use is/ I offer them my acupuncturist and my masseuses.”
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