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More Songs About Politics and Sex

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Halfway through his show at the Riviera, Billy Bragg, as is his wont, digressed into a short monologue before his new song "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards." This song is the standout track on Bragg's new record, Workers Playtime; it's a luminous, transcontinental fantasy that begins in Cuba, rockets out to a nuclear test station in Russia, and ricochets back to Bragg himself, closing down another show and being quizzed by a fanzine writer about "mixing pop and politics." Bragg recognizes the pointedness of the question but is wearily unrepentant. "You can be active with the activists / Or sleep in with the sleepers / While you're waiting for the Great Leap Forwards."

Bragg attracts a sophisticated crowd, but not that sophisticated, so he gave a short history lesson before the song. With his broad cockney accent and self-deprecating humor, he was the world's most incongruous teacher.

"I know that today it's not very cool talk about Maoism," he began. "Everybody says, 'Maoism! Oh, no! How gauche!' But this next song is called 'Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards.' Now, the Great Leap Forwards was a plan by Mao to modernize China. There was going to be a huge burst of activity and development for 18 months, and then China was going to be fully developed to compete in the modern world.

"Well, it didn't work, and then things deteriorated into the Cultural Revolution, which was a very bad thing indeed. But Mao once said a very interesting thing. Someone said to him, 'What do you think the effects were of the French Revolution in the late 18th century?'

"And Mao said, 'It's too early to tell.'"

"Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards" is a landmark for Bragg; it's the first time he comes face to face with his persona. It has a lovely, insistent melody, and a jaunty beat that builds. In it Bragg puts a wiseass face on his socialist recidivism, even as he knows it's the kiss of death as far as pop stardom goes. "If you've got a blacklist I want to be on it," he hollers. But there's a poignance underneath--people who really don't care about stardom don't bother to sing about it. (Plus, they're boring.)

When I first heard it the song reminded me right off of Elvis Costello's "Suit of Lights" (from the King of America LP). "I went to work last night and wasted my breath," sang Costello--a daring statement. It reminded me of something else too, although I couldn't figure out exactly what for a while--Creedence Clearwater's "Wrote a Song for Everyone," in which John Fogerty essays a dense, insular statement of intent, all couched in the form of an extended excuse to a woman of why he is interested only in political issues. "Wrote a Song" is rendered in a brilliant, reflexive style ("Got myself arrested / Wound me up in jail"), and at the end, as if overcome by just discussing the subject, Fogerty leaves the main body of the song behind and goes off into yet another political statement: "Saw the people standing / Thousand years in chains / Someone says it's different now / But look, it's just the same." Fogerty in his time was off in uncharted territory; insecurity and doubt produce songs like "Wrote a Song for Everyone." For Bragg, similar things--plus the giddy presumption it takes to equate his popular success with a Western political awakening--have produced "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards."

Along with artists like the Smiths, Lloyd Cole, Paul Weller, the Communards, and Madness, Bragg has been active in England's Red Wedge, "for but not of" the Labour party, registering voters and hoping to blunt the tide of Thatcherism. So, he explained, wrapping up his historical monologue, "People come up to me and ask, 'Billy, you were active with the Red Wedge and doing all this activity during the last campaign, but Margaret Thatcher just won a resounding victory. Did the Red Wedge have any effect at all?' And I say to them," said Billy Bragg, "'It's too early to tell.'"

Bragg is a slight Londoner, 30 years old, who in his four U.S. studio albums has established himself as the best songwriter England has produced since Costello. Unlike Fogerty--unlike, for that matter, Costello--Bragg's relationships with the opposite sex have a healthy normality to them. Combined with his political interests, his preoccupation with sex, romance, and marriage (in that order) gives his songs a full-bodied texture; though he sometimes writes songs with a strictly political content, these are rare. Most often his political songs and his love songs are shot through with concern, each for the other.

Bragg's career began early, in 1977, when he made a record with a group called Riff Raff; I've never heard it. It was released on the Chiswick label in England, which has some claim to being the first of the punk independents. (The more famous Stiff label, home of Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, and so forth, started months later.) Bragg left the group a few years later and incongruously joined the army, lasting only 90 days. A few years after that he reappeared with some new songs, and in 1983 he recorded--live, direct to two-track--most of what eventually became his first U.S. LP, Life's a Riot Etc. With the Between the Wars EP. (Bragg has tended to record in the EP format in England; there the Life's a Riot LP was called Life's a Riot With Spy vs. Spy.)

This first U.S. release introduced a persona that persists to this day: an electric folkie--Bragg plays most of his songs with a solo electric guitar--who's all mixed up about politics, sex, and love. The ambivalence is expressed most directly in "A New England," whose chorus goes, "I don't want to change the world / I'm not looking for a new England / I'm just looking for another girl"--the point being, of course, the impenetrability of love. Side one of the U.S. record was directed at what Bragg calls his "softy" fans--the ones who like his love songs. Side two (the Between the Wars EP) demonstrated a phenomenal political conscience. The title song articulates the feelings of a British working person pining for the peace and prosperity that existed between the wars. Another song, "World Turned Upside Down," is a narrative about the Diggers, who established a small-c communist colony in 17th-century England. These two songs and some others suffer from a certain naivete of language and politics, but Bragg's ringing voice and clever melodies carry them.

Brewing Up With Billy Bragg, whimsically subtitled "a puckish satire on contemporary mores," was released in America in 1985. It's a consolidation record, in which the artist tightens his themes and subjects with stronger lyrics and less frenzied guitar playing. A pacifism song, "Like Soldiers Do," burns; two ballads, "The Saturday Boy" and "St. Swithin's Day," are unadorned glimpses of unreciprocated love. (On the former, Bragg sings, "In the end it took me a dictionary / To find out the meaning of unrequited.") It's an OK record, but it lacks the breakout exhilaration of Life's a Riot and the supreme maturity of Bragg's later work.

That later work came in 1986, with Talking to the Taxman About Poetry, which turned out to be everything we could have hoped for from Billy Bragg. The opening cut, "Greetings to the New Brunette," is a hysterical tableau of a couple on the cusp of love, alcoholism, unemployment, and marriage. Shirley, the singer's girlfriend, is a splendid conception, a cagey figure who's more than a match for the singer's imprecations. ("It's not much of a career," he finally confesses, "trying the handles of parked cars.") But this is not a man-versus-woman song: in the end, the man speaks for both of them: "Here we are in our summer years / Living on ice cream and chocolate kisses / Would the leaves fall from the trees / If I was your old man and you was my missus?"

Talking to the Taxman just gets better from there. "Ideology" is a scathing rewrite of Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom"--Bragg's line is "the sound of ideologies clashing." "Levi Stubbs' Tears" seems outlandish at first hearing; it's an abject story of a lonely woman who takes what solace she can from Four Tops records, and on the surface it appears to be an assertion of Motown music's healing properties. But Bragg builds up a remarkable tension in the song, and in the end I'm not sure that his point isn't that there are certain limits to what rock 'n' roll can do--a scary observation for both him and us.

A weak link in Talking to the Taxman is "Train Train," which is noisy and out of place. The song is a cover, of a Count Bishops tune from the late 70s, and it has some obvious evocations of Elvis Presley and "Mystery Train." The Count Bishops were the first release on Chiswick, Bragg's first label. In recording the song, he manages to salute some old compatriots and make a crucial equation between the beginnings of American rock 'n' roll and the British new wave in the late 70s. Again, I don't think the song fits in, but you've got to admire the thinking that went into it.

Elsewhere on Taxman you get lyric after lyric demonstrating that Bragg has passed a certain plateau: "As Brother Barry said / When he married Marion / My wife has three great attributes / Intelligence, a Swiss army knife, and charm." The album ends with a devastating blow at England, sung with the hate that only a son could muster: "In the Land of a Thousand Doses / Where nostalgia is the opium of the age / Our place in history is as / Clock watchers, old timers, window shoppers."

Bragg took a year off in 1987, reemerging early this year with a live EP, Help Save the Youth of America, which includes the title song (from Taxman) and bits of another English EP, Days Like These. "Help Save the Youth of America" is a funny, mocking plea for young Americans to appreciate the rumbling effects the U.S. has on the rest of the world. It ends with a sobering warning: "The cities of Europe have burned before / And they may yet burn again / And if they do I hope you understand / That Washington will burn with them."

Bragg's new LP, Workers Playtime, is his first with full rock accompaniment. Taxman, despite the presence of several backup musicians (like the Smiths' brilliant guitarist, Johnny Marr, on "Greetings to the New Brunette" and elsewhere), was essentially a solo album. On Playtime, there's a full band on most of the cuts, including, on several songs each, Bruce Thomas (Elvis Costello's bassist), Mickey Waller (the splendid drummer from Rod Stewart's first half dozen solo records), and Martin Belmont (from Graham Parker's Rumour). If Taxman, with its bright, searching melodies and overall sheen, was Bragg's first pop album, Playtime, with his first use of drums, must be considered his first rock record. With the exception of "Great Leap Forwards," and a couple of other politically oriented songs, however, it's also the album in which the softies take over. Why this is so we found out at the concert; for now, suffice it to say that Bragg no longer has to look up the word unrequited. The record's most sensitive, penetrating songs are all about lost love, and all written in an oblique, dissociative style that Bragg has perfected and made his own. One song, called "The Short Answer," begins, "Between Marx and marzipan in the dictionary / There was Mary"; from there its conclusion--"You bruise too easily / So said Mary"--is inevitable. "Must I Paint You a Picture," another lovely melody, tips its hat to Dylan and uncharacteristically (perhaps because of the Dylan influence) nails its subject: "And there's you / A little black cloud in a dress."

There are a couple of misfit songs on Playtime, and I miss in it the utterly confident loquacity and effortless charm of Taxman. But Playtime is a mature, full-bodied work, bursting with melody and invention, by our leading realist. And who else would dare to subtitle his record "Capitalism Is Killing Music"?

The show at the Riviera was an extravagant success, even by Billy Bragg standards. His first few trips to America were solo outings in every sense of the word: when he finished he picked up his guitar and tiny amp and walked offstage. Over the course of his last few tours, however, he has been honing his style and his shows. As often as not they take on the flavor of a political rally or a Lenny Bruce concert--Bragg is both a talented orator and a marvelous stand-up comic. On his last tour, in the middle of Deadhead country in San Francisco, he did a long routine as Jerry Garcia sitting on the pot meditating--with a circle of bootleggers sitting around him, microphones outstretched. (I've also heard that at his New York show a week or two ago, a heavily promoted press showcase, he went out of his way to trash Rolling Stone, with half a dozen reps from the magazine in the audience.)

Opening at the Riviera was Weddings, Parties, Anything, a very loud, explosive quintet from Australia; about them I've heard only that there's a debut record coming. Watch for it. The second opening act was Grupo Mancotal, billed as the most popular group in Nicaragua. Unlike some, I'm not turned off by the mere inclusion of an "ethnic" band at a "political" rock show; I think the exposure is valuable for both audience and musicians, and I don't buy the charge that it's condescending or degrading for the latter. That said, however, we in the audience don't have to like the music; I thought Grupo Mancotal was pretty colorless, despite getting into a good salsa-ish groove toward the end of its set.

The third (!) opening act was Michelle Shocked, a striking young folk artist from Texas who now, as I understand it, is an expatriate in England, where, one supposes, she met Bragg. She was great, and the crowd quickly fell in love with her. She was a young female version of Pete Seeger, and her rambling, humorous stories reminded me of early tapes of Bob Dylan, cracking jokes and telling road stories.

Bragg joined Shocked for her last song, a Bragg-Shocked composition called "Waiting for a New Deal Now," done country style, with Bragg, dressed in a suit coat for once, hunkered over an acoustic guitar and singing harmony. It was a nice moment. Bragg returned ten minutes later to start his own show and played for more than 90 minutes, performing more than 20 songs, a lot for him because he tends to devote much of his show to political lectures and comedy routines. On this night, he gave the Chinese history lesson described above; some extended comment on the presidential debates ("Quayle will be a bladder away from the presidency"); a serious offer to nonvoting radical types ("You go to the ballot box with me this year and I'll come out in the streets with you when the time comes"); and a plea, before "Help Save the Youth of America," for Americans to remember the rest of the world: "You may wonder what someone from a small constitutional monarchy off the coast of Europe cares about what you do. Well, you're electing a president for us, too." Bragg also displayed a "Lick Bush" sticker on the back of his guitar, and admitted that only recently someone explained to him the message's double entendre. This launched him into a long discussion of cunnilingus and a joke about running for office on a platform of "incredibly good head."

At times his old pal Wiggy (a combination bassist and roadie) and a pianist named Cara Tivey joined Bragg onstage. More than that, however, contributed to the new sheen on the proceedings. The frenzy that once made Bragg seem a candidate for lead singer of the Clash is largely gone. In the past, he's done some of my favorite Bragg songs at a furious pace, as if to keep asserting his punk or new wave credentials. This time, on "Greetings to the New Brunette," for example ("Here's a song about safe sex, socialism, soccer . . . and Shirley!"), he slowed things down and sang the hell out of it. It was beautiful. A lot of Bragg's ever-increasing popular appeal and even charisma springs from a new confidence in his singing: on the new record, for example, the final choruses of "Great Leap Forwards" have a previously unheard abandon. In concert, "The Saturday Boy" (in which Bragg interpolated "It took me a dictionary / To find out the meaning of cunnilingus") and "Levi Stubbs' Tears" both gained enormous authority from what seems to be a new commitment to slowing the songs down and wringing meaning out of them live.

Bragg left the stage after "Help Save the Youth," and returned to sing three of the new record's most painful love songs. "Must I Paint You a Picture," with Cara Tivey sharing the lead vocal, was particularly pretty, but all three were sung with enormous feeling by Bragg. He told us why. "Part of performing," he began, "is not just coming out onstage and talking. A lot of these 'confessional' songs are important, because the feelings, after I sing the songs, come back to me as well."

It wasn't precisely clear what he was saying, but he pressed on. "When I sing them, I feel a lot less of an asshole. I want to thank you for letting me feel this way.

"The woman I wrote the last three songs about got married today," Bragg said, and suddenly the room was respectful and quiet. He continued, with an absurd exactness, "She got married at 3 PM England time, 9 AM your time. Generally when we come out for encores we're supposed to leave everyone cheering for more, but I'd like to sing an Irish folk song by Patrick Cavanaugh. Thank you," he said again, "for letting me feel a little closer to you tonight."

The song he sang I don't know the name of; it had a line about "Loving too much, and such, and such," and a recurring chorus of "At the dawn of the day," which could be the title, but I was too moved, and too interested in watching Bragg's face as he sang, to take competent notes. With that song, whatever it was, Bragg concluded one of the rock 'n' roll events of the year.

Where Billy Bragg will go now I haven't the faintest. Elvis Costello has persevered for more than a decade on critical acclaim and no sales, but Bragg insults powerful magazine editors and sells a ridiculously low number of records. I don't know much about the music business--it's a vast mystery to me who sells what and why--but I bet that people who plaster the words "Capitalism Is Killing Music" on their records have an uphill battle. Bragg knows it too, which is possibly why he paid homage to Costello by rewriting his famous "Oliver's Army," from the 1979 Armed Forces LP. Bragg rewrote the song to relate the adventures of a newly famous Oliver, this one North of Contragate. His song had great lines like, "Do yourself a great big favor / Ask George Bush about Noriega" and "Anywhere trouble's going on / You'll find the guys from the Pentagon." Hooray for Billy Bragg, I thought. May he find fame and change the world. It's a small ambition; Bragg himself, on "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards," puts it best: "The revolution is just a T-shirt away!" Or a gold record. It's too early to tell.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin--Photo Reserve.

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