ARCHIVE: The Milkman of…Accountability?

Billy Bragg

By JOHN WARD (First published on Red Bank oRBit October 16, 2008)

“I am he,” the voice on the British end of the transAtlantic phone connection intones — a bit theatrically — in response to the question, “Is this Billy Bragg?” But even without the fauxBBC announcer touch, the thickly accented tenor pretty much gives him away.

Bragg, who’s 50 years old, grew up in Barking, England, just east of London, and no doubt someone, somewhere along the way has noted how fitting that place name is, given Bragg’s vocal style, particularly on his early records. Back then, half a lifetime ago, were he to try singing near the seals at a zoo, Bragg might have earned himself a cod. Still could, in fact. The graphics department at oRBit/redbankgreen can’t help but bellow “doy diddly doyDOYYYY!” at the mention of his name, in cruel, cruel mimicry.

But oh, what a sound he made. In those days, it was just the man, his electric guitar, and a portfolio of songs that somehow wove together the kinetic energy of punk, trenchant anti-Thatcherite “democratic socialism” and excruciatingly intimate vignettes of boy-girl love, as in “The Myth of Trust,” The Man in the Iron Mask,” “The Milkman of Human Kindness,” “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” and his early hit, “A New England.”

He still swings a broad political axe, but with later, poppy hits like “Sexuality” and his work with Wilco in bringing to life old Woody Guthrie lyrics on Mermaid Avenue, Bragg has softened the attack — both lyrical and vocal — and is wont to enlist a band when he makes his infrequent trips to the studio. His latest record, “Mr. Love & Justice,” his first LP in six years, was recorded with his occasional backing band, The Blokes, but also offers solo versions of all 12 songs.

This Sunday, Bragg makes West Long Branch the third stop in a stateside tour when he takes the Pollak Theater stage at Monmouth University.

We’ve got an interview, mates.

So, where are you now and what are you doing?

I’m at home, in Dorset, in the south coast of England, just packing my bags, and I’ll be setting out tomorrow [yesterday] for New York. I’m making sure I’ve got all the stuff I need. I’ve got a laptop computer I carry with me; I’m writing a couple of pieces and I need to carry on with those. Making sure that all my guitars have strings on them — just a little check the oil, wipe the window, you know? ‘Cause the worst thing is to show up at a gig… my first show is in a town called State College, Pennsylvania, and I’m not sure they’ll have a guitar shop there, so I’d better have all my bits with me.

I’m sure you’ll be safe. So this is a solo tour?

It is, yes. Which is what allows me to come down to places like West Long Branch, because with a band, you have to hit those places where you can be sure of selling out. But playing solo gives me a bit more scope.

There’s quite a lot of places on this tour I’ve never been to before: Norfolk, Virginia; the aforementioned State College, Pennsylvania; Ithaca; Lebanon, New Hampshire. You know, it’s kind of like a grass-roots tour, and I’m very much looking forward to it. I’m going to drive the whole thing. I don’t want to sound like I’m whinging, because it’s the best job I’ve ever had, but airports every day — after a while, it really starts to grind you down. Whereas if you’re driving to a place like West Long Branch… I don’t think I’ve ever been much off the Turnpike in that part of Jersey, so this’ll all be new. It’ll be eyes-open, sniffing the wind and seeing if we can get a bit of a vibe about the incredible changes we’re all facing, and I don’t just mean the election.

With all the great global issues in the news these days, I wonder how you absorb them as an artist.

Well, the issues I’ve been writing about in the last few years – I have a song called “No Power Without Accountability” — and in this sort of post-ideological world we live in, accountability is a very important issue, an I don’t just mean for politicians, but those who have economic power over us. I haven’t seen the details of the [credit market bailout] plan the president’s announced today, but it seems to be similar to the plan that Gordon Brown’s come up with. He’s taking shares in banks. You know, there has to be accountability with that. The executives at those companies now have to be accountable not just to shareholders but to the community at large. And I think this is a good development, because shareholders, obviously, are going to want to see profits, they’re not going to think about responsibility and about what might be happening to communities where jobs are being cut and factories are being moved abroad.

It seems there’s a large dose of comeuppance these days in both the credit crisis and the American election, though it’s awfully hard to enjoy. Do you see it that way?

I find it very hard to feel any kind of glee about what is happening, because the people who are really going to be punished are not the people who are going to be dragged before the Congress — they’re going to be the people losing their jobs, their houses, their businesses. They’re the people who are going to be punished for the unbelievable hubris of Wall Street — and London as well. You know, in some ways, we have to take some blame for this. Because the bill that Bill Clinton rescinded, the one that was put on by Franklin Roosevelt to regulate banks [the Glass-Steagall Act], that was done because Margaret Thatcher had taken all the restraints off in London, and London was making huge amounts of money. Wall Street was saying “What about us?” So we have to take some complicity in this. The unfortunate reality of believing that house prices would only go up is not only ahistorical, it’s also voodoo. They go up, they come down — that’s the reality of the market. And now we’re all living with that.

So how soon might grand events like this make their way into your work? Is it a long process?

The night that Congress refused to vote for the bailout a couple of weeks ago, I was doing a show in Cologne, in Germany. By the time the news came through, the audience was already at the show, so I kind of broke the news to them. And there was an audible gasp — My god what’s going to happen?

So these events daily were impinging on that tour. Every day, I had a new script, a new angle. And I don’t see this changing in the few days before I see you. The implications of what’s happening are moving so fast that those of us who wish to have something to say about it —  it’s sometimes tough. But you try to get some long perspective and pick up as much as you can. And once I get to America, I’ll be picking up newspapers wherever I can, trying to get some grasp. Hopefully, by the time I get to Jersey, I’ll have a few insights worth hearing.

Interspersed between songs?

Well, they are anyway. Often, something that’s a good idea to say about a song on one tour is probably good on another tour. But when things are changing so quickly, and so hugely, then the opportunity is there for messing around with the lyrics of a song like “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward.” So I’ll work some of that in when I come to see you.

Finally, a silly question, perhaps, but one we like to ask: which is more important, good food or good shoes?

Well, that’s a very good question, isn’t it? Good food or good shoes…. As someone who doesn’t own many shoes, I would probably go for good food. But I would hate to be walking  out there on a rainy day like today with a hole in my boots. On those days, a cup of tea and a cheese sandwich will do, but good shoes on a rainy day —I’d probably have to go for that.