“Then one day it happened. She cut her hair, and I stopped lovin` her.”
We`re walking through Hyde Park. Coming back from the Royal Oak. A horrible, cavernous, brightly lit, student bustle that I only seemed to end up in when I was already pissed. The lights were always too much. I needed the dark when I was drinking. Its patrons were a collection of stereotypes – Mohawks and motorcycle jackets, Tie-dye skirts and patchouli oil, stone-washed denim and rugby shirts – on boys and girls – occupying a corner of each room. The jukebox thankfully inaudible over the human roar. I hated the place. Maybe somebody had suggested picking up take-outs for the way home? H?
Street lit blocks of Victorian three-stories compete in states of disrepair. None of them abandoned. All of them occupied by poor of one kind or another. Crumbling garden walls, and absent gates. There are seven of us, Al and Carrie, Simmo, Tommo and H, and you and I, engaged in what passed for conversation. Typically trying to out do one another with insults. H, the sharpest of wits, but Tommo ever ready and willing for battle. Generally laughing. My arm`s linked in yours, and you`re wearing something of mine. An Aran fisherman`s cardigan that covers you like a blanket. You were showing off. Wearing it like a badge, because it was clearly not yours, and borrowed from a boy.
On a similar night we`d cut across the campus. On the steps of the Union building there`d been a tramp stopping students as they spilled out of the Bar. Looking for a cigarette. We`d seen this from a distance and as we`d approached, one guy from a mixed group of men and women was toying with him.
“What will you do if I give you a cigarette? Will you sing me song?”
The tramp had begun some toothless tune, and the guy with the cigarettes and his friends had laughed.
“Will you get down on your knees and beg?”
We`d watched the tramp get down on his knees.
“Give him a fucking cigarette.”
“Who do you think you are?”
“I said give him a fucking cigarette.”
Tommo had punched the guy with the cigarettes in the wind pipe, and he`d fallen to his own knees. Unable to breathe. Most likely thinking that he was going to die. Tommo had then taken the pack of cigarettes, handed them to the tramp, and we`d just continued walking.
You are looking up at me. The moon in your face. The sharp cut brunette fringe of your bob, and smiling a big gum-revealing grin. I keep trying to kiss you, but you keep stopping me. I think that you don`t want the others to see. I`m too drunk to notice the large cold sore on your lip, and that we`re on the street where Jo lives.
– – – – – – –
Billy Bragg used to be a one-man-band. Armed with an update of Woody Guthrie`s machine that kills fascists. He`d take his custom-made “Portastack” – a rucksack rigged up with power supply, amplifier and speakers – plug in and busk. Anywhere. Loudly. Like Johnny Marr he was aiming to sound like a whole band. With Marr the open strings he played gave the impression that there were at least two people carrying the tune. Billy let feedback and distortion, and anger and frustration fill in the gaps.
Billy started out singing an adolescent loser`s Blues. Mixing youth`s confusion of head, heart and hormones with politics. Smarting from failing his 11+. Commentating on the few opportunities open to him, and us alike, in last year`s trousers and his old school shoes. His poetry was similar to Paul Weller`s. But both more comic in its self-depreciation, and sharper in its vitriol. Poetry he`d started to write aged twelve. Poetry an encouraging teacher had arranged for him to read on local radio. Hence his nickname, “The Bard of” his hometown, “Barking”. His unrequited love songs were notes made in the margins of Physics O`Level textbooks, by a Saturday Boy who
“Never made the first team”, “Just made the first team laugh.”
in a polyester blazer and a Windsor-knotted tie. When he sang
“Do you think I only love you because you sleep with other boys?”
both his heart and his voice were breaking.
Songs that put Phil Ochs with The Four Tops, William Blake with Otis Redding. Open letters to real girls, that we all knew, who
“Never came to the phone”, were “Always in the bath.”
No one writes couplets like
“I saw two shooting stars last night, I wished on them but they were only satellites. It`s wrong to wish on space hardware, but I wish, I wish, you`d care”
“Could it be an infringement of the freedom of the press to print pictures of women in states of undress”,
Billy would shout from Dave`s car stereo, and me and Dave would nod in a Rik Mayall “Right on Comrade” manner. While Anna and Lousie would point out that it was up to the woman if she wanted to get her boobs out. That some women have great boobs and like guys looking at them. And that it was none of Billy`s business.
The Busy Girl Buys Beauty catalogued the mundane we were supposed to settle for. When he sang of casual racism, fighting in the dancehalls and A New England, this is where we were living. In and around Lou, Dave had dated a lovely but crazy called Nina. Nina lived on The Roundshaw Estate. A place where the council put the borough`s “problem” families. All of them. A “Sink Estate” they called it. A place where we risked a hiding and Dave`s car by just parking and waiting. A place where the state put girls on the pill at thirteen.
Billy`s muses were Dylan and The Clash, and so he attacked his Folk like Rock & Roll. Driven by the Small Faces riffs he`d copied as a kid. Punk in his stage delivery. According to his manager he became an “avenging angel” following the Conservative landslide in the 1983 general election. To bemoan “Thatcher`s Britain” might seem like a tired / empty cliche these days. But unless you were there to witness a “before & after” then you`ll never understand the irreversible damage that the Iron Lady and her government brought to the idea of community.
Billy got signed by bluffing his way into Charisma Records` offices. Pretending to be a repairman. He got played on the radio by taking a mushroom biryani to a hungry John Peel while the DJ was on air. He brought this determination to the cause of a defeated Left. He recorded Leon Rosselson`s tribute to the “Diggers” and “True Levellers”. Cut down in 1649 for attempting to reclaim the common man`s right to grow the food to eat. He sang It Says Here live on BBC`s Breakfast TV. Spitting out its “Bingo & tits” and “Those that own the papers also own this land” to a nation of apathy – mouths agog at toast and cereal – as if looking for a fight. A former recruit of the Queen`s Royal Irish Hussars (he bought himself out), he sang of the Falkland`s Island Of No Return. He performed at more miners benefits than anyone could count.
Bragg became the kind of figure that the tabloid press love to lampoon. The Maoist, Trotskyite, singer. Donkey-jacketed. Selling the Socialist Worker on picket-lines. But if you can`t see the truth behind that then they have won. He later put the foul shit uncovered by Operation Weeting to music. He took no notice at their attempts to undermine a public figure who was asking people to think. He supported causes from the Tolpuddle Martyrs to the Occupy Movement. Squared up to BNP representatives on Dagenham`s streets.
He sang “I don`t want to change the world…” but he did. And so did I. Though, even then, I knew that you can only do so starting small. With your neighbour. Working outwards. Like ripples on a pond. Passing on an idea like a baton.