After the Iron Maiden fiasco of last Tuesday (okay, not really a fiasco, but I got really skeeved out by the crushing number of men at the stadium – I get nervous around large crowds of either gender in absence of counterbalance) Brian and I switched musical tacks on Thursday and went to check out Billy Bragg at St. Andrews-Wesley downtown. I’m not sure why that venue since he normally plays at the Commodore when he’s in town, but I’m guessing it had something to do with his tour schedule and availability of a music hall to play in.
I’ve seen Billy Bragg four times over the years (the first time more than a decade ago at the UVIC SUB), always in a slightly different formation – with his own band, fronting Wilco during the Mermaid Avenue tour, and solo. Thursday’s show was a solo affair, and because seating at the cathedral was general we lined up early to get seats close to the front – which I was so happy about. We had close to the best seats in the place, six pews back from the stage and right on the aisle. And our location coupled with Bragg’s banter definitely made it feel like a very intimate show to me (despite the fact well over 1000 people were crammed in to the church). It really was the best, and most political show I’ve seen him do – and while I felt that he went on a little too much about the inspiration of Obama, I was equally heartened to hear him fess up to his mistake in supporting Tony Blair. God knows why after the Labour Party experience in England Bragg is still a social democrat, but there it is. Hope springs eternal and all that.
At one point during the show he talked about going to his first political demonstration in 1978 which was a Rock Against Racism concert where The Clash was featured and how the band was the motivating factor behind his decision to attend. Which in fact made The Clash responsible for a great deal of his life trajectory, because of this one concert and how being a part of that crowd bouyed the nascent political consciousness of Bragg at the age of 19. He felt for the first time that he was not alone in wanting to see the world change in dramatic ways and believed his would be the generation to do it.
What touches me about this story is my own similar experience at the age of fourteen. Except in my case it was the music of Billy Bragg handed off to me by a friend on a copied cassette. Talking to the Taxman About Poetry was the album, and I received it coincident with the first demonstration I attended which was one of the annual Peace Marches (which in the 80s were really anti-nuke rallying points). And like he said on Thursday night, it’s not that the band itself is what makes you an activist. It’s not that you hear a piece of music and change your mind about things. But to hear your own thoughts and desires coming at you off the bootlegged tape, or on the local university station late at night – you recognize you aren’t alone no matter how alienating your existence might seem. And that might help you hold on to your ideas just a little bit harder than you would otherwise.
I suppose now it must be different for burgeoning activist kids with the Internet and all. You can find other people like you from all over and connect with them in a way that was impossible when I was a youth. It really was things like the campus radio stations, the traded import albums, and the occasional demonstration that gave you a small glimmer of the world outside the one you lived in. And while I won’t pin my life trajectory on any particular individual or band, the fact that people were making alternative culture around me was certainly a factor in my believing you could change the world and then acting on that belief.
It was hard not to think about this stuff at last week’s show between Bragg talking about his experience with The Clash and playing a number of his classics. New England, Power in a Union, Great Leap Forward, were mixed in with stuff from his new album, some Guthrie numbers and a song which was his own version of a Clash number (and yes, he channeled Joe Strummer right there, I’m sure of it). Almost two hours of banter, music and tea-drinking.
Near the end of the night I saw the activist kids that I used to be. At the encore they came up, the middle teens so excited to see Bragg for the first time and dancing right in front for the final few numbers. Dyed hair and hip clothes, this music still reaching out to the alienated ones who want to change the world. It continues, thankfully, cause I can’t imagine where we would be if it didn’t.
And while I am cynical about the hope that springs eternal in the social democrats, I will confess my own social change version of the same. Even after 21 years of activism I am still convinced that positive social change will come, somehow, in the future. (Though I also believe we may go through a lot of social/ecological hell to get there). It seems as naive to me as Bragg’s faith in Obama, and yet there it is. At the very least having some great music to listen to along the way is essential.
(above photo stolen from Lindsay who was at the show and took pictures and youtube video even.)