In the alleyway round back the HMV on Oxford Street I’m stood, fingers trembling and ears blazing with the cold, the glare of the fella to my right carving trenches up my jaw, the banter of the half-dozen security guards across the way bopping and jostling in the air afore me.
Gaze fixed on the doors of the Visitors & Staff Entrance, and the mind untethered for a time, free for to traipse and bound through the reams of recollection swaddling the brain, for to inspect the images and the sounds jutting up out the wrinkles in the pink like bust springs…
...16 years old and perched on the edge of the mattress, hands folded in the lap, head tilted towards the speakers, and Billy Bragg singing about sometimes it takes a grown man a long time to learn just what it would take a child a night to learn…
...Hobbling up and down the corridors of Ballymoney technical college a couple days hitherto, the gash on the shin weeping through the fabric of the jeans, and a holy and blessed man by the name of Paul McKeegan saying “The blazes happened to you?”
“Aw for fucks sakes” says I, wincing. “I was wanderin’ about Megaw Park of an afternoon in the company of a fella from the psychiatric ward across the road, blethering some about a pornographic magazine he’d picked up in Costcutters and how he felt like goin’ back and throwin’ it at them, for when he got it out the plastic hadn’t it turned out to be one of your Mature Women carry-ons and much as he respects the right of a fifty-five-year-old hoo-hah to be spread and to be photographed as much as the next man, still and for all it’d be a better one than him, he says, could work themselves into much of a fluster over the head of it. Five quid and forty-nine pence it stung him, and in the end he had to stick the forefinger up the arse anyway to get anythin’ approachin’ a rooter, so he says.”
“Wanderin’ about as I say with this class of conversation twined about us, when by Jais’ there comes careering out the speakers of a nearby portable cassette-player a song the likes of which I never heard in all my puff, hurtlin’ across the gravel right for me, and here it’s shootin’ at my leg there, near splinters the bloody bone in the ankle.”
“What song was it?” he asks.
“Damned if I know, but I’ll tell you this - I’ve thought about nothing else since. It was a fella and an electric guitar - all razor-blade chords chiming and clashing with the reverb clinging to them like randy badgers to the moss on the oak, and the voice - fuck me… This astounding punk-rock holler all terrace-chant inflection, singin’ about Our fathers were all soldiers and something to do with Fightin’ and fallin’ or….”
“That’s Billy Bragg” Paul McKeegan says with a shrug. “That’s what that is, is Like Soldiers Do by Billy Bragg.”
Billy Bragg… I’d heard the name a thousand times. I’d heard Rancid singing about him, I’d seen him pictured in this or that article in Vox or Q…
“Billy Bragg! Well by God, where can a man get hold of these records?”
“I’ve got a couple you can borrow if you want. I don’t have that particular tune, but there’s plenty more tunes of equal or maybe even greater standard to be gettin’ on with.”
Talking With The Taxman About Poetry and The Internationale handed me the following day, both on cassette, both with Pay No More Than 3.99 written on the inlay…
Things I Would Say To Billy Bragg #365 - “Talking With The Taxman About Poetry changed my life, Billy Bragg…”
Things I Would Say To Billy Bragg #387 - “…and Workers Playtime fucking well destroyed it.”
The former is probably my favourite Billy Bragg album, the one that had me leavin’ the band I was playin’ bass in at the time, the one that convinced me how it didn’t matter a fuck whether a fella could hit this note or the other or none note at all, for singin’ songs is about riddin’ oneself of those torments and those hopes and those dreams and those frustrations lie like white-hot coals on the tongue, and if not one of those coals fall anywhere near what might be considered The Tune, fuck the matter it makes.
The latter, mind you, is the one that I listen to most, probably because, when it comes down to it, and much as I might pretend otherwise, I’m the sort of cunt spends far more time fretting over the lassies than fretting over Thatcher.
Workers Playtime is one of the all-time great break-up records, up there with Blood On The Tracks, with The Libertines, with World Without Tears, with Heartbreaker… It’s a record has a fella racing out to sabotage every damn thing he can find, everything most precious and pure and special, just so as he might for ten minutes feel the kind of thing Billy Bragg felt when he wrote The Short Answer or The Price I Pay or Must I Paint You A Picture, just so as he might stand a chance of writing something might be fit to lick the sweat out the arse-crack of Life With The Lions or The Only One or She’s Got A New Spell or Little Time Bomb…
Aye, Workers Playtime. Ruined my fuckin’ life that record, swear to God.
A copy of it, ensconced in the front-pocket of a laptop-bag sans-laptop, hangs at my side here and now, and a copy of Talking With The Taxman… alongside, both of them the cardboard-sleeve special editions included in those two gorgeous box sets put out last year, owing to how - “They’re easier to write on.”
“Ah aye… aye, yeah, that’s the, mean, beautiful. So.”
Billy Bragg stood beside me with my copy of Workers Playtime in his hand, Taxman… still in the bag, me chickening out at the last minute, figuring one signature was as much as a man could ask of Billy Bragg, figuring I was pushing it as it was…
“I have a biro or… a pen or… here. In here. Somewhere.”
From his own pocket, Billy Bragg produces a black marker, gives me a wink, says “Even better.”
All the things I said to Billy Bragg in my head over the years, all the conversations about Thomas Payne and Gerrard Winstanley, about Red Wedge, about what I thought of The Progressive Patriot, all the stuff about he introduced me to Woody Guthrie and for that I am forever grateful, all the blathering about how I think I might steal his idea of pretending to be a band next time I approach the promoters and what not, for they’re very reluctant to fling a fella with a geeeetar onto the same stage as folks with drums and bass and drum n’ bass laptop accompaniment and what not and also-
But no. Stood at the back of the HMV with Billy Bragg beside me, I end up stammerin’ and stutterin’ and feelin’ that same mesh o’ terror and euphoria I felt when I walked out front Amanda Forrest in first year and asked if maybe she’d go out with me?
“I went with her for a fortnight, Billy Bragg, and I didn’t speak a fuckin’ word to her the whole time. It was a great relief when it was over and I was fit for to joke and to jest with her again without the flesh of the cheeks and philtrum scalding the very bone from out my skull with embarrassment.”
Couple hours ago K.T Tunstall, with whom Lord Bragg had been performing a half-hour set at the retail establishment in question, came wandering out those self-same doors, and the fella who’d been gawking at me racing with limbs flailing and shoulders bopping, yelping “K.T!” and realising then, that’s why he was sneering so, he thought I was intending for to cut into his K.T time.
I encroach none. K.T Tunstall is this man’s Billy Bragg. I’ll stand back here and content myself with thinking about the many marriages myself and Ms Tunstall will enjoy in my head, about how lovely she is altogether, about how the version of The Drugs Don’t Work she and Billy performed in there was truly fucking astounding, about how I very much hope they’ll record that one day.
For the next two hours I stand there, scared for to light a cigarette even for it’d mean I’d have to look away for a second and might miss him…
Sometime around 4 Billy Bragg steps out those very doors, flanked by a couple fellas carrying guitars and cases of some sort, and me near to collapsing.
“Ah… Mr… Mr Bragg!” says I. “Could I… could I maybe please, mean…”
Billy Bragg shakes my hand and says “Thanks for being patient.”
Ganshing and blootering. “Could… um… please, could you… maybe could you please sign my Workers Playtime please?”
“Sure, mate” says he. “Course.”
Thinking… I can’t do it. What I had intended to do in the foolhardy throes of the pre-dawn, no.
I do it. I say “Um, could maybe I give you a…”
“Of course you can.”
He knows. Happens all the time to Billy Bragg. Crag-tooth backroom troubadours with terrible complexions and stupid half-bleached hair and the hood of the coat shoved halfways up the side of the face owing to the weight of the bag on one shoulder, and all of them with this or that record or minidisc or cassette tape thrust towards him, all of them saying “Billy Bragg, you are the very reason these tracks on here exist and maybe you could give them a listen one day?”
A copy of Yonder! Calliope? by Aaron McMullan handed to Billy Bragg.
“I’ll give it a listen, thank you very much.”
It was a while before I realised he left, stood there as I was with the yap hung agape and the hand still outstretched and thinking “Billy Bragg has a copy of Yonder! Calliope? in his possession…” Thinking about how it didn’t matter if he binned it half-ways up the street, thinking about how what mattered was that he took it, thinking about how those folks who say “You should never meet your heroes” probably are the sorts of folks who just happen to have a shower of cunts for heroes, thinking about the times I’ll listen to those songs now, wondering all the while - “Will Billy Bragg like that bit? Will he notice what I did there? Will he skip that one - aw balls, it has the best line, that one. He’ll never know. I imagine Billy Bragg will find all that right there a bit excessive. I imagine he’ll say ‘I don’t deserve to speak her name’ is a terrible, terrible lyric and she deserved far, far better, that muse of yours.”
I know Billy Bragg, I know.
I’ll tell him I know one time. And also about how Talking With The Taxman About Poetry changed my life and Workers Playtime destroyed it and here’s what I thought after reading The Progressive Patriot and by the way, thank you for introducing me to Woody Guthrie, dunno how I’ll ever repay you for that, and also…