"Thatcher's gone," notes singer-songwriter Billy Bragg. "Reagan's gone. Some people have wondered if that's why I disappeared off as well."
Indeed, Bragg, an England-based performer as well-known for his left-wing views as for his tunes, has maintained a low profile throughout most of the Nineties. Although he's written articles for various magazines, produced radio programs for the British Broadcasting Corporation, worked on a short film about Nicaragua for the Arts & Entertainment Network and maintained his involvement in Fort Apache, a Boston studio in which he has part ownership, he allowed five years to pass between his previous album, 1991's Don't Try This at Home, and this year's Elektra release, William Bloke. But as Bragg notes, he had a good reason for this relative lack of productivity: "I'm the parent of a two-and-three-quarter-years-old boy, Jack. You can tell by the shape of my figure. I've lost my figure, and I'll never get it back."
Just because Bragg has reproduced doesn't mean he's left his activism behind him, however. On William Bloke, several of the tracks, including "From Red to Blue" and "Upfield" (the disc's lead single), echo with his trademark beliefs; during the latter, he sings about "socialism of the heart." According to him, he's passed on this condition to his son. "Jack's first three words were 'mom,' 'dad' and 'international socialism,'" he jokingly insists. An instant later he corrects himself. "No, that's four words."
The 38-year-old songwriter, born Stephen William Bragg in Barking, Essex, has been making similar proclamations since almost as young an age. He quit school at sixteen in order to play guitar and sing with a punk group called, appropriately, Riff Raff. After the combo broke up in 1981, Bragg inexplicably chose to join the British army. He managed to last only ninety days in the service; shortly thereafter, he reinvented himself as a troubador. He's been performing steadily ever since, but he's avoided becoming a slick professional. When writing songs, he tends to dole out one note per syllable because, he says, "I can't sing and play at the same time. I'm not really a very technical musician at all. I don't read music. When I play solo, I do the rhythm with the guitar and the melody with my voice. I never really grew out of that habit. I still play quite a percussive little guitar."
This style, while limited, has served Bragg well. Between 1983 and 1986 he put out three albums on Go! Discs--Life's a Riot With Spy Vs. Spy, Brewing Up With Billy Bragg and Talking With the Taxman About Poetry. But it wasn't until the 1988 release of Workers Playtime, a platter distinguished by the single "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards," that Bragg began to earn recognition in the States. He was invited to perform "Great Leap" on Late Night With David Letterman the following year--but only if he would delete the song's first verse, which mentions Fidel Castro and implies that the idealism of upper-class Americans is ill-informed ("It may have been Camelot for Jack and Jacqueline, but...the Third World is just around the corner").
Rather than taking this request as an indication that he should mute his politics in the future, Bragg followed up Playtime with his most didactic work yet: 1990's The Internationale, issued by Utility Records. The title track, a Bragg translation of a composition that served as the Soviet Union's national anthem until 1943, was only one of the disc's highlights: Also noteworthy are a cover version of "Nicaragua Nicaraguita," a Bragg original called "I Dreamt I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night" and a rendition of "Jerusalem," a William Blake poem that the singer sees as revolutionary despite its being equated with "Land of Hope and Glory" and "Rule Britannia" by many of his fellow countrymen.
By comparison, Don't Try This at Home, the first Bragg long-player to feature a full band (dubbed the Red Stars), is less pedagogical. He mentions fascism, patriotism, religion, perestroika and the evils of war at various points on the album, but he also works in "Tank Park Salute," a quiet tribute to his father, who passed away when Billy was a teenager. And he ventures into more personal waters with "Trust" and "Mother of the Bride."
This blend of character sketches and dogma continues on William Bloke, which features longtime Bragg cohorts (namely, keyboardist Cara Tivey, drummer J.F.T. Hood and horn players Dave Woodhead and Caroline Hall) as well as a handful of new collaborators. "The Space Race Is Over," inspired by Jack Bragg's fondness for the word "moon" (which, his father confesses, was actually the third the lad learned), delivers a nostalgic look at the first moon landing; "Goalhanger" (a derogatory term used by soccer fans) portrays a dreadful player in "the game of life"; "Everybody Loves You Babe" allows Bragg to exhibit his sense of humor ("I'm begging you to stay," he croons, before adding, "out of my way"); and "A Pict Song" unearths a Rudyard Kipling poem that sounds as if Bragg wrote it himself. As for "King James Version," the song finds Bragg offering his perception of family values.
"If you want to talk about family values, all right," he elaborates. "Say someone in your family becomes pregnant and they don't have any means of support--emotional or physical or financial. You don't cast them out. In a family that's functional, you draw them in. If someone in your family gets ill, you don't make life harder for them. If someone in your family is unemployed, you keep your ear to the ground and see if you can do anything to help. It seems to me that the basic, fundamental family value is compassion. Understanding. Forgiveness. I'm not trying to dismiss family values. I'm trying to underscore them. I'm in favor of the family that is based on love and understanding and acceptance of people's difficulties, because I think the family is a microcosm of the community. And a community that doesn't have understanding and doesn't have forgiveness is dysfunctional. The family values that the right talk about--Clinton as well, any politician--I would argue they mean social authoritarianism."
At the mention of Colorado's Amendment 2, a measure attempting to limit homosexual rights that was recently declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, Bragg expands on the points that make "King James Version" so affecting. "I think that these are the kind of laws that are put together by people who can find more in the Bible about homosexuality than they do about loving and forgiving. That's not the Bible I've seen. It must be a different Bible. People pick and choose what they want with it. Also in the Bible it forbids the eating of shellfish, but you never see 'Right to Clam Life' people outside of seafood restaurants, do you?
"It seems to me the people who are against homosexuality are those people who are desperate to define themselves as normal, so what's wrong with their lives? Why can't they be relaxed about who they are?" he continues. "I don't mind people reading the Bible, and I know a lot of people who got great strength from their faith in difficult times from reading the Bible. It's when they use it as a stick to beat other people, or use any sacred text, whether it's the Bible or the Koran or Das Kapital, by Karl Marx. That kind of fundamentalism really gets me going. It's weird to think of people using my lyrics that way, too, you know, to prove a point."
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No doubt many have. In fact, Bragg's musical and political career is the subject of a popular Internet Web site. According to Bragg, his favorite page on the site deals with misquoted lyrics. He tells the story of a woman who wrote down what she thought were the words from his first album--and although her guesses were wrong, he says, "they were better!"
If fatherhood has altered his rhymes, Bragg feels, it's made them less theoretical and more rooted in actual experience. "For instance," he points out, "you know you feel strongly about the environment, but instead of it being an abstract thing about what's happening in the trees, you can actually see it in front of you. You walk up the street, and the baby's face in the baby cart is the same height as the car exhaust. When cars pull away, they're blowing exhaust straight in the baby's face. You find out that more and more babies are getting asthma earlier because the air is so bad, in London and everywhere."
Despite his newfound understanding for the under-three set, Bragg rejects the insinuation that Jack's arrival has unearthed in him an empathy that wasn't there in the first place. "I think that when men talk about getting in touch with our feminine side, that suggests that all those compassionate, spiritual feelings actually belong to women and don't belong in men. I don't believe that. Since becoming a parent, I've realized that those feelings are in me. It's just that I'm trying to evoke it without having to go off in the woods banging a drum. I don't buy all that men's-movement crap, sorry. And I've been trying to explain that slowly but surely to guys who obviously have never been in the delivery room."
Billy Bragg, with Robyn Hitchcock. 9 p.m. Saturday, November 2, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $18.50, 830-2525 or 1-800-444-SEAT; 7 p.m. Sunday, November 3, Boulder Theater, 2034 14th Street, $7 in advance/$9 day of show, 786-7030.