It's not the kind of image a sensitive man like me should have to carry in his head. Billy Bragg, the so-called “Bard of Barking”, in his front room in Dorset, naked and dripping wet.
In a few weeks he'll be making himself useful playing his fourth New Zealand tour, but for now he's just making a big puddle on the floor. “I thought you were calling in half an hour!” he protests in a splendid Cockney accent. “I was in the shower. I'm dripping dry here while I talk to you. When we're finished, I'll nip upstairs and put my moisturiser on.”
This, my friends, is the man American reviewers have declared “Woody Guthrie's spiritual heir”, yet the last time I saw him - fully clothed, thankfully - was in London during the early 80s, and he seemed less Depression-era folkie than one-man punk band. He was standing on a crowded street thrashing away at an electric guitar, with a car battery, an amp and a giant loudspeaker attached to a metal frame on his back: the world's loudest busker, shouting down Thatcher single-handedly.
“Yes, I remember those days very well," he says. "For many people who saw me back then, I'm very connected with English politics, I guess, but in America, they see me very differently. That whole ‘one man and his guitar' troubadour thing has always been a big part of their tradition - the itinerant folk singer, rambling around. When I first went to America, I started getting compared to Woody, whereas journalists in England compared me to The Clash.”
Both, surely, two sides of the same musical coin. The Clash had better haircuts and a lot more decibels behind them but Guthrie channelled similar levels of righteous rage, travelling around coffee houses and migrant workers' camps, hollering out songs about love and justice while strumming a guitar emblazoned with the slogan “This Machine Kills Fascists”.
If these are the rowdy rebel ghosts Bragg channels through his own music, he's doing something right. Guthrie's daughter Nora thought so, too. After seeing Bragg bash out a spirited Guthrie cover at a live gig, she invited him to put music to some of the unrecorded lyrics her father had written before he died in 1967.
“I went to her house in New York and realised these weren't just fragments of his last few unfinished songs. There were boxes and boxes of them, with nearly 3000 completed lyrics! I thought, OK, if I cover some of these and I cock it up, no harm done. There's plenty more, so somebody else can come along after me and have a go.”
Working alongside Chicago alt-rock band Wilco, Bragg released Mermaid Avenue in 1998, an album of “finished-off” Woody Guthrie songs that was a surprise hit around the world. A second volume followed in 2000, and a bumper three-CD Complete Sessions box set with a documentary DVD came out in April this year.
“The fact those songs have connected with so many people is down to the amazing material Woody left behind, and I'll be singing a lot of his songs on this New Zealand tour. The first hour is me talking about Woody and singing Mermaid Avenue songs, and the second half is me talking about myself and singing Billy Bragg songs.”
Can songs like these change the world? Bragg is in no doubt they
can, and he's spent more than 30 years now trying to prove that fact. When I lived in the UK in the early 80s, Bragg was everywhere, providing a stirring musical soundtrack for a host of worthy Leftie causes. Alongside The Jam's Paul Weller, he was a founder member of the Red Wedge collective that sought to encourage young music fans to vote out the cursed Tories. He played endless fundraisers during the 1984 miners' strikes, and was a regular fixture at Rock Against Racism gigs. If there was a good cause and an empty stage, Bragg was there, turning socialism into sound.
Even when he wrote love songs, Bragg's music seemed to flow directly from deeply held political convictions about class, race and gender. Key 80s albums such as Worker's Playtime and Talking to the Taxman about Poetry are crammed with compassionate character studies and tender council flat romances, all played out against a backdrop of unemployment, strikes, corporate greed and Right-wing moral conservatism.
Such heart-on-sleeve proselytising seems a tad unfashionable these days.
“I suppose that's true, but that's partially because music is no longer the main lingua franca of protest. When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, pop music identified us as who we were. Pop music spoke on our behalf to one another, and also to our parents' generation. Back then we didn't have access to any other medium. If I wanted to get my opinions widely broadcast, I had to buy a guitar and spend three years learning to play it, then write some songs and do some gigs. But if I was a 19-year-old activist now, I might be blogging or Tweeting, or making a doco on my camera phone. There's other ways for people to engage in political discourse now, though some are more interesting than others. If I stood up on the stage at Auckland Town Hall and just Tweeted for an hour and a half, I'm sure my audience would be less than impressed. That's just not gonna fly.”
Bragg himself, however, is flying all the time. Barely a week goes by when he's not slinging his battered guitar case in yet another cargo hold en route to anywhere there's a microphone and a willing crowd. “Well, that's probably the best way to reach people these days, given that the record industry's so knackered. You know, Rihanna's just had a No 1 single in the UK with less than 10,000 sales. That's shocking! My last single in 2008 sold 12,000 copies in the first week, and was considered a miserable failure, which just goes to show what's happened to record sales in the last five years.
"But on the plus side, far more people are getting off their arse to go to live gigs, and I'm only too happy to play for them. This will be my fourth New Zealand tour, and I don't just stop at Auckland. In my view, unless you've played in Dunedin, you haven't really done a world tour. When these young bands are whinging about the rigours of touring, I say to them: have you ever been to Dunedin? You come in to land and it looks like Inverness, and you realise this is the furthest you will ever play away from your mum's house.”
En route to that southern outpost, there's the little matter of Christchurch. It's a city Bragg has visited many times, and a city he knows is hurting. His show there is to be a benefit gig, raising funds for the Beatbox project, which aims to build a new quake-proof music precinct in the city.
“People in New Zealand have been very supportive of what I've been doing since I first went down there 25 years ago, and this seemed like an opportunity to give something back. Some people believe Christchurch is no longer a viable place for a large settlement, and to change that view, it's important to repair the city's cultural heart as much as its physical buildings. This idea of creating safe rehearsal spaces and recording studios will help do that. It'll be good for Christchurch musicians, and they in turn will help Christchurch heal emotionally."
This kind of community building, says Bragg, is what music is really all about. He's not naive enough to believe a handful of songs can suddenly overthrow capitalism and create some kind of egalitarian utopia, but music has the power to incrementally change hearts and minds and enlist co-conspirators in the fight against ignorance and injustice.
“I was in Gothenburg last week, and I sang Woody Guthrie's All You Fascists Bound to Lose to make a point about resisting the far Right, who are a major problem in Sweden. It gave everyone a chance to wave their fists in the air and sing along. Now, it may be that some of those people work in a place where there's a lot of casual racism, so it's a potent thing to come to a gig and see other people from their community publicly making a stand. That's the kind of bread-and-butter way that music makes a difference. It makes you feel less alone in your beliefs."
Billy Bragg's Ain't Nobody That Can Sing Like Me Tour plays Auckland Town Hall on October 12, Wellington Town Hall on October 13, and Otago Girls' High School on October 14 with a benefit gig at Christchurch's Aurora Centre on October 16.
- © Fairfax NZ News