Singer-songwriter Billy Bragg on the road, again
Mr Billy Bragg walks with purpose towards the special luggage section of Melbourne Airport’s baggage claim area: a journey he’s replayed countless times. Raising his sneaker to the regular conveyor belt, he shows the novice how bumpy, how un-guitar friendly, is its ride.
Now 56, the singer-songwriter is more solid than in his youth, with a greying beard around the crooked sweetheart lips that for more than 30 years have philosophised on protest and heartbreak in a broad London estuary accent. Bragg prefers these days to be known as a “topical” songwriter rather than a “political” one, believing the tag is too often dismissive. But as he reclaims his black guitar case, he’s already mid-politics: “What else are we going to talk about, my haircut?”
“The real legacy of Margaret Thatcher,” he’s saying, “is the idea that the market is the most important component in society and will solve every problem.”
He’s following Viv Lees, the veteran music promoter, who is wheeling a trolley with his and Bragg’s bags, towards the family SUV.
His recent “topical” songs, he says, may be more hopeful than his earlier ones, “because I believe I’ve identified our true enemy – those of us who want to make the world a better place. Turns out it’s not capitalism or conservatism” He pauses. “In my experience it’s cynicism. It’s our own cynicism, our own sense that nothing will ever change, that’s our real problem. We have to overcome that.”
Last year, he released his album Tooth & Nail, and he’s been touring solidly ever since, playing more gigs than at any time during the peak of his fame in the 1980s. In the backseat of the SUV, he stares straight ahead.
If a song comes to Billy Bragg while he’s travelling he sings or whistles the beginnings of the melody into his iPhone. He shares an iTunes account with his 20-year-old son, also a musician, and briefly he worried he’d cannibalised one of the younger Bragg’s songs: “When he was a little baby all the songs I wrote sounded like they were tunes based around Thomas the Tank Engine – that was the only music I was hearing.”
The constant travel, he says, is “only banal if you let it be”. His antidote to boredom is finding, “a good book, or going to places you’ve never been before”. Recently taking his tour bus from town to town in the United States, Bragg deepened his connection to American roots music.
“All Britons have an image of themselves driving in America,” he explains, leaning back. “Some have it Springsteenesque or Kerouac, but me, it’s Dustin Hoffman driving down to Berkeley while Simon and Garfunkel sing Scarborough Fair. That’s who I think I am. Trying to get Katharine what’s-’er-name to marry me in The Graduate.”
He takes a moment to ponder his Australian archetypal self: “There’s a song by Weddings Parties Anything about trying to chat up some girl at a party in Fitzroy. [The woman of Ireland talks to me/At a party in Fitzroy/ …I am all ears/Tooralooralooralay/I want her near/Tooralooralooralay.] And I think I might imagine myself in that. But my idea of Australia, from before I even came here, still in the back of my mind, is a movie called Sunday Too Far Away about some sheep shearers.” (The film’s title is supposed to sum up the lot of a shearer’s wife: “Friday night too tired; Saturday night too drunk; Sunday, too far away.”)
“There’s part of me,” Bragg admits, “that wants to see if that Australia still exists anymore, it’s very male, very macho, very much about the land.”
Outside the car window, St Kilda Road sails past, looking drab and urban.
“What’s the one drive we ever get to do when we come to Australia? It’s to Canberra. Great,” Bragg sighs. “But if you rent something like that,” he points out the window to a blue Firebird that’s caught his fancy, “and drive to Alice Springs and get a vibe.”
Bragg persuades the imagined woman from the Fitzroy party to come away with him: “It will be like a road movie. We’ll go outside and jump in the car, maybe we drive across to Adelaide and then north. Or drive west, but the Nullarbor doesn’t strike me as interesting.”
“Imagine sitting in a space capsule going to the moon with maybe two stops,” Lees offers from the driver’s seat.
“Australians always say this!” Bragg retorts. “The point is you’ve got deserts, loads of them. We haven’t got any. There’s nowhere you can go in Europe and get a desert. Even the American deserts aren’t as good as your deserts. Every time we’re in Adelaide I get a yearning to book a ticket on the Ghan to Darwin and see the big red centre. I’m incredibly aware that in the last 48 hours I’ve flown over some of the most incredible landscape in the world and I’ve never seen it up close.”
In Australia’s cities (Purf or Hobar’, as Bragg puts it) he’s occasionally found a scene redolent of home. “Every now and then Australia does that to you in a way other countries don’t.” But here he feels “the dreadful lack of the Middle Ages”.
Lees, now metres from Bragg’s hotel, laughs.
“I know it sounds funny, mate. But at home it’s all around you. At the top of the hill where I walk my dog, there’s some Bronze Age burial mounds. I walk past them every day. They’re not in the past, they’re in my every day. Anglo culture doesn’t have that permanence, obviously Aboriginal culture does, but in the big cities it’s hard to find. That’s another reason I’d like to see the big red middle.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 15, 2014 as "On the road, again". Subscribe here.