niagara in a barrel

Seven questions for Billy Bragg, by Carl Wilson of the Globe and Mail:
Born Dec. 20, 1957, raised in working-class Barking, Greater London. In the early 1980s, became an electric-guitar-toting troubadour, singing of sex and socialism in cult hits A New England, Between the Wars, Levi Stubbs' Tears. In 2002, released England, Half-English, a concept album on English identity and multiculturalism. He's completed his first book, on the same subject, and put out Volume One, a nine-disc compilation of his first four albums and bonus material. Volume Two is due this fall.

It's a shock to realize the boyish socialist bard with the broken-nosed Essex accent is pushing 50. As documented in his new box set, his anthems of revolution and romance date back to 1981. But going grey doesn't mean he's looking backwards.

When you listen to those early albums, what do you think of the guy you hear?

It's the alternative James Blunt, isn't it? . . . No, really, the records still have an edge to them. And I stand by the sentiments.

Is it difficult to bring yourself back to that sense of hunger and energy, the songs just pouring out?

When you're trying to break out, you have to have a fever. You can't do it any other way. You've got to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. I was so angry -- looking back, Spandau Ballet seems like kind of a stupid thing to be angry about. But I had been in the audience at Clash gigs, I thought we were going to change the world.

Writing my first book [about multiculturalism] has been a similar sort of challenge. I felt that I must do this: The British National Party, the BNP, a fascist, racist party, had suddenly won a council seat in my home town. An album would not suffice. . . . So in that sense I think I am as driven. Still in the barrel, still looking for Niagara Falls.

Is it harder to write songs about marriage than dating, about politics after the fall of the Berlin Wall?

My focus on things I think worth doing is just broader now. I've been writing, campaigning for reform of the House of Lords, doing gigs against the BNP. In September, a charity called Rosetta Life sent me into a hospice to write songs with terminally ill women, and one got to no. 11 in the U.K. charts. . . . It's all been a bit of a sabbatical, so when I do pick up the guitar now, I have new ideas. I'll be trying some of them out in Toronto.

Do you ever feel you've become a channel of nostalgia for your audience's own idealistic youth?

Yes, especially in England. When they want me to play Between the Wars, sometimes I do . . . but I always remind them that I don't miss the 1980s. I don't miss Thatcher, Reagan, the Soviet Union, or Spandau [expletive] Ballet. The essence of a culture that's vibrant is to respect the past, but live in the present and concern yourself with making a better future. Doubly so when you're a parent. The whole reason I wanted to write about identity is that I don't really care what your background is -- I care about how my kid is going to get on with your kid.

How did the subway bombing last summer in London affect those questions?

It was incredibly divisive. The question put forward by reactionary newspapers was that this was the fault of multiculturalism. Their answer was to try to restore "British values." But nowhere could I find a definition of what British values are, and neither could I find agreement on what multiculturalism is. These two leviathans are set against each other in a way that has warped the debate.

I think for many young North Americans, hearing you sing explicitly about class was a bit of a revelation. Now that you're less a traditional socialist, do you still find it relevant?

I think social background still does define so much of your life, what education you'll get, what your prospects are. But the language of Marxism I don't think really makes sense to people any more. Those of us who want to create a better, fairer society are trying to construct a new language. If you say you want to live in a compassionate society, that perhaps has a stronger resonance with people now.

Does music still have a role to play? Many people are cynical now about 'celebrity activism.' If people expect to solve world poverty by having a few gigs in Hyde Park, that's obviously ridiculous. But it's been proved popular culture can be used to help set the agenda. That chimes in nicely with the role of the performer -- to ask the right question, rather than to deliver the answer. Because, as we all know, the answer is blowing in the wind. That's already been sorted.
I'm not so much a fan of Billy Bragg's music as I am of his politics and his commitment. Anyone who appreciates Woody Guthrie as he does is worth my time.

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