The following is a spectacular article/interview by Jim Walsh about Billy Bragg and Barack Obama and America and music and life.
Friday on My Mind:
Billy Bragg, Faith Healer
Written by Jim Walsh
Friday, June 6, 2008 at 05:10 PM
Billy Bragg - A one man Clash
The morning after Barack Obama’s historic victory party in St. Paul, Billy Bragg was in a hotel room in Vancouver, on tour in support of his great new CD Mr. Love & Justice. Bragg returns to the Twin Cities for a sold-out show Friday, June 13 at the Cedar Cultural Centre. Reveille got Mr. Love & Justice himself on the line.
Reveille Magazine: Let’s get right to it. Twenty years ago on stage at First Avenue, you took shots at white liberals and the word “unelectable” about Jesse Jackson; joking about how “many of my friends are `unelectable.’” That word has used been during Obama’s campaign, but now here we are. Pretty amazing day, morning in America, and all that.
Billy Bragg: The interesting thing to me about Obama is not merely the fact that he’s a black man, but that he represents a real opportunity for passing the baton on to the next generation. And I think that’s what’s really needed to inspire a new generation to participate in politics and activism, is having someone younger in the running.
Reveille: Juxtapose the two Americas – from 1988 and 2008. There was an interesting piece by Charles Pierce in Esquire that made the case that America needs to pay for its sins, and doesn’t deserve the guilt-free absolution that Obama offers.
Bragg: The real huge change was the end of the Cold War, and America’s attempt to find its position in that new world. It’s much more difficult for it to identify its great cause that it stands for. America was founded on that great cause, and sort of needs that kind of political atmosphere in which to [move forward]. It needs a New Frontier; it constantly needs a New Frontier. Back in 1988, that was fighting against Russian Communism in a world where even the communists are capitalists – in China and, increasingly, Cuba. I think America needs to think about what its role is. In a symmetrical world, there will be a balance. But without that balance at the moment, it’s possible for America to go blundering into places like Iraq; there’s not a counter-balance to stop that from happening as there was in the 1980s. And when you get genuine radicals in the White House like Cheney and Wolfowitz and these guys, the potential for real problems is great, and I think America is a lot less respected in the world than it was in 1988. That vision of America that we used to have as the great hope of the free world has become rather tarnished in the last 20 years.
Reveille: Were you greatly disappointed in [former British prime minister] Tony Blair?
Bragg: Ultimately, I was. I was greatly disappointed in the response to 9/11. Those evil men who did that awful thing on that day wanted to spark a war between Islam and the West, and they couldn’t convince their own people that it was worth doing. And so they did such an unspeakable act of provocation, and sadly we fell for it. We gave them exactly what they wanted. I like to think there was a better response. A more measured response, a response that wouldn’t have meant that more American soldiers would be killed and more American citizens would be killed than were killed on 9/11 in the subsequent wars. I think both Britain and America should have acted differently; that’s why you need a United Nations – to get a measured response, of the sort that we got in response to Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Kuwait.
Reveille: As an Englishman, do you think Britain or Europe looks at America like the bratty little kid finally getting its come-uppance?
Bragg: You wouldn’t wish what we’ve been through in the last 100 years on anyone quite frankly, mate. I think it’s more a sense of what happened on 9/11 proves something I’ve always felt about America, which is: You can ignore what’s going on in the rest of the world, but you do so at your own peril. Because eventually, you’ll get the blow-back from being ignorant of what’s happening in the rest of the world. Our newspapers reflect what’s happening in the rest of the world, because it can have a direct effect on our economy, on our environment, on our society, in the form of mass immigration. But the United States of America, it seems to me, doesn’t have that ability to give American citizens a clear reflection of the way the world is.
Reveille: Our newspapers reflect opium dens. And entertainment. And shopping.
Bragg: Yeah, yeah. Our papers do the same. There’s the news [section], and then there’s the international pages, which are as big as the news [section]. But you can always go anywhere in the world and find knee-jerk anti-Americanism. And in some ways, we British appreciate that because we’ve invaded most countries in the world, too. Ultimately, you have to come to terms with how people see you as an imperial power, but that doesn’t mean you’re absolved from the realities of how the world is; you have to recognize that things that occur in other countries, in a globalized economy, can have a serious effect on your own world. I mean, how much is a gallon of gas for you now? Four dollars? I daren’t tell you what it is at home. It’d break your fuckin’ heart – it’s eight or nine pounds in England, which is sixteen or seventeen dollars. But that’s because people in India and China want more crude oil.
Reveille: Did you dig [the film] “V For Vendetta”?
Bragg: Brilliant, mate!
Reveille: I love it. It’s a cult thing here; some meaty Hollywood subversion going on there.
Bragg: Listen, I was buying “V For Vendetta” when it was a comic. I have some of the original artwork. I saw it in a cinema in Manchester, and people fucking stood up and cheered. They never do that in cinemas in the UK.
Reveille: How old are you now?
Bragg: Fifty. The big 5-0. Turned 50 in December.
Reveille: How does it feel?
Bragg: It feels the same as being 49 or 51. The thing that really was worth celebrating, which coincided with my 50th birthday, was it was 25 years since I had to work for anybody else. So that’s 25 years of being paid to do the thing I love to be doing, and that, to me, is the definition of success. They pay me to come to Minneapolis and hang out and do these interviews and see the world. How fortunate I am that I’ve got a job I really enjoy doing, and after 25 years people in Minneapolis are still interested to hear what I have to say. I feel really privileged to be doing that.
Reveille: What struck me when I saw you at South By Southwest [in Austin, Texas, in March] was how many kids were showing up to the gigs. We’re talking about the Obama youth movement, we could be talking about the Braggy youth moment.
Billy Bragg on the Current at SxSW - Photo by Steve McPherson
Bragg (laughs): I try not to look at those things specifically. What I do is for whoever turns up. I don’t wish to change that, or think of ways to make myself more acceptable to young people. My theory is that there’s so few people doing the sort of thing I do in a cultural-political sense, that if you’re 20 and you’re looking around for someone who’s saying more than “I’m great / You’re shit / Do you like my socks,” to paraphrase Oasis, you’re going to eventually come around to the same kind of bands; you’re eventually going to come around to Billy Bragg. And it’s so much easier now: If you hear someone who’s been influenced by this guy you’ve never heard of, Billy Bragg, you only have to make a couple of clicks on a mouse, and you’ve got it all there.
Reveille: Great new record, by the way.
Bragg: Thank you. I’m proud of it. I think writing the book [“The Progressive Patriot: A Search For Belonging”] was a bit of a sabbatical.
Reveille: “I Keep Faith In You” is such a great song and message. Given your punk rock background, did you blanch at all at writing something like that? Meaning, is there a part of you that writes a couplet like that and wants to toss it out for being too hippie?
Bragg: What I’m trying to do is tell the audience, “I keep faith in your ability to change the world.” This is great, all of us coming together tonight singing these songs, but … I use the example of my experience with the Clash at Rock Against Racism – they inspired me to go to Rock Against Racism and to sing those songs. But buying Clash albums didn’t change the world. Buying Billy Bragg albums won’t change the world. What we do at the gig is important, because it recharges our batteries, but what is important is what we do when we leave this place, and after 25 years the reason I can still keep doing this is because I have faith in your ability to make a difference in the world, rather than waiting for me to do it. Because I’m just a singer/songwriter.
Reveille: I’d argue with you and anyone else calling themselves “just” a singer/songwriter. But again, that’s Obama in a nutshell. I’ve been to his rallies and heard him speak, and the similarity between that and Billy Bragg gigs and other great music is that, for the most part, you’re in a room with people who subscribe to the tenet, “Look out for each other,” “Love your neighbor,” basically, “Don’t be an asshole.” And that’s a rare thing, that extends to how you move in your community, how you move within your family, your friends, and your art.
Bragg: I’ve come to the realization that our greatest enemy in trying to make a better world is not capitalism or conservatism, but cynicism. This is the underlying problem that we all face, that the conservatives exploit, that capitalism relies on, that the racists pull through our letterboxes – is cynicism. And if we’re to make our contribution, we have to overcome our own cynicism. And the really important thing about that is, instead of talking about those evil people outside the room and pointing the finger, I’m subtly saying we have to overcome our own cynicism. The problem is here, in the room, in our hearts, and we’ve got to overcome that because we’re going to go through difficult times. Because what’s going to happen if Obama gets elected is within a year people are going to feel that he hasn’t delivered on all the things he said he’d deliver. That’s how politics works, and people give up and get cynical.
Reveille: The feeling I woke up with today (Wednesday) was that, in a large regard, Barack Obama’s work is done. There were 35,000 people who were out in force last night in St. Paul who woke up this morning going, not, “the savior is here,” but, “I want to be a better person, citizen, whatever.” And if he didn’t garner another vote, or if for some reason his campaign stopped, that legacy lives on.
Bragg: And I’ll tell you why that’s important. The rest of us, in the rest of the world, needed a signal that there was a different kind of America from the one we’ve had to deal with over the past eight years. And you’ve sent us that signal. Obama’s candidacy has sent us that signal. Instead of getting the Fox News agenda – which is mostly what we get in the rest of the world, because that’s the loudest, brashest voice – that other America that we’ve always known has been there is being heard. Obama’s candidacy has put us all in a place we’ve never been before. And as you say, the significance of just that act so far, shouldn’t be underestimated. People all over the world are waking up in disbelief this morning.
Reveille: That’s why “I Keep Faith In You” is so remarkable. We’re the same age, we’ve got some tread on us, and we know how the world works. We’ve got kids, and we worry about them, and yet you can write a song like that that overcomes your own darkness and it is not a Pollyanna thing, or cheerleading thing, and it does the same thing as a great speech or a great poem. So my question is, just as a man, how do you overcome that cynicism to put out something so unabashedly hopeful?
Bragg: Let’s just define for a moment what I’m talking about when I’m talking about cynicism. I’m not talking about doubt. I think doubt is a very important human characteristic. Never trust a politician or pastor who doesn’t have doubt or who says he has all the answers. Nor am I talking about skepticism. Healthy skepticism in politics, like anything else, is very, very useful. What I’m talking about is those people who have given up trying to make the world a better place and are now trying to make you give up as well, who are pouring cold water over everything you want to do, who are constantly decrying anybody’s attempts to make a difference. It’s those people who, at the first sign of difficulty, give up. And these are the people – should Obama win – and their siren voices that you’ll have to be most on guard for.
Eventually, what you figure out is that the antidote to cynicism is faith. Small "f," not capital "f"; I think religious faith is a matter for each individual, and provided they don’t tell me how to live my life, I don’t have a problem with that. But faith in humanity, faith in community, faith in those people out there crossing the road, if you don’t have that on the left, you’re just exploiting people. And in a non-ideological world, where the word “socialism” has to be explained so that people understand you’re not talking about totalitarianism, you need other ways for articulating how you’re going to make the world a better place. So I think the idea of faith in humanity is an idea that, in my experience, audiences are quite moved by.
Reveille: I know why I have faith in people, be it left or right or black or white or purple, and I’m able to connect with strangers, and it’s the same for you: music. You can walk up to someone in Detroit, or China, or Essex and say, “Hey, what are you listening to?” And you are literally one or two questions away from bonding with someone over world music, or a song, or a deeply-held memory. You can’t count how many conversations we’ve had like that in our lifetime, and you come to realize that everyone is the same and we’re all one.
Bragg: It’s because music has no boundaries. As Bob Marley said, “When it hits you, you feel no pain.”