A big boy now

Billy pass

So, it’s ten years since my biography of Billy Bragg was publlished. I know this because the reason Billy agreed to help me write and research it, thus making Still Suitable For Miners official and authorised, was because, in 1997, he was fast approaching his 40th birthday. This seemed, to him, like a good time to take stock and put his life in order (he was also selling the flat where he kept his archive and putting it all in storage). I’d just left my day job, and was finally in a position, after ten years in offices, to knuckle down and write a book. It all fell into place (and I remain grateful that Billy responded to my well-timed overtures and decided that I was the man for the job, having interviewed him a number of times for the NME and Q). Billy and I spent six months in 1997 travelling around his past and present, from Barking to Oundle to Dublin, and meticulously going through his effects and diaries. He gave generously of his time, as did his partner Juliet, and we came up with what we felt was a definitive book, one that he’d be happy to give to his son Jack when he ready to read it, five years old at the time of publication. Although Billy had no stake in its royalties, he helped promote it, and sold copies of it through his merchandising stall on tour. In all, Still Suitable For Miners was a happy and prosperous experience, and author and subject became friends. Since then, the book’s been republished with a new chapter twice, and thanks to ongoing interest in Billy, it could be the gift that goes on giving. Ten years on, and Billy is about to turn 50. On December 20th.

On Sunday, Juliet had persuaded him to mark this milestone by appearing “in conversation” at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank. It was a terrific occasion, with Billy actually playing some of the key vinyl records of his early life on an actual record player (Dylan, Clash, Linda Ronstadt, the Watersons, Thin Lizzy), interspersed with warm chat and a few songs on either acoustic or electric guitar, including a couple of new ones from his forthcoming album Mr Love & Justice, a few very familiar (Levi Stubbs’ Tears, New England, There Is Power In A Union) and a real rarity, Riff Raff’s Here Comes The Now, which I’ve certainly never heard him play live before. The hall was full of fans who’d probaby heard most of Billy’s stories before, but it didn’t stop the evening being personal and amusing and profound in its own way, as this man we’d been listening to for 25 years sat in an armchair, grey of hair and reminisced about half a century. What stopped it being mawkish was Billy himself. After the final song, he thanked everybody who continued to support him, and claimed, with lump in throat, that he only keeps going because of the inspiration he gets from his fans.

In order to force Billy to celebrate his own birthday, the inner circle of associates and family were armed with a laminate (see: above) that got us into the party afterwards. This was, in itself, a rare occasion, in a bar buried underneath the Royal Festival Hall. A chance to see old friends, many of them from the 80s. There were two NME editors in the room: Neil Spencer, now a registered astrologer of course, and Conor McNicholas, who was unsurprisingly tired of talking about Morrissey, but in good spirits otherwise. It was great to see Karen Walter, too, who has been the NME‘s “editor’s secretary” (ie. she runs the office) since Danny Baker still worked there and never ages. She remembered Neil Spencer personally sending her home with a copy of Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy by some bloke called Billy Bragg, telling her it was a life-changing record. It was, and for so many people in that bar on Sunday. Peter Jenner, Tiny Fennimore, Dylan Walsh (Billy’s plugger for years, and like so many of those Billy has worked with, a friend of the family now), photographer Steve Double (with whom I did Billy in Amsterdam for the NME in 1992), Jerry Dammers (who told me a tale of bad behaviour by Morrissey at an Artists Against Apartheid gig the Smith played in the mid-80s), Carl Smyth, Ken Livingstone (gig but not party), Riff Raff alumni Wiggy and Ricey, my old colleague Phill Jupitus, who DJed alongside a man I assumed to be a bloke who looked like Paul Weller but who turned out to be … Paul Weller. What a treat. There was even a cake in the shape of Billy’s old Orange amp. It was lovely to see Billy’s mum, Marie, too. I’m not sure she remembered me coming round her house in Barking ten years ago to go through a box of Billy’s childhood memorabilia in her front room, but I remembered her. She’s the only person on earth who still calls him Stephen.

Happy birthday for the 20th, Stephen William Bragg of Barking, Essex.

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38 thoughts on “A big boy now

  1. Billy Bragg is one of the good guys isn’t he?…but there’s no way he can be 50, he was only ever a few years older than me…oh…wait a minute…

  2. Billy Bragg is one of the good guys isn’t he?…but there’s no way he can be 50, he was only ever a few years older than me…oh…wait a minute…

  3. For some reason I’ve always been intrigued by his mateyness with Tony Benn, even though I shouldn’t be, given their obvious political alignment.My first memory of Billy Bragg was his live performance of Between The Wars on TOTP, and never have I seen s teenage audience look quite so brilliantly bemused.

  4. For some reason I’ve always been intrigued by his mateyness with Tony Benn, even though I shouldn’t be, given their obvious political alignment.My first memory of Billy Bragg was his live performance of Between The Wars on TOTP, and never have I seen s teenage audience look quite so brilliantly bemused.

  5. Was indeed a great night, such an engaging personality…shame there wasn’t more time, noticed he had to cut out the Ronnie Lane mention. Nice to hear some unexpected tunes from Thin Lizzy and Linda Ronstadt.come on A.C don’t tease us with the Morrisey anecdote!! lets av it

  6. What a great… erm, would “tribute” be the right word? It’s certainly the best one I can think of at the moment.I’m only a late convert to Billy Bragg, but I got his fantastic box sets a few months ago almost on a whim after finding myself listening to the Back to Basics collection and I’ve been a massive fan ever since. I saw him twice at Glastonbury this year and I’m hopefully going to see him at the Roundhouse in March to promote his new album.And I must find a copy of your biography of him too.

  7. Was indeed a great night, such an engaging personality…shame there wasn’t more time, noticed he had to cut out the Ronnie Lane mention. Nice to hear some unexpected tunes from Thin Lizzy and Linda Ronstadt.come on A.C don’t tease us with the Morrisey anecdote!! lets av it

  8. What a great… erm, would “tribute” be the right word? It’s certainly the best one I can think of at the moment.I’m only a late convert to Billy Bragg, but I got his fantastic box sets a few months ago almost on a whim after finding myself listening to the Back to Basics collection and I’ve been a massive fan ever since. I saw him twice at Glastonbury this year and I’m hopefully going to see him at the Roundhouse in March to promote his new album.And I must find a copy of your biography of him too.

  9. I know very little of Billy Bragg’s output – but now resolve to rectify this.It’s only polite, I bumped into him on a train a while back then spent 10 minutes staring at him trying to work out if he really was Billy Bragg or not – poor bugger.Is there a good Billy Bragg musical place to start?

  10. I know very little of Billy Bragg’s output – but now resolve to rectify this.It’s only polite, I bumped into him on a train a while back then spent 10 minutes staring at him trying to work out if he really was Billy Bragg or not – poor bugger.Is there a good Billy Bragg musical place to start?

  11. I have to confess minimal access to the Billy Bragg ‘cannon’ but you can tell he is a good guy who has remained true to himself through the years and I am delighted to see how well he is regarded. Be interested in his political views now, I knew him as a core Labour supporter but now Labour have moved so far to the centre/right does he feel isolated? I know stacks of traditional labour supporters who now feel lost in the political wilderness…

  12. I have to confess minimal access to the Billy Bragg ‘cannon’ but you can tell he is a good guy who has remained true to himself through the years and I am delighted to see how well he is regarded. Be interested in his political views now, I knew him as a core Labour supporter but now Labour have moved so far to the centre/right does he feel isolated? I know stacks of traditional labour supporters who now feel lost in the political wilderness…

  13. What a brilliant night that sounds. My biggest memory of the Braggster is seeing him sing an acoustic version of Reason To Believe at the ICA, which caused me to be so moved that I promptly burst into a flood of girly tears. It’s also so great for a writer to work closely with a ‘name’ who turns out to be a good egg, rather then the usual shower. My fave Bragg tracks are Tank Park Salute and The Boy Done Good, and his version of the Three Degrees’ When Will I See You Again? just has to be heard.

  14. What a brilliant night that sounds. My biggest memory of the Braggster is seeing him sing an acoustic version of Reason To Believe at the ICA, which caused me to be so moved that I promptly burst into a flood of girly tears. It’s also so great for a writer to work closely with a ‘name’ who turns out to be a good egg, rather then the usual shower. My fave Bragg tracks are Tank Park Salute and The Boy Done Good, and his version of the Three Degrees’ When Will I See You Again? just has to be heard.

  15. I was never a fan in the eighties, and only recently started to catch up. Where I once heard a ‘foghorn’ voice, I now hear amazing depth. As Beth said ‘one of the good guys'(did you use the phrase “registered astrologer” in that post? Should we duck and cover?)

  16. I was never a fan in the eighties, and only recently started to catch up. Where I once heard a ‘foghorn’ voice, I now hear amazing depth. As Beth said ‘one of the good guys'(did you use the phrase “registered astrologer” in that post? Should we duck and cover?)

  17. This milestone also means Still Suitable for Miners has been on my shelf, unread, for a decade now, so I’d like to formally apologise to the author for buying a book with the apparent intention of not reading it, and make this pledge: it will be read by the end of the year. Sorry.

  18. This milestone also means Still Suitable for Miners has been on my shelf, unread, for a decade now, so I’d like to formally apologise to the author for buying a book with the apparent intention of not reading it, and make this pledge: it will be read by the end of the year. Sorry.

  19. Without a doubt a man of honesty and integrity, with some half decent tunes as well. Uncle Bill has aged well, both musically and physically. He’s one of the few artists I can think of who appears genuinely comfortable with his current musical output as he did 25 years ago. Weller? Mmmm.I’ve always thought he would eventually end up at Westminster, but that would probably take away the spirit of the man.The book’s a half decent read as well 😉

  20. Without a doubt a man of honesty and integrity, with some half decent tunes as well. Uncle Bill has aged well, both musically and physically. He’s one of the few artists I can think of who appears genuinely comfortable with his current musical output as he did 25 years ago. Weller? Mmmm.I’ve always thought he would eventually end up at Westminster, but that would probably take away the spirit of the man.The book’s a half decent read as well 😉

  21. I recall being a little disappointed with Billy Bragg when I saw the documentary on his Woody Guthrie album with Wilco. There was an unseemly, niggly row between him and the leader of Wilco over writing credits. Something like… the Wilco chap wanted to include the band and Billy wasn’t receptive to this. It surprised me as I thought he would have approved of an even distribution of wealth.Anyway, sounded like a great night out. No mention of Andy Kershaw there I see – perhaps he was otherwise detained.

  22. I recall being a little disappointed with Billy Bragg when I saw the documentary on his Woody Guthrie album with Wilco. There was an unseemly, niggly row between him and the leader of Wilco over writing credits. Something like… the Wilco chap wanted to include the band and Billy wasn’t receptive to this. It surprised me as I thought he would have approved of an even distribution of wealth.Anyway, sounded like a great night out. No mention of Andy Kershaw there I see – perhaps he was otherwise detained.

  23. Hello,I’m a new reader to your blog and an old fan of Billy Bragg – I’m sorry you’ve had to put up with idiots. There’s a lot of them about. How wonderful to have written a book so closely with this artist! I remember he came to my poly (showing my age!) and I chatted to him from behind the bar – that’s me behind the bar, not him of course.All the best to you,Linda

  24. Hello,I’m a new reader to your blog and an old fan of Billy Bragg – I’m sorry you’ve had to put up with idiots. There’s a lot of them about. How wonderful to have written a book so closely with this artist! I remember he came to my poly (showing my age!) and I chatted to him from behind the bar – that’s me behind the bar, not him of course.All the best to you,Linda

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