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.