Forgive the reveille on my own horn, but today is Publication Day, and that’s not something I’ve been able to say, in truth, since July 2008, when the third part of my trilogy of memoirs, That’s Me In The Corner, was published in “B-format” paperback. (B-format is when your book isn’t important enough to come out in hardback, so instead comes out as a large-size paperback first, and then in a cheaper, more manageable size a year later. This never made much sense to me, but it does give you the chance to have the cover redesigned, which we did with That’s Me In The Corner, not that it had any impact whatsoever on sales.) Today, the first book I ever wrote is re-published, and re-printed, in a new edition: Still Suitable For Miners, the official biography of Billy Bragg.
This is what it looked like when it was first published, in 1998, with a portrait by my old pal, the late Hugo Dixon on the cover (from the session he took for Q). I’m not sure I can convey how proud I was when I first laid my hands on a copy of this “A-format” or “trade” paperback.
And this is what it looked like when it came out in “B-format” paperback, the “revised and updated” 2007 third edition, in fact, with a photo by Steve Double in more austere black and white. (It’s funny. I’m sitting in the British Library right now with a copy of the third edition on my desk next to me, as I was due to be interviewed by a student about Red Wedge, so I was refreshing my memory about the era. I wonder if anyone has ever ordered it up in this very reading room?)
The brand new cover, at the top, has been designed by Marc Woodhouse at Chemical X, with the pugnacious photo from Billy’s Fight Songs albums. Here are some grabs from a little film the now generously-bearded Billy and I made, with director Jack Lilley behind the camera, at Billy’s house in January, where we discuss the origins of the book in our jumpers.
When this film is posted somewhere, I’ll put a link to it. But in precis, this is how the book came to be written:
In 1997, two important events conflated: I gave up my day job, and Billy Bragg turned 40. I’d been in a series of full-time desk jobs in music magazine publishing since 1990 – NME, Select, Q – and my first taste of professional TV scriptwriting had given me the courage to go freelance. And old inkies cohort, Ian Gittins, had just left Melody Maker to take up a post at Virgin Books, where he was charged with commissioning some official music biographies. He asked me if there was anyone I had a burning desire to write a book about. There was only one, really. I’d met Billy in 1991 when I first interviewed him for the NME, and we’d it hit off (I’d been a fan since the early days). I interviewed him again at Q, this time writing a career piece, punctuated by what I’d noticed were the “epiphanies” in his life. The big four-oh had convinced him to allow his life to be turned into a book, and in his wisdom he decided I was the man for the job (mostly, it turned out, because I was never po-faced about his work, and he was desperate to avoid a po-faced account).
I love telling people this: I researched the book, over six dedicated months from the end of 1997, by sifting through plastic bags full of cuttings. I had a computer, but not a modem, and no email address. All of the interviews I conducted were in person, or over the phone, or, in the case of Neil Kinnock, by fax between London and Brussels. That’s how analogue Still Suitable For Miners was. Billy was more than generous with his time, and his petrol money (we drove to Barking and all around the Essex of his youth, and to Oundle where he recorded his first music with Riff Raff), and I ended up with hours of first-hand testimony. I also flew over to Dublin, where he and Wilco were finishing the career-changing Mermaid Avenue sessions. In order to access the message boards on his brand new website, I had to sit at his then-assistant Tiny’s kitchen table and log onto her PC.
It would be true to call it a labour of love, in that I loved doing every minute of it, and my publishing advance was modest, as befits a first-time author, but the fact that I’ve been able to update it with a brand new chapter three times, in 2001, 2007 and 2013, makes it less a job, more a way of life. This gives me the excuse to spend some time down in Dorset with Billy and his partner Juliet, who became real friends during the writing of the book.
I have never stopped admiring Billy for his principles and his drive, and his honesty. Though the book is authorised, and fact-checked by Billy and Juliet each time it is reprinted, it is still the book I wished to write, and I remain grateful that the subject of the book never tried to edit it, or rewrite his own history. That said, if you’re looking for scandal, you’ve come to the wrong place. The one truth that works against Billy, but for him at the same time, is that he’s no man of mystery. He really is the Ronseal rock star. What you see is what you get. If you go to a Billy Bragg gig, especially in a far-flung place, you’ll know that the meet-and-greet is often as long as the concert. He likes to engage personally, as much as politically.
I once pitched the idea of a definitive Billy Bragg story to Mojo magazine, and was turned down flat by the then-editor, who reasoned that there was nothing the magazine’s readers didn’t already know about Billy. It’s true, he’ll never be the subject of one of those Reputations-style documentaries, exposing the “real Billy Bragg” behind the public image. But that’s why he’s such a constant in an ever-changing world.
To be Billy Bragg’s Boswell is no bad outcome as I hit my 25th patchwork year in the media, I must admit. It may not make me rich, but it makes me very proud. And to have my first book out now as an eBook feels like an important enough milestone to provide a link to my publisher’s website, which at least offers alternative download routes as well as the contentious Amazon. (Billy provides one-click links to Amazon, among others, on his website through industrial necessity – an ideological anomaly he’s happy to debate with you via the official forums including Twitter, which is really him on the other end, by the way.) For all your Billy Bragg needs, this is his HQ, with everything about his forthcoming new album Tooth & Nail – out on March 18, and among his best, I’d say. The new chapter covers this, his previous album Mr Love & Justice, his 50th birthday, the Jail Guitar Doors initiative, the current Tory government and the 2010 general election, plus honest accounts of the death of his Mum and the graduation of his son, Jack, to aspiring musician.
If you wish to buy the print copy, you can of course do so direct from Bragg Central and, as the old song goes, “cut out the middle man”!
Oh, and if you spotted the reference in the headline to this blog entry, you probably don’t need any more encouragement from me.