Saturday, May 04, 2013

On meeting Billy Bragg and losing my cool...

Those of you who really know me, know two things...
One, is that I find pants horribly restricting. The other, is that I have a huge admiration for singer songwriter Billy Bragg. Most people I talk to eventually ask me what kind of music I listen to, and when I say Billy Bragg some look at me blankly "He isn't played on my local morning top 40 radio show", some show slight recognition "He's British right?", and some look at me with great admiration and smile "Ohhhh you're much smarter than you look!".  For the uninitiated Billy Bragg is an artist with a political leaning, but he is sooo much more musically than a protest tune, because Billy can break out the most beautiful love song you've ever heard. He's easily in my top five musical acts, right up there with The Beatles, Ben Folds, Simon and Garfunkel, and The Who.

So, now you know about my love for all things Billy... let me tell you about how I got to meet the man and completely wound up making an ass of myself.

For whatever reason Billy decided to play a gig in the sleepy town of Nelson, BC last month during his latest tour for his new Album "Tooth and Nail".  I have no idea why he came to Nelson, as he usually only plays larger venues in places like Seattle and Vancouver, places befitting a man of his musical stature.  But I wasn't going to question it, I was simply going to go to it! I got my brother Sean,a fellow Bragg fan, a ticket and on April 06 we were making the ninety minute trek from Grand Forks to Nelson.

Billy Live at The Royal in Nelson, BC 04/06/13
Now I've seen Billy Bragg three previous times, all in Vancouver and all with my best friend Mike Ciccone (a review of one show can be read here where the reviewer clearly complains about having to stand behind me.  Hey I'm 6'7"... DEAL!).  While it was weird not having Mike there, Sean was just as excited as I was to see the gig, so things were primed for a great evening and despite arriving there a bit too early THE SHOW WAS GREAT! The setting was a nice small pub so we were close but not right up front. Sean and I also had a good talk before Billy started to play, and we got to see Grant Showbiz, Billy's long time producer, there as well (I regret not asking for a picture with Grant)!!!! The crowd were all Bragg fans too, they knew the words to the songs, and they sang along.  Billy looked a bit tired (and with good reason, the dude travels a lot between gigs) but there was no evidence of weariness in his show.  The energy was full on, the songs made me happy, and even a bit emotional as so much of what this man does connects with my musical and political soul. He's had a great influence on my life in so many ways. And it's not just the music... he likes to talk between the songs and has great stories about everything from meeting the Queen to being part of a panel about Woody Guthrie with Pete Seger.  So I guess, through his music, and his little talks, Billy has always helped me make choices in life.  I don't think I'd know as much about The Smiths if Johnny Marr didn't help produce his album "Don't Try This At Home" and it's very possible my views on the labour movement may have remained indifferent if Billy's message hadn't made me look at it all a bit closer.  So in a sense, I feel like I owe this man a LOT.

After the show I wanted to buy some Billy Bragg swag... so as soon as the last lyric of "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward" was sung by Billy (and myself on back-up) Sean and I hustled over to the merchandise booth to meet Billy and buy some stuff!!!!  I checked out a shirt (sadly too short in length for my 6'7" frame so it was sent back) and I bought his new CD for the great man to sign. We were second in line to meet Billy and I gave Sean my camera to take a picture of us with the following instructions... "Don't FUCK IT UP!". As soon as I said that I saw Billy's roadie setting up a table for Billy to come out... and it was there I started to lose my shit.

Me and George!
Now I've met some great people who have influenced my life before like Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee, Spock himself Leonard Nimoy, even Sulu from Star Trek George Takei, and I handled myself pretty well with those guys. It was exciting, and I enjoyed a nice little talk with all of them!  But as I saw Billy's signing area being set up I started to feel something I've never felt before, I started to feel nervous.  I even turned to my Brother and said "I think I'm starting to freak out". I also started to feel my hands begin to shake a little. I looked down at them and you couldn't see them shaking but by god they were! I felt sweaty, like REALLY sweaty, like drops of sweat running down my face and getting into my eyes sweaty! I used my sleeve to soak up the torrent of liquid running down my brow.  At that point the one person in front of us turned and started talking to me, Sean said a few things to me too... but everything was turning into a bit of a haze. I was responding to them but it was with merely a nod or "uh-huh" accompanied by a 1,000 yard stare.

It's Stan the Man Lee!
Then Mr. Bragg walked out with a beer in one hand and a sharpie in the other, and started immediately talking to the lady in front of us. Numbness quickly overtook me and I could feel my body slowly shutting down. I had so much I wanted to say and ask... and he was right there.  The man who I had spent countless hours musically commiserating with over my broken heart, and raging over the injustices heaped upon us by the right wing upper class was there waiting to talk to me!!!!  I turned to Sean with a look that seemed to say "I don't know what the hell I'm doing" to which Sean gestured for me to turn around, as it was my time to meet "The Bard of Barking".

I walked up to Billy and I wish I could tell you exactly what happened but truthfully it's all a bit of a blur. I DO know that I started talking. I also know that is was mostly incoherent rambling.  I stumbled and bumbled not really making sense. I'm also pretty sure that Billy talked to me, but it was generally him being very nice and agreeing to my mumbling while most likely thinking "What the hell is this tall Canadian trying to say to me?". At some point I must have told him how to spell my name (Because he spelled it correctly on my newly purchased CD) but other than that? Fuck if I know. The majority of the meeting is a smear of a fuzzy memory. I'm sure in reality I only talked for 30 seconds or so, but it seemed like an eternity where the words continued to come out of my mouth yet failed to form any comprehensible whole. The haze does clear however near the end of our meeting, and the thing I remember saying to Billy with crystal clarity is the following phrase...

"mumble mumble...   Pop Sensibilities".

Billy signing my CD
POP SENSIBILITIES????  WHAT THE HELL DOES 'POP SENSIBILITIES' MEAN???? I wanted to die. There was a second where Billy looked at me quizzically then smiled and handed me my signed CD.  I turned and started to leave in a zombie like trance.  Luckily my Brother was there to stop me from walking away and asked Billy if he could get a picture of the two of us.  Billy was great, he hopped up and made sure Sean had the flash ready to go on the camera, it was almost as if he'd heard me tell Sean not to fuck it up earlier! One click and a blinding flash later, our moment was captured for the ages. Thanks to Sean taking the picture I gained enough clarity to shake Billy's hand look him in the eye and say "Thank You... Thank you for everything!". Billy smiled recognizing the slight moment of lucidity in our brief encounter. He said you're welcome back to me and turned to shake Sean's hand as well.

I was still shaking and in a bit of a haze as we walked out of the Royal pub in Nelson.  But that shaking soon turned into excitement as I had just met one of my biggest life influences and had the picture to prove it!  My Brother and I laughed at the state I was in, and I told Sean the only thing I remember is mumbling to him and saying the words"Pop Sensibilities".

Sean doubled over laughing...."What the hell does Pop Sensibilities mean?" he asked...

I don't know... and I still don't. But you know what? It doesn't matter, because even though I made zero sense to a guy I really admire, in the end, when I shook Billy's hand and thanked him I could tell he got it, and understood what I meant. He's been a guy who has been inspired by music too... he's poured over liner notes while listening to an album, he's had his heart broke and had someone else crystallize his feelings in song.  He's been where I am and understands what it's like. That's why I think so much of the man and his music.  He gets it.  Thanks Billy, Thanks for Everything...

"Pop Sensibilities" indeed...