It says here, that the unions will never learn
It says here, that the economy is on the upturn
And it says here, we should be proud that we are free
And our free press reflects our democracy
—“It Says Here,” Billy Bragg (1984)
First Avenue is a rock club in downtown Minneapolis. A storied music venue since 1970, Prince’s home turf in the ’80s, and still the heartland’s hippest “danceteria,” it stubbornly stands testament to the ageless allure of uncorked, uninhibited expression and instantaneous, unspoken community.
Long before the Target Corp. put its concentric red brand on an otherwise nondescript basketball stadium kitty-corner from First Avenue, and before a tacky urban mall sprang up across the street—anchored by, of all things, a Hard Rock Cafe—the squat, soot-colored building was a landmark. One that, I see in retrospect, helped me and a bunch of college friends fend off a post-Reagan malaise.
Don’t get me wrong. There wasn’t a riot going on at the time. There were a few reasons for hope, though. A disheveled college professor named Paul Wellstone was running for U.S. Senate. We had a daily student newspaper successfully lobbying University of Minnesota administrators to divest from South Africa. And on any given night we could take the bus to First Avenue and hear the likes of Midnight Oil, the Golden Palominos, and Fishbone flirt with the outer edges of chaos, or celebrate our hometown garage heroes, Hüsker Dü, Soul Asylum, and the Replacements.
Best of all (at least for my $12 ticket), every nine months or so, Essex, England’s own post-punk folkie, Billy Bragg, would hop across the pond with a trunk full of nerve-gnashing guitars and, with chip squarely centered on working-class shoulder, rip through infectious rants on revolution and romance. “Songs about fucking and fighting,” Bragg relished saying with a smart-ass smirk.
“Love Gets Dangerous.” “Like Soldiers Do.” “St. Swithin’s Day.” “There Is Power in a Union.” “Help Save the Youth of America.” Each song featured Bragg alone with his amp, cockney cadence always just a quarter-key out of tune, guitar strings seemingly jangling into a tangle as he shifted chords like a truck driver. Foreign students from all over Western Europe would pack themselves up against the stage to sing along, swill beer, chant for their favorite soccer teams, swill more beer, and roar heartily whenever Bragg took a swing at Margaret Thatcher or urged his mostly American audience to start a grassroots insurgency.
It was this populist political commentary—sometimes just a few words between songs, sometimes running as long as 15 minutes—that kept me coming back for another T-shirt. The best shows, in fact, resembled a rally, except there were no party signs, no rules of order, and no candidates to falsely invest with hope. Just a regular bloke and his self-styled bullhorn, provoking a few hundred folks in the mood to sneer at the status quo, cheer for change, and belly-laugh from start to last call, full throat.
This March, Bragg will be in front of a like-sized, hopefully equally spirited crowd at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. The showcase is being cosponsored by Utne Reader and Bragg’s label, Anti-. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate record company for us to team up with (see “Good Karma in Stereo”) or a better ambassador for independent music and alternative media. Bragg approaches his craft with brutal, sometimes comic honesty, refuses to waver in the face of shifting public opinion, and strives to create a collective response. It’s also a gas to watch him work—a reminder that in the journey lies the joy.
Like the media business, the music industry is in a shambles. Record labels rarely recognize—let alone develop—true, lasting talent. Audience preference trumps innovation in the name of profit. And instead of leveraging digital delivery systems to reach more people with more choices, a few number crunchers are once again trying to monopolize the “market” and homogenize what we “consumers” hear, see, and buy.
Just like the writers and journalists we feature on the pages of Utne Reader, however, songwriters and musicians like Bragg will endure. Because, as we were reminded when we put together this issue’s feature section, “For the Love of Music,” great artistry, like meaningful journalism, lasting political movements, and the timeless struggle for social change, is born of passion. And once that passion is ignited, it never dies.
Just ask the Essex footballers at Bragg’s next gig.