Editor’s Note: Songs About . . .


| Mar.-Apr. 2008


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.



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