Thursday, August 28, 2014
When I got off work last Monday, I had no idea it would be one of the greatest nights of my life. Not until I got the text.
Once upon a Shane many moons ago, my first serious girlfriend made me a mixtape. It included a quick three-minute jam called "A New England" by the British singer/songwriter Billy Bragg. It's a break-up song, and I recall being somewhat concerned at the time about the message it was sending. Still, there was something compelling about the harsh minimalism of a thickly accented guy violently strumming an electric guitar while wailing, "I don't want to change the world; I'm not looking for a new England; I'm just looking for another girl."
My relationship with that girlfriend fizzled out like a flat soda, but that mixtape forever launched my love affair with the music of Billy Bragg. Is he a folk singer? A pop star? Political activist? Unashamed leftist? Better check "all of the above." Since 1983, Bragg has mixed pop and politics with romance and realism while never shying away from his primary causes of championing the working man and defending basic human rights.
This hasn't won him too many friends in big business and government. Bragg's unapologetic outspokenness has gotten him banned from airwaves and attacked from the right, but as he sings, "Here comes the future and you can't run from it / If you've got a blacklist, I wanna be on it." More recently, he and the band Wilco collaborated on a series of records setting the unrecorded lyrics of Woody Guthrie to music. In short, the guy's a legend and a personal hero of mine.
Which brings me to last Monday, and the simple text I got while on the way to Davenport: "Billy Bragg is at Theo's. Now."
Kids, texting and driving is illegal and wrong and bad. And getting a text like THAT while you're at the midway point on the I-74 bridge is damn near life-threatening. The headline to this article could very well have been, "Local Columnist Plunges Into Mississippi; Ill-Timed Nerdgasm to Blame." I fumbled for the (HANDS-FREE, I SWEAR) phone to reply, but it went straight to voicemail. What the WHAT?
I did the only thing I possibly could, which was to execute a quick turnaround of questionable legality and get Illinois-bound. If you were cut off last Monday by a Hyundai Elantra driven by a fumbling, sweaty mess, all I can do is apologize. I'll guarantee you I wasn't the only one driving like a lunatic to downtown Rock Island at that moment.
I still hadn't heard back from anyone by the time I arrived at the doorstep of Theo's Java Club. When I ran inside, I saw three people enjoying what appeared to be a routine Monday night at the coffeeshop -- except one of those three people was Billy Bragg -- and he was setting up to play. Again, WHAT THE WHAT?
"He came in this afternoon out of the blue," explained owner Theo Grevas. "He asked to see some of the old Rock Island memorabilia we had hanging up. I was showing him some of the pieces, and he saw our stage. Next thing I knew, he asked me if he could play."
One of the other people in the club was my friend Greg Thompson. A proud union man and former mainstay behind the counter at Co-Op Records, Greg was one of the first to find out about the impromptu show and the one responsible for spreading the word.
Within minutes, Theo's was packed with 50 or so lucky music nerds just as confused about what was going on as I was. Well, I was confused until I strolled up to Billy Bragg and sheepishly asked him what on Earth he was doing in the Quad-Cities.
It was due to Aperture magazine. Later this year, it's hosting an event in New York to celebrate the 90th birthday of photographer Robert Frank, famous for his book "The Americans" and his friendship with Jack Kerouac and Abbie Hoffman. The event will be headlined by Bragg and fellow folk singer Joe Purdy. To augment the performance, Aperture sent Bragg, Purdy and a camera crew out on a weeklong road trip of their choice. They chose Rock Island.
"The reason I wanted to come here," Bragg explained later from the stage, "was because of the song 'The Rock Island Line.' Leadbelly made it famous in the 1940s, but in 1956, a British guy named Lonny Donegan covered it. His version became a huge hit in my country and sparked off a musical craze called skiffle. Out of skiffle came all the great bands of the '60s. I've always wanted to come to Rock Island for that reason: to find whatever remnants there are of the Rock Island Line.
"Over the next week, we're going to trace it down to Arkansas. Tomorrow, we're going to the Iowa State Pen down in Fort Madison, and they want us to play a few songs. As Joe and I have never officially performed together, we figured we could rehearse over there in the Holiday Inn, or we could do it here and enjoy ourselves and entertain you lot and have some coffee."
For the next hour, Bragg and Purdy dueted through a spontaneous set that mixed train songs with protest songs and some impromptu greatest hits. When Bragg dedicated George Perkins' "Cryin in the Streets" to the people of Ferguson, Mo., you could've heard a pin drop. When he launched into "There Is Power in a Union," I saw my hulking punk-rock friend Greg reduced to tears. A few minutes later, when I was some 20 feet away from the opening riff to "A New England," I was next.
And when they started to close with a sing-along of "The Rock Island Line," only to discover that a room full of Rock Islanders didn't know the lyrics, it was an embarrassing laugh-fest and proof positive that we didn't deserve such greatness.
Even Purdy was taken aback by the gig. "I just got here today," he told me later. "I got off the plane and called Billy. All we were supposed to do was take some pictures, but he goes, 'Oh, hey, I got us a gig tonight.' I should have expected it."
Billy Bragg was a hero of mine BEFORE this show. Now he's a full-on inspiration. The next day, their travels took them to Galesburg, where Billy jumped out and serenaded the striking teachers of my hometown. Ending up in St. Louis by nightfall, he quickly organized a food drive and benefit concert for the protesters in Ferguson.
"The true enemy of all of us who want to make the world a better place isn't capitalism or conservatism," he told the crowd there. "It's cynicism."
Color me optimistic.