Got a Woody

With Mermaid Avenue, Billy Bragg and Wilco turn a myth into a man

Mermaid Avenue is just as grand a revelation for those who long ago wrote off Bragg as a sloganeering prophet himself. Not so long ago, Bragg seemed destined to be crushed underneath the world's weight--a pity since no one asked him to take on such a burden. He came off as a man wracked by guilt and the consequences of making the wrong decision. He sang about everything from the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II to the busting of the unions to the plight of Russians in a Cold War era. He sang "The Internationale" with his comrades, dreamed of conversations with Thomas Paine, tried to save the youth of America by turning old KKK slogans in on themselves, namedropped Mao Tse-tung and Phil Ochs in his lyrics. In essence, he came off like a cranky social-studies teacher who knew better than his students, who tried to brainwash instead of merely teach.

There were plenty of love songs along the way, and "A New England" off 1987's Back to Basics collection was the one Bragg song that struck the perfect balance between politics of the heart and the voting booth. It was about a young man's ("I was 21 years when I wrote this song / I'm 22 now but I won't be for long") attempt at winning the girl and saving his country at the same time ("I don't want to change the world / I'm not looking for a new England / I'm just looking for another girl"). Bragg then was a kid who had no idea what he was talking about and nothing to guide him except his passions and his mistrust; he knew he had the solutions to everyone else's problems, just maybe not his own. Over time, Bragg grew more didactic and annoying: 1990's The Internationale is the dullest rock and roll record ever recorded, a series of ham-fisted political anthems that would have packed them in at Tiananmen Square; and substituting Phil Ochs for Joe Hill was hardly the solution. Workers of the world...whatever.

Don't Try This at Home, released in 1991, was a pleasant-enough stab at reviving his moribund sense of humor: "Sexuality" was playful ("I feel like a total jerk before your naked body of work"), the political references were often couched in acerbic laughs (the Kinks' "dedicated follower of fashion" became a "dedicated swallower of fascism"), and even when the message threatened to drown out the melody ("North Sea Bubble," "Rumours of War"), Bragg had crafted songs strong enough to withstand the preaching and pounding. Still, Bragg has said of that time, "I was chasing my tail a bit." The album was to be Bragg's last one for five years, ended with a song that hinted at the direction Bragg's private life was taking: In "Wish You Were Her," Bragg spoke directly to a would-be lover and proclaimed in simple, honest language: "That I wanted you to be my wife / Is the worst-kept secret of my life."

Shortly after that, Bragg married a woman named Juliet, the ex-wife of a close friend, and they had a son, Jack, and Bragg retreated from the stage and the studio to concentrate on being a father and a husband. He wrote late at night, if even then; he played for his son while sitting on the couch or even during bath time. Finally, Bragg returned to the studio with a batch of demos that reflected not merely his new domestic situation but the radically different times in which he now found himself.

The miners were no longer on strike, Thatcher was gone, the Cold War had ended, no more Reagan-Bush; for God's sake, what's a pissed-off lefty to do but write about being a happy dad? And so he created (or turned into, really) the title character of 1996's sparkling William Bloke, an album whose sentiments are summed up on the song "Brickbat": "I used to want to plant bombs at the Last Night of the Proms / But now you'll find me with the baby in the bathroom." The vitriolic radical who dominated such early albums as Life's a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy and Workers Playtime had been replaced with the father-husband looking for a little solace in an unfriendly world; the resolute ideologue has given way to the compassionate pragmatist, no less "political" than the earlier incarnation but somehow more honest and real than the guy who took on Margaret Thatcher only to watch her disappear into memory.

William Bloke was made by a man who didn't know whether to vote one way for himself or the other for his child ("But whatever choice I make / I will not forsake"); it was about a woman who strives not to lose her identity to a husband or a child, and the kid who looks at the moon and forever dreams of becoming an astronaut. For the first time in a career that once seemed destined to flounder in coy, didactic aphorisms--he was the left's Bob Roberts by the late '80s, Woody Guthrie without the sense of humor--Bragg asked more questions than he had naive answers for. For the first time, he wrote about "socialism of the heart"--making the choices that are best for all of us, not merely for one young man who believed the world revolved around his decisions. And in the end, William Bloke was the record that proved Billy Bragg was indeed one of Guthrie's bastard children--his politics were, finally, so very personal.

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