In 1983, Billy Bragg released his first album, Life’s a Riot with Spy vs. Spy, unleashing his ferocious talent on the music world. In acts of pure alchemy, he merges the rough-edged punk of The Clash with the earnest protest folk of Phil Ochs and sprinkles his songwriting with a unique perspective on the relationship between men and women. Unlike almost every folkie out there, when he rocks out he does it right.
One of the things I love about his songwriting is the fun he has with words. He likes to take them apart and rearrange them, like this:
I’m not any good at pottery so let’s lose the ‘t’ and just shift back the ‘e’from Handyman Blues
And I’ll find a way to make my poetry build a roof over our heads
Take the M for me and the Y for you
Out of family and it all falls through
Now, I’ve got friends who are telling me
They’re living in clover
But lose the C for commitment and the L for love
And it’s over, baby, it’s all over now
You keep on come telling me about your problems Let’s pull the Y off of your and throw it on the firefrom M for Me
And make ’em our problems, baby
Our problems now
Last month, Billy released his 13th studio album, The Million Things That Never Happened, and listening to it is like reading a letter from an old friend. The older I get, the more I appreciate the wisdom that comes with age and my old friend Billy shares a lot of it on this album.
Earlier this week, near the end of a very long day that found me driving for 14 hours, this song came through the speakers of my car as I headed up the New Jersey Turnpike and I could not help but smile. If that is not genius, I don’t know what is.
Woke up this morning there was something dawning on me Something I'd never seen, someone I'd never been Came down for coffee and I could not find Where I'd left my troubled mind Opened the windows and the day blew in It was fresh and new and it caressed my skin It set me reeling, it was such a feeling That it made me smile for the first time in a long while But don't ask me how I just don't know Don't ask me why I've got nothing to do but smile And when I hit the street, felt light on my feet Like if I tried, I just might fly And every single face I see Had a smile for me like I was royalty or something The sun was shining on the avenue And the shadows knew just what to do They kinda parted as I walked on by And the clouds went off to some other part of the sky But don't ask me how I just don't know Don't ask me why I've got nothing to do but smile When I walked up to a traffic light And to my delight it was set just right I didn't even have to break my pace It was like I owned the whole damn place And all the birds were singing in the trees I was hearing some amazing melodies Before I knew it I was whistling along So I sat right down and wrote this song But don't ask me how I just don't know Don't ask me why I've got nothing to do but smile