Genius In Our Midst: Bragg

“We’re actually recharging our batteries: me from the audience and their response, and the audience from me and my songs and ideas. We’re recharging our batteries so we can go back out there and fight the good fight, get our own little space wherever we are. I’ll do my bit, and you’ll do your bit, and ultimately we hope to bring that to a time when we can bring about real change.”
 Billy Bragg

I don’t remember how I first heard about Billy Bragg but I’m sure the first album I heard was Workers’ Playtime. He’s made many other great albums but that one is still my favorite. You never get over your first love. I don’t anyway.
Billy Bragg’s music embodies a strange combination of familiarity and originality. The sentiments in his writing and passion in his singing are familiar to anyone who listens to Phil Ochs or Bob Dylan but there is a raw edge to his sound that owes more to The Clash or Ramones than to any folkie. It sometimes sounds like he broke his pick but, because his message is too important to stop, he plows ahead with broken shards. His voice is as gritty as his playing – untrained, insistent, and undeniable.
He also has his own way with words.
The temptation
To take the precious things we have apart
To see how they work
Must be resisted for they never fit together again
It’s a temptation he does not resist when it comes to words. He likes to take them apart and rearrange them.
Take the M from me
And the Y from you
Out of FAmILy and it all falls through

I’m not any good at pottery
So let’s lose a T and just shift back the E
And I’ll find a way to make my poetry

It isn’t easy to beat your head against walls of human suffering and apathy without falling victim to cynicism. Somehow, Billy Bragg found a vaccine for cynicism and is traveling the world giving out inoculations with his guitar.
I was lucky enough to get my shot a few weeks ago at an event commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s death. Here’s Billy performing Guthrie’s “Slipknot,” a song about lynching which he introduced with a story of its continuing relevance, reflected in the protest of NFL players taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem in a gesture that has become a flashpoint in our country’s ongoing state of denial about racial injustice.

It would be an injustice to Billy if I only show him singing a cover, so here’s one of his own. Now that our “sexual politics have left me all of a muddle,” his song Sexuality is depressingly-relevant©. Co-written with Smith’s guitarist Johnny Marr and co-starring Kristy MacColl, it is one of his most pop songs but still expresses his progressive values. As we learn further every day, the personal is political.

I’ve had relations with girls from many nations
I’ve made passes at women of all classes
And just because you’re gay I won’t turn you away
If you stick around I’m sure that we can find some common ground

Strong and warm and wild and free
Your laws do not apply to me

A nuclear submarine sinks off the coast of Sweden
Headlines give me headaches when I read them
I had an uncle who once played for Red Star Belgrade
He said some things are really left best unspoken
But I prefer it all to be out in the open

Strong and warm and wild and free
Your laws do not apply to me
Don’t threaten me with misery
I demand equality

I’m sure that everybody knows how much my body hates me
It lets me down most every time and makes me rash and hasty
I feel a total jerk before your naked body of work

I’m getting weighed down with all this information
Safe sex doesn’t mean no sex it just means use your imagination
Stop playing with yourselves in hard currency hotels
I look like Robert De Niro, I drive a Mitsubishi Zero

Strong and warm and wild and free
Your laws do not apply to me
Come eat and drink and sleep with me
We can be what we want to be

Genius in our Midst: Crumb

R. Crumb is a comic artist and a founder of the underground comix movement of the 1960s. Among his creations are Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, and the Keep on Truckin’ dude(s). His album covers include the classic Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and the Holding Company. 

Toyota offered Crumb $100,000 to use his Keep on Truckin’ work in their ad campaign but he turned them down. His work epitomizes a worldview that rejects materialism in favor of natural and spiritual values. He is a man with a keen eye for bullshit, as evidenced by this strip from 28 years ago.

Genius in Our Midst: Jones

With The Clash, photo by Helge Øverås

Mick Jones is one of those songwriters whose musical instincts never fail. There’s something unique in his phrasing and structure that transcends the instruments, the arrangements, and even the band that is playing his song. Whether it’s The Clash, Big Audio Dynamite, BAD II, or Carbon Silicone, it’s Mick Jones and it’s always really fucking good.


Photo by Alex Lake

Once you’re a member of a band like The Clash, that is how you are remembered regardless of what you do after. For good reason. After all, The Clash was the only band that mattered. Jones played with General Public, The Gorillaz, and Ian Hunter who he used to follow around in the Mott The Hoople days: 

“I followed Mott the Hoople up and down the country. I’d go to Liverpool or Newcastle or somewhere—sleep on the Town Hall steps, and bunk the fares on the trains, hide in the toilet when the ticket inspector came around. I’d jump off just before the train got to the station and climb over the fence. It was great times, and I always knew I wanted to be in a band and play guitar. That was it for me.”

Here’s Jones with his current band Carbon Silicon – including Tony James, who was his bandmate before The Clash – performing Big Surprise:

Great tomorrows lie in wait
With much to celebrate
And paradise lost will be found
The good times always come around

I’m alive, we’re alive
I survived, we survived
As the sun will always rise
‘Cos along comes another one
And life’s a big surprise

Maybe today is one of those days
To be astounded and amazed
And seeing that laughter in your face
Restores my faith in the human race

I’m alive, we’re alive
I survived, we survived
As the sun will always rise
‘Cos along comes another one
And life’s a big surprise

And the sun will always rise
To blow away the cloudy skies
An eagles soars into the blue
An angel turns and calls, hey you

Genius in Our Midst: Hynde


Chrissie Hynde has recorded ten albums with The Pretenders and one solo. Her recordings from the current decade are as intelligent, driven, passionate, and unpretentious as any of her work since the seventies. 

Born in Ohio, Hynde moved to London in 1973 and worked as a music critic for NME. Legend has it that someone told her if she thought it was so easy to make music she should do it herself. So she did.

Nick Lowe produced the first Pretenders’ single, a cover of The Kink’s Stop Your Sobbing, in 1979 and within a year Hynde had taken her band to #1 in the UK charts (and #14 in the US) with her original song Brass In Pocket.

The Pretenders had some of the most tumultuous upheavals of any rock band. On June 14, 1982, as the band was peaking in popularity, the other  members fired bassist Pete Farndon due to his heroin use. Two days later the guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died of a cocaine overdose. The next year Farndon took heroin, passed out in his bathtub, and drowned.

In the last 18 years, with and without The Pretenders, Chrissie Hynde has released five collections of some of the best writing, singing, and producing of her career. Her solo album Stockholm opens with Phil Spectorish drums and strings on the song You or No One.

This lonely heart’s been yearning
The skies above’ve been turning
Feels like the universe just grew
I’ve waited for so long
I’ve waited for so long

I just wanna be with you always
I wanna be around you always
I just wanna be with you or no one
Making it you or no one
And when the night starts falling
Even the stars are calling
Spinning and spelling out your name
Now that’s what I call fame
Spelling out your name
Forever and ever
Love is a hurting thing
It doesn’t go away
Forever is a long time
To wait for you to say
I just wanna be with you always
I wanna be around you always
I just wanna be with you or no one
Making it you or no one
Please stay
Never go away.
Please stay
Never go, never go away

Genius in Our Midst: Hunter


David Bowie’s death was such a loss because he was an artist who was still at the top of his game. Black Star was one of last year’s best musical collections. What happened to John Lennon is a wound that doesn’t heal, made even more painful by the fact that he’d just released Double Fantasy. George Harrison’s final recording, Brainwashed, stands with his finest work.

There is genius in our midst that we recognize and appreciate: Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Stevie Wonder. But there are others that by luck or design fly below the cultural radar, musical genius who are writing, performing, and recording timeless music without the recognition they deserve. Ian Hunter leaps to mind.


New York Dolls

In the 1970s Marc Bolan, Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Ian Hunter introduced a glamorous masculine ideal of the 20th Century Boy. Ian’s the only one left and he is putting out music that is as good as any he’s ever made.

His latest recording is called Fingers Crossed and it includes a tribute to his fallen mate David Jones called Dandy. They should put a statue up in Piccadilly Circus.

Something is happening – Mr. Jones
My brother says you’re better than the Beatles ‘n’ the Stones
Saturday nite ‘n’ Sunday morning
You turned us into ‘Heroes’ – can you hear the heroes sing?

Dandy – you’re the prettiest star
There ain’t no life on Mars
But we always thought there might be
Dandy – you opened up the door
You left us wanting more
And then we took the last bus home

Who let the Genie – outta the lamp?
And Little Lord Fauntleroy – who let him outta his amp?
Saturday nite ‘n’ Sunday morning
Trevor’s getting’ bolder – ‘n’ Woody loves to hit things

Dandy – the world was black ‘n’ white
You showed us what it’s like
To live inside a rainbow
Dandy – you thrilled us to the core
You left us wanting more
And then we took the last bus home

You beat up Goliath – you had it all
The voice, the look, the songs that shook
The gift of the gab ‘n’ the gall
Saturday nite ‘n’ Sunday morning
All we had to look forward to was the weekend
You made our lives worth living

Dandy – you’re still the prettiest star
There ain’t no life on Mars
But we always thought there might be
Dandy – You took us to the fair
Cabaret Voltaire – and then we caught the last bus home

Dandy – we’ve waited long enough
They should put a statue up
In Piccadilly Circus
Dandy – you blew us all away
Outta the drab ‘n’ the grey
And then we caught the last bus home

Dandy – the keeper of the flame
We won’t see your like again
No, Dandy was a one-off
Dandy – look what you’ve become
I guess I owe you one
So thanks for the memories