They say you should never meet your heroes.
Whoever said that must have had crap heroes.
Today I met Billy Bragg for the first time and he was brilliant, a lovely bloke. It’s 32 years since I first heard him crackling out of an old Dansette singing ‘The Milkman Of Human Kindness’, and during that time, like many people from my generation, I’ve been moved and inspired by his songs and his politics in equal measure.
It’s hard to underestimate the impact he had in the 1980’s. To us second generation Punks, who picked up the records in 1983/4, it was hard without a band. Acoustic guitars were for hippies and 1960’s throwbacks, yet without a band an electric guitar sounded, well, just lonely and wrong.
Then along came Billy.
That heavily-reverbed electric guitar coupled with a keen eye and an ear for lyrical one-liners made him our Dylan. His speaking out on issues of the day made us sit up and listen and THINK, much underestimated attributes in a songwriter.
To say he inspired is almost to belittle his impact. In fact it took me five years to work out you could sing a song on your own without it being in a Barking accent! But then I wasn’t alone in that. I still hear people covering his songs wrestling with the vowels because they can’t detach him fully from them. The mark of a great song-smith.
Anyway. Fast forward thirty years and we share a bill at the Hope Not Hate event in Manchester, celebrating the life and work of Jo Cox MP. He borrows my guitar to play his set, has time for everyone, sings amazing songs, talks passionately about music and politics and our role in the struggle right now. Every bit the bloke you’d want him to be.
As we meet, under black skies and pounding rain in a rapidly flooding field, I say:
“Not the most salubrious of surroundings to meet you in Billy, but hello.”
“No, this is perfect. We’re out here singing for the cause. Woody Guthrie never played a plush venue in his life. Every gig he did was in a field, or on a picket line or somewhere. It’s fitting that we meet here, two people carrying on his work.”
You should never meet your heroes?