SHUFFLER 0006: ANGELS GAZE DOWN
Thursday, August 28, 2014
Billy Bragg – “The Passion” from Talking with the Taxman About Poetry (1986 Go! Discs/Elektra)
Wasn’t somebody just complaining about the lack of apocryphal stories on this blog? Well, do I have a treat for you. I remember buying this album on the now-on-trend-but-then-conventional cassette format somewhere around 1990 as a gift for my older sister. It was one of too-few trips that I made to the now-defunct Northern Lights Records in downtown Minneapolis. Young people will be surprised to learn that a) there was once a time where one could purchase music in downtown Minneapolis* and b) Billy Bragg was doing Frank Turner’s deal before Frank Turner.**
These days Billy Bragg kind of looks like what might happen if you accidentally washed your favorite pants but forgot that you had an Anderson Cooper or a Conan O’Brien in one of the pockets. That’s entirely irrelevant, but also fairly true. What I appreciate about him, though, is less superficial — it’s his radical left-leaning politics. In my time on this planet, I’ve observed the way the world works, and I think that working people need all the voices they can get, and if one of those voices happens to be socialist and has one of those funny accents, well, so be it.
In this instance, Billy is making the personal political, or actually just personal. This is a song about a young couple expecting a baby girl long before they are emotionally ready to deal with parenthood, or, for that matter, each other:
It pains her to learn that some things will never be right
If the baby is just someone else to take sides in a fight
Harsh words between bride and groom
The distance is greater each day
He smokes alone in the next room
And she knits her life away
It isn’t a happy song; there’s no resolution, save for the refrain “sometimes it takes a grown man a long time to learn / Just what it takes a child a night to learn.” It is, however, a real snapshot, a kind of working-class Raymond Carver portrayal of what can happen to people and their lives almost without their knowledge, and it’s set to the minimalist soundtrack lf Billy and his guitar.
I understand why pop music isn’t often this honest — it makes people uncomfortable — still, I wish this level of honesty in music wasn’t quite so rare.
I’ve always enjoyed the evocative title of this album, but didn’t know until now that it is named after a poem by the Russian Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. My sister probably knew — apparently the poem is included in the liner notes.
* I think there’s maybe a Whole Foods in downtown Minneapolis these days. If it’s anything like the Whole Foods I frequent in Orange County, one could, unbelievably, purchase the middling At the Drive-In 10” Vaya for $20, among other vinyl releases that are for some reason available at the supermarket.
** I’m not super duper familiar with Frank Thomas, but upon watching him from a distance, have good feelings about him. I was just using him as a point of illustration. I suppose I could just have easily have picked on John Sampson of the Weakerthans, someone I also enjoy.
I was unable to locate video of this song. If anyone has more success than I did, please let me know.