For most Christmas holidays of my childhood our family went away for two weeks to Hervey Bay, a soporific coastal stretch of fibro and orange brick, and camped in our Kombie van. Same caravan park, same block of cement, under the same Frangipani tree. The beach itself, shielded by Fraser Island, produced scant waves and there were sharp rocks a few meters offshore. Still, if we weren’t at the video game arcade or the tennis court converted skating rink we were in the water, ever cautious. As the years hurtled me towards puberty and I became more self conscious I gave up swimming and hung back to mooch around the older kids.
At night they’d have bonfires and talk of worlds my regional Queensland brain couldn’t fathom. They must have been sixteen or seventeen and I sat on the sand trying to look as un-thirteen as I could.
They talked about bands with names that sounded like rare diseases or movies I probably wasn’t allowed to watch… I Spit on your Gravy!
One bully said to me “You probably love Madonna” and I shot back “No way!” not believing he’d just magically seen right through me. I might even be prepared to tear up the three or so scrapbooks I’d dedicated to her magazine articles to prove my allegiance.
The girls were even more mysterious. One day a “Hey you” came from a tent as I passed. I peered in. She was brunette and terrifying. “You like music right? Listen to this…” She pushed PLAY on bulky black tape recorder and a song whirred to life. Although muffled I could make out some British accented guy going on about him being a milkman who delivered pints of kindness.
“He sings kinda funny but I really like him..” she said. I searched my brain but could find nothing in my limited musical lexicon to hold this up against. No drums, no 80’s synths. She F-FWed to anther track she liked about a man in an iron mask. I instantly imagined the bushranger Ned Kelly and thought it wise not to mention this. I had nothing else to offer and felt a sharp panic rising.
“I gotta go and meet the boys to play Galaga” I said as I backed out of the tent, “I got the high score.” But really I was late to play my mother at the pool table in the kiosk.
As much as it daily drew me I never went anywhere near that tent again that summer and she and the others weren’t there the next. A new cast of teenagers lined up to take their place.
Then I found myself three or so years older.
I’ve discovered punk music ten years after it happened through a teacher that lived on my street. I’d bug him most afternoons to play me something new. The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The Jam, even REM, all heard for the first time in his lounge room.
During one of these intrusions he put on the first platter of a double LP and left me there with the cardboard sleeve. A picture of building blocks with letters and drawings on them. As the first track rang out a wave of strange nostalgia moved through me, though at I didn’t know its source. Kinda like when you pass someone on the street who’s wearing perfume that reminds you of a long lost Great Aunt.
“What’s Billy Bragg’s story?” I asked the teacher.
“He only wrote the best punk anthem of the 80’s!” his voice came from the kitchen.
To punctuate his point he walked back in, lifted the needle from a slower love song, flipped the side and plonked it back down on….crackle…crackle…pop…crik… I was 21 years when I wrote this song, I’m 22 now but I won’t be for long…
The words unraveled and I took them in and by the end of the song my mind had become a haunted house: some windows blew shut while others opened. I was back at the beach in that tent with the strange girl and it began to fit together. And this time I was ready.
I walked home turning it over in my mind. I didn’t know it yet but a path was opening up before me, right there in my 10th year of High School . I ordered that same album in Hoopers Music Center in Gympie and the staff had to trawl their catalogs to prove its existence. I mined the record stores in Brisbane to find his other albums. At night in my room I memorised the lyrics and learned the chords on guitar and offered to play them at school assembly. I attempted to talk with an exaggerated British accent.
It was the way he sang with his own thick accent that made Billy Bragg sound like a regular bloke, an approachable everyman. But he wasn’t afraid to sing about love, even adolescent love, and hurt and sex and the human condition, openly. He affirmed my own burgeoning juvenescence while pervading popular song just graced lightly over it. It was delivered up in earnest, was accessible, and sounded like poetry; words laid bare. I looked up the meaning of ‘unrequited’ in the dictionary just like Billy does in the Saturday Boy.
He sang of other things, a lot about politics. I thought ‘politics’ was something that happened to people elsewhere. To read about it in a newspaper was like eating dry toast. I got the dictionary out again to find out what kind of creature a ‘Tory’ was.
It’s hard even now to critically break down the songs and sounds of Back to Basics with technical terms or musical theory. They were inter-meshed with the fabric of my last years of high school; the undulating vocal melodies were the skyline of my little town, the lyrics the graffiti on it’s walls, the chunky driving reverberating Burns guitar is now the adolescent yearning I felt for some girl or other.
It’s nice to remember this as I’m about to start a run of shows in America with Billy Bragg, and I marvel at the twists and turns that life takes you on.
I get dropped at the club and as I approach can hear those unmistakable vocals and electric guitar echoing up the alleyway as he’s doing sound check, and it’s exciting. I struggle to the artists entrance with my backpack, merch and two instruments. I walk into the empty room and he’s onstage and proclaims over the mic, “Darren! welcome. You look like you’ve been hitch hiking.”