RE-Blog: My Billy Bragg Story

I posted this awhile back on my other blog but hey, if you can’t steal from yourself, who can you steal from? I’m going to see Billy Bragg tonight at Town Hall so I wanted to share this again in my musical blog space. Here goes:

 

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It was twenty years ago today. Actually, it was 22 years ago. And it was not “today” per se, it was September 13th, but that’s close enough for rock and roll. And this is one of my favorite rock and roll stories.

I was a freshman at the State University of New York at New Paltz in upstate New York. I had just met a new friend, Steve Tell. Steve was older than me, and even though I perceived him as a rival for a girl I was interested in at the time, I liked him right away. He liked great music, he was mellow, fun and a Mets fan. And he told this amazing story about his dad laughing so hard at a Gabe Kaplan comedy gig that he vomited in some stranger’s coat pocket in the cloakroom. What wasn’t to like?

I had just started on the campus radio station, WFNP. Working for FNP was the first time I’d ever heard of a format called “Alternative,” which I considered an oxymoron. I was struggling a bit at the station, looking for a way to do something different and yet still fit in overall. A few weeks later, I’d get into trouble for playing a Paul Simon record on his birthday (not alternative enough I guess) but there were plenty of artists in the Hot Box at FNP that I was happy to play, none moreso than Billy Bragg.

In the late 80s, Billy Bragg was one of my favorite recording artists. I first heard him live from the UN playing “Help Save The Youth of America” during one of the old live music Hungerthons my Dad, the rock and roll version of Jerry Lewis, would host. Workers Playtime got me through at least one tough break-up, a post modern Blood on the Tracks. Billy remains a personal favorite of mine to this day. A brilliant writer and performer, these days I dream of collaborating on a book with him. But back in 1990, I was just an 18-year old fan. And I was pretty damn psyched when I heard he was going to be playing a show just over the river at the de facto all girls’ school (ahem, women’s college), Vassar. Vassar was a favorite place to visit back in the day for not only the aforementioned co-eds, but also the plethora of interesting arts options: Shawn Colvin in the coffee house, Jim Jarmusch films on the big screen, Billy Bragg on the lawn. And it was all free.

Steve had a car, dug Billy, and was up for driving over to the show. It was one of those gorgeous, golden September evenings. I snuck in a little radio with me that included a tape recorder. I wasn’t planning on bootlegging the show. I was just a big fan of the 1990 Mets, and they had a HUGE game that night against the team they were in a pennant race with, the Pittsburgh Pirates. I must have gone to 20 games that summer with a crew from high school that included Josh Volpe (who in a shocking moment of apostasy became a Yankee fan a few years later), and Charlie Siegel, who lived in a two family house with Mets catcher (well, sort of) Mackey Sasser. Anyway, I figured I could keep tabs on the game between songs or something. Perhaps a younger reader might ask why I didn’t just check the score on my phone? These were the days before non military grade mobile phones, kids, let alone internet ready ones. This is the kind of shit we had to deal with in the bad old days.

Shortly after we arrived, we realized there was a little problem. Billy was late. VERY late. You see, he was doing the Letterman show that night around 5ish, and someone had incorrectly indicated to his management how long it would take at that hour to get from Manhattan, where Letterman taped, to Poughkeepsie, the home of Vassar (75 miles north).

This was less a problem for me, as it enabled Steve and me to quietly huddle around the radio and follow the game. The Mets started the day 2 ½ games back of the Pirates, and we had our co-ace Dwight Gooden on the mound (we also had 1988 AL Cy Young Award winner Frankie “Sweet Music” Viola). The Bucs got two in the top of first and it looked like it was going to be one of those nights, especially since the Mets were going against their ace, Doug Drabek. But the boys got to Drabek in the 4th, knocking him out of the game, the big blow a Daryl Strawberry home run.

Shortly after the Straw man’s blast, whoever was running the show sent out folksinger Greg Trooper to perform as an impromptu Opening Act. That’s what I thought at the time anyway. Looking back at the amazing website, Braggtopia, it looks like Greg was on the bill officially two days later at the Ritz, so maybe he was scheduled to be there all along. But it seemed like he was just doing a free turn helping everybody out. Steve and I rooted for him and he was great. I recall him really sending it in on his showstopper, Ireland, which is, apparently, about a girl from Brooklyn.

Greg finished up and Steve and I checked in once again on the proceedings down at Shea. My man Daryl Boston, who I was ready to give a lifetime contract to at that point, knocked another one out towards the chop shops to make it 6-2. I felt pretty good, especially considering that 80s Met killer Sammy Khalifa had retired three years earlier (If you’re one of the six people who get that reference, take a bow).

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Finally, FINALLY, Billy hit the stage. Back then, I thought his hilarious stage patter and energetic performance were motivated at least in part because he felt bad about making us wait so long — but I’ve subsequently realized that he’s just that damn good EVERY time.

I didn’t record the exact set list and Braggtopia doesn’t have it, but I remember a few things. I believe he opened with “Milkman of Human Kindness.”

I’m pretty sure he played “St. Swithin’s Day.”

I know that night is when I heard “North Sea Bubble” for the first time, with Billy’s patter focusing on Thomas Paine. I think he played Greg Trooper’s song, “Everywhere.”

At some point Billy mentioned his long-time roadie and pal Wiggy and somebody yelled out: “Wiggy Stardust!” Billy obliged and played the last few bars from Bowie’s classic, subbing in the appropriate name.

I recall one of the rare, male Vassar kids yelling out for “New England,” and Billy cheekily saying, “I know where I am.” I guess he didn’t realize that Poughkeepsie isn’t technically New England, but with as long as it took him to get there from NYC, who could blame him? And when he finally got around to playing his hit, he omitted the word “prams,” instead rolling his eyes, Jagger-style, and replacing it with “baby carts.”

After the show, I checked in with the Mets one last time. They had held on to win 6-3 and were within 1 ½ games of first. Sadly, that was close to the high water mark of the season. They did get within half a game a couple of days later, but they never made the front, tailing off and missing the playoffs. Had the Wild Card existed back then, they’d have made it, but then again, that September game I remember so well wouldn’t have meant nearly as much.

At the time, of course, Steve and I knew none of that. There we were, on a total high. The show was amazing, the Mets had won. I had an idea. I told our other friends what I wanted to do and they looked at me sideways and said they’d meet us back at the dorm. Only Steve believed.

I was stupid and 18. I beseeched Steve to follow my lead and started asking around for the Student Union building. I wasn’t sure Billy would be there, but part of being stupid and 18 is that, like a heel in pro wrestling, you have no short supply of overweening self-confidence. We found the place and I proceeded to lay down some line of absolute bullshit to whomever was guarding the performers’ area. I have no idea what I said. I may have referenced my father’s employer, WNEW. I may have told some version of the truth. But the next thing we knew, we were at a table, surrounded by a particularly fetching bunch of Vassar coeds, with Mr. Billy Bragg, front and center. I don’t really remember what he was eating but for the purposes of this piece I’m going to say it was a curry. I introduced myself quickly, did what I went in there to do, and we got the hell out of there.

Less than an hour later, I headed to the TV room at Bouton Hall. Billy’s Letterman appearance was just about to air. One of my friends asked, “How did it go?”

“It wasn’t what I’d hoped,” I lied, “I only got this.”

And then I hit play on the tape:

“Hi, this is Billy Bragg and you’re listening to Peter Thomas Fornatale on WFNP, radio New Paltz.”