Album: Talking With The Taxman About Poetry
Billy Bragg has always been pigeonholed as “that political guy,” but from the very start, he’s also written great songs about the lives of ordinary people. And his absolute peak was the utterly sublime “Levi Stubbs’ Tears,” one of my top 5 singles of the 1980s, and quite possibly the greatest song ever written about the healing power of music.
Like the vast majority of early Billy Bragg songs, it starts off with just Billy and his electric guitar, and in this case, he’s singing a defcon 5 level of sad about a woman who’d made all of the wrong choices in her life:
She ran away from home with her mother’s best coat
She was married before she was even entitled to vote
And her husband was one of those blokes
The sort that only laughs at his own jokes
The sort that war takes away
And when there wasn’t a war he left anyway
But like all of us, she found solace in the music, so when things were utter shit, she put on a tape of
The Replacements R.E.M. U2 The Four Tops, and maybe felt a little better for awhile. So with just a couple of guitar chords behind him, Billy explains how a great song remains a great song no matter the circumstances under which you’re hearing it.
When the world falls apart
Some things stay in place
Levi Stubbs’ tears run down his face
Like, like, like I can remember actual specific incidents where I was in a terrible place, and the right music the right time made me feel better. There was a period in late 1985 where I didn’t even wanna get out of bed in the morning without having listened to The Unforgettable Fire and/or Tim and/or Fables of The Reconstruction of the Fables.
It’s like Pete Townshend said: “Rock & roll might not solve all your problems, but it does let you dance all over them.” That’s what Billy Bragg is tapping into here, and it’s beautiful and powerful and sad all at the same time.
In the bridge, Bragg breaks from his sad story and makes it explicit:
Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
Are here to make right everything that’s wrong
Holland and Holland and Lamont Dozier too
Are here to make it all okay with you
In the end, living alone in the mobile home she bought with the money from her “accident,” she puts away her Four Tops tape, as if things are now so bad that even music can’t help. Though as the mournful tear-making trumpet comes in, I’d like to think that she immediately grabs a Temptations tape …
Billy Bragg performing “Levi Stubbs’ Tears”
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