Monday, November 23, 2009

An enduring friendship with the Bard of Barking

Billy Bragg offers a clenched fist salute after joining Rob Fleming for lunch in Victoria, B.C., in 1998. (Below) Bragg serenaded striking workers on a picket line in Ottawa last week. (Bottom photo by Kate Porter/CBC.)

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 23,2009


The moment comes in every young life when you hear a singer who captures your anger and your angst and your passion and your heartache and you no longer feel so alone.

As a high school sophomore, Rob Fleming, a precocious follower of world events, tried to make sense of what he saw on television and read in the newspaper.

His own emerging sense of right and wrong found much to question in the politics of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

He discovered a musician who made sense of the world, doing so with a driving beat and clever lyrics.

On his way to school on the bus, the student listened to the music of a folk-rock musician from England.

The album was titled, “Talking to the Taxman About Poetry.” It had a political ode about politicians becoming careerists (“Is there more to a seat in Parliament, than sitting on your arse?”) and it had a picket-line anthem in “There is Power in a Union.”

“Here’s this guy speaking truth to power in his music,” Mr. Fleming said. “He’s calling the policies of Reagan and Thatcher what they are. The politics of empire. The politics of widening the gap between rich and poor. It was a reactionary time.”

It also had love songs such as “Greetings to the New Brunette” with such unlikely lines as, “Shirley, sexual politics has left me all of a muddle. Shirley, we are joined in the ideological cuddle.”

And it had a terrific character study in “Levi Stubbs’ Tears.” “Great song!” Mr. Fleming says, still enthusiastic years after a first introduction to the singer’s appreciation for the great American soul singer.

In the summer of 1987, between gigs in his native England and in revolutionary Nicaragua, Billy Bragg played the outdoor Vancouver Folk Festival. Mr. Fleming, then aged 15, desperately wanted to see the performance. Lacking money, he hopped the fence.

“It seemed,” he says now, “like the punk rock thing to do.”

A youthful exuberance for an artist often wanes over time. A bored musician adopts a new style, or a fan finds another who better captures the emotions of the moment. Not so for Mr. Fleming. The free show marked the first of a dozen times he has caught on stage the Bard of Barking, named for the London borough that was his birthplace.

The music of Billy Bragg formed the soundtrack of Mr. Fleming’s life. He launched a chapter of his political career to a Bragg song, danced to Bragg during his first spin on the dance floor as a married man.

Mr. Fleming was a student politician at the University of Victoria when he began posting on the musician’s website guestbook, urging him to return to Vancouver Island. The missives worked. In 1998, Mr. Bragg played the Vertigo nightclub on campus, a triumph for the president of the student society.

Mr. Bragg returned for the Rootsfest Music Festival three years later, by which time Mr. Fleming was a Victoria city councillor. The pol took the troubadour on a pilgrimage to a bronze statue erected in the Legislative precinct. The Spirit of the Republic, by the sculptor Jack Harmon, honours the 1,600 Canadians who travelled to Spain in the 1930s to fight fascism as members of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion.

A friendship formed.

“There’s nothing rock star about him,” Mr. Fleming said. “He’s pretty down to earth in any circumstance.”

When the politician contested an NDP nomination, he entered the meeting room on voting day to the tune of Mr. Bragg’s “Upfield.” One savvy observer noted the lyric, “I’ve got a socialism of the heart.” Mr. Fleming said he chose the song because the opening line is “I’m going upfield, way up on the hillside,” coincidentally echoing the riding’s name of Victoria-Hillside. Mr. Fleming won the nomination, and subsequently took the seat. He was re-elected earlier this year in the renamed Victoria-Swan Lake.

Tonight, Mr. Bragg plays his first concert in Victoria in six years. He has had a busy week in Canada, speaking about the rewriting of copyright law, as well as reform to the House of Lords in Britain and to the Senate here in Canada.

While in Ottawa, he joined a picket line at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, serenading striking museum workers in the rain.

Mr. Fleming, who turned 38 on Remembrance Day, anticipates the singer will have been informed about the political situation in this province.

“I’m pretty sure he’ll have something to say about the paramedics when he’s here,” he said.

After the show, the old friends expect to get together, perhaps even over a pint, just a couple of blokes catching up on work and family and life.

Think of it as talking to the legislator about poetry.

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