Tuesday, July 14, 2020


Bring Back the Grand Finale

When I was 16, I went on trip to London with my family: my mom, my dad, and my sister. The only real goal in my teenage brain at the time was to find the songwriter Billy Bragg once I got there. I had, by then, ingested quite a bit of "Talking with the Taxman about Poetry," and "Workers' Playtime" had just been released. I couldn't quite believe that someone had found a proven process to compress Woody Guthrie-style, social commentary into obvious Motown chord changes but, there it was, and I was on my way to meet him.

I somehow convinced my parents that I should be allowed wander off across London using the Tube on this journey and I eventually (the luck!) found that Billy was playing a *quadruple bill* featuring his band — with, at the time, with Cary Tivey on piano — Michelle Shocked, comedian Barry Crimmins, and Michael Franti fronting one of his earlier bands. I bought a ticket and was floored. It was perfect in its wobbly imperfection, the kind of rock n' roll I had come to expect from rock heroes like the Del Fuegos, but presented here, before me, in a theater setting with red velvet-y seats and a crowd of people singing along. For the grand finale, the entire set of performers from the evening participated and a light clicked on for me. I saw the light, so to speak. I bought a t-shirt at the merch table on the way out and wondered: "What does an avowed socialist do with all the swag sales money?"

Later that night, within just yards of arriving back at the hotel, I encountered my dad. He been out looking for me at the direction of my mom, clearly having re-assessed the wisdom of having let a naive, suburban kid wander this big city beyond midnight. He was glad to have found me almost home. As a dad myself now, I can intuit the amalgam of relief, surrealism, and adrenaline he experienced at that moment. Standing there in the Underground, he and I paused a bit in the vacuum of the moment to take in a drunken reveler in a Burger King crown singing his heart out. He was relieved to have found me. I was elated at the experience of the previous four hours. In that regard, it was a win for both of us.

In any case, Bill's music became a guide-wire for me in so many regards from that point forward. While I occasionally returned to those early records, I followed his career forward, too. At each turn, there was a song there for the taking that somehow matched my world.

On "William Bloke," indeed, he captured, in a single song, the circumstances and moment I met my wife,
He was trapped in a haircut he no longer believed in,
she said 'I'm a teacher, I teach the children.'
the joy and complex circumstances of bringing our kiddo home 14 years later,
Their baby came home to them an unmarried mother,
they wished she would turn into a pillar of salt
and, today, the absolute most important rule in our home:
Compassion has to be the greatest family value.
Just last week, I was Googlin' to confirm Bill's favorite song — it might just be Lowell George's "Willin'" and that's a story for another blog post entirely — and I was reminded in the search results of his pre-pandemic project singing train songs and traveling by train with the songwriter Joe Henry. It took me right back to that moment in London so many years ago, this image of two musicians in their misbegotten hats — this time standing right in the middle of in my hometown of Chicago at Union Station — embarking on a literal shared journey.

I'm thinking about this, of course, because we're all still stuck in our homes, watching so much of this horribleness occupy our TV screens, awaiting and praying for the end of this craziness, but also acutely aware of the things we're grateful for, and missing that shared journey and experience of live music. That is, of course, the main thing we're all looking for as musicians alongside our cords and cables, the hum from the amps, a shock to the lips, and most importantly to me, the grand finale and the arc of community and solidarity it represents, which I first learned about from Bill's show way back in 1988.

So, right now... bring me back to the Billy Bragg grand finale at Dominion Theatre in 1988. Let me stand on the side of summertime ski hill, overlooking Lake Superior, thirty years later, while Michael Franti hauls all the kids in the audience on stage to sing along. Don't play me a slow, mournful version of anything right now; instead, give me the ten minute grand finale jam of "I Saw the Light" with Billy Strings and his crew. Give me a nine minute version of Don Dixon and Autumn Defense doing "Praying Mantis" to close out a house party. Give me Maria McKee, Van Dyke Parks, Hiram Bullock, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and David Sanborn closing out a Night Music episode doing "Sailing Shoes." Bring out Ringo and Ronnie Wood (in his tuxedo t-shirt) and give us all The Band, with the rest of the ensemble, singing "I Shall Be Released."

When this is all good and over, give me the grand finale in full, glorious harmony, over and over again, from the West down to the East. You and me, together, we can take the long way home.

– Jon Roketenetz

Jon writes on music, business, and creativity at Unclumsy.com