Saturday, October 18, 2008

Goodbye, Levi Stubbs


Chaerephon said...

Somehow I knew you'd be thinking about this. I wonder, though, if this is the first and last appearance on BtL of phantasmic dancing schoolgirls.

I go through long periods of being dismissive of Bragg (though not the bulk of the Guthrie stuff) -- too earnest, heard it all before -- and then every so often I have an "aw, Bill!" moment and I tee up his Peel Sessions and have a good mope. He certainly hit the mark with this one. And RIP Stubbs, whose dark timbre (go baritones!) was solo-superstar-quality, I think.

Philip Metres said...


honestly, I didn't know who Levi Stubbs was until I looked into Billy Bragg's song, "Levi Stubbs' Tears". One of BB's musical gifts is his rhizomatic reaching in all directions, alluding to all sorts of musical, poetical and political legacies. From Bragg I learned something about The Great Leap Forward, something about Antonio Gramsci, something about Woody Guthrie, and something about the Clash. Really, has anyone written so earnestly about love and revolution quite like the Braggster?

Actually, I think that this song seems both an homage to and elegy for Levi Stubbs--the sunnier side of things so well captured in The Four Tops, even during a time when the country was in so much pain and turmoil over racial injustice and the Vietnam War. How music can be a balm, can be the "something [that] stays in place"--that ritualized sorrow of great soul songs--but it won't end our suffering.

Philip Metres said...

And yes, BTL needs more dancing girls.

Chaerephon said...

the sunnier side of things so well captured in The Four Tops

Agreed -- that's the great thing about Bragg's song. Instead of doing "James Carr's Tears" or something -- an allusion to someone more closely associated with hardcore emotive soul music -- he chose Stubbs, whose mahogany pipes were applied to more upbeat songs (though the one in the clip here is kind of deceptively upbeat).

Tons of people have written songs about the supposedly effortless way that pop music makes us feel better. (I once read that "More than a Feeling" was specifically about Motown, but I can't for the life of me pick that up from either the lyrics or the music.) Bragg goes for the duality, emphasizing his main character's struggle to survive rather than the easier trope of turn-on-the-radio-and-everything's-awright.

Philip Metres said...

Yes!, as in "She's got the radio active and it makes me feel okay (I don't feel okay)" (Perfume V)

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