Awkward Ages

For a while now I’ve been thinking about prophecy, counterfactuals, and time out of joint in twentieth-century adolescence. I’ve been searching under a lot of different rocks: Henry James’s 1890s novels about awkward adolescents; Cranky young Stephen Dedalus’ search for the perfect epiphany; Colin MacInnes’s sublime teenager-as-consumer-and-consumed novel, Absolute Beginners; the film oeuvre of John Cusack; Daniel Clowes’ ravishing, mournful Ghost World.  Here, I have been patiently listening and attempting to uncover what I see as one of the defining features of twentieth and twenty-first century youth: a desire to either escape from, or freeze the time you are in—ways to make personal time (and your historical moment) stand still or disappear.

I suspect on some level it is these odd and heavily-cathected relationships to teenage time which slots us into our generation, baby. Adolescent culture is what places and shapes us collectively. My adolescence certainly placed and shaped me—there’s nothing I started listening to in my 30s or 40s that makes me feel more at home in myself than a single glimpse of the MTV ‘80s moonwalk logo, or the first bar of ‘Love Action’ by the Human League, or, from another era, but still my song, ergo my time, Bob Dylan singing ‘You’ve got a lot of nerve…’ at the beginning of ‘Positively Fourth Street’.

Hearing it for the “last” time? Inconceivable.

We are what we listen to because of the weird and contradictory ways music filters through and accretes within our lives. On the one hand a song is a (non-fattening) Proustian reminder of an exact point in time (one note and you’re back in the bar, or the car, or your junior high school bedroom with the stupid rainbow wallpaper). On the other hand a song is a blast of the now, burning like a hard gem-like flame, taking perhaps 3 minutes 40 seconds out of your current, driven occupations.  A great pop song can be a little memory time bomb—explosive, loaded with early versions of you, but also endlessly able to be repeated in the future, never fully finished. What would it feel like if you suddenly thought, “This may be the last time I will ever hear Roxy Music’s ‘Dance Away’?” Inconceivable.

“I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song, I’m twenty-two now but I won’t be for long” is, as you may know, the first line of Billy Bragg’s “A New England.” The song that follows is brilliant and poignant and hilarious about the sadnesses of growing up and losing one’s illusions (“I put you on a pedestal, they put you on the pill”). It asks searching moral and ethical questions (“I saw two shooting stars last night/I wished on them, but they were only satellites/Is it wrong to wish on space hardware?/ I wish, I wish, I wish you cared.”) It is as catchy as hell, although unlike most of Bragg’s revolutionary oeuvre, surprisingly, maybe even parodically, politically quietist (“I don’t want to change the world”—really, Billy? Are you sure?) It’s arguably his best known song, and his version remains many times better than the also excellent one by Kirsty MacColl. These are all just facts, people.

But the first line is nigglingly great in ways that beg for a more sustained analysis of its temporality: “I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song, I’m twenty-two now but I won’t be for long.” When exactly is the song being written? If the songwriter was twenty one when writing the song, then logically he can’t be twenty-two in the “now” which is also the moment of song-writing, but if he’s twenty-two “now” then how could he have also been twenty-one when writing it? You see? It’s a quandary, that makes the line all about the experience of time slipping away. But it also seems to be about the way a song gets repeated, at different times of your life. You heard the song at twenty-one, at twenty-two, at thirty-two, at forty-six, and will continue to go on hearing it ad infinitum. Although we usually imagine, possibly romantically, that a song has an origin story, that it is written pretty much at one point in time, this song that describes its own origin story simultaneously deconstructs it.

fairly forgettable, with one transcendent line

The other day I found out the line wasn’t originally written when Billy Bragg was 21 or 22; in fact, it wasn’t written by Billy Bragg at all. Bragg was actually quoting Paul Simon’s “Leaves that are Green” from 1965, a fairly forgettable Simon and Garfunkel number with one transcendent line, that Bragg snatched and transformed into an even better song, just like artists are supposed to do (See T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, etc). It does add another pleasurable layer of irony though, that when Billy Bragg first wrote/sang “I was 21 years…” he was also both channelling Simon’s earlier experience of watching his youth slip away, and resurrecting it. I like that kind of thing. Maybe, a little sadly, that’s why I’m trying to write an academic monograph instead of playing in a rock and roll band.

The Pretenders’ song “Middle of the Road” came out in 1984, and my high school posse and I changed the words “I’m not the cat I used to be/I’ve got a kid/I’m thirty-three, baby” to reflect our lives, “I’m not the kid I used to be/I’ve got a cat/I’m seventeen, baby.”
It worked; it made us happy, we were living in the same time with Chrissie Hynde, where we wanted to be.  Like Simon, like Bragg, we were inhabiting the alternately mournful and celebratory temporality of every pop song, the inevitable slipping away of the listener (and singer’s) always already lost youth; the ability to return to it via the experience of the song itself, and via the experience of pop music that remains your past, your present, your future.


Pam Thurschwell is just a wave, not the water.

August 1, 2012 Postscript–eds

Pam did something genius: she sent Billy Bragg a link to this piece via his Facebook page. And…he responded! Here is their (avid!) exchange: 

Pam Thurschwell
Am too embarrassed to put this on your wall, but I wrote this blog entry about ‘A New England’ and I wanted to send it to you, just in case you ever read anything here. Thank you, with much love from a long time fan, Pam

17 hours ago Billy Bragg

I’m so glad you got the Paul Simon connection, because as I was reading your thoughts on the ‘twenty-one years’ line, I was thinking OMG, that is exactly what I was trying to do when quoting Simon – set off a little memory timebomb for myself and the odd listener who got the reference.

But you spotted that too didn’t you. Very clever. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


48 minutes ago Pam Thurschwell
Dear Billy,

Thank you for responding! You made my, I’d say day, but it’s really year. At least, and the people at the Avidly website too. I’ve had Talking to the Taxman on my ipod all day, and am just grinning. Would you mind if I copied your response to print on their site or on a facebook wall? No problem if not. Thanks again! Pam

PS: Do you know the scene in Annie Hall when Woody Allen is in line at the cinema and he pulls Marshall McLuhan out of nowhere to tell the obnoxious guy in front of him whose been spouting his theories that he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about? I feel a little like I pulled you out of nowhere to say ‘yup, you’re right’. It’s a nerdy academic’s dream scenario.

9 minutes ago Billy Bragg
By all means post my comment. The whole thing is a bit McLuhanesque