Billy Bragg And The Girls Of Party Central
by CasEy Malone
I was in college when Billy Bragg appeared in the 1980’s, and although I wasn’t familiar with him, most of my circle was. When good music surfaced, this gang knew about it. Among a crowd populated by music-minded eggheads keeping track of who engineered the latest records by obscure but mesmerizing bands from, say, Oklahoma, I was the guy still listening to Pink Floyd and getting high before work.
I didn’t become aware of Billy Bragg until 1998, decades into his career. That year, he collaborated with the rock band Wilco to produce “Mermaid Avenue,” a collection of songs they wrote using a bunch of long-lost lyrics by Woody Guthrie.
I never would have been exposed to that record had I not worked in coffee shops surrounded by oddballs who expressed their nonconformity through the conspicuous consumption of unorthodox pleasures, the Big Three being sex and drugs and music. Of course, the standard term here is “sex and drugs and rock-n-roll” but I use the broader term “music” because, while my bohemian co-workers did indeed introduce me to rock delicacies like Radiohead and The Jackson Five, they were also my initiation into the decidedly non-rock worlds of musicians like Ella Fitzgerald, Lucinda Williams and Erik Satie.
“Mermaid Avenue” turned out to be an impressive combination of songs, critically acclaimed, and was even nominated for a Grammy. Beloved among the baristas at Cafe Kopi in Champaign, Illinois, it enjoyed heavy rotation that year. Fifteen years passed before I again heard of Billy Bragg, and this time it would be a baptism in poignancy.
See, one of the reasons the cool kids at Cafe Kopi knew about “Mermaid Avenue” was because a driving force in the band Wilco was a local-boy-made-good named Jay Bennett. I had once hired Jay as the sound man for rock shows I promoted at a restaurant called Treno’s in the late 80’s. The owner let us use the restaurant after hours, and Jay would lug his sound mixing board over and work the shows for twenty dollars and a beer or two.
That was 1989, the year I graduated from the U of I, and a prime year during a stretch of world-class music distinction for Champaign-Urbana.
Twenty years later, when the advent of social networking allowed our old college crowd to find each other, a handful of women who had lived in a house together back in those heady days decided to throw an informal reunion. They had been so vibrant and such an integral part of the wider circle that their house had become known as Party Central, and they themselves had become known as the Party Central Girls. It was perfect that they were the ones to hatch the idea of holding a reunion.
Scenesters from far and wide returned to Champaign-Urbana for three days of reunions, parties, and concerts. It was rumored that Jay’s old band Titanic Love Affair would re-unite. Sadly, though he lived in Urbana, Jay never appeared at the festivities and was found dead that very weekend of an accidental overdose of his prescription pain killer Fentanyl. That his death occurred smack in the middle of a reunion celebrating a peak time in our lives was tragic, but also providential, as we were grateful to be able to share our grief together.
Last year, the Party Central Girls threw another reunion. Once again, we converged on Champaign-Urbana for a weekend of music, nostalgia, and parties. Late on the first night, after several hours of drinking and dancing to the 80’s DJ at one of our old haunts, the Party Central Girls approached me outside the front door. These were grown women with families, and children, and careers, and pressures, and full lives, who had reunited this very day with their best friends in all the world and had let loose. On this night, they had abandoned those real worlds and were twenty years old once more. Fittingly, they were unable to drive themselves back to the hotel, and they asked me to drive them.
And so I found myself behind the wheel of a car containing three of the most prominent, beautiful, and spirited women from an era now 25 years past. There was Allie, whom I had known as the smart, short-haired one whose Irish eyes were always smiling; Caroline, the tall, strawberry blonde one with the razor-sharp wit; and Bonnie, the silken-voiced crooner who had sung that duet with Jay in front of the Armory at BandJam one year. Mary the laugher and Jen the writer hadn’t made it to the reunion.
What happened next was a gift I will never forget.
An admixture of their overindulgence, their outright immersion in the intimacy they shared together, and an entire night of nothing but 80’s music, cast a spell over them that caused them to momentarily disregard that anyone else was present in the car. I became a stow-away on a time machine whose control panel read PARTY CENTRAL 1989.
They began singing. In nearly perfect unison, they sang Billy Bragg’s 1984 song “Saturday Boy,” from beginning to end without missing a line. I had never heard it before. It was clear that the song had been important to them when they lived together in that house. I pictured sleepy Sunday mornings as they sat around in one or the other’s bedroom listening to it on a handmade cassette tape.
The song itself is an exercise in yearning memory, and to hear it sung by a group of best friends during a weekend homecoming nearly caused my hyper-sentimental heart to burst. The lyrics are simple, employing the particular memories of an unrequited high-school crush to evoke what it felt like to be an outsider. To yearn for affection, even need it, but to believe you are unworthy of it, and to settle for something less. To be truly worthy of that warmth, but to lack courage, and to watch it be squandered indifferently by the unworthy instead.
It was a spot-on description of myself, unaware of my gifts and thus timid, who had settled for the safety of inebriation all those decades ago. As much as I glorify the years when we all ran the streets of Champaign-Urbana, I found myself aware of how changed I was, grateful for the path I had since chosen, and the fact that I was no longer as scared as I was back then.
I had been hesitant, anxious, needy; desperate for any connection no matter the flavor. I had a crush on every girl I knew, but never took a chance. Now, all these years later, I was a grown, confident man with two feet solidly on the ground, absorbed in purposeful, requited love with my Melinda. The intimacies I observed in that car were as full of meaning as I had imagined intimacies to be, back when I had been too afraid to actually reach out for them. I was overcome by the feeling of the unselfconscious camaraderie I was blessed to witness, and also by tender adoration for the scared young man I had been all those years ago.
When the reunion was over, I took the train back to Arizona. Somewhere in Kansas, I had a signal strong enough to download “Saturday Boy” to my phone, and I listened to it over and over and over as darkness folded slowly over the wide prairies, closing my eyes and trying to recapture the exquisite ache of my heart growing larger, that I had felt behind the wheel of that car.