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A love letter to the lyrics of Levi Stubbs’ Tears by Billy Bragg

17 November 2016

1:05 PM

17 November 2016

1:05 PM

With the money from her accident she bought herself a mobile home.

That is not your average opening line. Most pop songs don’t get all in your face from the get-go, certainly not with a masterpiece of compact, single-sentence story telling such as this.

Billy Bragg dispenses with the pleasantries in favour of a narrative gauntlet. He throws down the most heavily loaded of lyrics.

It is a complete and self-contained twelve word story, but it begs so many questions about possible pasts and possible futures and possible protagonists. You could rewind from here, or fast forward. You could pull out or zoom in.

You want to do all of these things.

‘My jobs are to make you care about the characters and to make you want to know what happens next,’ says Lionel Shriver about the essence of fiction writing. The author of We Need To Talk About Kevin is speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Bragg has done both jobs in one line. Just one line to have you hooked.

Whatever you were doing, with the radio on in the background, you have stopped doing. This writer, that lyric, demand your full attention.

Levi Stubbs’ Tears is foreground music.


Forget Kevin, We Need To Talk About This Woman.

With the money from her accident she bought herself a mobile home
So at least she could get some enjoyment from being alone.
No one could say she was left up on the shelf.
It’s you and me against the world kid,
She mumbled to herself.

This is a desolate song, which is not the same as being about desolation. The song is about seeking solace in music. It is about the redemptive power of The Four Tops to be precise. Lord knows the song’s protagonist needs it. I sense that Billy Bragg has sentimental feelings for this woman, but he doesn’t allow sentimentality to dilute the raw authenticity of her story. For her, when redemption comes, it comes in crumbs.

That ‘at least…’ speaks volumes. It speaks of wafer thin silver linings around the dark clouds that loom over the school of hard knocks.

She ran away from home in her mother’s best coat.
She was married before she was even entitled to vote.
And her husband was one of those blokes,
The sort that always laughs at his own jokes,
The sort that war takes away,
And when there wasn’t a war he left anyway.

I listened to Billy Bragg talk and sing at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival, in the same venue as Lionel Shriver a few days later. He talked about the power of music to make you feel empathy for people you don’t know, for people with blighted lives. Music cuts through our cynicism and breaks down the barriers that we erect between ourselves and harsh reality.

Empathy is the ability to step imaginatively into the shoes of another person and Billy Bragg demonstrates a Grade 8 ability in this song. He understands the lifelong repercussions of poor decisions made at an impressionable age. He knows what it is like to have music as the only reliable companion in your life.

When the world falls apart some things stay in place.
Levi Stubbs’ tears run down his face.

The music of The Four Tops is so vital to this woman that she imagines their lead vocalist crying for her as he sings. But I suspect that these are Billy Bragg’s tears too and Levi Stubbs is his medium.

This is autobiographical empathy.

At the Book Festival gig he described how as a teenager he lugged his heavy reel to reel tape machine round to his friend’s house to record an elder sister’s copy of Tamla Motown Chartbusters Volume 3, which is an epic compilation album. Included on the track list is I’m In A Different World by The Four Tops, the opening two verses of which could have been written for the woman in Levi Stubbs’ Tears.

In this world of ups and downs
My dreams all fall through.
Things just don’t work out
No matter what I do.

Disappointment haunts me
Through each lonely day.
The world around I see
In only shades of gray.

These are the before verses of I’m In A Different World. The rest of the song describes how the singer’s life is turned around by love.

The woman in Levi Stubbs’ Tears has no such luck. Her before and after are equally bleak. And that indefinite bleakness is underscored by Bragg’s harsh, metallic guitar, played into a confined hollow space. It has the effect of a tin plate dragged across prison bars. It is six strings of salt in her wounds.

Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
Are here to make everything right that’s wrong.
Holland and Holland and Lamont Dozier too
Are here to make it all okay with you.

Instead of an instrumental middle eight, Bragg gives us an intense middle five list of the Motown song writers, lest there be any remaining doubt as to the message of this song. These are the lyrical geniuses behind the Four Tops songs from which our lady of eternal misfortune draws solace.

And one dark night he came home from the sea
And put a hole in her body
Where no hole should be.
It hurt her more to see him walking out the door.
And though they stitched her back together
They left her heart in pieces on the floor.

The final verse is a heartbreaking portrait of extreme domestic abuse. The emotional hurt more profound and more protracted than the physical pain. The strong urge to forgive the unforgivable. The song draws to a close in much the same vein as it opens. The lyrics are concise and concentrated, supersaturated with imagery and meaning.

When the world falls apart some things stay in place.
She takes off the Four Tops tape
And puts it back in its case.
When the world falls apart some things stay in place.
Levi Stubbs’ tears…

Billy Bragg is best know for politics and polemic and the occasional protestation of love. But Levi Stubbs’ Tears is no protest song. Its injured party makes no protest at all. She is stoically resigned to the losing hands that she has been dealt and that she dealt to herself. Bragg admires her solemn dignity and gives succour in the form of the music that had such a formative influence on him. Her tape is a cassette. His was reel to reel. They are akin.

We are left with a coda that is suitably sombre (that mournful horn) but also, to these ears, surprisingly optimistic. A hint of stubborn resilience. A final crumb of redemption.

Phil Adams is the co-editor of the blog, A longing look, where this piece was first published.

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