Jailhouse rock

Billy Bragg's charity takes an unusual approach to prisoner rehabilitation

Prisoner rehabilitation is not the most fashionable of causes for pop stars to espouse. Which is why you have to admire singer Billy Bragg's efforts to recruit his colleagues on to a project offering hope to those locked up in Britain's jails.

Bragg has persuaded the likes of the Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett, the Clash co-founder Mick Jones and Dirty Pretty Things to stage a number of low-key concerts for inmates, a world away from the backslapping of most charity events. These have now been captured in Breaking Rocks, a new documentary about the charity Jail Guitar Doors, set up by Bragg to supply prisoners with guitars and the skills to use them, in order to help them on the outside.

In the film/ Jones and Bragg perform a version of the Clash's "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" and Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" at Brixton and Wormwood Scrubs Prisons in London. After one visit Jones says: "The guys were telling us how much this scheme had helped them move on from their previous lives before prison. It was really touching to think we've helped, even if it's in a small way."

The initiative is attracting a growing number of performers. Shiflett has led a guitar class at Brixton, while the indie band Hard-Fi hope to perform inside Feltham Young Offender Institution in west London -- the setting of "Feltham Is Singing Out", their song about the suicide of a petty thief on remand. Dirty Pretty Things held a workshop inside Brixton, and the Lincoln band Eastroad played at HMP Stocken, in Rutland.

But the principal aim of Bragg's charity is not to stage star-studded concerts, but to raise money for instruments. Guitars have already been donated to HMP Styal -- Britain's largest women's prison -- as well as Guys Marsh in Dorset, Pentonville, Wandsworth, the Verne on the Isle of Portland, Wormwood Scrubs and Reading Young Offender Institution.

Bragg believes that mastering a guitar can offer a way out of the reoffending cycle into which so many prisoners fall. "I support punishment," he says, "but I also believe in rehabilitation. Prison has to be about much more than just locking people up. We want people to move on from their situation and reconnect with the outside world. Learning to play and write gives them self-confidence, which is very important in cutting reoffending. We're preparing them to deal with what life throws at them in a non-confrontational way."

Bragg and the film's director, Alan Miles, plan to screen the documentary -- whose title is taken from the opening words of the Bobby Fuller Four's classic "outlaw" song "I Fought the Law" -- at a number of jails next year. In one of the film's most moving scenes, Bragg introduces a former prisoner on to the stage at the Glastonbury Festival. The man, recently paroled from nearby HMP Shepton Mallet, soon has the crowd cheering as he performs a song he composed behind bars.

"The lifers at Shepton Mallet Prison over the hill hear the festival at night," Bragg tells them. "There are guys there who play guitar, and as musicians they know, as I know, that a guitar will help you transcend your surroundings and find a release."

"Breaking Rocks" is being screened at the Shortwave Cinema in Bermondsey, south-east London, on Sunday 22 November, then at venues nationwide in February.

 

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Marcelo Krasilcic
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“I don’t want to burst into tears on stage”: The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt

The cult chamber pop curmudgeon on the process of writing a song for every year of his life – and how he avoided soul-searching.

Stephin Merritt has a stye. Sitting in a hushed greenroom at London’s Barbican, he presses a hot mug of tea against his left eye and winces.

An enormous Steinway grand piano shimmers by the wall, reflecting the room’s sparse glow from an electric candle and mirror framed in fairy lights.

“Have you ever had one?” asks the 52-year-old musician, after bowing in his chair in greeting (to avoid germ contact).

No, I reply.

“Don’t.”

Set against the grandeur of his surroundings, it’s a fitting introduction to The Magnetic Fields frontman and cult chamber pop curmudgeon.

Medical complaints are just one theme in his painfully personal new album, 50 Song Memoir. It’s an epic, genre-bending variety show with a song for each year of his life, performed in two halves. The 1992 track “Weird Diseases” cites an ear condition that confines him to a soundproofed shelter from his band onstage – and means he covers his ears when applauded by the Barbican audience later that evening.

Waiting for his soundcheck in his signature brown flatcap, a beige and turquoise argyle jumper and fawn trousers (he only wears brown – it’s hard to get dirty, and matches his eyes, hair and beloved late chihuahua Irving), he’s about to perform the last show in The Magnetic Fields’ first tour in five years.

“I hate touring,” he tells me in his baritone drawl, his head cupped in one hand. “I can’t wait to get home.”

Before he returns to Hudson, New York, he’s taking a week’s holiday in London, which he first visited at 15. As he wrote in the song for 1980, “London By Jetpack”, its blossoming New Romantic scene passed him by.

“I was here at the right time, but I was not in the right places to experience it,” he sighs. “So I was doing touristy things and going to Madame Tussauds. Eating English pizza. I bought a Sherlock Holmes hat and London trenchcoat for my costume, I guess which was fun.”

Merritt went to high school in Boston, where he founded the revolving gaggle of musicians that make up The Magnetic Fields in 1989. The album 50 Song Memoir is their 11th. It’s an eccentric, dizzying journey from Merritt’s nomadic childhood of cults and communes with his bohemian mother, via a cockroach-infested ménage à trois and the 9/11 aftermath, to writing a silent movie score for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

But it has the regular stuff too. Break-ups, unrequited love, absent fathers and all too present ex-boyfriends. In scope and ambition, it’s similar to The Magnetic Fields’ most famous work, 69 Love Songs (what it says on the tin), but it’s the first time Merritt has written a first-person, autobiographical album.

We hear bitterness and mockery in equal measure about his beatnik upbringing (“My mama ain’t no nudist/Except around the pool/She’s a Tibetan Buddhist/Like Catholic only cool”), dark musings on the AIDS crisis (“We expected nuclear war/What should we take precautions for?”), and the final song, 2015’s “Somebody’s Fetish” – like a filthier version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” – acts as Merritt’s self-deprecating justification for finding love (“Nothing’s too strange for somebody’s palate/Some spank the maid and some wank the valet”).


Stephin Merritt. Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic

Like the Stephen Sondheim of New York’s underground scene, or a rock ‘n’ roll Noël Coward, Merritt’s acerbic observations and camp brand of miserablisim have established him as an extraordinary lyricist over a quarter century of music-making.

Throughout the 25 albums he’s made with different bands and as a solo artist, Merritt’s words are brought to life by theatrical scores and an experimental use of instruments – but nowhere more celebrated than with The Magnetic Fields.

“I keep wondering if this album has been so well-reviewed partly because people think it would be boorish to question bearing my soul,” he says. “Because reviewing it is like reviewing a person.”

Although 50 Song Memoir seems like a highly revealing “audio-biography”, Merritt insists: “I am against soul-searching in general. I don’t believe in souls in the first place – and if I did, I don’t know how one would search them.”

He points out that these songs are more likely to provoke laughter than tears. The “psychoanalysing” by critics annoys him. “I have to perform these things and I do not want to burst into tears on stage,” he says, his eyes widening. “I don’t want to stand on stage humiliating myself and the audience.”

Merritt recalls crying while performing The Magnetic Fields’ classic ballad “The Book of Love” at the funeral of a friend who died suddenly. “That is the last time I will ever do that,” he smiles drily.

The 50 Song Memoir show is more of a revue, with wry narration by Merritt between each song, and band members playing everything from the omnichord to a saw. The singer himself sits in his pastel-hued soundproof booth, surrounded by 16 dolls houses and other trinkets from his own home – Hooty, his stuffed owl, little wooden animals, quirky instruments and “some of my lunchbox collection”. It makes him feel “weirdly” at home.


Before releasing these songs, Merritt contacted every person he names to run the lyrics by them – including his mother, who burst into tears when he played the music for her in his studio.

“What I’m saying about her is not necessarily criticism on her terms,” he says. “So she should not feel insulted, and I said that. She agreed and said in fact [she didn’t] feel insulted.”

You get the impression Merritt enjoyed the mechanics of writing 50 Song Memoir more than the emotional vulnerability. It pieces together lyrics and music he had written back in the Eighties and never released, and even a guitar solo he wrote at the age of 11. It features 100 instruments, many from his own collection. He also notes the challenge of finding rhymes for so many proper nouns. “I usually let the rhymes lead the narrative,” he says, calling them, “the automatic plot generator”.

Merritt mostly wrote this album at a couple of bars in his neighbourhood, filling around five notebooks overall. He buys expensive pads – to try and guard against losing them – which look as different from each other as possible, “in the hope I will be able to find a song or a thread more easily with visual help: ‘this was the piece of music I wrote in the flowery notebook with a robot on the cover’”.

A useful system for when he returns at the age of 100 to fulfil his vague ambition of adding another 50 songs to the piece (“I have quite a while to decide.”)

It’s soundcheck time. After admiring my rucksack (it’s brown), Merritt says goodbye without getting up, apologising again for his stye.

Never mind, perhaps we’ll hear about it in a song in 50 years’ time?

He gives a rare chuckle. “48, actually.”

The Magnetic Fields performed both halves of 50 Song Memoir at the Barbican. Listen to Stephin Merritt discussing the show on the Barbican podcast here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.