As anyone who might have scrolled through the tracklisting on The Roaring Forty, the recent mammoth boxset celebrating his career, Billy Bragg has crossed paths with an expansive array of artists over four-decades and more as a cherished UK singer-songwriter and activist. One of the more eye-raising entries in the tale is the time that Bragg and R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe were roommates in Czechoslovakia in 1990. Allow Bragg to pick up the thread, as relayed to this writer recently:
“We were! That was an interesting experience for both of us. I’d been behind the Iron Curtain but I’d never been to Czechoslovakia and we were there while the Velvet Revolution was coming to its zenith so the place was just absolutely alive and both of us were really excited.”
Bragg and Stipe were there alongside singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant, invited to play a series of shows in the Eastern Bloc as four decades of Communist rule came to an end. “After one gig, we went to a restaurant somewhere,” explained Bragg, “and me and Stipey stepped outside and walked about 200 yards to this square where there was a plinth that previously had, I assume, some dignitary on it and was now tied with about 100 balloons gently swaying in the breeze. We stood there looking at it thinking, ‘This is history in the making here, you don’t ever get to see that’. “
Bragg said it was probably even more mind-blowing for Stipe, who at that point had got so famous with R.E.M. that a simple stroll down the street just didn’t happen anymore. “I mean, imagine what it’s like for Michael, where they go in and out of the football stadium in a convoy with the police, for him to get to be able to have that,” Bragg reminisced. “He said to me one time as we walked down the Unter den Linden in East Berlin, ‘This is great’. I said, ‘Yeah, you don’t often get to see this,’ and he said ‘No, to go this far and no-one come up to me to say hello or recognize me, it’s really amazing.’ I thought, ‘Yeah, I guess that is an amazing experience for him,’ so the whole thing was just brilliant.”
Stipe and his R.E.M. bandmates feature on three tracks on The Roaring Forty, songs Bragg recorded with members from the Losing My Religion stars in the early 90s but had been previously shelved. “We were knocking around at Peter Buck’s house and he had a quarter inch tape there and we’d done a few tracks with each other and I’ve always thought they should really be heard,” Bragg said.