You maybe don't remember the June Brides, despite them being Dave Eggers's favourite group. Way back when, though, they were the bright hopes of indie, one consequence of which was that they were invited to support the Smiths when that group was at their absolute peak in 1986. The Brides' singer, Phil Wilson, remembered that experience in the current edition of Mojo magazine. "Every time people saw my backstage pass, they'd say, 'I'd do anything to meet Morrissey,'" he said. "They just wanted a connection."
When a fan does get to make that connection, it's a startling and unforgettable experience, and it forges unbreakable bonds of loyalty. Musicians don't have to open up their lives or invite fans on to the tour bus in order to give someone that joy, that feeling of being part of something bigger. If you want to feel you've made a connection with Bruce Springsteen, for example, all you have to do is get to the venue early enough to be at the front, and take along a homemade sign requesting a song. At some point in the set, he'll be prowling the crush barrier, harvesting those signs. Yours might be one that gets held up to the E Street Band.
In truth, I'm not that much of a Billy Bragg fan any more, but I still go to see him play, still buy his records, because he meant so much to me as a teenager. He made his unbreakable bond with me – one he was doubtless not even aware of – on Saturday 11 July 1987. My friends and I were volunteering at the Bracknell folk festival, because an hour of work got you free passes for the weekend, and Bragg was headlining. Our hour was spent manning the artists' gate, and he arrived while we were there. A few months earlier, I'd seen him cover the Buzzcocks' Ever Fallen in Love at the Kilburn National Ballroom, and I asked if he'd play it that night.
"Sorry, mate," he said. "Don't know if I can remember that one."
"Oh, go on Billy," said a woman who was with him. "That's a lovely song."
A few hours later, he strode on stage, my friends and I in the front row. "This is an old English folk song," he barked. And he went straight into Ever Fallen in Love.
I thought of that evening again the other week, after I went to see the Hold Steady playing in London. Afterwards, Craig Finn was telling how a 19-year-old boy had approached him after an earlier show. He would be travelling down from Scotland to see the band in London, and bringing with him a girl he was keen on. Could Finn dedicate a song to her at that gig? Finn gave the boy his mobile number, told him he would likely forget without a reminder, and suggested he text his request an hour before showtime. The boy texted, Finn remembered, and the girl got her dedication.
The pair of them were in a bar after the gig, looking shy and displaced. His hand would snake nervously around her shoulders, then recoil back, as they spoke to Finn. It turned out she hadn't actually heard her name announced to a couple of thousand people or so. I tracked the boy down through the Hold Steady's messageboard and asked him about the evening.
Sadly, he didn't think the girl was even interested in him. Not in that way, anyway. Regardless of whether there was a connection with each other, though, the girl and the boy have a memory that will likely last as long as mine of Billy Bragg: the night they travelled from Scotland to London for a dedication. I suspect that night will always be special, perhaps in different ways, to both of them.
It doesn't take much to make a fan feel that their band cares. But it can't be done by just saying so in interviews, or waving at the throng on the walk from stage door to tour bus. And it's easier, of course, the less popular the band is. But it can be done, and it makes a huge difference to know your band is aware of your existence in some little way. Because in music, as in life, people just want a connection.
Michael Hann, 3 Mart 2011, The Guardian