No Pistols, no Who, no Rolling Stones

Why the Mekons are the only middle-aged band you don't have to be embarrassed about.

Topics: Music,

It’s not nostalgia that makes me love the Mekons; it couldn’t be. I didn’t find them until 19 years after art students Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh started their punk band in Leeds. I was clueless then that the legendary Brit-punk class of ’77 — the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks, the Damned, Wire, the Jam, X-Ray Spex, Billy Idol, Siouxsie Sioux et al. — was bursting onto the scene, as the Mekons never would. In 1977 I was 15, and the Ophelia revival tent in my bedroom starred ’60s British Invasion bands, Dylan, Patti Smith and anything swaggering: preferably sexual, but martial worked too. I didn’t mind that my heroes weren’t my d-d-demographic, and neither did my geeky gang of ’60s re-enactors: We’d scare ourselves silly spinning the “White Album” backwards, knowing that Paul wasn’t dead because we just saw Wings at the Cap Centre.

Twenty-five years later — who’da thought? — as many classic rock boomers as punks are on oldies tours. For a few C’s, I could watch the Stones twinkle in a logo-draped stadium, playing songs that stopped being about anything around (their) age 30. I’m glad Dylan found his grizzled voice, and wearing that wig and fake beard to Newport was genius, but his songs have narrowed to either nostalgic Americana or curmudgeonly bordering on nihilism. I love that Patti Smith is playing rallies against Bush’s fall-winter product line (Manifest Destiny is the new black), but as Jon Langford boozily pontificated at the CBGBs merch table, “she hasn’t made a good record in 20 years so she can fuck off.”

The Mekons are the only middle-aged band I went to see in 2002 (other than Mission of Burma and that was more to cruise the age-appropriate guys in leather jackets). The 25th-anniversary Mekons tour was spread over three nights in three relatively tiny New York clubs a few weeks ago: 1977-1983 at CBGBs on Thursday; 1985-1992 at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, N.J., on Friday; and 1992 to the present at the Mercury Lounge, back in Manhattan, on Saturday. Had the Mekons ever reached an audience beyond the rock press and a few fanatical others, their three-chapter Stroll Through History could have looked grandiose and not like a joke. Surprisingly, though, they sold out all but the CBGBs show. A second Mercury Lounge show was added, “by popular demand,” Langford marveled from the stage, “something we’re almost completely unfamiliar with.”

Unlike most of the touring oldies, the Mekons are peddling a new album utterly unlike its predecessors, the strange and wonderful “OOOH! (Out of Our Heads).” More than any long-timers I can think of (discuss among yourselves), the Mekons’ career reflects aging as an evolution rather than just a waning of youth. Instead of plundering trends, like well-preserved chameleons David Bowie and Madonna, they stay relevant by setting songs in the actual world of work and friendship, Thatcher and the Bushes and Tony Blair, military adventuring and corporate ravening, art movements and literature and religion, sex, disillusionment, courage, I can’t go on, I must go on. They’re working-class intellectuals and very, very funny. I’m surprised to still have such a relationship to a band, but the Mekons help me make sense of my life now the way the classic-rockers helped me assert — or at least stand up straight — at 15.

The Mekons’ original incarnation, of which only Langford and Tom Greenhalgh remain, were Class Clowns of ’77. Their first single, “Never Been in a Riot,” made fun of the Clash’s “White Riot,” and “Where Were You?” used the punk template of breakneck tuneless shouting to ask adorably untough questions of a girl who didn’t show up: “I was standing in a queue did you see me? I want to find out about your life do you like me?” Their first album, in 1979, has the best cover of all time, a monkey at a typewriter over the title: “The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen” (sic).

Thursday, the Early Years, was my first time ever in punk temple CBGBs, and it was surreal to see an aging band that wasn’t the Ramones, Television, Blondie, et al. within those oft-photographed graffiti’d walls. Langford, gray-haired and bullishly stout, did the old punk-rock head-hammer and one-legged lunge like it came from muscle memory; pogoing alongside was his long-ago ex Sally Timms, the sexily weathered, sarcastic heartthrob of many an aging fanboy. They wore tight new CBGBs T-shirts; 50ish accordion player Rico Bell’s sartorial nod to the era was a choker of duct tape and a blazer with no shirt.

Further warping time was opening band the Sadies, younger than Rico Bell’s kids, performing only Mekons covers, so the history lesson was repeated twice. The Sadies joined the Mekons’ encore, and Langford gleefully announced in his r-rolling Welsh burr, “The farrrm team! We’re calling up new Mekons.” Looking up at the lanky kids, he added, “We got them especially to make us look short. And fat. And old.” As he exhorted people to come out to Maxwell’s the next night, he babbled, “the Stones will be there, and Marianne Faithfull and Wire, and we’re younger than all of them so they can fuck off!”

The punk years were not the band’s finest; some say they didn’t bloom into true Mekonhood until they added violins and accordion and women. In 1985 the group released its country-experimental-punk masterpiece “Fear and Whiskey,” which was my Mekons conversion experience (11 years behind the curve). First a cheery violin, then a cracked English voice (Greenhalgh) slogging through half-remembered shame. The man howls like a pained parody of backup singing — were these drunk old men in a pub or inept teenagers? — then a martial drumroll picks him up and dusts him off. He shoulders on. “Fear and Whiskey’s” got a bent-arm-swinging protest song for a miners strike, psychosexual spoken-word shit, sputterings-out and in-jokes, torrents of rain, and a Hank Williams song. It’s a wobbling glass raised to the nobility of even self-imposed struggle. Widely considered the genesis of alt-country, it sold about 4,000 copies upon release.

The tumbling “Rock and Roll,” a 1989 radio-ready attack on the rock business, should have been their “Nevermind.” Their first record on a U.S. major label and one of their best, it’s the type of ain’t-broke hard rock periodically fixed and sold as new. (On Saturday, Langford cracked, “The Strrokes. I like their earrly stuff.”) The beautiful, quavering voice of Timms turned up on “Rock and Roll” to complement Langford’s exhausted shout and Greenhalgh’s without-a-net imploring (uniquely and bizarrely suited to lines that don’t scan). In “Empire of the Senseless” Greenhalgh taunts censors that “this song promotes homosexuality/ It’s in a pretend family relationship with the others on this record/ And on the charts and on the radio.” But the song never did crash those bigger parties; it sold about 23,000 copies in the U.S., and A&M dropped them.

That was the closest they got to Mekons livelihood. They’ve scraped by with part-time jobs, government and spousal assistance, and other music gigs and scattered to Chicago, London, New York, San Francisco and Leeds. Part of the pleasure of a Mekons show is the reunion of old friends, both in the crowd and onstage. Before Friday’s show, Timms explained their un-American version of success: “We have longevity because we’ve never thought it was about money.”

The core Mekons are the same now as in the mid-1980s: Langford, Greenhalgh, Timms, Bell, bass player Sarah Corina, drummer Steve Goulding, violinist Susie Honeyman and guitarist/oudist/cumbusist Lu Edmonds. (Edmonds split before New York to play on Billy Bragg’s tour; Honeyman was replaced for this tour by Jessica Billey.) Over the nine albums since “Rock and Roll,” they’ve collaborated with novelist Kathy Acker on an opera about horny female pirates in 1996; made a techno concept album about porn and advertising in 1998; and descended into the subdued gloom of crumbling cities in 2000′s “Journey to the End of the Night.”

The darkness is relieved by a chunky dub rhythm here, a startling shout by “deputy” Neko Case there, but there’s little cheer in “Journey’s” bleak soundscapes, its scratchily recorded autoharp and self-loathing lyrics — it sounds like the empty parking lot after Tom Waits’ circus has pulled out. The old outrage is there in “Last Night on Earth,” but also a new hopelessness: “Robber barons roam/ Collecting their debts and filling up death row,” but “they can’t hurt you now/ Last night on earth.”

It’s a midlife crisis album, and it beat me to it by about a year. I turned 40 a few months after the planes hit, and I’m still waiting to snap back or maybe forward into the next chapter. I don’t know if the darkness and doubt following me about is standard-issue middle-of-life dark woods, brain-chemical spill, or an appropriate response to these times we live in. Swagger isn’t inspiring anymore, but some of 40′s questions remind me of 15′s: What does a person hang onto? When is resistance to the way things are integrity and when is it time to grow up out of that? As the rich get richer and the hatreds more bloodthirsty, belief in political progress can look as dreamy as religion.

And, lo, unto the confusion of 2002, the Mekons deliver a gospel album for unbelievers. They croon hymns of religious paradox and shout apocalyptic warnings like mad friars in Sherwood Forest. The relationship to the good fight, and of rebellion to resignation, is muddled. On “Hate Is the New Love,” Sally Timms sings with incomprehensible clarity, “There’s no peace/ On this terrible shore/ Every day is a battle/ How we still love the war.” The words warn of “dangerous bibles” and exhort to “Take His Name in Vain,” but the old forms still comfort — unison singing and swaying rhythms and lullaby violin.

I congratulated Tom Greenhalgh on making the best Sept. 11 response album. “We’ve been getting that quite a lot,” he said gently, “but the songs were all written by March 2001.” “OOOH!” was actually inspired by records of Appalachian church-singing and books about William Blake and William Morris and radical Christian sects like the Muggletonians and the Levellers, leftist church history that Greenhalgh and Langford say, darkly, “has been covered up.”

The Mekons were tired by Saturday, but they still let me tag along to the homey gathering in the Mercury Lounge dressing room, where wives and friends and Mekons compared childbirth stories. Asked why atheists would make such a religious album, Langford said, “When you look around the world and you can’t find any meaning, you look at more things.” (He added in an e-mail, “Socialism in England came from the Bible more than ‘Das Kapital’ and is possibly better and richer for it.”) But still, it’s Christianity. Is he seeking what religion offers without, say, Christ? “Absolutely,” Langford declared, hastily adding, “but not like a hippie or anything going off to search.”

Another struggle for those of us who came of age during punk: balancing the pride in our edge against the nagging sense that love and hope probably will take us closer to where we want to go. That tension dissolves for a happy moment in the music on Saturday during the bouncy reggae “Tina” from “Journey to the End of the Night.” Fans of several generations are dancing side by side, and Langford’s singing with his eyes closed. “And I want nothing/ It’s what I’m trained to believe in/ But I can still dream of things/ That have never been” and then a line that veers dangerously close to hippie, yet feels earned, maybe even tenable after 25 years of small-label soldiering: “But someday will be.”

Virginia Vitzthum is a writer living in New York.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>