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.

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