By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
Hen's Teeth and Other Lost Fragments of Unpopular Culture, Vol. 1: I Have Been to Heaven and Back; Vol. 2: Where Were You?
Twenty years or so ago everybody I knew was in a band, everybody ineligible for Social Security who lived in my neighborhood (and corresponding neighborhoods around the world) was in a band, and even yours truly, with all the talent of a fencepost, was fleetingly in a band of three. But then talent is a social construct, isn't it, and it's a fact that people who couldn't have played "Chopsticks" on a bet did sometimes manage to contrive remarkable things, little epiphanies of pure will or nerve or soul or fucked-upness. Eventually, though, the dogs barked, the caravan passed, and almost everyone gave up. The Mekons never gave up. They first drew collective breath in 1977, in Leeds. You can see the poster for their initial single in the booklet included with the second of their two new Hen's Teeth CDs, and it's the whole period contained in a teaspoon (skanky photocopy, lettering incised by somebody's fist, glum group portrait like a mutual blame session at the squat). When I first heard of the Mekons they were a byword, even at the time, for kitchen-sink, can't-play-their-instruments punk Zhdanovism. For a while they were primarily noted for the brilliance of the cover concept of their first album (a chimpanzee at a typewriter: The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen).
Then, in 1985, Fear and Whiskey came out and caught everyone off guard. The Mekons had remade themselves, thoroughly. The music was country, or actually a sort of cargo-cult exquisite-corpse reinvention of country. Some of the musicians were still feeling their way around, while others (such as occasional member Dick Taylor, an early Rolling Stone and once and future Pretty Thing) were quite adept, and the mix of elements had a loose-limbed exuberance that sounded at once rent-party and avant-garde. Susie Honeyman's fiddle, in particular, was true and rough and poignant and somehow ancient. The lyrics were jagged, mostly unrhymedprosy and allusive bits of autobiography (in part a naive assumption, as it turns out, since "Flitcraft" is lifted from Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon and "Country" from Michael Herr's Dispatches; the Mekons are deft literary magpies who leave no footprints). They covered Hank Williams in a way that made him sound alive and living in Sheffieldno, actually, they built an imaginary America out of pocket lint, the way Bertolt Brecht or Sergio Leone did. Jon Langford's and Tom Greenhalgh's voices alternated like the night out and the morning after.
Time passed. They became ever more at ease on their various axes (without, however, coming to sound "professional"). They added Sally Timms, who constructed a fierce and endearing hard-boiled chanteuse persona. They played around with diverse genres and forms. They were furiously prolific, putting out albums annually (Honky Tonkin' is still unfolding after 12 years; So Good It Hurts contains two or three of their best songs). They toured with a lineup that expanded and contracted like the bellows of Rico Bell's (occasional) accordion, and they toured relentlessly, like Nazareth or something. There seemed no stopping them. In 1989 they finally signed with a major label and released their arena-filling juggernaut, The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll. Soon teenage headbangers everywhere, gleefully ignoring the song's impeccably dialectical meta-critique, were body-slamming to "Memphis, Egypt": "Destroy your safe and happy lives, before it is too late....Up in the rafters a rope is dangling, spots before the eyes of rock 'n' roll...." It entered heavy rotation on all broadcast media. The band got rich and fat and loathsome. It was hard to remember them as young rebel poets from Leeds in view of the gaseous V.I.P.-lounge hair balls they had become.
Well, no, actually. Rock 'n' Roll was cast adrift, rudderless and unprompted, by its major label. It never entered the purview of teenage headbangers anywhere. By that time the band had a back catalogue as rich, profound, and various as that of any outfit twice their age, but to little profit. They proceeded as they always had, by cargo van and word of mouth. The closest they ever came to an arena was an exhilarating show in Central Park that seems like yesterday but my calendar tells me occurred in 1991. They did have a strong following among critics, although rock critics, as cautious as politicians, are terrified of backing the wrong horse; being labeled a critical favorite is only tenable for about a year, after which it becomes the ticket to oblivion. Incredibly, the Mekons persisted, despite partially migrating to Chicago, pursuing other projects, coming together at intervals, releasing records almost in secret. Some grand things have ensuedthe album Curse of the Mekons, the single "Millionaire," chunks of Pussy, King of the Pirates (their collaboration with the lamented Kathy Acker), and the odd song here and therebut overall the decade has not been kind to the Mekons. Parcels of oomph and conviction have been mislaid in dressing rooms and gas stations. They might have hit bottom with last year's borderline-unlistenable Me, on which they appeared to be toying with some kind of techno-ambient sterility that suited them like socks on a rooster.