Loser on a Roll

Jon Langford Makes Friends and Influences People

For those keeping count, Jon Langford revealed May 8 at Galapagos that he hadn't actually released four albums in 2002 and early 2003, as I had previously reported. The correct figure is five. This is also the number of bands he fronted in New York over the same span. The fifth was the Ship & Pilot, featuring longtime bassist to the stars and former Mekon-Killer Shrew Tony Maimone, longtime Mekons-Wacos drummer and new New York immigrant Steve Goulding, and, embodying the spread of Langfordism across the generations, violinist Jean Cook. I'd never heard of Cook, a 27-year-old Korean American who bowed away with astringent verve and infectious delight. Until last year, neither had Langford, although Cook knows his book so well she also sang backup, reading off a cheat sheet when her fearless leader threw in something new. A ruddy, stocky, moonfaced 45, said leader has been completely gray for years—"I look like Teddy Kennedy, feel like Bobby," he noted at 1998's CMJ barbecue—and sports a Dashiell Hammett mustache. But he sure doesn't act grizzled. The only problem with the Ship & Pilot's supple set was the yuks, which since Langford never repeats a bit are always a crapshoot.

The album I'd missed digitizes a vinyl limited edition Langford and Sally Timms put together in 2000 for Bloodshot, also home of the Waco Brothers, the only alt-country band to feature a former member of Jesus Jones, and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, who have backed Langford and a cast of hundreds on everything from Bob Wills remakes to attacks on capital punishment. Featuring more solo turns than duets, Songs of False Hope and High Values is the spottiest of Langford's recent projects, including number six, The Executioner's Last Songs: Volume 2 & 3, due June 17. But it exhumes both "Joshua Gone Barbados," an Eric Von Schmidt-cum-Joseph Spence genre piece about a strike gone wrong that caught Langford's ear on an old Johnny Cash album, and Timms's metaphysical 1988 cover of Dolly Parton's "Down From Dover." "Joshua Gone Barbados" was a special treat for 60 or so Galapagans, some of whom had also attended the headliner's reading-with-guitar there the previous night and/or his Big Cat Gallery opening on Orchard Street from six to nine. Langford has a busy schedule, devoted fans, and many friends.

Including me, I guess—I'd fed him lunch in my apartment earlier that day, the third meal we'd shared since September. "I like everyone," he'd remarked at dinner after the EMP Pop Conference in Seattle in April, and although I distinctly recall the exception to that rule ("We really like all these people—" he protested too much to a packed house before reading from his scabrous history-of-rock comic Great Pop Things at KGB a few years ago, "except Sting, of course"), there's a lot of truth to it. I rarely socialize with artists, but Langford is a good friend or warm acquaintance of four or five otherwise unconnected friends of mine. He's appeared in a student documentary about me, hired me for liner notes, and blurbed one of my books. So don't believe me when I say I've rarely if ever witnessed an artist on this kind of roll. I dare you.

Has yet to fall off the edge of the world
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Has yet to fall off the edge of the world

What's your secret, I asked in Seattle, where he'd delivered a career-memoir variation on a lecture he bent to a Chicago theme for John Hodgman's "Little Gray Book" series at Galapagos, then booked a club gig for good measure. "Two kids," he riposted, and he wasn't just being funny. Langford emigrated to Chicago for love in 1991, following his girlfriend Helen Tsatsos, who'd returned to her hometown from France for graduate school. They married, bought a house in an unhip North Side neighborhood, and had two boys, now five and one; after the second, Helen quit her job as an architect. Thus the postpunk lefty turned breadwinner which rather than forcing him into awkward compromises or tired hackwork sparked a tremendous effulgence. Langford has been a drinker—he's cut down, he says, because kids and hangovers don't mix—but never a slacker. Between his dad, a schoolteacher, and his mom, a coal miner's daughter, he has a worker's instincts. But his current productivity could shame an efficiency expert.

From last summer's Mekons comeback OOOH! and 25th-anniversary tour, from his single foray with his Toronto fans the Sadies and the many with his Chicago pals the Wacos, you'd think Langford was a road dog. But Langford doesn't tour more than a week a month—he'd miss his kids too much. Instead, unlike so many art-school rockers, he exploits his graphic gift. The ace lyricist and sometime lecturer didn't script Great Pop Things, he drew it, and most days he works not in a studio but in the disused room at a Chicago T-shirt factory where he fabricates the paintings that pay his mortgage: drawings of cowboy or country-western photographs that are affixed to plywood, colored in acrylic, pastel, and Sharpie, bedizened with shellac, and distressed with scratches, Wite-Out, skulls, dollar signs, and other subversive messages. They're not big, and mostly go for under a grand, cheap in a unique-object economy otherwise beyond his means. "I can make one," he says, "but I couldn't buy one."

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