Loser on a Roll

Jon Langford Makes Friends and Influences People

Impressive as all this extracurricular activity is, however, it clearly stems from Langford's music—unless you want to say that like his music it stems from his spirit, which just gets larger as the responsibilities mount and the years roll on. Although his singing gained bravura with 1998's solo-with-backup Skull Orchard—so that his version of fellow Welshman Tom Jones's "Delilah" is a vocal peak of the new death-penalty set, murderous misogynist claptrap and jolly good waltz all at once—he's obviously not much of a musician qua musician. His tunes are as pragmatic as his words are inspired. So in the grand punk tradition of the Leeds miscreants who "yelled" (his word) "Never Been in a Riot" and other early Mekons piss-takes, he continues to trade in mood, energy, worldview, and suchlike intangibles: his appetite for collaboration, his font of laugh lines, his unflagging conviction that democracy and socialism are one and the same, his simple belief that honky tonk is "Never Been in a Riot" grown up, his fusion of cynicism with optimism and purism with Tom Jones. Intellectually and emotionally, these are complex achievements beloved by a brainy rock and roll cult. But, scandalously, few ordinary culturati know he exists, for the usual rock and roll reason: Langford's bedrock assumption that complexity is couched most poetically in forms so crude an ordinary country musician can handle them.

OK, maybe not most poetically—maybe just most politically. With most rock and rollers that's metaphor; with Langford it's fact. The Mekons' communalism and anti-corporatism is fleshed out by lyrics that name ideas (see Mekons: Hello Cruel World: Selected Lyrics, Verse Chorus Press), with depressed co-leader Tom Greenhalgh the real extremist even if he's less literal ideologically. Though Greenhalgh's counterpart Dean Schlabowske understands economic oppression (check the traveling salesman's lament "Circle Tour"), it's the Wacos' populist form that tells. They're a goof that evolved into the toughest, funniest faux honky tonk band in the land, on a label Langford was pleased to learn attracts enough flag-wavers to get flack for The Executioner's Last Song. But he freights the band's form with intimations of mortality Haggard and Jones would never have touched in honky tonk's mythic heyday—Electric Waco Chair, for instance, begins, "You can be the last one standing as the surface of the earth/Melts like a chocolate bar/Just throw me out with the garbage/I'll never get that far." And lately he's brought it up a notch. Entertaining another barbecue crowd back in Edenic October 2000, he demonstrated his surefire method for foiling radio bleepsters by inserting a "Dubya" wherever a cussword belonged, he ended the Wacos' 2002 New Deal with "The Lie," a portrait of Dubya so cold-eyed it could get our president excommunicated from a better religion.

Since November 2000, what's been most moving about the Waco Brothers has been watching their unrehearsed, high-kicking ruckus, complete with jokes beery and unbowed, thrive atop the political misery the joker found as hard to take as the rest of us. And at the Merc in January, with Iraq looming, something broke when Langford interrupted a hilarious birthday celebration for bassist Allan Jones with a long intro: "You shouldn't judge people by what they do at the end of their lives. I'm older now, and I've mellowed. But this is an old Neil Young song, called 'Revolution Blues.' " He paused and pondered. "There really ought to be a revolution now. You ought to march down to D.C. and put their heads on pikes. There's no excuse for what they're doing. Nelson Mandela is right—there's a holocaust, and there's no nation more responsible than America. I mean, I'm an American now, but your politics suck more than ever." After the song, which you can believe rocked, the hijinks resumed.

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

"History is written by the winners/This is a loser's song," goes another Electric Waco Chair track that's become a signature piece lately. Its almost self-explanatory title (and refrain): "Walking on Hell's Roof Looking at the Flowers." Helen wishes he didn't do so many benefits, and Langford doesn't see much point in playing Iraq rallies where everyone is already antiwar. He'd rather funnel a little money to the quiet, effective death penalty movement. "A bit of me thinks, Well, what can you do, fill your life up with stuff and die. But another part of me thinks you might as well tackle stuff." You probably know about those parts. Keep them working in tandem and you might go on a roll yourself.

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