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."

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.

"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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