Printed with kind permission from Sonicnet.
New York Reviews
The Mekons, in association with Vito Acconci @ DIA Center for the Arts, October 10, 1995
Michael Azerrad Reports
The Mekons are a rag-tag bunch of intellectual thirtysomething post-punk legends, well beloved by bespectacled rock critics and other similarly inclined folks who nonetheless were lucky enough to get real jobs. This show is only the latest bizarre chapter in the Mekons' strange career, so strange that Option magazine used to have a regular column devoted to exclusively to the band's trials and tribulations.
So they're doing this art installation with Vito Acconci, a veteran conceptual artist whose resume includes an artwork in which he lay under an inclined ramp and allegedly masturbated as people walked over it. Hey, it's a living.
With that title, I'm expecting shades of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, Andy Warhol's visionary mid-Sixties multimedia circus featuring theVelvet Underground. The artsy factor is compounded by the fact that it takes place at DIA Center for the Arts, a large and respected progressive downtown Manhattan gallery, one of the first to flee now touristy SoHo for the cheaper environs of Chelsea about a mile northwest.
Catapulted out of some abysmal doldrums by the most ass-kickin' tracks off Exile on Main Street (better than a barrel o' Xanax) and sporting one of my favorite cardigans, I venture forth on the number 10 bus uptown to DIA. One simply does not take a taxi to see the Mekons, even at a hoity-toity gallery gig.
This is definitely not a rock show. It's in a big fancy gallery. On the first floor, there's an installation by a woman named Jessica Stockholder called "Your Skin in this Weather Bourne Eye Thread and Swollen Perfume." Or something like that. It's a rambling mass of big papier-mache lumps, shadeless lamps, and piles of milk crates that takes up half of a huge white room. Photorealist painter Gerhard Richter and fluorescent light bulb sculptor Dan Flavin have installations upstairs. We're talking serious heavy duty Manhattan art scene here.
It's a sold out show. It's not a rock crowd, either. Just about everybody is attired in varying shades of grey and they're even older than the usual Mekons crowd, which really is saying something.
We walk up the freshly painted stairs (painted grey, naturally) one flight to the performance space, another huge white room. And there, on six different platforms, each about five feet high, arranged in a big hexagon, are the Mekons. Singer-guitarist Jon Langford is up there drinking a Beck's. Forty feet across the room is singer Sally Timms. Accordionist Rico Bell is on the platform to Langford's right, drummer Steve Goulding to his left. Goulding is across from bassist Sarah Corina, Bell faces singer-guitarist Tom Greenhalgh. The audience is divided into six sections around the hexagon by some radial white muslin partitions about three feet high.
In the middle, in a six-sided island, is a woman who sits at a computer screen and a guy mixing sound surrounded by electronic equipment. He turns out to be Casey Rice, who's worked with Chicago luminaries like Liz Phair andTortoise. Six gigantic sound baffles hang parallel to the ceiling, making a second ceiling; they're suspended from an ornate system of cables and pulleys. Acconci, attired in trendy black suit, holds court with smartly coiffed young people, also in trendy black suits.
The house goes dark. A recorded voice -- Acconci's -- recites some pretentious spoken word, something about, "When you have your tongue up someone's asshole, no one can hear you scream." I'll just take his word for it.
Thankfully, drummer Steve Goulding starts wacking out a beat. Then a little wall rises up and blocks the audience's view of the techies, while the ceiling slowly drops to a couple of feet above our heads. The drums stop, the bass picks out a line. The walls rise up and the accordion player starts playing, solo. Each band member plays about 64 bars alone with the walls and ceiling changing configuration for each musician. Sometimes you can see, sometimes you can't. Sometimes all you can see is the silhouette of the musician in your area.
Acconci's disembodied voice intones something like, "The loss of history makes them curious and continuously horny." I am amazed at this insight, because just the other day I was thinking about how the loss of history does indeed make me incredibly randy. It is then that I notice two things: one, that the woman behind the computer screen is controlling the rising and falling of the screens and two, that she is very cute. I would like to discuss the loss of history with her, but she is clearly busy.
Now the musicians are playing in seemingly arbitrarily combinations of two. There's no P.A. so whoever you're closest to is who you hear best. The walls and ceiling are still moving with each transition. To me, it seems like a comment on multi-track recording, where music is recorded piecemeal, never all at once. The sensation of alienation and disconnection is heightened by the fact that you can't always see all the performers at once and that they're physically very distant from each other. More than a comment, it seems like an indictment.
As Timms sings the melody, ripped straight from that Phil Spector jam "I Will Follow Him," I recognize the song as "100% Song" from the Curse of the Mekons album. Instead of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, this is more like Jean-Luc Godard's One Plus One, which documented, in cut-up style, the creation of the Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil." Bits and pieces of the song are introduced and gradually add to the final product. Since the song is played in strange permutations and combinations, but never all at once, it's also a lot like dub reggae.
"This is a simulation of a song/ Are you ashamed or what?" Timms sings. No, not at all. I mean, this is kind of cool.
Whoah. A couple of members of PJ Harvey's band are here. No PJ, though.
8:35 They still haven't all played at the same time yet. This is so Sixties/Nineties. Multimedia rock, under the pretext of conceptual minimalist art, for a moneyed bourgeois audience. It is precisely this kind of observation which makes me realize that the SonicNet review format is the ideal mode of criticism for the typically lonely rock critic - you can actually publish all the insightful little observations you would normally have whispered loudly into your date's ear.
Langford sings, "Jesus walking in the garden/ We'd like to thank him for this song/ We'd like to thank him for these beers/ We'd like to thank him for our careers."
Cool -- a free psychedelic section with Langford and the drummer. The soundman gets into it, echoing and sampling bits and pieces of sound and sending them ricocheting around the room. It's a neat little sonic oasis. And quite a relief -- I just couldn't imagine a band as rough n' ready as the Mekons sticking to such a tight script for very long.
The vocalists all speak fragments of the lyrics. Langford, having consumed his Beck's, is working on a Guinness; fittingly, his line is "How come you taste so good." Jeez, the Stones references are really starting to pile up tonight. Langford gargles his stout into the microphone. I am getting thirsty.
The lights go down for another spoken word interlude: "I'm just a voice crying in the wilderness, for the bulldozers are coming over the horizon." Greenhalgh sings an eerie falsetto version of the song.
The lights go dark for another spoken word piece. "Nobody move," the voice says. "At the same time, everybody dance." Nobody dances. But then the entire band finally, finally lays into the song. And yet we're hemmed in on three sides by walls of white muslin. A big finish and the lights go dark and then up again as the walls come down.
It's over. A question-and-answer period ensues, but nobody says anything interesting. I go home, humming the melody, seemingly suspended on a cushion of air. And they say it's only rock & roll.
SonicNet music editor Michael Azerrad is the author of Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana, and most recently wrote the text for Screaming Life, a collection of the photography of Charles Peterson.
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