Where Were You?
Village Voice, September 8 - 14, 1999
Leeds Icons Sell Out Garden; Get Out of This World Alive
The Headline Above Is a Lie
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 or 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 unrhymed-prosy 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 Sheffield-no, 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 unpromoted, 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 ensued-the 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 there-but 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.
Hen's Teeth-two collections of outtakes, alternates, and B-sides-appear as a mixed signal. Such things get issued either when a band is stuck and wants to squeeze some dollars from the troops to tide it over, or by way of a last wave from the ocean surface before it clambers down to Davy Jones's locker. The cover photos, though, show lively Mekons cavorting merrily onstage within the last year or so, and at least one number (a properly hypnotic cover of the Kinks' raga-drone "Fancy") is brand new. The first volume actually manages to be the best Mekons album in ages, doing justice to all facets of their complex personality. It's been in heavy rotation on my CD player for months now, although I note that the two best numbers, the propulsive "Orpheus" and the quietly devastating "Now We Have the Bomb," both derive from the 1996 CD-book package United, which I couldn't afford to buy (and which, ironically enough, I only ever saw for sale at the anarchist bookstore on Avenue B). Other first rate tracks, such as the typically rueful Greenhalgh number "Cowboy Boots" and the patented Timms faux-confession "The Ballad of Sally," seem to have simply been cast overboard in the late 1980s, when they were writing so many great songs there wasn't enough vinyl in the world to contain them.
So does Hen's Teeth represent a final garage sale of unclaimed artifacts? Is this, he gasped, the end of the Mekons? Being a fan of the Mekons has always entailed some identification with their story, which is a story of self-invention but lacks those other Horatio Algerian qualities, notably piety and material success. It does involve continually being knocked down and getting back up again (insert Chumbawamba reference here)-not exactly masochism, or at least no more than every body's workaday masochism. The Mekons have brought poetry, sexiness, and panache to the theme of getting by and making do, an adult theme if there ever was one and an appropriate development from the anti-glam our self-determination of 1977. Given that the prevailing myth these days concerns the effort less acquisition of insane wealth, with the corollary that anyone without money is dirt, those of us who are dirt and fated to remain that way can appreciate having a pop group to call our own, as a kind of home team. That said, you can't exactly blame the Mekons for wishing to win enough of a prize in the pop sweep stakes to live on and continue working. With rents being what they are, we may be witnessing the end of bohemia as we've known and loved it for 170-odd years; the Hobson's choice between day job and mass appeal will confront everyone sooner or later. But even furthest down on their luck, the Mekons have never broached self-pity. They've cursed and muttered and cracked jokes and prophesized, and done all these things rollicking and roaring. Their failure has come to look triumphant, and never more so than in the current climate of vile success.