PRINT October 1986


Can we talk?

THE MEKONS: CURRENTLY SIX TO ten members, including fiddler and accordionist. On stage they wear cowboy hats and sing “Help Me Make It through the Night.” Founded 1977, Leeds, England—first punk band in town, now the last. First record: ”Never Been in a Riot“ (a violent lament). Leftist, feminist, clowning, alcoholic, crude: ”Those who couldn’t play tried to learn, and those who could tried to forget.”

Two or three original members remain; dozens have come and gone. Lacking anything that could be called a hit, their very persistence across a decade marginalizes them. As pop stars who never were, they have nothing to revive; “Tenth Anniversary of Punk” retrospectives ignored them. As an anachronism, though, today they are gaining strength. Fear and Whiskey may have been last year’s best pop record; The Edge of the World (Sin, UK) may be this year’s. The two discs in one: history is a nightmare from which the Mekons are trying to awake, and when they do they’re still drunk.

To the first Mekons, “punk” meant collective self-realization through playful art against a backdrop of social strife; meant an unfinished utopia in which the freedom to say everything would lead to the freedom to do everything. The present-day Mekons are like any casualties of a defeated revolution—nervous, on good terms with oblivion, filled with rage and guilt. A celebration of the values that keep them alive can turn instantly into a curse; mocked by each day’s news of the adventures of the powerful, those values rob the Mekons of peace of mind. They’re like any losers who won the gift of history: in a crucial public moment, they found themselves, but, as A.J.P. Taylor said of the revolutions of 1848, it was a moment when “history reached its turning point and failed to turn.” So now they live by their humor, and their humor is what used to be called ”survivor’s humor,” before “survivor” became a reference to someone between jobs.

A Mekons song begins from the premise that the singer is oppressed by everything that is empowered. It includes the corollary that the world could care less: self-pity becomes sardonic self-hate. When the Mekons rail from the stage against US funding of the Nicaraguan contras, they mean it, of course, but it’s also a hopeless joke, and the joke’s on them,and they know it—that’s part of what they mean to say. The denunciation is real, but what its tone dramatizes is less outrage than powerlessness.

By the same token, a Mekons bad joke, even a cheap play on words, can change into a moment of passion, of resolve. There’s something irreducibly stirring about “Hello Cruel World,” the mournful stomp that opens The Edge of the World—it’s in the drum s secretly building the beat, the accordion picking up the melody and running with it, the drone of the guitar vibrating like an autonomous wire, in the way the self—parody in the voice of the man singing falls away as the story he’s telling takes on flesh. The song is set in a war, or a raid, or a riot; the singer has to step over bodies to reach the woman he wants to sing to. The world is cruel because it’s just a meaningless assemblage of empowered facts—this broken body; that one—facts so powerful they limit one’s choice of response to acceptance or denial: “Ignore these trembling hands / Don’t think of this as blood / I know it is.“ The notion of action, of will and result, seems meaningless. ”Hello, cruel world,” the man says dully; “It’s a cruel world,” trills the woman, with the sympathy of reason: ‘twas ever thus. ”Come on, cruel world,” the man says, suddenly turning the song around as the music lades, opening up the struggles, doubts, retreats, and occasional joys played out on the rest of the album—“Show me what you’ve got."

The paradox of the Mekons’ music is that their pathetic oppression—their reports on the wasteland Thatcherism has made of their England, their fantasies of Reaganist holocaust, their cultivation of their powerlessness, of their self-proclaimed status as isolates, reprobates,ranters,exiles, castaways (by the sound of their voices, they only have to set foot in a place to make it a desert island)—is never solipsistic. Every song pointedly dramatizes a listener; every song is an attempt to find someone to talk to. The conversation may be blocked, imaginary, hopeless, pointless, or even refused; that does not make it false. Mekons records are an attempt to make the falsity of a choice between acceptance or denial real—as they say on stage, “Do you want to be part of the crime, or do you want to be part of the punishment?” The records are also an attempt to escape that choice: to live not as an object but as a subject of history, even when history has passed you by. The records are a dramatization of the wish to make history, to live as if something actually depended on what one says or does—even to the point of “Garage d’Or,” which I take to mean ”garage door” in the sense of what you have to close when you’re going to asphyxiate yourself: the song, a woman’s monologue, is a suicide note.

More than ten years ago, writing about the Band, I said that many young Americans had spent the years preceding the group’s 1968 Music from Big Pink teaching themselves to feel like exiles in their own country, and that the Band’s music, fashioned out of old styles, out of what had endured, was made as a way back into it. The Mekons are a lot like the Band in their seamless melding of rock ’ n’ roll, old country music, and ancient British folk music, and the dedication of The Edge of the World to the Band ’s Richard Manuel, this year a suicide, makes the connection explicit: "See you down the road,” the sleeve reads. But the world has changed. Music from Big Pink left community in its wake; the Mekons, coworkers and friends, may be seeking community through the dramatization of what it means to feel like an exile in one’s own country.

As a listener, as a fan, by “one” I mean myself. One is exiled in one’s own country not when one cannot understand the language, but when one cannot bring oneself to speak it. Last month in th is column, I tried to confront a language I couldn’t bring myself to speak: the language of America 2040, a sci-fi paperback based on the premise that the nuclear extinction of the planet would be OK so long as a spaceship carrying representatives of “the American spirit” got off in time, and the Language of U.S.A. Combat Heroes, a new magazine celebrating the cinematic exploits of Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone as real history I argued then, and a month later I still believe, that this is the language of our time and place: an empowered oppression, no matter that the language is born dead, that it can’t develop beyond the syntax of a T-shirt slogan: "JOIN TIlE MARINE CORPS / VISIT FOREIGN LANDS / SEE RARE AND EXOTIC PLACES / MEET NEW AND UNUSUAL PEOPLE / AND KILL THEM.”

Remember that one? In 1968, in the Vietnam era, the slogan appeared on antiwar bumperstickers: it was an irony, an attempt to negate what it described. With opposition to the Vietnam war grow ing by the day, the bumpersticker irony was empowered: talking backward, it said what it meant. Today, worn by Marines on whorehouse leave from their foreign bases, the slogan only speaks forward: now it is an affirmation. Now, the irony empowers—absolves—those who may do the killing. The Joke is on the antiwar activist who, long ago, invented the slogan.

Context is all: because the world has changed, one old slogan has its meaning reversed; an older slogan simply comes back to life. Consider this T-shirt motto, much favored by Americans working with the Nicaraguan contras: “KILL ’EM ALL. LET GOD SORT ’EM OUT.” The derivation of this T-Shirt (no doubt soon to be marketed in the back pages of U.S.A. Combat Heroes) is interesting. In 1209, at the beginning of the Albigensian Crusade, Pope Innocent III’s war of extermination against the Cathars of southern France, a Catholic commander asked how he might distinguish believers in the true Church from the heretics. ”Kill them all,” came the reply: "God will recognize His own.” The new language may be born dead, as a language; as power, it only has to kill to stay alive.

So here we are, almost a millennium later, in Nicaragua, or in a San Francisco night club with the Mekons on stage, the fiddler draped in a Sandinista T-shirt bearing an old Spanish Republican slogan: “NO PASARAN” (they shall not pass ). The Mekons make clowns of them selves; some of them are too thin, some are too fat; their cow boy regalia looks ridiculous. For Richard Manuel, they play the Band’s “The Shape I’m In” (Save yourself, or save your brother / Looks like it’s / One or the other“). There are perhaps fifty people there (half of them on the guest list); the critic for the local daily passes on the show. But the show is alive; it is funny; it is warming. There are moments of terror, when a void opens up and the musicians seem ready to dive into it, but when they play ”Bastard“ (”All I really need / Is somewhere to hide“), or ”King Arthur“ (His mind was filled with memories / Of friends long gone by / . . . Scattered all over from Newport to Leeds / People hiding, people like bees / Talking of unity, crippled by fate / Divided and lonely, too weak and too late”), the feeling isn’t so scary as it is on The Edge of the World, because there are other people there. The voices are as thick as the words are corny; both feel like real talk.

Maybe all winning is simple, all losing complex. The language of Fear and Whiskey and The Edge of the World is as uncertain as the language of U.S.A. Combat Heroes is plain. The Mekons can say anything, and do nothing; Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone can say nothing, and do anything. As the Clash once sang, the language of Norris and Stallone “is the currency”; the problem is, there’s nothing I want it can buy. The Mekons are a reminder that there is some thing else: in a world ruled by a language one refuses to speak, they are a reminder there are still people one might want to meet. How one talks to them once one meets them is unclear, but the Mekons have begun the conversation.

Greil Markus is a contributor to The New Grove Dictionary of American Music. His column appears monthly in Artforum.