PRINT September 1996


The Mekons

IT’S A COMPLIMENT to say that virtually everything in the Mekons United catalogue reads like a practical joke. Of course, there really must be a Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland, Florida, where THE MEKONS—that rowdy, collectivistic, erstwhile punk band founded in Leeds in 1977—hung their group-made paintings and other visual and verbal effluvia this spring. But despite the catalogue’s posh design and the genuine Mekons CD slipped in the back sleeve, Mekons United gleefully begs to be interrogated for its authenticity, if not its authorship.

This is, no doubt, just as the band, or more exactly its longest-standing members, Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh, intended. The former’s winkingly devious handprint is particularly evident here, despite the Mekons’ frequent effort to erase questions of who does what. Still, one wonders what clever mind exactly is responsible for “Colin and Carol Stewart.” In the catalogue these aging, self-important lefties swap overwrought correspondence on the Mekons’ relationship to crusty critical issues, unleashing sentences like “I agree that any ’half awake cultural practitioner’ such as the Mekons will indeed be aware of the centrality of theoretical analysis but it also seems to be that there is a tightrope to be walked here.”

True sources of other work are equally opaque, whether it’s an excerpt from the Mekons’ heavily footnoted novel-in-progress Living in Sin (“selected by Colin Stewart”); a spectacularly crabby tour diary from 1988; or reproductions of Mekons-made artwork, including a cluster of Pollock-esque Elvis portraits and the “Cold War Hank” Williams series. There are also miscellaneous art-historical riffs on song titles or lyrics, and samples of the band’s R. Crumb-meets-Day-of-the-Dead style of portraiture, which manages to make even goddesslike Mekons singer Sally Timms look vaguely desiccated.

Another of these half-ill visages belongs to Sophie Bourbon, a mid-’80s specter of the ultimate sodden Mekons groupie. Letters from Sophie’s “daughter,” “Anne Bourbon-Levinsky,” running alongside the main texts, provide the comic highlight of Mekons United. “Please don’t send any more money to that band! You don’t know anything about them (really) they could just be a bunch of total losers,” and “They are using you! How do you expect me to feel? Yeah that’s my mom’s house, the one with the hammer and sickle hanging in the window.”

Vying for excellence in the marginalia department are frequent excerpts from Mekons lyrics, nearly all of them surviving quite nicely without bashing musical accompaniment. Less stellar are the thickets of dense rhetoric, even in jest. Truly, the Mekons are most alive when they dance lightly on heady concerns, when their considerable humor accompanies the dispensing of ideas. As longtime Mekons supporter Greil Marcus observed in a 1986 Artforum piece (reproduced here): “in a world ruled by a language one refuses to speak, they are a reminder there are still people one might want to meet.”

Katherine Dieckmann