In the Whirlaway Tavern, near the corner of Kedzie and Fullerton, the conversation between Sally Timms and Jon Langford keeps getting sidetracked by the American Music Awards on television. LeAnn Rimes is holding the last notes of a syrupy song with a sleepy-eyed grin.
"A 14-year-old girl," Timms notes.
"Oh, God," Langford groans.
Maria the bartender comes over to refill the gin and tonics. "You working hard?" she asks Langford, who says he isn't. "What happened to my tape?"
Langford's been bragging about his friend and band mate, accordion player Rico Bell, who titled a song after the bar. "Rico's coming," he tells her. "He's coming next week."
The girl on the TV screen takes a bow, and the bartender asks Sally Timms, "You like this kind of music?"
"Nah." Timms hesitates. "Well, it's all right."
Timms and Langford's band, the Mekons, has been making music for two decades, but the awards program has almost nothing to do with their careers. As a rock group they've won enough accolades to perform in art museums, but never enough money to keep from driving themselves from show to show in a rented van.
Right now they're discussing Timms's recent relocation to Chicago. Currently half the band lives here, the other half in London.
"I wouldn't mind living in New York," Timms says.
"You can't afford it," says Langford.
Timms ignores him. "Yeah, New York or Los Angeles."
Langford begins to laugh.
"What's so funny?"
"I can't see you in LA," he says. "You'd need implants."
"I have them," she replies with a quiet indignity. "They're just in the wrong spot."
On television, LeAnn Rimes has been replaced by Pat Boone, dressed like an aging Tom of Finland.
"Who the hell is that?" someone across the bar asks.
During this past year--the Mekons' 20th--the band made a short tour of Boston and New York. They arrived in New York for the opening of their art exhibit, "Mekons United," at a SoHo gallery. When they returned to Chicago, they resumed recording their next album, tentatively titled Me. Then they kicked off the Museum of Contemporary Art's performance season with Pussy, King of the Pirates, a theater piece based on their 1996 album with writer Kathy Acker (both the play and the record were derived from Acker's novel of the same name).
Before that show, Langford told me Pussy reminded him of British holiday revues. "It's like a pantomime, you know, a musical play. It's a seasonal thing after Christmas, traditional that every town has a big pantomime." He said the best of these shows feature a lot of shouting, audience participation, corny jokes, and cross-dressing. "We're going to do it like a proper pantomime. I'm not quite sure how that's done, but we've got the cross-dressing down."
Diving into a project without much planning has been business as usual for the Mekons. "If we know how it will end up," says Langford, "why bother doing it?"
The Mekons formed in May 1977, six months after the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Damned played at Leeds Polytechnic. Langford, Tom Greenhalgh, and the group's other founding members were art students at Leeds University. Do-it-yourself record labels were popping up throughout England, and bands were being formed dozens at a time. One punk zine published three basic guitar chords and instructed readers to start their own groups.
The first Mekons singles--"Where Were You?" / "I'll Have to Dance Then on My Own" and "Never Been in a Riot" / "32 Weeks, Heart and Soul"--were released on the Fast label in 1978. In May of the following year critic Mary Harron asserted that rock was the only form of music that can be done better by people who can't play their instruments: "This idea underlay punk," she wrote, "but the Mekons were the first to base a group on that principle alone." When Langford says he was the band's best musician, he's not bragging. "'Cause I was a horrible drummer."
The success of the Sex Pistols convinced major record labels that there was money to be made in punk music. Virgin Records signed the Mekons, but the sales of their first album, 1979's The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen (the cover depicts a chimp at a typewriter), didn't meet Virgin's expectations. "It got a bit nasty," Langford says. "There was no promotion. Punk bands were disappearing under the major labels."
"It was just these horrible gigs," recalls Greenhalgh. "We were playing for packs of skinheads. People were getting stomped. It got ugly. After a time we didn't want to play live anymore. Not like that." Greenhalgh got his nose broken at a benefit show for Rock Against Racism. "I don't know, someone came backstage and punched me in the face."
While the Mekons were formed under the banner of punk, pinning them to one category has been nearly impossible since. Over the years they've played rock, pop, reggae, and country and western, making them problematic for major labels and PR departments, which favor neatly packaged commodities. In more than one account the band has been described as a socialist collective. But while politics has always been an influence, they don't take things too seriously. They see themselves as an ensemble that's free enough to go in several directions at once: they'll have four singers, two guitars, an accordion, drums, violin, lute, tape loops, bass, and keyboards. They've always prided themselves on doing what they want--be it performing a lesbian pirate show, writing a collaborative novel, or touring only when they feel like it.
On a Wednesday morning in September, Timms is heading south in a rental van with drummer Steve Goulding.
"Are we picking up Rico?" Goulding asks.
"No, he's just going to shag his way out to Boston. Probably get there before us."
Rico Bell (aka Eric Bellis) is the official playboy of the Mekons. Timms and Goulding are the designated drivers.
"We try to keep as few band members from driving as we can," Timms says, "because they're English--other side of the road, you know. And they're crap drivers as well. Mitch is to never drive us again. It's like he can't judge distances. He never returned the van once without putting some gash in it. It gets expensive."
Greenhalgh, Bell, and bassist Sarah Corina are waiting at Kingsize Sound Labs on Western Avenue. Bell looks like he either just woke up or didn't sleep last night. He's drinking a beer. While the band gathers their equipment, Corina finds that one of her amps is broken. Regretably, they'll have to pack their biggest amp--five feet tall and three feet wide. This will take up much of the room in the back of the van.
The van is already filled to capacity, and when they get to Boston they'll pick up two more band members, Lu Edmonds and Mitch Flaco. This would be the complete group if violinist Susie Honeyman were coming along. "People think there's really been dozens of people in the band," Langford says. "The Mekons Story led them to believe that. We just listed every person we could think of as a Mekon." The band's lineup has pretty much remained the same for the last 14 years. Members have drifted in and out for recording sessions and tours. Corina's the newest Mekon; she's been in the band since 1991. "There's just been dozens and dozens of pseudonyms," Langford says.
The Mekons Story, which boasted "20 Great Songs--Over 60 Minutes Playing Time," covered the band's history from 1977 to '82, a sort of greatest hits for a band that was always on the fringe. The hits were never hits, mostly unreleased, unfinished, unslick pieces with a narrator drunkenly reading from the band's contract with Virgin Records in between the songs. "The Mekons are the most revolutionary group in the history of rock 'n' roll," critic Lester Bangs wrote in the liner notes. "They are also the finest artists ever to have graced this admittedly somewhat degenerate form with the grace of their aesthetic sensibilities, rarefied as a glimpse through a butterfly's wing."
"We got sacked by Virgin," says Langford, who recalls some talk among band members of returning to college to "get proper degrees." But Langford and Greenhalgh decided they'd quit school for good. "Everybody else had finished." Mark White left the band in 1983. Andy Corrigan had quit two years earlier to be a tour manager for some heavy-metal group that no one can remember.
"That's almost like a different band now," says Langford. "There was a big break between '81 and '84. We didn't do much for those couple years, just kept playing and recording in a bedroom. Tried some gigs with a drum machine, but that didn't really work." The break brought a change in direction. "It took about three years to get around to doing what we really wanted to do," Langford says. "We were really pleased. We wanted to make music."
The Mekons are somewhere in Indiana when a demo tape is shoved into the cassette player. A drum machine accompanies a guitar and accordion. Possible harmonies are hummed. The one song that catches everybody's attention has fairly minimal lyrics that are repeated throughout: "Whiskey sex shack / Whiskey sex shack / Whiskey sex shack / Mountains come and mountains do."
"Have you lost your mind?" Timms politely asks Greenhalgh halfway through the song. "What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"
"Sounds like Big Audio Dynamite," Langford says. The comparison is not a compliment. Nevertheless, by the end of the song everyone's singing along.
Langford has to return some phone calls at the first couple stops for fuel or a rest room along I-90. Everyone else stretches their legs and grabs some fast food before climbing back into the van.
At dusk the Mekons stop for dinner somewhere in Pennsylvania. At the gas station across the street, two 12-packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon are purchased along with a full tank of gas. They're usually harsh critics of beer, but after ten hours in a cramped van, Pabst will do.
This will be a relatively short trip with a few long stretches on the road, rather than the usual tour where the drives aren't as long and the gigs are closer together. The Mekons no longer want to do long tours. Most of 1994 was spent touring the U.S., and the trip turned into drudgery, according to most of the band. "It's the reason we don't tour much anymore," Langford says. "Seems to get futile at the end of it. We pile into a van because we can't afford to do anything more. It was just a lot of work." He shrugs.
"I'll tour anytime," Timms says. "I like being on the road."
"Those long tours of the States," Langford winces. "At the end everyone was just tired of each other. We still wanted to be in a band together--we just didn't want to do that."
"We had one drummer with us for a short while," Sarah Corina says. "He was absentminded, like. The van had air-conditioner vents right by the armrests, and no one noticed for like a week he was using the vent for an ashtray. When it eventually got hot out, someone turned on the air-conditioning and all the ashes and cigarette butts from a week before came blowing out onto us. That's sorta typical of when you're on the road."
The next day, at a couple minutes before 5 PM, the van pulls up to the Middle East Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The club's manager, a rotund young man in a glowing orange T-shirt, greets the band at the side door. Mitch Flaco and Lu Edmonds walk out next. Flaco, better known as Mitch the Roadie, is a muscular black man with red-and-green dreadlocks. Edmonds shoves Langford as Mitch gets the conveyor belt running to move the equipment from the back door to the basement stage.
Food from the Middle Eastern restaurant upstairs is set out on the bar, and a tub of beer is placed in the dressing room along with a bottle of tequila and a few bottles of wine. The sound check starts with the drums. Goulding pounds the bass drum until the soundman has a decent level. Then he moves on to the toms, then the floor drum, then the snare and the hi-hat. Corina discovers that her large replacement amp no longer works. The only solution is to borrow an amp from one of the opening bands. Rico Bell is up next. He runs through a couple flurries on the accordion. A kid in the sound booth yells, "Hey, accordion guy, can you go full volume?" Bell looks down at the accordion hanging from his shoulders, confused. "There's no volume on this," he yells back. "It's an accordion."
Timms checks her microphone, and Greenhalgh plays the guitar, keyboard, and a tape loop that's needed for one song. Edmonds checks his saz, a sort of electric Turkish lute. The band runs through a couple songs, and Langford blows a tube in his amp. Mitch gets directions to a guitar shop on the other side of town.
The Mekons keep drinking while the other groups take their sound checks. Time is always plentiful once the band is set. They don't go onstage until midnight. Timms takes a nap in the van. Goulding and Edmonds find a used CD shop. "It's a lot of sitting around and waiting," Bell says. "Like what Charlie Watts said, 'Five years of work and twenty of sitting on your ass.'"
One of the opening bands approaches Langford once their sound check is finished. His spiky gray hair and belly make him look fatherly next to these three skinny art-school types. They explain that they usually finish their shows with the Mekons' song "Memphis, Egypt," and they're wondering if it would be OK to play it this evening.
"God." Langford is genuinely surprised. "When was the last time you played it?"
"Not for a couple weeks."
"Shit, go ahead. We haven't played it in a year."
The dressing room is a cramped little square; its black matte walls are scratched up with band graffiti. A tiny fridge, a sunken couch, a cheap mirror, and a stack of chairs fill the space. The first band has just started their set when the Mekons crack open the tequila. Rico Bell pours shots in Dixie cups and passes them around. Lu Edmonds lifts the bottle as if he's going to make a toast. He dumps a shot or two out on the rug. The others react in horror.
"Have you gone mad?"
Edmonds doesn't see what the problem is.
"See how you feel," Bell reasons, "when we're down to those last few drops."
"It's called libations," Edmonds explains.
The tequila is withheld until he promises not to pour any more onto the rug.
The first two bands play to the backs of a tiny audience. There are loud conversations around the bar. When the Mekons come on, the crowd shifts to the front of the stage, and the club is suddenly packed.
Closing the show, the band stomps through "Curse of the Mekons" and "Memphis, Egypt." The basement is bouncing. The audience knows these songs.
"Destroy your safe and happy lives," Langford growls. "Before it is too late / The battles we fought long and hard / Just not to be consumed by rock 'n' roll."
The stage is a couple feet above a dance floor. A railing runs along the side. At the railing is an extremely drunk man, older than the rest of the audience, maybe a couple years older than the band. Clutching the rail with both hands, he throws his body to the left and then to the right, kicking his legs into the air somewhat in time to the music. The crowd gives him plenty of room to flail. When the final song winds to an end, the man steps over the rail and grabs Greenhalgh's arm. "I never heard of you guys," he yells, "but you kick ass."
Once the lights come up, Timms sells CDs, tapes, and posters from the edge of the stage. Cassettes are given away free with each CD purchase; otherwise they cost two bucks apiece. "'Cause our apartments are full of them," she says.
One fan offers to buy a copy of the set list left on a drum riser. Timms hands the paper over, thinking the request is a bit fanatical.
After the crowd filters out and a good portion of the CDs and tapes are gone, the Mekons retreat to the dressing room and resume drinking tequila and beer. The stage manager in the Day-Glo orange shirt reappears in the doorway. He passes one pay envelope to the Mekons and another to the second band. Mitch is packing equipment into the van.
"OK, folks, thanks a lot," the manager says. "But I need you to start packing up so we can close."
"Yeah, no problem."
No one moves. More beers are opened, and the tequila is passed around the room. The manager returns a couple minutes later, looking as though he knew he was going to have to repeat himself. "Guys, we gotta close up. So if you don't mind..."
The Mekons all concur. They understand. They have to get going, too. They have to be in New York by the next afternoon. The manager looks around the room, waits for a moment to see if anyone is going to stand, and then steps out of the doorway.
He's back when all the equipment is in the van. "I mean it," he says. "You have to go. Now. Thanks, we'll do this again, but you have to go."
It's 3:30 in the morning when Timms pulls away from the club. Nine people are sitting on top of each other, crushed shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip in the dark. Most everyone has been drinking since the sound check nine hours earlier. Conversations spiral around each other.
"Keep the tequila down until we're out of Boston."
"Right. I'll keep it low-slung."
"I'm glad you're here, Mitch," Langford says, hanging his arm over Flaco's neck. "I seen you do at least seven things tonight. First you turned up, then you fucked the other six."
"I did lots tonight. I drank some Bass, I drank some Guinness, rolled a cigarette."
"You told me to turn my bass down after only four songs," Corina adds helpfully.
"Where's the beer?" Greenhalgh is suddenly looking for the Pabst Blue Ribbon from the night before.
"Did you meet the owners of the club?" Edmonds asks. "The place is run by Lebanese. They're brilliant, you know. Like a whip. Intelligent."
"Everybody check under your seats."
"Don't drink it," Langford warns Greenhalgh. "It too closely resembles urine. Your body will get confused. It'll think it's a body fluid, and you'll start a chain reaction. You'll lose all your bodily fluids."
Greenhalgh has his head under a seat, looking for the 12-pack of warm beer. "I'll be fine," his voice comes muffled from below.
Bell asks if anyone knows how the show went, even though he was onstage the whole time.
"Does anybody mind hearing some lute?" Edmonds says. As Greenhalgh crawls under the second set of back seats, Edmonds climbs over the pile of equipment to find his instrument.
"Can we drink the tequila yet?"
"Where's the beer?"
"It's hot. Open a window."
"Don't drink it, Tom. You'll lose...your organs will start to fail. You'll be pissing out organs. You'll lose major organs."
"Who's pissing in the van?" Timms asks, as if this has happened before. "Is someone pissing in the van?"
"Stop when you begin pissing bones."
"Do not piss in the van."
Edmonds hunches over his lute and begins picking against the reggae playing on the stereo.
"It's hot," Corina repeats herself. "Can someone turn down the hotness?"
The beer is never found beneath the bags, and everyone is asleep by five in the morning, when the van finally stops at a motel somewhere between Boston and New York. Nobody knows where they are or how long tomorrow's drive will be. An attempt is made to leave wake-up calls at the front desk. They get on the phone, but they can't remember their room numbers. "What rooms are we in? Can you hold on a minute?"
"I got it." The woman at the front desk sounds annoyed. "I know what rooms you're all in."
Friday morning in the van, Timms passes out the money from last night's gig. She hands some bills back to Langford and tells him to give them to Edmonds. "Explain to him what it is."
Langford hands the money to Edmonds in the back seat. "George Harrison wanted you to have this."
"No. Tell him what it's for."
"Ah. Sometimes when we play they actually give us money and we divide it up like this."
"Nice," Edmonds says.
A Mekons song from 1985, "Hard to Be Human," is playing over the van's stereo. Langford recalls Timms's response when she first heard it. "You know what she said? Heard this and said, 'Sounds like the fucking Alarm.'"
"Who said that?" Greenhalgh asks defensively.
Langford points to Timms in the front seat. "She did," he says, and then admonishes her. "Oh, ho, and now where are the Alarm, huh?" He pauses and hikes his thumb toward the lines of westbound traffic shuffling through the tollbooths. "Hell, they're probably in a van headed that way."
The Mekons' ragged 1985 country album, Fear and Whiskey, signaled the resurgence of the band. But according to the group, the record wouldn't have been made if not for the intervention of a woman named Sophie Bourbon. The catalog for the Mekons' art exhibit, "Mekons United," reprints correspondence between Bourbon and her daughter, Anne Bourbon-Levinsky, over a span of ten years. Revealing the ebb and flow of a mercurial mother-daughter relationship, the letters touch on such subjects as rock 'n' roll, feminism, and capitalism versus socialism. There are several missives about the mother's odd boyfriends. In a letter dated August 12, 1984, Anne writes, "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. Did you talk to them? Whatever makes you happy, I suppose." And another from August 1, 1986: "Yes, I mind sleeping on the floor with a bunch of ugly, wasted people I don't even know, shouting all night, crashing into each other, playing stupid hillbilly music, doing drugs or whatever!... Couldn't they just pay for a hotel? 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." Between the sniping there are tidbits tracking the Mekons' career since Bourbon's rescue. All the details carry the hint of a put-on, a joke fans should get. Even the daughter questions her mother's existence: "You're pretty famous among a certain crowd. Some people feel you don't really exist, that's how I feel sometimes. Did someone make you up? Or did you invent yourself? I wonder about that and then I forget."
Her name may be fake, but Langford insists that Bourbon's for real. He says she was given a tape of the band's single "Where Were You?" by her daughter, and she had wondered what happened to the band. "She heard it and liked it and found out where we were," Langford says. She sent them the money to get back in the studio. "She was a patron of the Mekons 12 years ago when the Mekons had no money," Langford says. "She used to live in Chicago. For a long time we let her write bits of sleeve notes and things like that." She's now part of the band's mythology. Langford tells me that she prefers her anonymity; she's been unavailable for comment since her retirement. Apparently, she's somewhere in Florida.
"The band was broke, ready to give up," he says, when word came of this woman who wanted to hear more and was willing to pay for it. Only Langford, Tom Greenhalgh, and Kevin Lycett were still in the group, and they had to pretty much put together a new band from scratch. A drummer much better than Langford was found in Steve Goulding, who joined at the same time as Lu Edmonds. Susie Honeyman came along, then Rico Bell a little later. "It's been pretty much the same band since then," says Langford.
The Village Voice has recommended the Mekons' show for the weekend, suggesting there might still be some life left in the old punks before mentioning that their past two albums were a bit flat and that the last time they played New York it appeared Langford threw up onstage. "It only looked like he did," Bell explains. "He faked it." Both shows at the Mercury Lounge have sold out before the band arrives in town.
The van crawls through Manhattan in the middle of a Friday afternoon. Langford and Greenhalgh jump out somewhere in Midtown and take the subway to preview the group's art show.
"At no time does anyone leave the van alone," Timms declares as she cuts off a couple taxis on Houston to pull up right in front of the club. On their last visit, the van was broken into.
After the instruments, amps, and bags are piled in the center of the club's floor, Timms unrolls a sleeping bag and prepares for a nap. Bell finds a bartender and asks what can be done about getting beer. An offer of Rolling Rock causes some consternation, but he won't turn down free beer.
Pizzas are delivered during the sound check. Edmond's amp has a problem, and Mitch has to be called on. The amp can't be fixed--one will have to be borrowed from a friend of a friend. Corina waits for another opening band to bring their amps.
No one is clear where they are staying for the weekend. "Are we getting a hotel?"
"I thought we were staying at Dave's."
"Let's stay at Dave's."
"Are we going now?"
While the band figures out sleeping arrangements, Langford walks in from the bar, asking, "Who wants to go talk to him?"
"Someone has to talk to him."
Waiting in the bar is a journalist who wants to interview the Mekons.
"You don't want to?"
"I will," Greenhalgh volunteers. "I'm only here to help."
Greenhalgh, Edmonds, Bell, and Langford all go to meet the journalist, who asks if they want something to eat. No one in the band is hungry, but the writer is determined to set the scene in Katz's, a famous deli just down the street.
The band grabs a table while the writer, a heavyset young man with a beard and a baseball cap, gets himself a roast beef sandwich, a plate of pickles, and coffee for everyone else.
"Who do you write for?" Edmonds asks as soon as the guy has a mouthful of food. He hands over a business card for Perfect Sound Forever, an on-line magazine. Edmonds studies the card for a moment, feigning surprise before calmly slipping it into his shirt pocket.
The Mekons seem reluctant to answer a lot of questions. They appear genuinely surprised that anyone wants to interview them. Later Greenhalgh explains, "It is odd being interviewed. No matter what they ask, you don't really have an answer for it. You sort of have to gear yourself up, prepare yourself. Get in the mood."
The band mates glance at each other when they confront the first unanswerable question: What is the one thing that has kept them going for 20 years?
Langford is the first to speak. "A high standard of living...and drugs."
It's not that they're incapable of being serious. Eleven years ago Greil Marcus wrote in Artforum, "When the Mekons rail from the stage against U.S. 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."
There's a momentary pause when the band's political allegiance is questioned by the journalist. Langford quickly jokes that the Mekons label themselves as lefties who oppose the lefties: "We tried to join, but they kicked us out for asking questions." Edmonds tries to explain the band's absurdist take on politics by pointing out that the new Labor government in England is a lot like its Tory predecessor. "There's a whole list of things you cannot speak out against. You can't go against the party line. It's like there is no opposition anymore. Before it was the Labor and the Conservatives. Adversity is better than this blind obedience. Now you probably can't say anything about Elton John."
"Like here," Langford says. "The Teamsters showed their strength, and the president backed off. But I'll take Clinton over Tony Blair any day. At least with him you could go get some pizza and talk and shag some birds."
After Fear and Whiskey, the Mekons put out a string of albums in the mid to late 80s that caught the attention of critics as well as a couple of big record companies. But their first tour of America, in 1986, was a blur. The Mekon's live cassette, New York, documents the low points. Bell threatens to stomp anyone in Texas who looks at him funny. "It was really shambolic, a crazy drunken tour," says Langford. "We had no ambition to sign with anyone, and the next thing we know someone wanted us."
The Mekons have been with at least 12 different labels, some larger than others, and most of their experiences have been bad. Against their better judgment, they signed with another big label, A&M, in the late 1980s. "The guy who signed us up genuinely thought he was doing a good thing," Langford says. "We went into it with the notion that they wanted to sell a lot of records, but they went into it thinking we were like the 'credible band' because we had a lot of good press. We'd be a little feather in their cap."
The subject brings a sour look to Greenhalgh's face. "It's always the same with a big label," he says. "Someone eventually comes in and tells you what to do, completely undermining what you're trying to do. Then soon you realize that you're working for someone else and not really in charge of your own destiny."
A&M apparently didn't know what to make of them, and they were virtually abandoned. "In the middle of the tour all our distribution had collapsed," Langford recalls, "so we were touring with no records out." The person who had signed them in the first place was nowhere to be found. "As soon as we got in, we found the guy who signed us left," Langford says. "The other people there didn't understand what was going on. And it seemed like everyone at the company was called Jeff. Each department had one or two Jeffs. We said we wanted to leave, and they said, 'No, Jeff is flying in from the coast.'
"'Jeff from so-and-so.'
"'No, no, that Jeff.' All these different Jeffs would come out and meet us.
"So we did the one album, did what they wanted, did a tour, and did another album. And when they heard the second one, Curse of the Mekons, they dropped us. They thought that was a joke, thought that was the worst thing we possibly could have done, and it's probably the best album we ever did. You can tell how fucked-up the whole thing was."
Years later, the situation remains unclear to many in the record business. "When I saw Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum, he was with this girl who was with A&M back then, and she says, 'Well, that album--whatever happened to it?' She was under the assumption that the tapes handed in were some joke, a 'fuck you' to the company." Langford laughs just thinking about it. He explained to her that the album was Curse of the Mekons. "'No, not that,' she said. 'The album you were doing.'
"'That's the album, the Curse.'
"'No, not that. The tape you gave us.'
"I mean, we made the ultimate compromise, bent over backwards."
After earning a reputation as troublemakers, the Mekons landed with the Chicago-based Touch and Go label in 1993. They praise Touch and Go, thanking the company during every show. "They haven't made a lot of money," Langford admits. "But they like what we do. They've given us money to do strange projects."
One of these was 1995's Theater Project With a Rock Band, a collaboration with conceptual artist Vito Acconci at New York's Dia Center for the Arts. The show has been described as a 45-minute deconstruction of the Mekons' tune "100% Song." Acconci designed the set, which included block-and-tackle walls that hid the band members from the audience and from each other during different segments of the show. "It was pretty weird if you were there," Langford says. "Basically about the idea of the song coming together through all of us." Timms laughs as she quotes one critic who deemed the project "cruel and unusual punishment for the audience and the band."
"Actually, we had good fun doing it," Langford objects. "I talked to Vito, and he knew what he wanted, but I wasn't very sure of our involvement. There wasn't really any criteria for its success other than if the pulleys and walls went up and down. No one really knew how or why it would be any good. Vito loved it the last night. Everyone got a bit drunk and started jumping up and down on these high platforms. It was sort of a work in progress. I don't think anyone was really sure what it was all about."
Friday night the basement dressing room of the Mercury Lounge is filled with people, half of whom are wearing Mekons T-shirts. "These are like old friends," Sarah Corina says. "But we all only see each other once a year." The band's weekend host, Dave Herndon, has known the band for years. "I'm the official Mekoncierge in New York," he says. Everyone drinks until show time. Rico Bell compares the qualities of Rolling Rock to those of urine. Still, the drinking is slowed only by the fact that no one has a bottle opener.
The Mekons do a tight show, closing with Mitch's frenetic encore of "Where Were You?" At the end of the song he dives into the crowd, which parts easily to let him bounce off the floor.
"That happens quite often," Corina notes after the show. "They don't catch him like they should." Everyone seems pleased with the performance, but they don't dwell on it. Several Mekons visit with friends at the bar until after hours.
Saturday afternoon the band drives out to New Jersey to do a live set on a college radio station. With no seven-second delay, Greenhalgh keeps cursing on the air, and Timms keeps cursing at Greenhalgh for cursing.
Saturday night the band attends the opening of their art exhibit at the Threadwaxing Space in SoHo. As a group that was born in art school, they view the exhibit as just another facet of the band's work. The show isn't a one-shot novelty--originally put together in the spring of 1996 by the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland, Florida, the exhibit has grown as it has toured. The majority of the artwork has been done by Greenhalgh, Bell, Langford, and Kevin Lycett, but all of it is credited to the Mekons because they view it as a collaboration, even if only through their discussion of ideas. Portraits of Bob Wills, Hank Williams, and Stalin hang next to computer-manipulated photos, abstract paintings, and an iconography of soccer players. One corner holds multiple images of Elvis Presley, titled Disintegration of the Western Icon--each panel becomes darker and more obscure than the next until only bright blues and reds appear in the murk. Langford says this piece touches on the commodification of art and music while looking back to the Renaissance, when the value of an artwork was partially determined by the amount of cadmium red and cobalt blue.
The show's catalog includes texts covering the Mekons' career and other related subjects: the political economy of rock music, the British comic strip Dan Dare (from which the band took its name), art history, and the repressed sexuality of soccer players. A major portion of the catalog is devoted to the group's novel in progress, Living in Sin, complete with footnotes on castration anxiety. Much of it was written on tour by passing a notebook around the van.
Before Saturday night's performance, it's obvious that the Mekons have had quite a bit more to drink than before their first show. The dressing room is crowded with people on the band's guest list, and conversations go the way they usually do when nine people at varying levels of intoxication try to get organized.
"We going on?"
"We going now or in a minute?"
"Who's in the bog?"
"Do you have to go?"
"Are we going on? What time is it?"
After a moment of slight panic, Mitch appears in the doorway to tell the band they still have some time. The last band has just finished its set.
"Are we doing the white thing tonight?" Rico Bell wants to know. The "white thing" is when everyone in the band wears white. Bell slips a clean pair of sweat socks over his cowboy boots and puts on a white T-shirt. His inventiveness is praised, but he takes the socks off of his shoes when he realizes no one else in the band has brought white clothes.
"I think you should leave them like that," Langford says before continuing a rambling story about an old friend from Leeds, someone he believes should be considered a genius.
Bell steps into the bathroom and leaves the door open behind him. There's the sound of breaking glass. "Fuck."
"All right in there?"
"I dropped my beer in the toilet."
"And Rico here," Langford motions like a tour guide, "is another type of genius." He checks the bathroom and continues the narration for those who don't have a direct view. "Now he's pushing broken glass around with a toilet plunger. This is quite incredible. It's like performance art."
Mitch returns and says it's time to go. As the band files out, someone asks Bell how he feels. "I'm quite pissed," he laughs.
The show opens with the Mekons' song of mutiny, "(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian." The audience cheers when Greenhalgh sings, "We took drugs and tore our uniforms and gave our captain up to the sea." Langford announces the band's return with a lousy imitation of Muhammad Ali: "The Mekons are still alive / But I say we go down in five."
After a few more songs Timms queries the crowd: "How many women here think Rico's attractive?"
Some women scream.
"Now how many men?"
The crowd cheers. Langford and Greenhalgh raise their hands.
"Looks like a busy night for Rico."
Timms asks who finds Langford appealing, and he answers before the audience can. "I never needed anything but a good stiff wrist."
The rest of the show is frequently interrupted by drunken soliloquies, conversations, and sing-alongs. The Mekons spend a good portion of the show discussing a range of topics with the audience: Langford's vicarious sex life, Timms's actual sex life, Elton John, Princess Diana. "You hear she was on the radio last night?...And on the steering wheel and the dash." A mention is made of the upcoming Eric Clapton dedication single, "Darling, You Look Horribly Mangled Tonight."
A change in the set list had been discussed beforehand, but it was never decided on. That conversation is picked up again halfway through the set. Langford, Timms, and Greenhalgh huddle at center stage, but they still can't decide. "In the interest of democracy we'll now beat the crap out of each other," Langford asides to the crowd. Bell, who generally doesn't talk much during shows, makes a suggestion, and Langford kicks him out of the band. "I've had enough of your crap for too long now. Off." Bell puts down his accordion and steps off the stage. Mitch quickly picks up the accordion and moves into Rico's spot. He is introduced as Queequeg the Harpoonist. "Speak into the stick."
Mitch says "hello" into the microphone.
"That's enough." Langford snaps. "Off, you."
Greenhalgh unstraps his guitar and says good night, joining Mitch and Bell at the side of the stage.
"I've felt a purge coming for quite some time now," Langford explains.
Steve Goulding stands from behind his drum kit and says he's going to the bar for a drink. Timms suggests that the audience ignore the proceedings. "All of you, just slowly move away from the stage. Talk amongst yourselves."
Someone in the crowd yells a request, but Langford refuses. "You want to hear a song, start your own band. I think we now are at the point in our career where if you want to hear a song, you do something for us."
"You strip and we'll play," Greenhalgh suggests, stepping back onstage. "Give us money."
Crumpled dollar bills, shoes, socks, and other articles of clothing rain down on the stage. Timms catches a bra and straps it on over her dress. Greenhalgh collects 11 dollars from the stage. "We can now continue." The band starts playing a song from their next album: "Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough / Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough / Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough / Oh shit I got some on me / Oh fuck I got some in me / Oh shit I got some on me / Oh fuck I got some in me / Oh oh oh oh fuck." Later, when the Mekons run out of encores, they'll repeat the song. The band keeps talking. "I like this," Langford says. He wants to do more shows with no music. They tell the audience that they have great fans in the music business, like Bongo of U2 and his good friend, Stingo.
Remembering to play a song now and then, the Mekons eventually make it through their set. Timms tries to return the discarded bra to its rightful owner. "If you know what size it is, it's yours," she promises. "What? 36D? You sure?" She tosses the bra back. "It's a 32, dear. You shouldn't lie about these things. You have nothing to be ashamed of."
Mitch dives off the stage during his song, and unlike Friday night the audience catches and sets him down carefully. Langford belly flops next. Then he sneaks over to Bell and pushes him over the side of the stage.
Mitch tongue kisses Langford as the rest of the band says good night and thank you and heads for the dressing room. Left alone onstage, Langford unstraps his guitar and balances it like a plank on his head, feedback screeching while the other Mekons move through the crowd. "Jon's fucking lost his mind," Timms says before they come out for a third encore.
"We were worried about re-creating the first show," Goulding says, "but we pretty much circumvented that."
A couple hours later Langford compares the two shows. "Last night, I was like a laser, right on top of everything." To illustrate his point, he draws a forward path in the air with the blade of his hand. "But I was back to my usual self tonight."
The ride back to Chicago is long and monotonous. Lu Edmonds has caught some strain of flu that can't be cured with homeopathics and hot toddies. He spends the trip laid out over a pile of equipment. At a gas station Langford's hangover is aggravated by watching hot dogs roll over in metal racks. Bell suspects he has also caught the flu by not drinking earlier in the ride.
The Mekons land in a truck-stop diner decorated with motivational slogans hanging from the ceiling. Greenhalgh and Langford discuss putting out an album, The Mekons Live at the Mercury Lounge: "No music--just all the talking bits in between." Across the diner is a bar where a few truckers are watching a football game.
"Pub?" Langford tries.
"Please, no." Timms doesn't want to make the ride any longer than it has to be.
They get back home on Monday at around five in the morning. Goulding is dropped off with Edmonds at a corner in Logan Square. Langford gets front-door service to his apartment. Then Timms, Greenhalgh, Corina, and Mitch head back to Kingsize Sound Labs, where they unload the equipment as the sun rises. Bell finds one of the few cabdrivers who has never heard of North Avenue.
The rest of the week will be spent working on the new album and rehearsing for their show with Kathy Acker, Pussy, King of the Pirates (Acker succumbed to cancer two months after the performance). The Mekons met Acker at a pool party in San Francisco. She told them she was writing a book about pirates and it would include lyrics for songs. "Great, send us a copy," the band responded, true to form, "and we'll put music to them."
They soon discovered they had very different working methods. "I guess she's used to working alone," Timms says, describing Acker as "kind of imposing as a performer--quite over-the-top when she reads." Timms also calls Acker a perfectionist. "She's probably not used to being with a big crowd of people who don't know what they're doing half the time. Kathy has to pretty much be there 100 percent. We're rarely 30 percent there."
The show has already been performed in Seattle at the Bumbershoot Festival and in England at the Brighton Inn. Still, the Mekons say, the piece isn't set in stone. "It was getting a bit stagnant," Langford says. "I want there to be more acting in it."
On a Friday afternoon in late September, a couple hours before the first Pussy show, the band is running through their sound check. A green-haired young man is at the MCA's security entrance, waiting for his name to be cleared. He explains that he's Acker's masseur. Finally a guard escorts him to her dressing room. Acker has one room to herself, while the band and several pirate extras share the other. Still, this is probably the best dressing room the Mekons have had in a long time.
Corina paints gold nail polish on Bell's and Greenhalgh's fingernails and warns them not to touch anything. "You missed one," Bell says, holding out his left index finger, which is short one knuckle. Susie Honeyman, who flew in for the show earlier that week, stuffs a blond wig down the front of her pants as a possible accessory to her costume. A couple of the pirate girls are running to the store, and Langford asks them to buy some underwear for his costume. "Something very sheer. Get y-fronts."
"Is the museum cafe still open?" Timms asks.
"I didn't know they sold beer," Bell says.
"There's other reasons for a cafe other than alcohol."
"Right." He laughs sheepishly. "Sorry."
Mitch Flaco and Lu Edmonds take a collection for beer and head out the door.
Though the show's structure is loose, the various roles are mapped out. Timms will play the Cabin Boy, Greenhalgh the Milkmaid. Langford has drawn his inspiration from the movie version of Mutiny on the Bounty. "When a new sailor crossed the equator for the first time, the tradition was to shave the head of the posh young officer and throw him over the side," he says. "These guys got mops for wigs and whiteface makeup. They pour soap over him, douse him in ice-cold water. I was inspired by these horrible, beefy-looking men dressed as evil women." Then, as an afterthought, he adds, "It's deeply ensconced in British culture for men to dress up in drag. At the drop of a hat, really."
The stage props have been painted by the band. Off to one side is the Baldhead Pub, where Honeyman and Corina are surrounded by pirates. Most of the musical instruments are set behind a pirate ship. Goulding's drum kit is hidden under a palm tree. Timms mops the stage as Acker reads the introduction. Greenhalgh is in an ankle-length dress and a Holly Hobbie bonnet. Goulding wears a white wig and makeup. Langford has a mop on his head and wears nothing else but a grass skirt and Magic Marker tattoos. Bell dons a belted skirt with red-and-black striped tights.
Timms begins the show in an unlikely voice, somewhere between a whine and a growl: "The whole rotten world / Come down and break / The moon equals cracks / In my cunt."
They do three shows over the weekend. After Saturday night's performance, the Mekons play some songs to celebrate their 20th anniversary, mixing their set from New York with readings from their book. Sunday afternoon they hold a book signing at the museum shop. The band almost outnumbers the crowd.
The Tribune review appears in Sunday's paper. "Oh, dear," Timms says as she hands the paper over to Langford. He says the gist of the review is "Mekons good, Kathy bad." Everyone agrees that Acker doesn't have to see it. Other reviews of the show seem divided between the opinions of those who expected a formal theater piece, especially at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and those who know the Mekons.
Early Sunday evening before the final Pussy show, Langford and Bell are sitting in Pippin's Tavern a couple blocks away from the MCA. They're both starving, and there's only an hour before they have to be onstage. The bartender has placed their orders for bratwursts at the hot dog stand next door and keeps apologizing because she doesn't know what's taking so long. She gets on the phone. It will be just a minute, she promises. After another pitcher of beer, Langford and Bell decide they better go somewhere else--they're short on time. Once on the sidewalk they notice the hot dog place is closed.
Langford starts to head down Chicago Avenue looking for food. Bell has to run back to the bar to get his coat. Langford finds a Taco Bell one block west and places his order. He watches the clock as the women behind the counter work methodically. Finally he gets his food and starts eating as he walks east. Bell catches up; he's munching on McDonald's.
"I'm disappointed in your country," Langford says, unwrapping a bean burrito. "This is America. You're supposed to get whatever you want." He snaps his fingers. "Just like that. I'm very fucking disillusioned."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Frank Swinder.