Swinging east on their 25th anniversary tour, the old punks added a special show by popular demand—“a concept,” singer and guitarist Jon Langford said from the stage, “with which we are not that familiar”—at 6 p.m. Noting that one fan praised the idea as “a Mekons dream come true—home by 9!” Langford announced the door policy to the crowd already crammed into the small room: “Nobody under 40.” Nobody left. The band, from accordion on one side to fiddle on the other, ranged from the primitive rant “The Building” to singer Sally Timms’ dreamy bombscapes of a ruined London, but it was when various members began to read from the group’s just-published Hello Cruel World: Selected Lyrics (Verse Chorus Press) that the performance transcended the night. Elegantly printed, illustrated with photos and Blakean cartoons, the book doesn’t read like a conceit—that is, you actually can read it—but that was no preparation for what happened when the words were read out on stage. The idea seemed an utter contradiction: Why have someone step out of a band and read song lyrics when the band was present and ready to play them? In truth, the first reading, Langford with “Funeral,” came off as a clichéd political speech. But then the lyrics truly began to change shape, to lift off on such flights of rhetoric they became unrecognizable as songs. When non-singing drummer Steve Goulding stepped to the front of the stage and raised the book, the words rang like Shakespeare.“
Failure in the short run guarantees success in the long run,” Neil Young once said. The Mekons’ run, not exactly toward success, a quarter-century of small clubs, small labels, day jobs and a calling that has not worn out, has been a long one in itself. So long that later that night, as Langford, Timms and accordionist Rico Bell broke for dinner at Chinese place called Kam Chueh, the fortune that turned up in one cookie did not quite communicate as a portent: “The seeds of success lie in your last failure.” On the terms of success, every Mekons show is a failure.
4. The Great Crusades, Never Go Home (Glitterhouse/Germany)
When this Chicago foursome set off on their third album, with “Hand Grenade Head” and “Out of Our Little Town” (“They don’t sell sleeping pills over the counter,” Brian Krumm sings, and you know that’s as hopeful as the song will get), they carry themselves like Midwestern gangsters: with the determined, bitter nihilism of Tom Hanks in Road to Perdition, but also the gleeful nihilism of Billy Zane in This World, Then the Fireworks. But as the road out of town gets longer, you hear a guitar player putting a south-of-the-border melody on “The Wild Bunch,” surf combos tuning up in Southern California in 1962, a steel-guitarist clocking in in Nashville, a banjo player picking for himself somewhere in Virginia in the 1920s, and the band never hurries a step.
5. San Francisco Giants vs. St. Louis Cardinals, National League Championship Series, Game 3 (Fox, Oct. 12)
At Pac Bell Park in San Francisco, as a man in the bleachers had a home run bounce off his hands for the second time, a camera picked up a shirtless man sitting behind him, his mouth hanging open. One announcer speculated that the shirtless guy was dumbfounded that rubber-hands had blown two chances in a row. A second announcer noted that shirtless was wearing headphones, and the camera pulled in: The guy wasn’t surprised, he was completely zonked. “He must be listening to the Grateful Dead,” said the announcer. Someone back at Fox World Domination put on an impossibly vague Dead track (Deadheads would call it abstract), with Jerry Garcia whispering “odelay” over and over as guitar notes struggled to take shape and then died like minnows and the tune went on and on and the face of the man in the headphones never changed.
6. Jim Jocoy, We’re Desperate: The Punk Rock Photography of Jim Jocoy, SF/LA 1978-1980 (powerHouse Books)
At first Jacoby’s full-length posed color portraits of people on the scene seem to owe everything to the black-and-white pictures in Isabelle Anscombe’s 1978 Punk—for that matter, the SF/LA punks seem to owe everything to the Londoners in the Anscombe book. But the longer you look—and not, particularly, at the shots of Joan Jett, Exene Cervenka of X, Johnny Thunders or other stars—the more you begin to see what it took to remake yourself as a freak, as a social idiot, as someone you weren’t meant to be. A woman with short black hair in a short black vinyl skirt who looks like a follower of the early San Francisco punk band Crime; a blond woman wearing red, black blue, yellow, white and green stripes and squiggles, smoke drifting over her face like a small cloud; a small woman dressed demurely in black and blue and something in her eyes that seems to be daring the world to fuck with her, and not because she knows what will happen if it does—soon enough, you’re seeing real people everywhere.7. David Gates, “Everybody Must Get Sloshed” (New York Times Book Review, Oct. 13)
On Tim O’Brien’s novel July, July, about a class of ’69 30th-anniversary college reunion and how dreams of a better world turned to dust, gold dust that still shines with the pain of hopes abandoned and hearts that even under a carapace of corruption beat on to the music the man can’t bust even though he did. Choosing among requisite “uptight Republican housewife,” “draft-dodger who split for Canada” and “still-traumatized Vietnam veteran” with “a voice in his head,” Gates homes in on the latter, or rather his “imaginary friend,” one “Johnny Ever.” “Talk about cynics!” says Gates. “‘Seen it once, seen it a zillion times,’ this hard-boiled internal parasite tells his host. ‘We’re talkin’ grand illusion here. Fairy tales… Hair. Your whole wacked-out generation, man, it got turned around by all that tooby ooby walla starshine crud.’” “Edgy stuff,” Gates says. “If you can’t believe in Hair anymore, what can you believe in?”
8. and 9. Ed Ward on Domino Records, Fresh Air (NPR, Sept. 3) and The Domino Records Story (Ace)
Resident pop historian Ward told the story of an odd little label launched in 1957 in Austin, Texas, by a team of solidly middle-class white entrepreneurs who met at a business seminar called “How to Market a Song.” They experimented. Their strangest record was Joyce Harris’ New-Orleans-style chant “No Way Out”: No way out from your love, was the concept; it wasn’t the feeling, which was life and death. A male voice begins the song with “I gotcha! I gotcha! And there’s no way out—” twisting the last word into a drawl so menacing you can’t believe anyone can answer him; Harris does, if only by sounding as if she’s tearing snakes out of her hair.
The label’s stars were the Slades, especially with their original version of “You Cheated”—a reworking of the Penguins’ 1954 doo-wop classic “Earth Angel”—which became a national hit when in 1958 it was covered by the Shields, who as they were black and the Slades, whose passionate, close-harmony rehearsal tapes are the hidden treasure of The Domino Records Story, were white, turned the vitally important American tradition of whites strolling to riches on the backs of blacks on its head. Or anyway sideways: Jesse Belvin, who wrote “Earth Angel,” was the lead singer of the Shields, and as with white covers of black records, compared to the Slades the Shields were slick.Ward played the Slades’ “You Cheated”—rough but reaching, for just what you couldn’t quite tell. The soul music that was just around the bend? A transparency in the tune the singers couldn’t quite find? Hollywood? The humid last notes hung in the air, as if they were ready to burst into rain. “It was a magnificent record,” Ward pronounced, as if stunned at his own story, at the glory a marketing seminar could turn up, just like that.
10. Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC, Oct. 4)
“That’s another 25 years,” Detective Ice-T says to a murder suspect, setting up a line that for a moment left film noir heroes from Humphrey Bogart to Guy Pearce in its dust. “Your parole officer isn’t born yet.”
Salon, October 21, 2002