Liquor, theory, friendship: The Mekons have for the last 19 years scraped together what approximates a career out of those very staves of life. They met as art students at the University of Leeds in 1976. Like so many others infected by the Sex Pistols' anyone-can-do-it punk virus (including fellow students Gang of Four), they formed a band in '77. They couldn't play (that was the point), they were friends (still are), and they were drunk (as usual). But if the Sex Pistols' songs chugged half-pints of headlines, the Mekons drowned their sorrows in a bibliographical keg. They sounded DIY, but the leftist reading list behind songs like "Never Been in a Riot" had a Ph.D., thanks in part to their ex-situationist professor/mentor T.J. Clark. But rock 'n' roll songs are not leaflets. Clark (now at Berkeley), the smartest, most writerly art historian at work these days, could have been describing his future students when he wrote, "A work of art may have ideology ... as its material, but it works that material; it gives it a new form and at certain moments that new form is in itself a subversion of ideology." It's the Mekons' sound, as well as their neighborliness, sadness, nerve, and bitter humor, that lets them map the terrain between "never work" and "workers unite" without getting lost in pretense.
Their new book, Mekons United (published as an exhibition catalog for a recent art show at the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland, Fla.), is surprising given the context of their first recordings. As collected on The Mekons Story of 1982, their initial, brutal rackets are brave and funny potholes -- jarring and unavoidable. The book, on the other hand, is gracefully, make that flawlessly, designed; it's almost respectable until you start paying attention to the still-reckless content -- a scattered "novel in progress" ("God! the wankers you get involved with in the pursuit of cheap beer," groans a protagonist), an academic paper on the erotics of soccer, a barely listenable CD stashed with bits and pieces of Mekons golden oldies (if you've got the patience to sift through the long, loud weirdness to find them), and two loving essays by Greil Marcus in which he celebrates the way that each Mekons song "is an attempt to find someone to talk to."
And then there are marvelous pictures, frequently of the revered or lost idols of country music. "Old stars, failed stars, dead stars, and non-stars staring out through historical snot," as a song puts it. They are drawn, painted, and printed by various hands, but attributed to the group. In his dense and winding contribution, Terry Atkinson calls the notion of individual authorship "ludicrous," pointing out that "making art always owes a lot to other artists and people."
No one would understand this better than the musical melting pot, Elvis Presley. The Mekons' series Portrait of Elvis in the Style of Jackson Pollock accomplishes a sort of pictorial handshake (or sexual union?) by joining together the King(s) of 1950s American culture, one high, the other low (a distinction that this book throws darts at). So what if elegizing specific geniuses such as Elvis or Hank Williams (who is painted poked-to-holes as the martyr St. Sebastian) seems at odds with the band's own collectivized ethic? No Mekon ever ran away from contradiction; in fact, a Mekon would only buy contradiction a drink.
For example, a Mekons moment: A few months ago in Chicago, at a benefit for a flailing socialist newspaper held at a decrepit little bowling alley, guitarist Jon Langford took the stage with his country side band, the Waco Brothers. "This is a thinly veiled leftist diatribe," he told the 12 or so people who were there, and started playing a love song.
By Sarah Vowell
Mekons United is available through Touch and Go records, (800) 386-8248.