February 1998: I’d been a fan of Langford since first discovering him as the singer/guitarist/court jester/non-hierarchical non-leader of the Mekons almost a decade earlier, and had learned to expect him turning up periodically in other guises every so often (one year the bizarro-rock quartet the Killer Shrews, another the “insurgent country” pioneers the Waco Brothers, who helped launch the invaluable Chicago label Bloodshot Records). So when I saw that Langford was set to appear at the small Manhattan club the Mercury Lounge under the guise of something called “Skull Orchard,” I bought tickets without any idea what it would be.
What it turned out to be was a stripped-down version of the Wacos lineup at the time: Jon on guitar, hyperkinetic pogo stick Alan Doughty on bass, Mekons (and “Watching the Detectives“) drummer Steve Goulding, and second guitarist Mark Durante. The music, though, was something unexpected: a new series of songs that mostly eschewed the heart-on-the-sleeve politics of the Mekons and Wacos for more personal stories of Langford’s hometown of Newport, Wales, the people who lived there, and their lives of not-so-quiet desperation. It was one of those rare moments where I could feel a new compartment opening in my brain: Ah! That’s what the world was lacking. I immediately bought the album, and listened it to death.
December 1999: Langford’s next solo appearance in New York was in a seemingly unlikely venue: The second-floor café of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which ran a weekly live music series. He turned up with just an acoustic guitar and Jon Rauhouse, the accomplished multi-instrumentalist who brought his banjo, his acoustic lap steel guitar, and his infectious giggle. I was expecting either Skull Orchard songs or Mekons/Wacos tunes, and got neither: Instead, the duo unleashed mostly all-new songs that continued the personal-political theme of Skull Orchard, plus some choice covers including George Jones’ “Girl at the End of the Bar” and “Death of the European” by Langford’s 1980s dance-punk-agit-prop band The Three Johns. It was vintage Langford, and yet entirely unlike any previous vintage Langford.
I later tracked down someone who’d taped the show with a small cassette recorder, and uploaded it to the Live Music Archive, so you can listen to it in its entirety there. Almost all the songs would later trickle out over the years on various Langford albums — though some, like “Verdun,” an incredible song about Jon’s grandfather’s experience in World War I, had to wait another 12 years for release — I still maintain that they never sounded better than they do here in all their lo-fi glory.
February 2001: Our trip to San Francisco had been planned for a long while, one of a series of get-togethers organized by ifMUD, an online gathering place for fans and writers of text-adventure interactive fiction games (plus at least one robot parrot). It was only a happy coincidence that it turned out Langford and fellow Mekon Rico Bell would be playing in the basement of a San Francisco pub the night after our arrival. At 10 pm local time, which would be — gulp — 1 am jet-lagged time.
Fortified by caffeine, we turned up to find a minuscule stage and maybe 30 folding chairs set up in front of it, in one corner of a huge basement space. Credit the exhaustion or the intimate space, but the result was jaw-dropping: Langford again on acoustic guitar, with Bell on guitar and accordion, Rauhouse on his assortment of instruments, and a couple of additional guests including Waycross singer Caroleen Beatty (who’d collaborated with Langford on an album that only exists, to my knowledge, on unreleased cassette), blasting that tiny space with all the power that could be mustered by a few acoustic instruments and raw voices. I particularly remember a blistering, high-speed version of the Waco Brothers’ “See Willy Fly By” that was by far the best rendition of that incredible song about Depression-era-despair-meets-Clinton-era-false-hope that I’ve ever heard.
That memory is all I have of it, though, because no one in the room had a recording device, and so the performance was there and gone forever. A few months later, I bought a minidisc recorder and some small microphones, in large part because this one show had left me with a new commitment in my music-listening career: never again.
April 2005: By now I had come to expect the unexpected from Langford, so when I saw the announcement — a “multimedia show” at a comedy club in Chelsea — I gave up predicting, and just showed up ready to experience whatever it was. Which turned out to be just possibly the greatest creation of his entire career to date.
The title of the show was “The Executioner’s Last Songs,” which reflected the genesis of the work: A theater in Wisconsin had asked Langford for a theatrical version of the Bloodshot-all-star CD series of murder ballads that he had put together to raise money for the Illinois campaign against the death penalty. Instead, Langford had expanded it to weave together everything from his own personal history, the Mekons’ journey through punk rock and country and the corporate music world, and the story of the venerable Chicago country band the Sundowners, to the political lessons of fourth-division soccer fandom, Herbert Marcuse’s views on the culture industry, and video clips of Langford dressed as a pirate singing satirical sea shanties about barbecue pork and farts in a boat floating in a bathroom sink — just, as he noted, to “demonstrate that I am not worthy of taxidermy just yet.” Readings flowed smoothly into performances of songs from the entirety of Langford’s career and beyond, with the added talents of Pere Ubu bassist (and sometime-deputy-Mekon) Tony Maimone and the Mekons’ Sally Timms and Jean Cook, the frighteningly talented violinist/vocalist who’d begun performing with Langford as part of yet another band, the Ship & Pilot. It was moving and political and hilarious and unforgettable, and as close to a manifesto as you’re ever likely to get from an artist who remains deadly serious about never taking the deadly serious too seriously.
Afterwards, Goulding came up on stage to join in for a set of still more Mekons and Langford and other songs, playing percussion on an upturned plastic bucket and a fire extinguisher. This time I had my minidisc and microphones with me, so you can listen to the whole thing on archive.org.
The last time I saw Jon Langford was last month, when he and Jean Cook and Silos guitarist Walter Salas-Humara played an entirely unamplified set at someone’s tiny Brooklyn apartment. It was joyous and hilarious and moving yet again, and on one song Langford played a drum solo on his thighs and stomach. He would almost certainly hate to be called a role model, and I would never dishonor him by calling him that, but if you’re looking for an example of how to greet a world full of injustice and pain with a raised fist and a laugh — to hold onto the dedication that, as Langford noted in the Executioner’s piece, he developed early as a fan of hapless Newport County AFC:
“Soccer in the lower ranks was not about the big victory, or big money, or big success, it was about the lack of it, of getting by against the odds, of somehow, sometime scoring one amazing heroic victory — but more often as not, not. Blind with optimism, we’d be back again next Saturday, waiting for something to change.”
If there’s a better motto for being an activist or an artist or a musician or a writer in our times, I haven’t yet found it.