The Mekons

14-28aI cannot begin to imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t picked up the Village Voice one day in 1989 and flipped to the music section. There my eye happened to land on a Robert Christgau column whose title I’ve long since forgotten (and it doesn’t appear to have made the transition to a digital afterlife); it was about some British punk band called the Mekons, and their new album The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll. This, Christgau assured readers, wasn’t a straightforward turn toward mainstream rock, but an album that slyly deconstructed the rock ‘n’ roll myth while simultaneously being the rockingest album the band, which had emerged from its raw three-chord origins to become known for pioneering forays into country-punk, had made yet.

I had no idea what Christgau was on about — I seldom did, though I liked to let his words slide over my eyeballs — but it hit enough of my interests at the time (left-wing politics and loud guitars) to pique my curiosity. I headed down to whatever record store was most convenient (probably Tower or a Virgin superstore, as The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll had somehow ended up with major-label distribution) and picked up a copy of the CD. And then I went home and played it.

The first song was a revelation: an onslaught of guitars, multiple voices, driving beats, and weird electronic noises that immediately filled the room and my head with its message:

Destroy your safe and happy lives
Before it is too late
The battles we fought were long and hard
Just not to be consumed by rock and roll

The second song was a revelation on top of a revelation: The multiple vocalists disappeared, to be replaced by a woman with a remarkable voice — Sally Timms, according to the insane liner notes, which folded out to reveal strange art surprinted over the hand-scrawled lyrics and a bizarre story about bored British youth and Khrushchev building giant sofas — singing of how “when I was just seventeen, sex no longer held a mystery; I saw it as a commodity, to be bought and sold like rock ‘n’ roll.” And of dance clubs, and shop window displays, and vampires. And there were ten more songs like this, each one both a densely packed essay on life under late-20th-century capitalism and a joyous rock song. I probably listened to the CD five times that night.

A few months later, I got my first glimpse of Mekons in the flesh, at Tramps in Manhattan, and discovered two other things about them: First of all, they were great live musicians, the mob of people crowding the stage including a mad-genius fiddle player and a drummer who, I later found out, had played on any number of hit songs like “Watching the Detectives” before joining this odd collective. Second, they were brilliantly funny — especially the pudgy fellow on guitar at stage left who yammered menacingly about Bono between songs, and the wiry guy on guitar at stage center who shared vocal duties with him (and Timms) and was more prone to occasional wry comments that would stick with you long after the show had ended.

And after that… well, after that. The Mekons are, as its fans have found out as well as its members, less a rock band than a way of life. (Nearly 40 years in, they’ve all taken to joking that “the only way out of this band is in a box.”) Many of my best friends are people I’ve met at Mekons shows, or on email discussion lists about the Mekons, or somewhere else in the real or virtual world when the magic word “Mekons” popped up, and we knew we’d happened across a kindred spirit. Probably half my music library is of bands that in some way I found out about via the Mekons or their various spinoff projects, especially after Jon Langford (the Bono slagger) began recording on a tiny Chicago label called Bloodshot Records that helped pioneer something called “alt-country.” I have been introduced to books and movies and political history through references in Mekons songs, which have addressed everything from the colonialist history of the drug trade to the perfectly agonizing push and pull of heartbreak to how to make a zombie to political terrorism in 1910 amid the terrors of modernity. (One album, So Good It Hurts, even contains footnotes, though in true Mekons style these are more hilarious than scholarly.)

It’s hard to sum up an entire way of looking at the world in just a few sentences. (Though filmmaker Joe Angio has done an admirable job in 95 minutes of documentary.) The best I’ve heard came from Langford, during an amazing multimedia piece he wrote based on his own life story, the history of country music, and the Illinois campaign against the death penalty (this is a more or less typical Mekonian mashup), in a section recounting the lessons he learned as a supporter of his local soccer club, the terrible lower-division Newport County:

The fact that they weren’t much good and were despised by my Welsh-speaking, rugby-loving uncles only increased the attraction. Soccer in the lower ranks was not about the big victory or big money or big success, it was about the lack of it, and getting by against the odds, and somehow, sometime scoring some amazing heroic victory — but often as not, not.

If there’s a better credo for trying to survive as an artist, as a music fan, as a political activist, as a human in the modern world, I haven’t found it. The Mekons didn’t invent laughing your way defiantly through pain, but they may have perfected it. I cannot begin to imagine my life if they hadn’t come together in Leeds in 1977, and if Christgau and others hadn’t championed them, and if someone at A&M Records hadn’t briefly decided to give them major-label standing (a decision that was immediately and decisively reversed, as documented by their followup album The Curse of the Mekons), and if they hadn’t perversely insisted on carrying on for all these years. If the Mekons didn’t exist, no one else could have invented them.

The Feelies

In 1991, at loose ends with both my work and my social life, I decided to spend the summer in San Francisco. (It didn’t quite work out that way, as will be covered whenever we get to the Yo La Tengo entry.) My friend Pete, who I’d met the previous summer when we worked together proofreading liner notes at CBS Records, celebrated the occasion by making for me a mixtape of all the post-punk bands he’d spent the previous decade listening to, while I was off gorging on the likes of Talking Heads and R.E.M. (It was one of the many phases of my life where I was about 5-10 years behind the musical curve.) The tape’s title: “Music for Neil’s Trip.”

The selection was heavy on tracks from bands like Hüsker Dü and the Replacements, who I otherwise knew of only from their occasional appearances on the annual Village Voice Pazz & Jop music poll. He also included a pair of songs from some band called the Feelies, who were apparently also supposed to be part of my catchup canon. Pete being Pete, however, he had inscrutably chosen two songs that, I was later to discover, weren’t entirely representative of the Feelies songbook: “The Last Roundup” and “Two Rooms,” a pair of songs off their 1986 album The Good Earth that, coupled with the cassette transfer quality, gave me the impression that the Feelies were a semi-lo-fi group that made droney jangly songs with mumbly vocals. I filed away the name for future reference, but even as I picked up Flip Your Wig and Tim on Pete’s recommendation, I didn’t rush out to buy any Feelies records, something that became easy as over time most of them slipped out of print on CD.

Jump ahead to 2008. The Feelies had long since gone on indefinite hiatus after co-guitarist/co-vocalist/co-songwriter Glenn Mercer famously called his counterpart Bill Million at his day job at a video store and was told, “He’s not here, he moved to Florida.” But now, Sonic Youth were playing a free July 4th show in Battery Park, and had invited the Feelies to reunite to open for them. I already liked Sonic Youth and summer outdoor shows, and the chance to see this dim ghost from the past with my own eyes was a can’t-miss opportunity.

I think everyone who saw that show would agree that it was not the Feelies at their live best: They hadn’t played much together for a while, and more to the point, it was broad daylight under the open sky, and they thrived in enclosed, intimate spaces such as Maxwell’s where everyone’s focus was fixed on the stage. Never having seen them before, I didn’t care: There they were, looking only slightly grayer and more frizzy-haired than the band I’d seen on snippets of video from the ’80s, driving through song after song of concise, hooky, subtly offbeat music with what I would eventually come to know as their trademark precision abandon. For me, it was all encapsulated by percussionist Dave Weckerman, who sat in the back left with an assortment of drums, shakers, and other assorted objects and played them with an otherworldly concentration — watching a man play a wood block as if the fate of the universe depended on it was transfixing, and utterly characteristic of the Feelies’ self-appointed mission: to make the best music that possibly could be made, every time.

That show ultimately led to a full Feelies reunion, with the band releasing one album that picked up right where they’d left off in the early ’90s (Here Before) and currently working on another, while playing the occasional show, mostly in the New York/New Jersey area. They are one of the few bands I will never miss, no matter what. Part of it is because you never know what new wonders a Feelies show will bring: five separate encores, an unexpected Velvet Underground or Neil Young or R.E.M. cover, or that one night when the pipe that Weckerman was intently drumming on for the band’s idiosyncratic take on the Beatles’ “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey” slipped off the rack it was hanging from, and a roadie had to hold it in place by hand while Weckerman kept going, barely missing a beat. (You can catch a glimpse of it around the 2:30 mark on this video shot by Joe Angio.) But mostly, it’s because there is no one on earth quite like the Feelies — though it’s a standard that the rest of us can strive for.

The Beatles

beatlesWell, this is an easy one. Or an impossible one. Definitely one of those.

According to family lore, when I was a baby, the only music that made me rock back and forth in my crib was the Beatles. As early as I can remember, I would go to sleep listening to Beatles records, eventually stacking them up to play sequentially once we had a record player that would drop one disc after another onto the turntable. (As you might imagine, none of my surviving original Beatles records are in very good shape now.) My parents didn’t exactly have broad musical tastes — my dad listened to a lot of classical, my mom had more of a taste for ’70s pop like Helen Reddy and Linda Ronstadt — but they agreed on the Beatles. Hell, everyone agreed on the Beatles in those days, I guess except for the holdouts who insisted on the Stones.

I remember clearly the day I found out that the Beatles had broken up: I must have been five or so by then, because I know that we already had a couple of solo albums by Beatles members (McCartney, certainly, maybe Imagine), and I was surprised to hear that this meant there wouldn’t be any more Beatles records, ever. Until I was at least ten or so, the Beatles remained my primary musical soundtrack — I recall getting one of those 1970s portable cassette players that everybody was getting and listening to tapes of Band on the Run on an earplug (portable headphones weren’t really a thing yet) while waiting to go somewhere on the subway with my parents. That was the height of technology then: You could actually listen to music outside the house, sorta kinda.

And then I stopped. I discovered radio stations (first Top 40, eventually rock stations like WNEW and WPLJ that all the other kids were listening to), and anyway McCartney’s records were getting weird, and John wasn’t recording anymore, and I still loved all the old Beatles songs but I’d heard them so many times and I just couldn’t anymore. When John died, I picked up a few records that I’d somehow missed along the way (his Shaved Fish compilation, Hey Jude, Abbey Road which I know I’d had but had somehow gone missing — I can tell these today because they’re not scratched to death). But then it was on to things that were new and exciting at the time: Pink Floyd and Yes and Jethro Tull and all the wonders of what I’d missed listening to The White Album over and over for years. (Never side four, of course, because then I’d hear “Revolution No. 9” and be freaked out and never get to sleep.)

I watched the Beatles Anthology TV documentary when it came out, but never was tempted to buy the Anthology CDs, because I had better things to buy than Beatles records, you know? At some point, my dad bought me the 1 compilation CD of all their number-one hits, which seemed pointless to me as I had them all already on various albums, but it was his way of trying to hold on to a connection. Eventually I started playing it for my son, since it was poppy enough and had a good beat, which was all he required when he was little.

He got hooked. When Paul McCartney played at Citi Field the summer he was six and his cousins went, he complained bitterly that we hadn’t taken him, and demanded that we go the next time he came to town. (We did. He only fell asleep for a few songs in the middle of the show.) We bought all the albums on CD that we hadn’t had on CD, and the Anthology as well. For a while, he went to sleep every night listening to the Beatles.

Now my son is almost 12, and is discovering new things: rock radio, Jimi Hendrix. (Okay, not new new things, but new to him. Pink Floyd wasn’t new in 1980, either.) But he still listens to the Beatles, and so do I, not as often as I once did, but more than I have in a long while. They wrote some pretty okay songs, you know?

They Might Be Giants

And the honor of being the first band discussed on this site is … They Might Be Giants? Okay, sure, They Might Be Giants — can’t argue with the invisible hand of iTunes. I wouldn’t say exactly that They Might Be Giants are typical of my music listening habits, but then, just what is “typical” is half the point of this project.

Anyway: As best as I can remember, I was first introduced to TMBG by my friend Dave, who had spent much of his college career singing their songs on long road trips with his Ultimate Frisbee team. (This probably tells you a lot about Dave. Also about the late 1980s in general.) [Edit: Dave writes to clarify that while it was a college classmate who introduced him to TMBG, it wasn’t a frisbee teammate. I stand corrected.] I know that the first album of theirs I heard was Flood, and that I was instantly drawn to their smart, goofy lyrics and broad range of musical styles.

And then I more or less forgot about them. Except that they kept popping up here and there: My co-worker Carmen, who brought in a cassette of Apollo 18 to listen to at work (which tells you a lot about the early 1990s); a live show that my friend Andrew brought me to, featuring one song sung by remotely controlled puppet heads on ten-foot-high poles (the song was not “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head,” but I think possibly “Exquisite Dead Guy”); a concert in Prospect Park that led me to buy my first album of theirs in years, The Spine, and discover that they’d taken some fascinating turns in the intervening time span.

The two Johns aren’t for everyone — my friend Pete, who will be showing up a lot in these posts, once made me stop singing “Ana Ng” after one verse because it had the word “perpendicular” in it. But then, bands that are for everyone ultimately aren’t for anyone, are they? (Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” leaps to mind.) TMBG are pretty damn amazing at what they do, in any event, and if anything are only getting better at it. Dave had a prescient frisbee team.