Making Me Understand: The Mekons

This series of occasional posts, Making Me Understand, is where I explore some corner of music, art or literature which I’ve always loved but which seems particularly relevant to me now. I’m not trying to do any scholarly/critical writing here. These are, like everything else on the blog, primarily personal essays. Prior posts in this series are here and here.

Back in late April/early May, things were at their most unstable and uncertain for me, except for the daily regimen of cancer drug, anti-seizure medication, and oh yeah, steroids.

Things suddenly seemed precarious and urgent. The steroids transformed me into a hyper-gregarious stranger to myself. I cooked up new schemes every hour, practically, and then even went so far as to make phone calls and send emails to see if I could make some of these schemes fly. I’m relieved most of them didn’t, because they were half-baked, or even missing key ingredients.

Some of them (e.g., I am totally embarrassed to say, trying to come up with a way our whole family would suddenly be able to afford or somehow crowdfund a trip to South Africa next February to join one of our favorite singer-songwriters on safari there) did not succeed. Some are still in progress, slowed by the end of my steroid doses two months ago and the persistent feeling that my Good Thing has been taken away from me. (Honestly, I don’t miss the sleepless nights. But I do miss the heretofore unknown Type A personality I unearthed via the pharmaceuticals.)

In the immediate aftermath of my most recent and scary-as-shit diagnosis, suddenly, things started getting really good. There were amazing conversations in the street happening every single day (actually, given how manic I was on steroids, they were probably more monologues than conversations). There were plans to make for a trip to Colorado.

And then there were the exciting things that would have happened whether or not I’d come down with my third case of cancer. 2015 has been and continues to be The Year All My Favorite Bands Reformed (and/or Toured). Just two days after my gamma knife surgery in June, I saw Ride perform – a band I adored in college, and had not heard live since 1991.

At the end of April, I was newly unemployed, and had a new laptop which I cozied up to for hours, lying in bed, merely resting because I couldn’t sleep because of the steroids. I blogged a lot. I was on Facebook a lot. And I noticed the Mekons‘ Facebook page contained some chatter about an upcoming tour, and a special event in Brooklyn. Given how far away the band members live from one another, making regular touring impossible, this – THIS was news not to be ignored.

I first became aware of The Mekons while sitting in the car at the Exxon station near the house where I grew up. My mom was probably buying gas – I didn’t drive yet. She wasn’t in the car at that particular moment, though, so I switched the radio to the (late, lamented) progressive station, WHFS, and they were playing “Club Mekon,” a single from the band’s recent release, The Mekons Rock n’ Roll.  Based on its release date, I was in college already.

I can’t replay the scene in my head where I pluck the CD out of the bin, pay for it and take it back to my dorm room, unwrapping it with trembling hands in anticipation of something life-changing – that moment is long gone from my memory, even before my brain was multiply zapped with gamma rays.

But I do remember sitting in the car, at the Cabin John Exxon, hearing this song, enjoying the violin in the mix, and knowing I’d need to know a lot more about this band. Sally Timms’ vocals on that song were completely authoritative, on subjects as yet alien to me. It was my moment of First Contact, if you will. And to this day, the Mekons songs on which Sally sings form a perfect shower repertoire, showcasing my mezzo nicely (I think) in the tiled stall.

I was just 17 (or maybe 18 by that point), and plenty of things were still a mystery to me. The Mekons, with their full spectrum sound that spanned from punk to reggae to folk (always more interestingly than The Police, who lacked folk credentials), were going to teach me a lot. They gave off a whiff of erudition, too – the liner notes to their album Honky Tonkin’ include a list of sources for each track, ranging from Moby Dick to a memoir of Wittgenstein to a cookbook called Easy Indian Vegetarian Cookery. Maybe the Mekons were my invisible college roommates (although they were older and wiser and more British). I learned about miner’s strikes, the Trimdon Grange explosion, and Hank Williams.

Then there were all the live shows – the dates of which I can’t recall, because proximity to The Mekons, even if one is mostly sober, induces a drunken amnesia. Sort of like what Dr. Williams had in mind here:

The Dance

William Carlos Williams

In Brueghel’s great picture, The Kermess,
the dancers go round, they go round and
around, the squeal and the blare and the
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles
tipping their bellies (round as the thick-
sided glasses whose wash they impound)
their hips and their bellies off balance
to turn them. Kicking and rolling
about the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those
shanks must be sound to bear up under such
rollicking measures, prance as they dance
in Brueghel’s great picture, The Kermess.

I know I saw The Mekons at the late, great 9:30 Club in DC, on a very hot night in the dead of summer, in the early to mid 90s. I remember standing near Jon Langford after the show and wow, did he smell awful. I also remember the audience being invited up on the tiny stage to dance, and doing that and then hitting my head hard on a low-hanging speaker on my way back down. Maybe I’m conflating all my memories of all Mekons shows into one right now, but the most stunning and perplexing moment of all was towards the end of that show, when two Salvadoran (I think) guys came in late, both wearing cowboy hats, and wondered aloud in Spanish whether the band had already played “Wild and Blue.” (Maybe the most embarrassing memory I have about leaving a lovelorn answering machine message also involves the song “Wild and Blue.” Or maybe not. Why don’t we say my brain surgery has made me an unreliable narrator, when it comes to anything embarrassing in my past.)

The Mekons stand to me as a shining example of a functional, productive collective, in a world where so many collectives either fall apart or become severely dysfunctional. They have prevailed where other bands have not, and it seems to me that despite their onstage squabbling, they genuinely enjoy creating together. They demonstrate that creative bonds can transcend geographic separation, and that growing older does not have to equal decay. These are all things that matter to me a lot, and never more than right now. This video, a promo for their fantastic album, NATURAL, embodies some of what I’m speaking to.

A few years ago, The Mekons played in Brooklyn. It was Yom Kippur eve. I was furious with them, because there was no way for me to be at that show. I knew they’d make it up to me eventually. This year, right at my moment of greatest need, they did. As I lay in bed, exhausted but sleepless, refreshing Facebook endlessly in between doses of medication, the details came out about the special event in Brooklyn. We’d already secured tickets for their show in Manhattan at the Bowery Ballroom. But this was something very special (and expensive, and the tickets very limited). The Mekons would be recording a new album at the Jalopy Theater in Red Hook, and everyone in attendance would form part of a “feral choir” backing up the band. I couldn’t have concocted a more outlandishly fabulous opportunity if I’d been on steroids and out of my mind – oh wait, I was!

As “luck” would have it, I’d quit my librarian job due to my brain tumors, so all I had to do all day was [ponder mortality and] jump on concert tickets as they became available. They sold out very quickly, as there were only 60 on offer. Then another 15 showed up. I snagged three – one for me, one for J, and one for T, my old friend and partner in Mekons obsession.

That was late April. I had a goal. I would take my medicine as prescribed, I would try to get sleep (which for a long time would only happen with the trinity of Benadryl, Ativan, and melatonin), and I would need to trust my cancer drug, while also willing the tumors in my brain to shrink down to nothing. In addition to living from scan to scan, I was also living from one concert ticket to the next. I mentioned on The Mekons’ Facebook page that their tour this summer would help me fight cancer. I received a kind response. I could see past my surgery date in June and my next scan in July, because regardless of what happened, I’d be seeing my old friends The Mekons again, and recording an album with them, completing an entry on a bucket list I hadn’t even thought of composing.

I made it to July, obviously. There hadn’t really been any doubt in my mind I’d make it. From the start of this metastatic arc that began last September, I’ve just sort of known I would prevail. I couldn’t anticipate the many insane trials I would need to get through, of course – last fall, the most physically and psychologically challenging ones; this spring and summer, the most baffling and random and occasionally even amusing ones. I made it to the show at the Bowery Ballroom, which was the greatest set I’d ever seen them play (although I have probably said that about every Mekons show). It came complete with this unbelievable blooper/senior moment, which I only got to see later on video, because we weren’t at a good angle to understand what happened. Mekon + accordion + synchronized kicks = chaos (about 1:40 in to the clip).

That was a Tuesday night. The recording session with The Mekons, titled MEKONCEPTION, would take place that Thursday. Thursday turned out to be a heavy day for me. I woke up at 5 a.m., stressed out about a meeting I’d be having that morning at the city Department of Education, trying to advocate for Young A to get classroom support, based on concerns his teachers had last year. It was, bar none, the worst meeting of its type I’ve ever had (and because of Young J, I’ve had many). It ended inconclusively and we scheduled a new one, but I was so full of rage, I propelled myself on foot, over the Brooklyn Bridge (dodging tourists and bikes), then got myself pleasantly lost on the Lower East Side and saw a friend’s art show. By the time I picked up the kids from the camp bus I didn’t feel like wringing anyone’s neck anymore. Good thing – a long evening awaited.

We arrived at the Jalopy Theater a bit early. The first few faithful to show up revealed to us that we were in the wormhole of Mekons fandom. I counted at least two t-shirts from the now-defunct Hoboken club, Maxwell’s. No one I saw was obvious enough to actually wear a Mekons shirt, but Dennis and Lois, longtime Mekons supporters and merchandise table operators, were parked out front with their MEKONS vanity license plate (T tells me that years ago, they had a RAMONES one which kept getting stolen). One guy had flown in from Chicago, and there were doubtless others from farther-flung locations. Our friend T showed up. We took pews up towards the front, but not the very first row. I have long legs, so does J. Better not to incur wrath by tripping up a Mekon.

An actual choir director (a college friend of T’s, it turned out) came and gave us some instructions. All of the sound would be going through a single mic set up in the center of the room. The recording engineer sat to the side with his laptop, a smile on his face pretty much constantly. When a song was going well, he’d join us in our choral duties.

Suddenly, The Mekons appeared. It was hard not to be a gushing fan, but they were clearly multiply preoccupied with setting things up, so I wasn’t going to attempt to talk to them. Sally made stern announcements about what we were not to do under any circumstances (e.g. stamp our feet, knock over glasses, make noise at the end of a song before we were given a cue it was safe to do so). We were also forbidden from recording any part of the session.

I’d never been in the studio with a band (J recorded with his former band, but I wasn’t clingy enough to even consider coming along). And a band that has played together for this many years is as fascinating to watch as a string quartet of long standing – the intuition, the nonverbal cues, each anticipating the other’s moves – and also, the need to discover what went wrong when someone screwed up, so it could be fixed for the next take. The Mekons composed this entire album while on tour, which meant they hadn’t had too many opportunities to rehearse the material before recording.

Twelve songs, multiple takes for each song – I was totally impressed that the whole album came together in four hours. We’d record four songs at a time, with a break in between. During a break, everyone lined up to use the one restroom, or to get more beer. (I couldn’t believe people weren’t letting Mekons skip to the front of the bathroom line.) By the end, I could barely keep myself awake on the hard wooden pew. But when our turn would come to sing, I gave it all I could. I was a deputy Mekon for the night, and seeing how very hard they all worked, it would have been difficult to slack off.

It’s been over a week since this event, and I’m still marveling at it. That a band I’ve adored so much would want to raise funds to record an album this way is not surprising, and I was glad to help out there. But for the band to actually trust its fans to provide part of the musical input – for them to trust that we wouldn’t screw it all up – that was what made this experience so unique.

At the end of the night, we were torn between hanging out and talking to the band, and the fact that we’d been paying a babysitter for what turned out to be a total of seven hours (for almost six hours of which the kids were fast asleep). We took our complimentary tour poster over to Jon, the Mekons’ unofficial ambassador to the world, to have it signed and say hello.

Invasion of The Mekons
Invasion of The Mekons

I told him I’d been the one who said their tour would cure my cancer, and I was happy to report that so far, it had been working. Another member of the Mekons faithful stood nearby. She wore a head scarf and bore the look of someone getting chemotherapy. I hope the energy generated in the room that night speeds her complete healing.

And I wish The Mekons good fortune, fame and riches, and good health. Thanks for a singular night.

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