It’s been a year since the last entry here. So I could blog about the end of Planck, the first observation of gravitational waves, fatherhood, or the horror (comedy?) of the US Presidential election. Instead, it’s going to be rock ’n’ roll, though I don’t know if that’s because it’s too important, or not important enough.
It started last year when I came across Christgau’s A+ review of Wussy’s Attica and the mentions of Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Television seemed compelling enough to make it worth a try (paid for before listening even in the streaming age). He was right. I was a few years late (they’ve been around since 2005), but the songs and the sound hit me immediately. Attica was the best new record I’d heard in a long time, grabbing me from the first moment, “when the kick of the drum lined up with the beat of [my] heart”, in the words of their own description of the feeling of first listening to The Who’s “Baba O’Riley”. Three guitars, bass, and a drum, over beautiful screams from co-songwriters Lisa Walker and Chuck Cleaver.
To certain fans of Lucinda Williams, Crazy Horse, Mekons and R.E.M., Wussy became the best band in America almost instantaneously…
Indeed, that list nailed my musical obsessions with an almost google-like creepiness. Guitars, soul, maybe even some politics. Wussy makes me feel almost like the Replacements did in 1985.
So I was ecstatic when I found out that Wussy was touring the UK, and their London date was at the great but tiny Windmill in Brixton, one of the two or three venues within walking distance of my flat (where I had once seen one of the other obsessions from that list, The Mekons). I only learned about the gig a couple of days before, but tickets were not hard to get: the place only holds about 150 people, but their were far fewer on hand that night — perhaps because Wussy also played the night before as part of the Walpurgis Nacht festival. But I wanted to see a full set, and this night they were scheduled to play the entire new Forever Sounds record. I admit I was slightly apprehensive — it’s only a few weeks old and I’d only listened a few times.
But from the first note (and after a good set from the third opener, Slowgun) I realised that the new record had already wormed its way into my mind — a bit more atmospheric, less song-oriented, than Attica, but now, obviously, as good or nearly so. After the 40 or so minutes of songs from the album, they played a few more from the back catalog, and that was it (this being London, even after the age of “closing time”, most clubs in residential neighbourhoods have to stop the music pretty early). Though I admit I was hoping for, say, a cover of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”, it was still a great, sloppy, loud show, with enough of us in the audience to shout and cheer (but probably not enough to make very much cash for the band, so I was happy to buy my first band t-shirt since, yes, a Mekons shirt from one of their tours about 20 years ago…). I did get a chance to thank a couple of the band members for indeed being the “best band in America” (albeit in London). I also asked whether they could come back for an acoustic show some time soon, so I wouldn’t have to tear myself away from my family and instead could bring my (currently) seven-month old baby to see them some day soon.
I’ve spent the last few days in the northern half of Great Britain. Wednesday, I was an external examiner for a (successful!) PhD exam at the Durham University. Thursday, I was at the University of Glasgow in service to the other end of the PhD experience in the UK, giving a one-hour lecture on the Cosmic Microwave Background at the STFC summer school for incoming students.
But after the summer school I woke up early for the Caledonian Sleeper up to Fort William in the Western Highlands. I rode through some of the UK’s most spectacular landscape, hills and lochs in the morning fog:
Once I got to Fort William (a typically characterless UK town, unfortunately), I hit the trail, walking along the last few miles of the West Highland Way, taking in some detours to the Cow Hill Summit and the iron-age Dun Deardail Fort. The local hills, including Ben Nevis, the highest peak in Britain, were nestled in low-slung cloud all day:
Along the way, I spotted flora and fauna
And as an added bonus, here are the Mekons, with their own take on walking in the British countryside:
As I’ve said repeatedly, the Mekons are my favorite rock ’n’ roll band. Their music has sustained me since about 1990, after I first saw them at Chicago’s Cabaret Metro, already more than a decade into their careers. By then, they had already gone beyond their punk roots, invented alt.country avant la lettre, and skewered capitalism on Mekons Rock and Roll. But despite all the complications, they love that rock and roll, and they’ve put on several of the best shows I’ve heard, starting with that gig in Chicago, which had become a sort of hometown for this widely scattered British band. I had only heard a few songs before that night, but I was immediately converted, not just by vocalist Sally Timms in her silver lamé dress, one of the sexiest performers I had ever seen, but by the lot of them, fronted by Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh, serious enough about their chosen music to know not to take it too seriously. Now in their 50s, they are all magnetic, still sexy as hell, even when they’re more-or-less knowingly fucking around, drinking too much, and still not taking anything too seriously.
So I couldn’t miss their latest UK visit, two gigs last weekend in London. With the blinders of any true fan, I admit I don’t understand why the Mekons aren’t a lot more rich and famous, and I was a little disheartened to find the clubs they played, The Lexington in Kings X, and the Windmill in Brixton, are basically pubs with stages. They packed the places, largely with mid-50s blokes in flannel shirts and short hair, who were maybe more interested in reprises of the 70s material than the (inarguably better) stuff from the 80s, 90s and 00s — with their first album of the new decade due later in the year — but I don’t quite get why they shouldn’t be playing and filling bigger clubs.
The gigs (yes, I went to both) surveyed their nearly three and a half decades, from punk to country to whatever hybrid they’re up to now, wielding their guitars — not to mention accordion, fiddle and mandolin — to tell what usually end up as stories of political or emotional betrayal, unrequited love for a better world. They played their gorgeous cover of John Anderson’s Wild and Blue, Sally taking some time for singing off from the shouting she seems to sometimes prefer; considered the modern history of London in Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem; and lamented the ongoing death of rock ’n’ roll in Memphis, Egypt. Saturday, with multi-instrumentalist (and occasional cohort of John Lydon) Lu Edmonds off for the night, they devoted their encore to a reworking of their punk phase, albeit without putting down the accordion and fiddle.
Friday was tighter, less silly, probably less drunk — and was partially filmed for the still-planned Mekons movie — but I’m happy to put up with the Mekons however they come, put a few quid into their pockets so that they keep getting together every few years and give us a new record and a few gigs.
Bonus: A shambles of an encore from the Zurich leg of the tour, featuring Toronto’s Sadies and the Mekons performing “Memphis, Egypt” and “Where Were You?”. If you don’t already love the Mekons, this won’t convert you, but if you do, it may remind you why, and will certainly put a smile on your face. (Via Back to the World)
The Mekons are the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world. They started in the 70s as a punk band from Leeds but by the mid-1980s had picked up fiddles and mandolins to go with their loud guitars, and learned to love Hank Williams and Gram Parsons as much as they’ve sadly learned to hate the injustices meted about by the systems and people that run everything. Their “Mekons Rock’n’Roll” was a simultaneous eulogy and elegy to their loud and debauched chosen musical form, “capitalism’s favorite boychild” as they themselves described it. The followup, “Curse of the Mekons” is probably the best record made about the end of the cold war, lamenting not only their cursed bad luck, but refusing to see it even a defeat for socialism which they reasonably point out can’t “really be dead when it hasn’t even happened”. A decade later, they also probably made the best (if possibly unselfconscious) record about 9/11 and its aftermath, “Out of Our Heads”.
If all of this makes them sound dour and serious, they’re not. Or at least, they know enough to seize the day, to turn their amps up and party while they watch the decay of the world around them. Over the years, they’ve dispersed to Chicago, New York, San Francisco, London and England’s West Country — and still get together every once in a while to record, tour and generally raise hell without, as far as I can tell, increasing their income too much. And in the process, they’ve probably been responsible for two or three of the best rock’n’roll shows I’ve ever been to, in North America and in the UK.
To honor (or praise, or bury) their career, filmmaker Joe Angio has shot the footage for a documentary “Revenge of the Mekons”. But they’ve run out of money for editing, and have enlisted the internet to help: Kickstarter is a brilliant site which enables groups to find (financial) supporters from around the world (and reward them in kind). You can support the film — the project is more than halfway toward their $20,000 goal. Depending on the amount of the pledge, you can get various prizes, including records and artwork by members of the band as well as books signed by some of the Mekons’ more famous fans (including rock critic Greil Marcus, novelist Jonathan Franzen, and writer Luc Sante), not to mention your name in the credits of a film. So, keep the corpse of rock’n’roll limping along — donate what you can.
On my flight out to Cleveland via Chicago, I sat next to a lovely, hip-looking couple watching The Sopranos on DVD, wedged into the cattle-class middle seats. They turned out to be Brett and Rennie Sparks — husband-and-wife band The Handsome Family. They actually started out in Chicago in the early 1990s back when I was a graduate student and part-time DJ at WHPK radio, and have recorded with some of my favorite musicians such as various members of the Mekons. Their records have been lauded as amongst the best of the alt.country/Americana/No Depression genres — just the sort of stuff that I love, so I’m now a little embarrassed that I haven’t paid much attention to them before. A quick listen to their myspace and iTunes samples means that it’s time for a trip to the record store.
The Mekons have long been a favorite (obsession?) of mine: formed in Leeds during the UK punk explosion, they celebrated their 30th anniversary with a show at London’s Dingwalls. Grey-haired fifty-year-old blokes who probably weren’t actually there at the original shows in the 70s dominated the audience, and the music covered the whole period, especially the middle decade during which they arguably invented alt.country, produced blistering anticapitalist rock’n’roll anthems, and analyzed the fall of the Berlin Wall. If this show didn’t live up to their best, I still hope I age as gracefully (or is it gracelessly?) as they are.
A newer obsession is The Hold Steady, a band from Minneapolis via Brooklyn, ever since I saw them on Later with Jules Holland, and especially after singer Craig Finn’s encomium to the Replacements and the rest of the mid-80s Minneapolis music scene — Hüsker Dü, Soul Asylum, and outside the indie sphere, of course, Prince (see below!). Their newish record, Boys And Girls in America, and their show at Shepherds Bush Empire in London are a rock-nerd’s mash-up of 70s and 80s rock ‘n’ roll from Thin Lizzy to Springsteen with seedy stories of love, drugs, drinking and sex. The best song on the record (and at the show), “Stuck Between Stations”, quotes Kerouac and recounts the suicide of poet John Berryman between lines about a girl who “was a really cool kisser and she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian. She was a damn good dancer but she wasn’t all that great of a girlfriend.” The audience, much younger than the Mekons’, veered towards frat-boy-style, perhaps missing the core of despair amid the anthems. But I was happy enough to jump up and down among them.
This week I saw Joan as Policewoman (the name is a reference to a 70s TV show) also in Shepherds Bush — her honeyed voice is in the straight singer-songwriter style, but her sheer joy at interacting with the audience, not to mention her sense of humor, propelled her lovely songs over her rather workmanlike band.
Finally, I embarrassedly plunked down £1.40 for today’s Mail on Sunday — for its exclusive giveaway of the new CD from Prince — not otherwise for sale in the UK. It’s not a masterpiece like Purple Rain or Sign O’ the Times, but even low-grade Prince is worth wading through a hundred pages of tabloid crap to listen to.
Four jobs I’ve had:
- University Lecturer and Astrophysicist
- Bookstore clerk
- Book, comic and music reviewer for New City News
- Atmospheric chemistry researcher at GISS, whose director has an excellent habit of telling the truth
Four movies I can watch over and over:
Four places I’ve lived (although the last iterations have had “liked”):
- Fort Lee, New Jersey
- San Francisco
Four TV shows I love:
- Northern Exposure
- The West Wing
- The Muppet Show
- Twin Peaks
Four places I’ve vacationed:
- Mendocino, California
- Bevagna, Umbria, Italy
- The Lot Valley, France
- The Grand Canyon
Four of my favorite dishes:
- Cantal cheese (raw milk only), a baguette and some tannic red wine
- Sticky rice with leaf (dim sum from Ton Kiang)
Four sites I visit daily:
Four places I would rather be right now:
- A swanky cocktail bar sipping a martini
- At a concert by the Mekons
- San Francisco
- In orbit
Four bloggers I am tagging (you’re it!):
I've been a bit quiet the past week, so here's a very random top ten from my just-completed trip to North America (New Jersey/New York and Toronto). In no particular order, except for number one:
- My sister's wedding -- Congratulations and Mazel Tov to Allison and Chris!
- The skeleton of the new Daniel Libeskind extension to the Royal Ontario Museum (unfortunately the plans to build a Libeskind addition to the V&A Museum across the road from my office have been scuppered).
- The Mekons, "Wild and Blue": my favorite obscure-ish rock'n'roll band in the whole world. But this is a country song, from Curse of the Mekons, one of the few rock records about the end of the Cold War.
- Hearing my old friend Dennis Blackwell sing.
- Travel Karma: a free upgrade for one leg of my trip, and nearly not making it back to London on the return flight.
- Pushing closer to new results from B2K. (More info when we're allowed to talk about it!)
- Visiting the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, one of the best places to be an astrophysics postdoc (although I'm biased, since I was there 1993-96).
- New designs for The High Line by Diller and Scofidio, on display at the new Museum of Modern Art, New York.
- New York blogger/geek dinner with Dave Winer, Scoble, Steve Rubel, and lots of others off the A-list but just as cool (photos here).
- General Tso's Chicken from Star of China in Fort Lee, New Jersey.