No Faking: Peter S. Scholtes reviews the Mekons with Greil Marcus
The Mekons, Greil Marcus
March 28, 2008
Review by Peter S. Scholtes
Photos by Daniel Corrigan
The Mekons take up dozens of pages in Greil Marcus books on punk, and even shelf space among my CDs and records, but I couldn't have hummed you one of their tunes until Friday night. The Mekons were always a great sound first -- kind of a hootenanny version of "All Tomorrow's Parties" -- with songs that seemed worth the trouble once I got around to the lyric sheet at some future date. I've withheld judgment because I'm an admirer of Greil Marcus, whom (full disclosure) I know slightly, and who made me a Sex Pistols fan 18 years ago at a Hungry Mind reading of his book Lipstick Traces.
Both Marcus (of the Bay Area) and the Mekons (of Leeds, Chicago, and elsewhere) have ties to the Twin Cities: Marcus through family and former City Pages staff, the Mekons through their former record label Twin/Tone. So it's no fluke that an onstage get-together of band and rock critic should occur here, at the Fitzgerald, hosted by radio star Maria Lucia and taped for her talk music program The Current Fakebook on 89.3 the Current, coinciding with Mekon Jon Langford's art opening the same night at Rogue Buddha in Northeast.
The Mekons: punk rock roots and Twin City connections. More photos by Daniel Corrigan.
Marcus introduced the Mekons with a quote from another writer whose name he has apparently never tracked down, describing the band in the 1970s: "Those who couldn't play tried to learn and those who could tried to forget." But that line seemed to apply less to the band that took the stage than did Marcus's later, eloquent defense of some '70s punk band reunions (the Avengers, Gang of Four) as rediscoveries rather than retreads. The Mekons, who have been around in one form or another for 31 years, don't just look like the middle-aged people I want to be (or be with) -- singer-guitarist Langford all unembarrassed tummy with shirt open and white fuzz on top, singer Sally Timms spark-away blonde and Exene-hot. The four-plus singing voices are all throat--even Timms, whose softness luxuriates between edges. And their sit-down septet in a circle (of banjo, fiddle, percussion, vocals, accordion, bass, and guitar, along with other switched-out instruments) never neglects frenetic texture for jamming. What sets them apart from so many Prairie Home Companion roots bands that have entertained from the same spot onstage is that the songs physically seize these guys. The Mekons play like punks not because they forget their skills, but because they remember what punk taught them about how to feel.
After a few Mekons numbers, with more to come, Marcus and Lucia took the stage to do the interview thing, which was nearly as good. Lucia makes this look easy -- I'm never disappointed by where her armchair interviews go, and they almost never go where I expect them to. Sometimes this is the result of comic self-insertion: At one point Lucia basically asked Marcus what he thought of David Bowie, and admitted she was a fan to the point of not being able to imagine Bowie doing something mundane like plunging a toilet. But when she asked Marcus if there were any artists about whom he felt that way, he was anything but ungenerous with his "no," taking the opportunity to give the audience what it wanted -- something to react to. Marcus said that other people -- not he -- might feel that way about some artists: Lucinda Williams, for instance. He called Williams a "complete fraud": "I have never heard a word out of her mouth that didn't seem self-conscious, that didn't seem intended to be praised."
Mary Lucia interviews Greil Marcus. More photos by Daniel Corrigan.
While probably familiar to Marcus fans, this old attack on a Current favorite set in motion the night's only running gag: When Marcus and Lucia returned to the stage after an intermission with Timms and Langford to have another sit-down, Timms got Langford to admit that Lucinda Williams had recently bought some of Langford's art. When a microphone suddenly popped and crackled, Lucia (I think it was her) joked that Williams must be in the audience, and Langford pantomimed that he'd just been shot. Williams fans, meanwhile, could take some comfort in the fact that Marcus probably lost the other half of the room with his breathless praise of Jakob Dylan. (Really? Jakob Dylan? Again, I'll withhold judgment.)
The Williams bit was Marcus's way of being gregarious. And he was as enthusiastic, thoughtful, and social in his other responses -- his writing can be infuriating when you disagree, a model of holding nothing back (to the point of seeming to make a show of holding nothing back), but no one will ever accuse him of being too cool for the room. This match of disposition and position was good to be reminded about, as the natural inclination of most critics who are also human beings is to want to be liked by both artists and readers, and this desire can stifle. Talking to Lucia, who among other things talks to artists for a living, Marcus said without apology that he'd never once interviewed Bob Dylan, about whom he's spilled millions of words as a critic, and that he never found himself wanting to know more about the lives of the writers he admired or worked with.
The wisdom here is one I've tried to drill into every young critic who asks my advice: Be a journalist of your own reactions first, and don't let anything keep you from being honest about them. That said, there's no denying that journalism (not to mention sociability) of other kinds informs the work of "pure" critics: Marcus couldn't have written what he has about Dylan were it not for the interviews and reporting of many others. I'd include here the mediated live experiences of television and film, not to mention the opinions of friends, or the collective (if not communal) experience that concerts always are. Last year's Mekons album Natural (Touch and Go) seemed all right before the show, but I liked the band a lot more for seeing them live, hearing them talk, hearing others' reactions, and seeing Marcus look so grateful for them. Mesmerized by the Timms numbers, I found myself liking not just the Mekons but Minneapolis-St. Paul a bit more by association, though I've admittedly been won over for 18 years.