The Mekons, Mercury Lounge
The day I went to my first Mekons show was a hard day, for it was the day I had to dress up as a giant strawberry. This was for a protest outside an overpriced gourmet food store on Broadway; I was a strawberry holding a sign. I was a strawberry with social convictions who wished to secure protections for strawberry pickers in California.
At the time I was in my twenties and attending weekly meetings of a workers’ party, at which I sat wearing lipstick and platform shoes on folding chairs between large, sad men with industrial burn scars. At these gatherings I felt—not irrationally since I’d never worked a union day in my life—like a bourgeois pig. I came from a white-collar family; I lived in a co-op in the West Village; by day I wrote grants for a nonprofit group and by night I wrote books. I believed the underdog should rise up, but I wasn’t much of an underdog myself. The one time I ever worked on an assembly line was because my mother owned it.
Still, distress and fear at the workings of power were always with me, nagging; so I was flailing around to find a useful outlet for this. This was how, one cold afternoon, I came to be encased in a foam strawberry suit in Soho.
While waddling around in the company of my fellow protesters—with none of whom I ever actually succeeded in having a decent conversation—it occurred to me that if a friend of mine came anywhere near this protest it would be to enter the very store we were picketing, where a small log of goat cheese could be purchased for the price of an orphan in Botswana. (I myself had eaten that goat cheese. It was tasty.) My friends were mostly writers and artists who viewed activism with ironic detachment; and even though, like me, they were progressive in their politics, they felt no duty to participate. None of them would stoop to donning a strawberry. I was alone among strangers, itchy with awkwardness. I did not want to be holding up my poignant sign with someone else’s words on it; I did not want shout out someone else’s slogans, which always seemed reductive and ludicrous no matter how true they might be. I did not want to look like a Fruit of the Loom commercial. I hated my self-consciousness and the instincts that made everything earnest look like cliché: but there they were, insistently surfacing.
The culture of dissent, as I encountered it, had always grated on me this way, whether it was the insularity of labor activists or the hippiedom of environmentalists. Yet a sense of social morality lay over my shoulders like a wet blanket and sporadically I felt compelled to try to court change, nudging myself into niches where inevitably I then felt out of place. I was a prisoner in my ill-fitting fruit.
Having shucked the fruit suit, I made my way on foot to the nearby club where the Mekons were scheduled to play; the whole way I struggled to shrug off the lingering sense of being an idiot. I wished I was just going home to hunker down, eat a pizza and watch Law & Order. But I had listened to the Mekons for years by then—to their early punk records, their folksy post-punk ballads, their drunken sea shanty agit-pop, their rebel-country foot-stompers—and was curious to see them live; their songs stuck like catechisms.
Besides the tickets were already bought. Inertia carried me.
At the front of the Mercury Lounge was a bar area that allowed customers to fraternize with performers, if the performers so chose. Waiting for the show to begin I saw Jon Langford making jolly in a group in the corner; I stood with some friends a bare few feet from Tom Greenhalgh, who was gaunt and devilish handsome quaffing what looked like some kind of a gin drink. (Gin and other spirits figure prominently in the Mekons’ lexicon.) I wanted to think he was smiling at me and briefly envisioned a life filled with Greenhalgh, booze, music and prominent cheekbones. I believed I might levitate. But suddenly Greenhalgh turned away. I thought I saw an expression of distaste cross his face; I smelled something faintly rancid. Then I realized it was the afterscent of the strawberry. It had been worn by many others before me.
A few minutes later they all took the stage, nasty, British, and not so short. Immediately they were bantering combatively, badgering and mocking each other with funny insults—a sharp, sometimes sexy badinage that secured them at once in my affections. I was smitten.
Each Mekon had charm; each Mekon was articulate and stinging, sarcastic and wise. And in the music and the gentle cast of dim lights and the warmth, from the very first seconds of the first song, I saw what it was to lose my reserve and the shame of my own bad dancing. I forgot the shock it can give onlookers suddenly to behold me, enthusiastic and in the throes of a seemingly private rhythm. I laughed at these hovering opinions and felt how they vanished. Because here was thrill; here was the delight of complete submission. I forgot the constant pressure to be distant from all things, for the world was glowing. What force! I thought. What dust we are, what blood. We stand swirling in the middle of time, the pillars of our separate identities transformed into rivers: we shuck our skins and join the chaos of the endlessly redeemable soul.
It was as though I had speed or coke in my system, although in fact I had tepid light beer.
And I knew, standing there in a daze, that though I was far past the years of teen groupiedom, I was as one with all groupies. I understood them. And I wanted not merely to sleep with a Mekon, but, more than that, to be one. The Mekons were far more than me, elevated—and yet I did not begrudge them this; rather I wished to partake of it. They were what I would have hoped for in myself had I been made of rock-star stuff, and had I not been the type who suffered white-knuckled fear when forced to sing karaoke. (That the Mekons never actually reached rock star status, despite a devoted following, was nothing short of tragic but did not diminish my admiration.) I saw made flesh in the merry band from Leeds a kind of ultimate social and artistic persona, one that fulfilled all my wishes about myself in the world and answered all my regrets. They stood at the crossroads where the mundane met the divine; they were the culmination of a secret and subversive idea. They were not music alone, though the sublimity of music would surely have been enough
It was not incidental that they were an overtly socialist band with strong opinions, opinions they did not hesitate to offer up with just enough snarky wit to save them from seeming simplistic or hackneyed. Their politics and their aesthetics seemed to coalesce into a perfect whole; whereas I, ten years later, would still be struggling for the balance that would infuse my work with a political center without reducing it to a dull polemic. Nothing could have been more enviable to me.
And what I felt, listening to their nostalgic dirge to Western civilization that was always also a call to arms—they sang about the fall of Soviet communism, the opium trade, the first men on the moon, the arms race, miners’ strikes—was a kind of rapture. I imagine worshippers in an ecstatic faith must feel this, caught up in a frenzy and given over to a vision of paradise or of boundless mercy. Standing in the crowd, where almost everyone seemed transfixed, I was suspended in a sheerly idealistic moment. The actual fell away and the ideal was embraced, not by one of us but by many. An imagination of justice, somehow, was present and felt: within the arc of the songs a feeling of infinite freedom was loosed on us all.
This at least was how I felt—as though my heart was breaking and I welcomed it; as though joy and grief were a hair apart. I felt certain, for once, of not being alone in longing.
When the show ended and I had to go home, I felt no time had passed. I bought tickets for the show the following night, and from then on, until the day when I moved across the country, saw the Mekons whenever they played, in New York or New Jersey. I never spoke to any of them, though they were fairly approachable: my awe was such that I would have been struck dumb.
In the weeks and months afterward I became a defender of the faith. If I played a Mekons album for a friend and it met with indifference, a quick disappointment would lodge itself in my skin like a splinter. I would be forced to dismiss not only the musical tastes of the friend in question, but, in all likelihood, the immortal soul; within me diagnosis and condemnation would occur. Poor spirit, I thought. Poor thing. Too small; too mean; too slight.
For to understand the ascendance of the Mekons was to fathom infinite possibility; to see the goodness of the Mekons was to acknowledge the persistence of luminous particles in the dark.
Eventually I gave up on the strawberry and lent myself to other, less overt forms of advocacy, finally conceding that, much as I was not cut out to be a sexy socialist rock singer, neither was I cut out to march and wave banners in front of Dean & Deluca. Whatever anger I had did not express itself in groups but in solitary work. This felt like a copout for some time, but it also felt inevitable. Even if, in my dreams, I was someone else entirely, I had to agree to be myself when awake: or life would stretch on far too long.
The Mekons, like all musicians, are lucky. They run little risk of being accused of stridency, of didacticism, of arrogance: for everything is forgiven them in the powerful and euphoric joy that music, unique among the arts, can bring. Their audiences, unlike for instance my readers, are primed for abandonment—liquor in their stomachs, blood running thin, floating in a womblike embrace that invites direct political speech in a way that other forms, including literary fiction, do not.
But something I first understood that night has strengthened me in the years between then and now: the certainty that cynicism is finally deeply boring, that all great things are shot full of anger, sadness and remorse.
The band turned twenty and then twenty-five; they were middle-aged and still, to me, captivating. They made albums that were almost gospel, and I loved them more than ever. “And there’s no peace/On this terrible shore,” they sang in 2002. “Every day is a battle/How we still love the war.” For me they would never lose their novelty. And years after that first show at the Mercury Lounge, in my own house in the desert far away from anywhere the band ever plays, the Mekons test formerly performed on so many unwitting guests has fallen into disuse in favor of less lofty criteria to determine personal mettle—“Does he tolerate my snuffling pug dog?” for instance, or “Does she frown disapprovingly at my food-smeared toddler?”
But I never fell out of love, and I continue to feel a nagging distrust of those who, given the chance, fail to see the singular beauty of my heroes. ♦