The Mekons are a rock band that a few people really like. Judging by the symptoms — heard all their records, seen them live in multiple time zones, even went to see “Revenge of the Mekons,” Joe Angio’s documentary about the band, when it premiered at DOC NYC last year — I am one of these people. This October, the movie returned to New York for a one-week run at Film Forum, which was occasion for Columbia University to convene a panel about the band’s stance and music, and for me to geek out on yet another kind of Mekons event. (A panel about the Mekons? At Columbia? Why, yes: you are not getting old because you’re hearing things, you’re getting old because Columbia is holding a panel about the Mekons.) After all that, I didn’t exactly need to go back and see the movie one more time, but my older son likes the band too, and sometimes he and I and my wife play their songs together, and DOC NYC and the Columbia panel had been way past his bedtime, so, OK, let’s go?
When you follow a band over many years, you join a community, with the attendant feelings of familiarity and comfort. Which may seem contrary to the punk ethos (quote-unquote) of challenge and rebellion, but most of us find it easier to question the status quo in the company of friends. At the Columbia event, Greil Marcus had read from an essay that set the Mekons up as comforters for society’s exiles, the kind of knowing, good-humored companions you want to have, even as the world crumbles around you. That came back to me now, sitting in the dark with my son, other fans around us, waiting to hear the chiming-at-midnight opening E chords of Where Were You (one of the band’s canonical anthems, or anti-anthems, which opens the movie). Our own version of a cozy barstool on Cheers, waiting for Norm to show up.
But the best music also knocks you off your barstool, even when you’re sure you’ve heard it all before. And so, about two thirds of the way through the movie, peeking out from in between the band’s greatest hits, or what would have been if they ever had any (Now in one place, all your favorite Mekon chart-toppers! Last Dance! Memphis Egypt! Hard to be Human! The Curse!), I caught something much less familiar. Sally Timms’s voice was at the center of it, slow, jaded, yet full of drama. The guitars behind the vocal were simultaneously grand and tense, chords building, and not resolving. There was only a snippet of the song, barely enough to catch your attention, but it was more operatic than anything I had ever heard from the band, and in that moment it made my head spin, and then it was gone.
What had I heard? I figured it out the next day: a song called Love Letter, off an album called I ♥ Mekons, which the band released in the early 90’s after two years of record label limbo, to a remarkably indifferent reception even by Mekons standards. I bought the album when it first came out, fell in love with the dynamite first cut (Millionaire, a gloriously poppy cross between Heart of Glass and Cyndi Lauper’s version of Money Changes Everything), and mostly ignored the rest. I managed to forget the record entirely after my copy vanished a few years later during a move between coasts. Now I found it online and dialed up the song.
It opens with the same majestic guitar I had heard for an instant in the movie, waves crashing against the rocks. Then the music calms a bit and the vocal comes in. Sounding as compromised as she did on Millionaire, but a bit more distant, Sally tells the story of a doomed love affair. A man, out of sorts, likely away from home, is writing to his lost love. He has probably just been with someone else. Having set the scene, Sally becomes the man, expresses his turmoil and contradictions: he loves and hates the woman he is writing to at the same time. The pace is slow, the man conflicted, but then, with no warning whatsoever, there’s a great rush forward, a decision. “When you come back to me!” the singer cries. A boulder rolls down a hill, faster than you could have imagined, and shatters at the bottom.
Then the chorus. “Open up doors and rooms appear like magic,” and the music opens up too. It calls up new worlds to discover, but the singer warns you to be afraid as you walk down the hall: monsters, not prizes, hide behind these doors. Guitars rise up again and now you realize Sally is speaking as the woman, toying with the man: “Oblige me and I’ll scorn you… Offend me and you’ll see how much trouble I can be.” Was this the section I had heard in the film? The turbulence dies down, without resolving. The woman, an exile too, just as compromised as the man, receives his letter, crumples it up. The water roils, the boulder rolls down the hill once more, the waves crash again.
Hearing the song again, I couldn’t believe it made no impact on me when I first encountered it. It’s filled with thrills: that mad rush forward, the sense of endless discovery in the chorus. The singer may try to hold you back with her words, but the music pulls you ahead, you can’t help opening one door after another. Walking down the street the next day, fully engaged with the song, hearing it over and over, I still saw those doors, and I couldn’t help thinking that the miracle of the Mekons’ music, over all these years, has been that endless sense of surprise, for both the listeners and the band. And I couldn’t help thinking back to the end of the film, which gives Greil Marcus, music enthusiast and Mekons champion, the last word: “They still play as if they are discovering their music. Talk about capturing the punk ethos!” No quote-unquote needed now.
Open up doors. Away on a business trip a few days later, I called my wife, who told me: “Your son just discovered Hüsker Dü!” He had found their music on an old iPod of mine that he dug up I have no idea where. I don’t remember exactly what was on the Pod, and I don’t know how he decided to put on Hüsker Dü, but he did, listened a bit, turned to his mother, and said: “Mommy! What is this rocking music?” New worlds ahead to discover, always.