Artists Unite

Pushing to a logical extreme the artistic collectivism that marked the Mekons’ emergence from the English punk-rock explosion of 1977, Mekons United combines into a single artifact writings, art, and music produced by the group and some of its supporters. Ostensibly the catalog for an exhibition of artwork produced by various band members, curated by and currently showing at the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland, Florida, the book-and-CD package, which arrives in stores on July 9 carrying a hefty $42.95 list price, nevertheless stands on its own as a testament to the band’s prolific and intriguing output over the last two decades.

The lavish 200-page volume includes full-color reproductions of paintings and collages by Jon Langford, Tom Greenhalgh, Rico Bell, and Kevin Lycett,excerpts from Living in Sin, the band’s bawdy, collaborative novel-in-progress, and various work related to the band by Greil Marcus, Vito Acconci, Lester Bangs, and Terry Atkinson among others. Similarly, the accompanying CD contains a sprawling 70-minute-plus hodgepodge of unrefined recordings, revealing both the band’s pop impulses and more noisy, experimental sides. While the work may be titled United, it’s anything but unified. The book is (dis)organized so that academia, art criticism, and pop culture overlap haphazardly. Langford says, “I like that the book flies off in a lot of different directions, because that’s what the band has been like over the years.” Indeed, the Mekons’ strange combination of politics, art, and hedonism often seems disjointed, and as Colin Stewart writes in the book, “The Mekons may like to come over in interviews as all thought out and so on but I think a lot of it is operating on an entirely different level” and “I would call it intuition.” Somehow, though, the group’s work consistently coheres and takes on substantive meaning in the end.

Since moving to Chicago from England five years ago, Langford has shown his distinctive work in local galleries–as part of several group shows at the now-defunct World Tattoo Gallery and at the Eastwick Art Gallery, where earlier this year he had a one-man exhibit. The idea for the Polk Museum retrospective was launched during a gig the band had in Tampa in 1994. The exhibit, which opened April 27 and closes July 28, will travel to Leeds and London next year, and discussions are under way to have it visit several U.S. cities.

While the band’s songwriting has always been credited collectively to the Mekons, it’s strange to find the art in the exhibit similarly attributed. Langford says, “I think it acknowledges that while it may be the work of one hand on a piece of paper, it’s actually the product of a lot of discussion and work produced over a long period of time between the members of the band.”

The book represents one of several adventurous projects the Mekons are involved with this year. In September in Seattle–following a pair of rehearsal gigs at Lounge Ax and FitzGerald’s in August–the band will perform its provocative collaboration with writer Kathy Acker, Pussy, King of the Pirates, a musical companion piece to Acker’s novel of the same name. “It’s theatrical like a high school play,” says Langford. “We all dress up as lesbian pirates.”


De La Soul’s new album Stakes Is High (Tommy Boy) represents a major return to form for the group, combining inventive and infectious musical schemes with savvy, thoughtful wordplay and realism-tempered positivity–“De La Soul is here to stay like racism.” The Daisy Age sampladelia of their past has evolved into lean, jazz-tinged grooves that shift the focus onto the organic, sophisticated verbal flow of Posdnuos, Trugoy the Dove, and Maseo. The album arrives as the first salvo of the reenergized Native Tongue posse–the forward-looking New York-based hip-hop collective. Later in the summer we’ll see new albums from A Tribe Called Quest and the Jungle Brothers. The newest Native Tongue recruit is Chicago’s Common Sense, who delivers an effective cameo on “The Bizness” from De La Soul’s new release. A new Common Sense single drops in August followed by a new album in October. De La Soul appear Friday at the New Regal Theater on a bill that also includes notable Chicago acts Do or Die and Crucial Conflict. The latter’s hotly anticipated debut album, The Final Tic, was released earlier this week, while the foursome’s debut single, “Hay,” sits at number 3 on the rap chart and number 22 on the pop chart in the current issue of Billboard….On the heels of some rare Chicago performances by Michael Hurley last week, like-minded folk revisionist, walking musical encyclopedia, and sometime Hurley associate Peter Stampfel performs a pair of shows Saturday at Lunar Cabaret. Stampfel, who comprised half of New York’s legendary Holy Modal Rounders, will have yet another “onetime” reunion with the group’s other half, Steve Weber, at New York’s Bottom Line on July 12. The Dysfunctionells–with whom Stampfel performed for the first time almost exactly two years ago in Chicago–will provide musical backing for both events.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Mekons by Brad Miller.