By Mark Guarino
Meet Jon Langford, American dad.
Nothing about his nondescript house on Chicago’s leafy Northwest Side would suggest that a mortgage is met partially through rock music and art. Toys are scattered, two boys are in bed upstairs hearing stories read by their mother, and a dog limbers about, soliciting head rubs.
The scene is so serene, it makes Langford grumble, nodding to the static outside. “I couldn’t get mugged if I tried,” he says.
On his block, fathers rise and shine to daily duty to their families and jobs. Langford, 48, is not far out of step. After dropping his son off at school, he heads to a T-shirt factory where his painting studio is located. When his kids return home, he’ll either go to a recording studio, a local gig, or radio station WXRT where he hosts a weekly show. When he moved to Chicago from Wales in 1992, Langford decided he’d do what most immigrants do when they step off the boat: Reinvent themselves. “I felt liberated,” he said. “I could do whatever I wanted.”
The Mekons, the nearly mythic first-wave punk band he co-founded in 1977, was juggled by several major labels, dropped by all. He was slowly in the process of rediscovering his painting, inspired by forgotten country stars who met tragic deaths and commercial apathy. Chicago, a gruff, dark Midwestern city where local weathermen are fawned over as major celebrities, looked like a place where neither the recording industry or the art world could tell him to justify what it was he was up to.
“I really found a lot of space for doing the things I wanted to do,” he said. “I was cooped up for such a long time.”
Moving to Chicago meant an initial period of sleeping on couches with no money, but then: explosion. Side bands became full-time endeavors (the Waco Brothers, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts), art shows flourished and collaborations were many. “Jon just works. He doesn’t sleep. He’s like a bat,” said songwriter Richard Buckner, who Langford lured to Chicago to record an album with. “He’s a pure, sweet guy and I think his art is pure.”
In Langford’s refusal to go away, he seemed to almost dare fellow musicians and audiences to keep up, to work harder, to care deeper. In the process, a scene gelled.
“Especially in terms of what he did in Chicago, I think if there was a musical community there, he was very influential in keep it together,” said veteran Texas songwriter Alejandro Escovedo. “He’s kind of like the ringleader and a mentor of sorts. A resident genius, too.”
By the late 1990s, Langford’s restless energy created a cottage industry of music, performance and art that protested, mourned and heckled the American institution known as short-term memory. Like the cowboys in his paintings who gallop at full steam wearing blindfolds, Langford’s America is the one that created the strip mall, the Cinnabon and Kenny Chesney in an insistent race to pave over its soul.
That theme runs through the songs on Gold Brick (ROIR), a new album, Nashville Radio (Verse Chorus Press), a collection of artwork, and “The Executioner’s Last Songs,” a touring show involving both. Flip through the pages and the art book becomes a ghost story, filled with spooky, smiling faces of long forgotten country singers, their faces topped with cowboy hats, their bodies decked in western wear and their postures in perfect press shot poise. Except there’s a skull leering from a corner. A dollar sign glittering under their nose. A third eye glowing on their forehead. The word “No!” floats above, scrawled as if a shriek. The body of work in this collection is part reverence and all horror. Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Bill Monroe and countless other early era deities are cased in tributes that could be coffins, portraits that show the exuberance of a generation and the cynicism of an industry that killed it.
“He’s kind of like an historian in that sense,” said Nicholas Harper, owner of Rogue Buddha Gallery in Minneapolis, which showed Langford’s artwork earlier this year. “They’re like film documentaries, creative and spontaneous but rooted in reality. (The paintings) have someone we can all identify with, like Johnny Cash.”
Langford met Cash in the late 1980s. “I couldn’t really speak,” he said. Looking back now, he said the “cuddly, god-fearing, nice old man” he met had just returned from the Betty Ford Clinic the year before. “He was at rock bottom at that time. He had been sacked by Columbia. He had sold more records than the Beatles at one point and they sacked him. He was playing the oldies circuit, he was not considered relevant. I wish I thought about that when I met him,” he said.
In one of Langford’s Cash portraits, the singer’s eyes glow, with the slivered pupils of a demon cat.
“He was like a space alien,” he said. “He was huge to us.”
But, before the Rick Rubin days, Cash was largely ignored. Langford may have discovered a treasure chest of American music, but when the Mekons toured the U.S. for the first time, he soon realized most Americans hadn’t.
“(In the van), we had no cassette player and we had to listen to the radio. By the end of the tour we just didn’t turn it on. It was too depressing. That fantastic heritage, the explosion of almost every sort of music you can imagine, from the twenties and thirties up to the present day, none of the good stuff gets on the radio. Cajun music, jazz music, the blues, country, western swing, it’s just so rich. It’s like somebody threw it in a hole and built a mall on top and that’s the end of it,” he said. “It was just surprising to come here and Bob Willis is not a household name. I’d talk to old people and say, ‘did you ever see Bob Wills?’ And they were like, ‘who?’”
If Fear and Whiskey and other Mekons albums from that period cherrypick American styles and hand them back to their listeners in a fist, Gold Brick is the work of an insider who knows this country inside and out. Langford’s most tuneful album to date, it has the far reach of a novelist, assembling characters ranging from Christopher Columbus to John Henry to Sun Ra and stripping them down so that they’re all knee deep in a tar pit called the promised land. “Dream of a gold brick,” he sings. “A flat road leads to it.” Previous Langford albums had their share of lampooning, here in this elegant chamber setting of piano, violin, and a full arsenal of John Rice’s guitars, he treats the wasteland as a brotherhood.
Graham Parker, a fellow ex-patriot from Britain and Langford’s Bloodshot Records labelmate, understands the desire to write about your adopted home with empathy. “Everything’s writ large in America. You feel kind of puffed up and proud of yourself living here. You soak it all up a bit more. I probably know much more about the political situation in this country than I ever did in England,” he said.
Langford was commissioned by the National Performance Network, an arts organization that pursues the funding of independent work, to weave his life story into a one man show. Sounded good but soon he had another idea. “I chickened out,” he said. “It would have been exhausting.” Instead, what became “The Executioner’s Last Songs” was a show focused on how his obsessions with country music and working class rock led him to become a death penalty abolitionist. The seed was the television coverage of the execution of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, two years after Langford moved to Chicago. A major media sensation, the night was remembered for execution parties held outside the state penitentiary and crowds whooping it up at midnight.
“There’s no debate about this issue, it really shocked me. In Wales, I was pretty middle of the road. I’m quite a pragmatic Socialist for most battles. But I came over here and suddenly, I’m friggin’ Trotsky,” he said, laughing. “It’s a bit odd.”
The show includes Mekon Sally Timms, drummer Dan Massey, violinist Jean Cook and Pere Ubu bassist Tony Maimone, projections of Langford’s paintings, stretches of scripted autobiography and, of course, songs. It’s been performed at contemporary art museums in Chicago, Austin, and Minneapolis. Langford considers it the culmination of why he moved here at the start.
“People from home will say, ‘how can you live there, especially now’? I say, ‘it’s really pretty great. It’s the land of opportunity’,” he said. “All these weird things happened that I could eventually make a living. I was always told ‘you’ll never make a living doing art.’ When I moved here, I said ‘I’m not going to be fucking told I can’t make music. Likewise, I’m not going to be told I can’t make art.’
“Bloodyminded-ness. That’s my revenge on the world.”