The Blind Thrashers 

Mekons stumble forward across the heartland, playing songs from their 22 CDs.

So I reveal to a co-worker my intention to interview the Mekons, famed English punk survivors, honky-tonk raiders, and outright genre karma chameleons. I ask this co-worker if he'd suggest any specific Mekons tunes or albums.

The following day, he hits me with a plastic bag loaded with 21 CDs, including live albums, odds 'n' ends collections, and side projects. Correctly assessing that I couldn't possibly absorb all this, he also supplies a three-page typewritten study guide briefly describing each release and detailing its two or three key tracks.

Yes, it would appear the Mekons are one of "those" bands -- not just a preference but a lifestyle; not just an interest but a full-fledged religion.

Some bands find such slavish devotion disquieting.

"I don't mind; if they wanna make us their hobby, that's fine," insists unofficial frontman and mastermind Jon Langford. "As long as we see some bread."

He then laughs maniacally.

You'd be cheeky and sarcastic too if you'd spent twenty-plus years rumbling about in the Mekons tour van, which is currently rumbling about, hopelessly lost en route to a gig in Pittsburgh, city of steel and Heinz ketchup. The band has evidently been crossing the Ohio River repeatedly.

To the casual listener, this serves as a splendid analogy for the Mekons "sound," which began in the late '70s as appropriately shambolic punk ("Like bad Gang of Four," notes the obsessed co-worker) before veering off into a "country phase" (Fear and Whiskey), a "piratey-Poguesesque miner-song phase" (So Good It Hurts), a quasiconventional rock phase (The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll "is one of the ten greatest rock albums of all time"), a bizarre spoken-word lesbian pirate detour (the "unlistenably bad" Pussy, King of the Pirates), and the vaguely alt.country singer-songwriter phase that buoyed the Mekons for much of the '90s, personified by Journey to the End of Night -- "I've decided this is a concept album about the dot-com bubble, but I'm sure that's wrong," my study guide reads.

Exuberant multi-instrumentalist Lu Edmonds will now explain why the above genre distinctions and "phases" are all ridiculous. "We don't really do genres," he insists. "We don't really do styles, I don't think. We're thrashing blindly in the dark. There's no lights on in this room we call music. You just sort of walk forward, and you keep going 'Are you still there?' And everyone else in the band goes, 'Yeah, I'm still here.' And you trip over something, and sometimes it hurts, sometimes it doesn't, and you just sort of keep going and hopefully these people sort of stick together and just move forward. Every now and then you find you've gone round in a circle. It's not well illuminated. It's not like going into a McDonald's at three o'clock in the morning in Nebraska, where's it's incredibly bright. Music's not like that at all. Music is a very, very dark sort of place, full of all these weird things."

Someone in the car -- probably songwriter and navigator Sally Timms -- is shouting.

"And Eric was right, by the way, about the navigation in Pittsburgh," Lu adds. "'Cause we've been going round 'n' round in a circle."

Which conveniently brings us to Punk Rock. In return for his enormous, liner-noted canon, I lent my co-worker this year's Mekons album, which consists entirely of live versions and reworkings of the early '70s bad-Gang-of-Four-style stuff. "The Mekons are very interested in punk rock again," the album's liner notes teasingly conclude, and indeed the disc is dominated by appropriately snarling versions of tunes like "Never Been in a Riot" and the strangely hilarious "32 Weeks." (Get a job! Get a car! Get a bird! Get druuuunk!!!!)

Most bands fortunate enough to soldier on for more than twenty years wince when confronted with early material -- the stench of regret and embarrassment is overpowering. But not in this instance, evidently. "It was interesting to play 'em and not be embarrassed by 'em," Jon says. "To find quite a lot in 'em that we still pretty much related to -- the way we felt now. Didn't seem like that much had changed for the better, anyway."

More to the point, fellow Mekons cofounder Tom Greenhalgh describes Punk Rock as "possibly some of the worst songs we ever actually recorded -- and it was quite good to go back and do new versions of those. In a way we were sort of deliberately trying to search for embarrassment."

Which begs the question of what the Mekons are searching for now -- what they've spent nearly three decades searching for, in fact. "We're still tryin' to make it," insists singer/guitarist Rico Bell. "And we don't give up. There's more truth to that than it sounds, really." Furthermore, typical breakup-inducing pressure has never befallen the band, because "you don't get the pressure if you're not successful."

Silence.

"Of course, I'm joking," Rico says.

He then laughs maniacally.

Come laugh along with these maniacs Tuesday at Berkeley's Starry Plough -- a tiny venue perfectly fitted for the Mekons stumble-in-the-dark folk-pop meanderings. "We're playing very small places so we can sell them out," Jon says. "That's the idea, to play twenty-capacity arenas. I like the Starry Plough. For a certain period of the Mekons, it's a perfect place. It reminds me of the sort of place we used to do when we first came to the States. People used to just stand and yell 'Fuck off' at us."

Ah, but those were punk's early days -- now it's a pose, a fashion, even a box set. The recent Quarterstick four-disc compilation No Thanks! cemented both punk's legacy and its status as a stagnant nostalgia item. "We were on the box set, and that was kinda ... strange," Jon says. "Sounded pretty good, though, the track. And I listened to the box set. A lot of that stuff sounded quite good."

Quite good -- and quite dated. But when the Mekons hint they're "very interested in punk rock again," Jon makes it clear he's talking about the abstract punk ideal: It's anything you want it to be. Just keep trying, just keep reaching, just keep going.

"A lot of bands have been re-forming and doing their first couple of albums, like Wire," Jon says. "Saw them. I just thought it was kind of ... it was interesting on one level, and also, kind of, I don't know, slightly depressing on another level. We tend to go out and play songs from our first 22 albums. That's our own gimmick. There's never been an issue of re-forming for the money because there wasn't any money, and we didn't have to re-form."

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