Heaven Can't Wait For Mekons' LP

In a better world, you could turn on your radio and hear it right now.

Carrying on for 20 years in the face of public indifference, countless

record company nightmares and nothing even resembling a hit, the Mekons

are the secret heroes of rock and roll. I Have Been to Heaven and Back ... Vol. 1

offers a perverse version of their history: instead of their best-known

songs, it collects outtakes, extended live versions, re-recorded

obscurities, compilation tracks and a rollicking jog through Rod Stewart's "You Wear It Well."

Probably only fans will notice, but Heaven and Back is as lively

an overview of the Mekons as you'll find. Instead of tracing a story

or maintaining a consistent musical tone, it hopscotches through their

history. The LP gleefully trashes musical genres, as the Mekons crack

jokes one minute and stare down the void the next.

The Mekons' live shows are about making the most of every moment, taking

unplanned detours, exploring a joke or exploding a song, never playing

by rote. Their shows may start like a meeting of old friends having a

laugh over a few drinks, but they become epic benders that end up where

you least expect, shambling, transcendent events.

The photograph on the cover of Heaven and Back captures a moment

from one of these shows. Mitch, their familiar rastafarian roadie, is

falling backward with his pants around his ankles. Sally Timms bashes a

tambourine as Rico Bell blithely plays accordion. Frontman Jon Langford

jumps in the air with his guitar, and a red feather boa streaks across

the stage, pulled by an unseen hand. It's disorienting, it's a mess; it's

just the sort of unkempt scene you don't see enough at live shows.

The music maintains this high standard of disorder. The title track is

a joyously re-recorded version of a song inexplicably left off the Mekons'

Rock N' Roll album. "Handcuffed to history," Tom sings, but it's

a challenge not a complaint; he's seen heaven, even if all his friends

are too busy rolling under the punches to care.

The Mekons rescue the best songs from their United album.

"Now We Have the Bomb"

(RealAudio excerpt) is a chilling lullaby sung by Sally against a

mechanical background. "Orpheus" (RealAudio excerpt) is the album's standout, one of the

most irresistible odes to ecstasy and fornication, music and poetry

ever penned. In a better world, you could turn on your radio and hear

it right now. Heaven and Back also resurrects the group's

sensational abortion rights anthem "Born to Choose" and the slight but

fun "Axcerpt" from uneven compilations.

You would have to be the Mekons to want their career. Or to have survived

it. "A fucking death ride to nowhere," is how Langford half-jokingly

describes their journey. In the '80s, as they released one great album

after another, it seemed inevitable that the Mekons would finally get

the success they deserved. But each time, history cheated them.

Throwing up their hands in disgust, they titled their 1991 album

The Curse of the Mekons.

But the real Mekons story is that they continue to make music that's

inventive, frequently great and surprisingly relevant, defying almost

every precedent in rock. As they roll on, they've created a community

that is unique. Unlike the chemical camaraderie of the Dead or Phish,

bands whose fans are linked by lifestyle choices as much as by music,

all you have to do to be a part of the Mekons experience is show up.

Halfway through Heaven and Back, Tom Greenhalgh issues the

invitation: Let's go down to the pub, drink beers, smoke, talk shit.

The album also includes a furious live version of "Funeral" with an

extended coda. "Lucky Star" sports a space-folk vibe that's eerily

reminiscent of Beck's Mutations, though it was recorded five

years ago. Sure, it's not all brilliant. "Roger Troutman" is a turgid

mess, and "Ring O'Roses" is excessively mopey. But "Gill & Vicky" is a

wonderfully angular instrumental from 1980 -- featuring Andy Gill and

Vicky Aspinall -- that wouldn't sound out of place on the first

Raincoats album. Then there's a swirling techno rave-up celebrating

Leeds soccer, and heretofore unreleased gems like Tom's punk-country

"Cowboy Boots" and "The Ballad of Sally."

The album spins out with "Unknown Song," an overheard bit of guitar,

fiddle and piano with gently sighing vocals. It's so faint, it's

practically a field recording -- the sound of a raucous party finally

winding down while the band plays one last, half-remembered slow dance

for a handful of stragglers as the bartender sweeps up around them

and cashes out the register. It's just the sort of fleeting moment

that rock is all about, the sort of moment that usually slips through

the cracks.

In their own modest but spirited way, these fragments the Mekons have

shored up against their ruins constitute a truer Rock and Roll Hall of

Fame than any number of glass pyramids sticking out of the sands of

Cleveland.