On Why The Mekons are So Great, the Mysteries of KISS’s Awful Butt Rock, and What the Inescapability of the Past has to do with My iTunes Library

A few days ago, the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Star Tribune profiled a handful of KISS and Rush superfans in anticipation of the bands’ visits to the Minnesota State Fair. I’ll never full comprehend the diehard KISS fan, even if the phenomenon is well-trod journalistic ground at this point. There’s no accounting for some things, and for me, the choice made by Brian Mayer of Owatonna, MN to cover his basement, wall, ceiling, and floor, in KISS memorabilia is one of those things. Which, anyway, is fine, and I probably wouldn’t be able to explain to him what I think is so great about the Mekons either. Although I will attempt to before the end of this post. But not to Brian Mayer specifically.

The quality of KISS’s music notwithstanding (opinions vary, even if the opinions are mostly competing arguments about why KISS suck), the KISS fan’s devotion mystifies me because I’m forced to assume that for a fan to sustain such devotion, the band’s catalogue would have to evolve with the person–the songs’ meanings, his/her reactions to them, would have to be different at different stages of his/her life. A reasonable segment of the KISS discography couldn’t belong to one stage of life or one memory.

Meanwhile: several years removed from high school, and more than a year out of college, I’m find that most of the songs I listened to during a particular time period are basically lost to that period. And the faces and sensations of that period likewise belong to those songs, enough so that I can’t hear ’em without thinking about the past. (An extreme example, but [hopefully] an illustrative one: during my sophomore year of high school, Let it Be by the Replacements meant everything to me, and now everything about that album reminds me of being a high school sophomore.) I’m dealing with (for months now, and forever?) the total impossibility of listening to a familiar song on something like its own terms. A few dozen GB worth of these songs are available with a click but demand an amount of emotional heavy lifting that I’m typically not prepared to do. Which is all mostly tolerable, iTunes shuffle functioning as a sort of instrument of melancholy, but it’s still weird when something from Beulah’s When Your Heartstrings Break comes on and I think back to door-to-door canvassing in Des Moines circa summer 2006, because I don’t miss that, like, at all. And yet–deep sighs.

(There are exceptions. BPMs play a role, but any song past a certain level of bawdiness doesn’t have the effect described in the previous paragraph. AC/DC’s Highway to Hell is still safely listenable, and thank god for that.)

(Also, maybe the shamelessness of most KISS songs explains why tours of duty in the KISS Army last for decades or indefinitely. At one time or another, “I Was Made For Loving You” has probably helped a young person contextualize his or her experience, but I can’t perform the imaginative leap that would allow me to suggest how or in what possible respects. Fewer difficult emotions with most KISS songs in the years following the first listen, most likely, is my point.)

Its only a matter of time, I’m sure, before I run into the same problem when listening to a handful of albums the Mekons recorded in the mid-to-late ’80s: Fear and Whiskey, The Edge of the World, and The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll. (And to a lesser extent The Mekons Honky Tonkin’, although aside from “Hole in the Ground” and “I Can’t Find My Money,” that one’s kind of a bore.) First-generation punks from Leeds, the Mekons more or less fell apart at the start of the ’80s and began a second life a few years later, keeping the distorted guitars and Marxist politics but taking cues from American roots music. Some songs on the albums mentioned sound halfway like traditionals, and most are halfway in the tradition of White Light/White Heat. Perfect, in other words, almost readymade for the listener ambivalent about the past.

“The Letter,” from Edge of the World, is maybe the purest incidence of the Mekons’ mutant trad-rock, written like a lost pub song from a century ago (century and change, now) and heard through a haze of feedback squall that date it to sometime firmly after “My Generation.” Jon Langford bellows like he’s at the head of a tunnel; a train conductor bids us farewell at song’s end. History, in the song, is something like an enclosure over the present–reach to either side and you can touch it–at least in my preoccupied listener’s mind.

Download “The Letter” – The Mekons

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