At the moment, the collective unconscious of America is the sound of her tired, huddled masses stepping back from the breakneck pace of freedom and saying, "What the fuck have we become?" From Terrence Malick's The New World to Bernard-Henry Levy's American Vertigo to the Enron crooks and their like-minded CEO in the White House pep talking the troops at the employee picnic, the mirror has been turned on you and me, and what it says is that we've got nothing to fear but us ourselves.
Growing up in Wales, musician, painter, and activist Jon Langford got his impression of America primarily from the "cultural imperialism" of U.S. television, specifically the cathode-ray dreams of Bonanza and High Chaparral. While polite pre-punk Britain slumbered outside, and his mates' parents languished on the dole, Langford watched gun-toting men riding horses in the wild, wild West, making up a nation on the fly. He traveled to America with the first incarnation of his band the Mekons when he was 20 years old. The Mekons played New York just after John Lennon was murdered, and they became enamored with the liberation of punk rock and the promise of America.
"The cowboy myth was sort of this weird civilian uniform you could buy into," he says. "You could come to America and buy a cowboy hat and a cowboy shirt and Western wear at a Mexican Western-wear shop in Chicago. It was kind of like going to East Berlin and buying a hammer-and-sickle hat: 'I'm not a total tourist. I've been there, and I've done that.' But it was easier to do that in America than East Berlin."
Langford is 48 years old now. He moved to Chicago when he was 27, after his sophomore band, the Three Johns, played there, and he has become something of an alt-country pioneer with the Pine Valley Cosmonauts and the Waco Brothers, two more of his many projects. Actually, "alt-country" and "pioneer" low-balls it. To him, at least: In the promotional materials for his new solo album Gold Brick (or Lies of the Great Explorers or Columbus at Guantánamo Bay, Langford describes himself as "an exile and an immigrant, a fish out of water, just one of the millions who rode the wind and woke up one day in America."
"When I was a kid, it was total absorption of all things America," he says from his home in Chicago, as he and his wife tuck their kids in for the night. He'd just returned from doing his radio show Eclectic Company on WXRT-FM, and was starting to prepare for this weekend's multimedia presentation at Walker Art Center, "The Executioner's Last Songs," based on the three-volume Bloodshot Records collection of the same name. Along with Mekons singer Sally Timms, violinist Jean Cook, DJ Barry Mills, bassist Tony Maimone, and drummer Dan Massey, Langford says his autobiographical benefit piece will seek to make sense out of the greed and violence that fuels his adopted country.
"Sometimes you feel like you're preaching to the choir, which is why with this show I deliberately didn't do a piece of agitprop musical theater stating why the death penalty is a bad thing," he says. "I tried to do something that was more tangential, more thoughtful, that raises other issues. One of the lawyers I met who's been responsible for getting a lot of people off death row said to me that support for the death penalty is 'a mile wide and an inch deep.'
"And it's true. The more you raise the issue, and talk to people, the less they like the idea of it. That goes as far as George Ryan, the [Illinois] Republican governor who cleared death row because he realized it was a broken system and he said he didn't want innocent blood on his hands."
America's bloody beginnings and the roots music it spawned have been at the heart of Langford's work. The first song he learned to play was Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." His paintings are haunted by Day of the Dead-dipped images of Cash, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Buck Owens, and others, and his bands have made some of the most wicked-raw country-punk the land has ever known. His latest is in step with all of it, including the incendiary immigrant song "Lost in America" as well as the uncharacteristically optimistic "Anything Can Happen."
"Things seem so bad now, and there's all sorts of pressure," he says. "You keep a lid on that kind of pressure and it's gonna blow at some point. Things have a habit of changing drastically very suddenly."
Langford knows as much firsthand. He was there when punk rock overthrew dreary old England and gave voice to his generation. Before that, he sat in his home and watched men from America land on the moon. He stayed up all night watching the black and white images, and believed that by the early 21st century we'd be living on other planets.
"There was a lot of optimism about America: cowboys and spacemen," he says. "Then I got older, and we saw Nixon as a total criminal who wanted to blow up the world or something. Then Reagan and Thatcher formed this unholy alliance. Looking back on it, the way things are now, it's all sort of quaint. We were actually shocked back then by the idea of warfare; now it's just perpetual wallpaper to your life.
"When I was a student, people were very hostile to American foreign policy. I still get shit from people for living here when I go back to England. They say, 'How can you live there, especially with Bush?' They think it's a bit of a sellout for a good socialist lad. But I think people who aren't into music have a very bad view of America. Whereas for us, the explosion of music that happened in the 20th century more than makes up for all the terrible imperialism."
He laughs at his Pollyanna-side summary and concludes, "It's a love-hate thing. We were fascinated by America, and the idea of regionalism that was in all those records. And then we were incredibly disappointed when we got here."