Out of the Garage
The Mekons began as a garage band, as all bands, of necessity, begin, but in thirty years they have not crossed over, and have remained a garage band, fundamentally anti-commercial in a commercial market, what Dave Thomas of Pere Ubu calls avant-garage.
Every town has garage bands. Some years back I came across a CD titled, “The Best of Albany’s [NY] Bands.” There were twenty bands on the album. There must be bad bands I thought. Just how many bands were there in Albany? As many as needed to be. What I want to argue here is the importance – no, the necessity – of the garage band in our community and culture.
The garage band comes together because it hears a sound it wants to play, needs to follow and develop, and lyrics trail after, as if led. It is not a sound they can perfect in the house, school or class, even if it may be one they want others to hear. No one supports them. This is the first thing we need to know about the garage band. They do it for themselves. Something they cannot not do. They are drawn by something bigger than they are, Greil Marcus says.
The garage band may get a gig, succeed, and enter the commercial market, playing with greater or lesser (usually lesser) success at local clubs on weekends, earning a little extra money, but playing, they know absolutely, to share the sound they hear. Sometimes (more frequently) the gig is disastrous and sends them back to the garage. Charlotte Pressler recalls Mirrors’ concerts at Lakewood YMCA teen dances: “The gigs always went badly and no one ever made money; Mirrors insisting the Lakewood teens could perfectly well dance to “Foggy Notion,” and that even if they couldn’t, they were going to hear it anyways; the Lakewood teens replying with their feet that Mirrors could play it all they liked; they didn’t have to listen. Mirrors’ response to that was...to retreat, slowly and imperceptibly, into a defensive shell, composed of the belief that there was no one out there, and never would be, and that it didn’t matter because they were all fools anyhow.”
Culture is what you know, an anthropologist says. If it comes from the neighborhood, it is ours, we own it, even if it may sound strange and we may not care for it. The man who goes into the garage because he may have, in effect, turned his back on the world outside it is our neighbor, part of the fabric of our community. He may never leave the garage for a gig, but we know he needs to be there. His music balances or complements his life in the living room or workplace, if it is not an antidote to it, as the man who goes into the basement to his lathe or the woman to her knitting needles. “Every work of art is an uncommitted crime,” Theodor Adorno comments. It is necessary, sometimes absolutely necessary, that the man go into the garage to keep the peace. How many Indian wins are necessary to maintain family harmony?
The garage band, like the three-percent vote marginal political party or the crank prophet on the street corner, is always there to say what the establishment is afraid to say or won’t and thus serves a crucial, critical function in our society. We need to hear what we don’t want to hear. If freedom of speech means anything, it means freedom of speech for those we want to deny it.
“Natural,” The Mekons’ current album is a thumping, three-beat rhythm that takes us back to dust-bowl Americana, the English countryside of Thomas Hardy, nature before we made nature ours. Life is “Dark, dark, dark”; consumption and pleasure the only answer to alienation, “Give us wine or money..../And that’s all that’s ever seen/It goes on forever/One last bond left between/The lost and disconnected”; fevered anguish leading to extreme actions, “Burning, in the desert burning/Martyrs queuing up for heaven.” Every year the land comes back. Nature is renewal. We may destroy where and what we live, but at least at this time we can begin again, even though it may be difficult. “Lost and found, found and lost,” The Mekons sing, “Never found, never lost.”
Who is to say that The Lakewood Observer did not come out of the garage?