JON LANGFORD, the Welsh-born, Chicago-based, avant-leftist, pop culture provocateur, has so many concurrent musical projects (venerable punk-rockers the Mekons, alt-country ensembles the Waco Brothers and Pine Valley Cosmonauts, and a new band, Ship & Pilot), along with a thriving career as a visual artist, that he finally decided to address how he got from there to here.
He'll be doing just that Friday at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage and Saturday at Iota to kick off next week's Future of Music Policy Summit at Lisner Auditorium. With Ship & Pilot and longtime Mekons associate Sally Timms, Langford will perform excerpts from "The Executioner's Last Songs," three multi-artist albums that used classic country, folk and punk songs about murder and death to address the death penalty.
But the program, he says, tells a larger story.
"This is a spoken-word, multimedia piece about the notion of artists as social activists," Langford explained recently from Chicago. "It's not a polemic against the nature of the death penalty. It became more of an autobiographical thing about someone trying to be a musician and a painter and socially active."
Langford will trace a journey that began in 1977 at England's Leeds University, where the art student, inspired when some of his classmates formed Gang of Four, founded the Mekons, now dubbed "the world's longest-running transcontinental punk band." (Its eight members are scattered here and in Europe.) In the early '90s, love took Langford to Chicago, where he began to deconstruct country music, aggressively with the Waco Brothers and somewhat more gently with the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. About the same time, Langford rekindled his passion for art, reflected in his iconographic, country-inspired paintings, prints and album covers; many of them will be projected by VJ Barry Mills during this weekend's performances.
Langford became involved in the death penalty project in 1999 when longtime musician-activist Steve Earle invited him to perform at a benefit concert and to meet several men who had been sentenced to death and later pardoned. About that time, Illinois Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on the state's death penalty, noting that since Illinois had reinstated capital punishment in 1977, more executions have been overturned (13) than had been carried out (12). Just before leaving office in 2003, Ryan, a Republican, commuted the sentences of all the state's death row inmates, saying "our capital system is haunted by the demon of error: error in determining guilt and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die." Ryan called the death penalty "one of the great civil rights struggles of our time."
In his native Wales, Langford points out, there is no death penalty, which is why "I was very shocked when I first came to the states. Not by the fact that there was a death penalty here, but that there was no debate, that it was a done deal and to actually question it was considered extremely weird. . . . People would ask, 'Well, what would you do if someone killed your mother, wouldn't you want to see him dead?'
"To be honest, I don't know," he admits. "If it happened to me, maybe I would, but I would hope I wasn't writing any legislation that day. And if I wanted to hunt someone down and kill them with my bare teeth, that would be my right, perhaps, but then the full weight of the law should be on me as well. I just don't think revenge is the absolute right, certainly of the state."
"The Executioner's Last Songs" was set in motion in 2001, first as a Langford-organized benefit concert for the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project "where we had the idea of just doing murder ballads, the death versus death idea," he explains. "From that, [Chicago-based] Bloodshot Records suggested we make an album of it. It seemed like a very opportune thing to do because the people doing the campaign desperately needed money for photocopying and other real low-level stuff. I felt I could provide some money for that and bring attention to their cause." The album raised $40,000 for the project.
Musical tales of death, murder and execution, often from the killer's perspective, included Earle's disquieting version of "Tom Dooley"; Waco Brother Dean Schlabowske's reading of the Adverts' "Gary Gilmore's Eyes"; Lonesome Bob essaying Johnny Paycheck's "Pardon Me (I've Got Someone to Kill)"; Edith Frost's cool version of Merle Haggard's death row plaint "Sing Me Back Home"; and Future of Music Coalition founder/indie-rock icon Jenny Toomey on a baroque-folk rendition of Cole Porter's "Miss Otis Regrets." Langford covered the Louvin Brothers' "Knoxville Girl," a murderer's unflinching account of his grisly crime. Most performers were backed by the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Bloodshot's house band.
After that album, "a lot of people contacted me," Langford says. "I've been in this, the lower reaches of the music business, for so long that I have a lot of friends who are working musicians, and they all said, 'If you'd asked me, I would have done that.' " And thus was born the two-disc follow-up. Critics couldn't really write about either collection without talking about death penalty reform, but while Langford has made plenty of politically charged music, particularly with the Mekons, he doesn't consider himself a political artist.
"When [the Mekons] started, we had really strong ideas about politics and wanted very much to be making big statements," he recalls. "The harsh realities of the way the media and the industry worked taught us a lot of lessons, and one of the things that this spoken-word show is about is that there are ways to do it and ways not to do it. I just didn't think pop stars should do this sort of Batman/Lone Ranger thing where they swoop in and solve everyone's problems with a huge benefit gig, and the sheer size of it almost crushes people's idea of normal grass-roots activism down to dust."
Despite Langford's protestations, there's a good amount of politics on the Waco Brothers' new "Freedom and Weep," the group's seventh album. Songs include Bush-focused government critiques ("Chosen One," "The Rest of the World," "Missing Link") and blue-collar woes ("Join the Club") and familiar complaints about the sad state of country music ("Drinkin' & Cheatin' & Death"). In the album's liner notes, the group's other main writer, Schlabowske, offers "thanks to W for all the material."
The Waco brothers, incidentally, will be touring this fall, but Mekons fans shouldn't hold their breath.
"We appear to be hibernating at the moment," Langford says, sighing. "It has happened in the past but not for as long -- we haven't done anything for about 16 months. There's reasons for that, like people having kids and living in distant parts of the planet and dropping a lot of other things on their plates. People always assume that the Mekons will get back together, but I keep calling people and no one's very interested at the moment. And I'm not sure I've got time."
Maybe because his own plate is full. Besides "Freedom and Weep," Langford has recently released a pair of collaborations on his own label, Buried Treasures: "Sir Dark Invader vs. the Fanglord" with singer-songwriter Richard Buckner ("We did it a couple of years ago, but it's just now coming out") and "One Day In Chicago," the last recordings by Kevin Coyne, who died in December. Langford calls the British singer-songwriter-painter "hugely influential. He was with Virgin Records when that label was actually vital and interesting," in the '70s. The Mekons were on Virgin, too.
"He was punk rock in content before there was punk," Langford suggests. "There was a lot that channeled down through football and hooliganism and politics into punk rock, and Kevin Coyne was definitely doing something unusual that really resonated with people like John Lydon" of the Sex Pistols. Coyne famously refused to write lyrics for Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" (the album that "made" Virgin) and turned down an invitation to join the Doors after Jim Morrison's death, insisting the band's music was "rubbish."
Meanwhile, the peripatetic Langford has formed yet another band, Ship & Pilot, with violinist Jean Cook, bassist Tony Maimone (Pere Ubu) and drummer Dan Massey (Robbie Fulks). Frequent collaboration, Langford says, is the key. "I find it very difficult to just sit on my own and do things -- it's not much fun, I think. I do a lot of that with the painting and I've tried to find ways to make that into a more communal activity, but it's difficult, whereas music, by its nature, you just do it with other people."
JON LANGFORD -- Appearing Friday at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage (free; with a webcast at www.kennedy-center.org/programs/millennium) and Saturday at Iota.
FUTURE OF MUSIC
The fifth annual Future of Music Policy Summit is being presented at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium Sunday through Tuesday by the Washington-based Future of Music Coalition, a national nonprofit education, research and advocacy organization that identifies, examines, interprets and translates challenging issues of music, law, technology and policy. The conference brings together key figures in those fields to discuss such issues as emerging technologies meeting traditional music industry structures, federal legislation and copyright law, digital distribution, licensing challenges associated with sampling and intellectual property matters post-Grokster. More than 500 participants and 100 expert panelists will take part in panel discussions at Lisner (730 21st St. NW). Among them: Jonathan Adelstein, commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission; Marybeth Peters, register of the U.S. Copyright Office; Recording Industry Association of America chief executive Mitch Bainwol and President Cary Sherman; Napster inventor Shawn Fanning, co-founder of Snocap; Mia Garlick, general counsel for Creative Commons; Rebecca Greenberg, national director of the Recording Artists' Coalition; REM bassist Mike Mills and group manager Bertis Downs; and such artists and producers as George Clinton, Hank Shocklee, Melissa Ferrick and Joe Henry. A complete list of panelists is available at www.futureofmusic.org/events/summit05/panelists.cfm. Registration for the conference is $149 for a three-day pass, $99 for a one-day pass. Student and musician discounts and scholarships are available. For more information, visit www.futureofmusic.org.