Here we have a live 7” single. Oldham says he first discovered the Mekons while tripping on LSD in New York, played an album of theirs all night long and became a fan for life. He recorded this song which he handed them on cassette form after a gig in Louisville one night, eventually met the band, and was invited to sing on stage with them. The song is one of Oldham’s earliest, and was recorded live on Nov. 17, 1994 at Chicago’s Lounge Ax, the indie rock venue featured in the movie High Fidelity. The B-side is from the same concert, a live version of “Stable Will.”
For The Mekons, Et Al… is one of the most difficult songs to get a grip on in the whole Palace canon. It might help to be versed in Mekons lore to fathom this song, but it might not either. In any case, I’m not about to do a crash course on The Mekons to figure it out. The Mekons began life as a particularly lo-fi punk band, and fought power through their music according to one blogger-fan. This being live, it gives the sound that washy quality. It’s a blur of tootling, whistling organ, the rambling driving jangle of the guitar, and Oldham who sounds like he’s fighting to be heard, half-shouting his obscurist rant that no one in the crowd is likely following. It’s a longish song, a lengthy ten verses, but what do those verses offer the listener? It takes the form of a dramatic monologue. The addressee may be a “deputy,” meaning he answers to seniority, with a heart full of “guns and greed.” After that… well, the song’s as much about extra-semantic forms of meaning, as it is about content, where each line or two seems to have less logical association with the immediately preceding ones than those lines logically associate to the lines before them, such that by song-end all sense is splayed out in an infinite range of possibilities; your thoughts become scattered; the text cannot be forced to mean. Here’s an example: “O executive branch in a nation of one / We’ll exercise our power / O to veto, veto, veto / Be the man of the hour / Cause laws exist like history books / For Atlantis State University / And if you can forget how to ride a bike / Well, you’ve had a good teacher.” I could brush this off as solipsism or I could attempt an analysis. In fact, let’s try that: Some man rules his own nation, by himself, has all the power. He can veto anything he doesn’t like, and he’s always in the limelight, because it’s just him. Why can he do this? It’s because laws mean as much to him as history books do to a university, which is to say that like history, which is written by the winners—those in power, laws equally exist for the exercise and maintenance of power. How about that next line? “It’s just like riding a bike” we say to mean something we never forget how to do. But let’s say you do forget, why would that make your teacher “good”? Is a good teacher one who teaches you how to un-learn stuff? It may well be that we need to unlearn all that history and law. Could it be that aspiring to power is ultimately pointless? You’re left with just yourself. Reminds me very much of R.E.M’s “World Leader Pretend,” when Stipe sings, “I have the freedom to do as I see fit / It’s high time I razed the walls that I constructed.” I’m not going to spend any more time arguing the point, save to quote the next verse to illustrate my ideas about increasing obfuscation: “O, and the words are there like a pretty picture / Just hanging on the bathroom wall / At age 16, you are stealing a mirror / And find a friend beside you.” What I’m trying to get at here is that the song fights power not by what it says, but by how it says it. One final line worth quoting: “Well if you won they’d be the new Mekons.” Interesting. One frustrating thing about the song is the sheer amount of abstract nouns in here: he sings of tiredness, sadness, intuition, luck, fear, confusion, age, memory, reality, loyalty, idolatry etc. All in all, not a particularly enjoyable listen. The music and lyrics don’t quite gel into a satisfying experience. It has me beat.
Stable Will… is a live version of the 7” single released in 1994. Click the link to read a deeper discussion of the lyrics, but I will comment on the live-ness of this version. Musically, with that organ filling in space here and there, and the beat and thrashy guitars, the song hardly sounds different in rhythm and melody to the A-side. Most of the words are either lost under the noise, or lost inside their half-sung half-yelled delivery. There’s not much more to say about it. Listen to the studio version instead. The best bit of the song is the last line, “I keep my horse at stable will,” which Oldham sings about five times in a harrowing kind of way, until he starts to infect you with his overwrought emoting. What does it mean anyway—is he – the persona that is – singing about loyalty and fidelity to one person? If so, he means it intently, like he’s a man terrified of the possibilities of what could go wrong if he goes out riding. It’s a cool ending.
Both songs are included on the second collection of singles, Guarapero: Lost Blues 2 in the same form as they appear here.
The next single, also from 1996, was “Little Blue Eyes.”