To chart my interest in the Mekons, I’d have to go back to 1986, and my friend Tim showing up with a copy of The Edge of the World. But that album didn’t make quite the inroads on my consciousness as its follow-up Honky Tonkin’ did, which is the first Mekons LP I bought. Their albums weren’t always as easy to find as one might like, though 1989’s Rock’n’Roll, again on tape at first, became a big favorite around the time I moved to Princeton. I remember walks by the canal with it on my walkman, quite well.
But let’s flash forward to more recent history. After a dodgy half-decade from about 1994 to 1999 (when I was out of commission myself, so to speak), the Mekons emerged with top-flight stuff on Journey to the End of the Night (2000)—the tour for which was the first time I saw them live, with Kajsa and my friend Nancy in DC—and Out of Our Heads, or OOOH (2002). And that’s the disc from which we draw today’s ditty.
To do justice to the early 21st century is harder than reaching back much further, I find. In part that’s because the farther back something is the clearer it is, if you can recall it at all. The fact that it remains in memory is what makes it worthwhile. And the memories, far back, are memories of things done in youth. But recent history demands more concentration because everything seems to be sown together and it’s harder to see which “grains will grow and which will not,” as Banquo says. And, the older we get, the less likely we'll see things come to full fruition.
What’s more, since this is about my tastes in music, I have to register a salient fact of my listening history at that point. From 1984 I’d been sharing my musical collection on tapes to my brothers, and from 1994 to my daughter as well. I’d made a slew of tapes (to say nothing of the ones for myself) by the end of the 20th century, and during my daughter’s college years—1999-2003—the tapes were like a “letter from home” and pretty much monthly, at least the first year, then more sporadic as we went on. So, new music to me, for quite some time, was stuff that got churned into the Great Tape Factory and by 2002 I might say there was the problem of how to keep this fresh when I’d already filled tapes with most of the best stuff I own.
Every now and then, as happened in the early part of the century, I’d get to know someone where sharing musical tastes was important and there would be a flurry of tape-making that would try to combine new stuff with the stuff—as in most of these posts—that’s part of my ancient history. And that brings us to this song. Is there anyone I would’ve made a tape, or even a comp CD (a lesser artifact) for, during the first decade of this unhappy century who would not get a copy of this song?
Not only because there are songs by the Mekons that are just so close to my personal horizons, from the late Eighties onward—making a song by them de rigueur as an expression of my general psyche—but because this song refers to the very situation I was living through, which is a way of saying that it’s about aging in place and yet wanting to—with some late but still valid and vivid hurrah—surge up out of the everyday and take the moment by storm. It’s rousing, in other words.
“The friends you had found / It’s like they’ve all gone to ground,” it begins, and we know at once this is a survivor’s story. You’re still above ground while your friends aren’t. And I’m not going to insist that the friends spoken of are dead, necessarily. “It’s like” they are. It could just be the friendships that have died. “People disappear every day,” Jack Nicholson’s character says in Antonioni’s The Passenger, “every time they leave the room.” Heavy, yeah. But true. And if they ain’t in the room with you, right now, they’re gone. And in the early Aughts, to me, mostly everyone was gone, most of the time. Ghosts.
Earlier this week, a glance at Kristin Hersh’s “Your Ghost” started us down the path of mourning the departed and trying to reach them. Today’s song isn’t so much about that—it’s not full of the dread and longing that Hersh packs into her song. The Mekons take us instead to our death-bed moment, “first the chill and then the stupor, then the letting go” (echoing, to my mind, “O Death,” but in a very different register). This isn’t exulting in death’s power, it’s more or less just accepting it as the condition for that final reflection, the one that, as the Mekons sing about it in unison, sparks the song. “If you found one thing out on that road / Only you, only you, only you, only you, only you and your ghost will know.”
This has nothing to do with a final reckoning in saved or damned terms. This has to do with what comes to mind, what leaps into focus as you fade out. “Was there a place to leave or a place to go / A mouth to kiss or a hand to hold.” We might want there to be someone nearby in our last moments, but that’s not the point they’re getting at, with those impassioned repetitions. They’re asking you to judge yourself, at last. Was there someone or something, out there on that road? In your lifetime, did you make that connection, no matter how fleeting or lasting, no matter where or when, no matter how it started or ended, but . . . did it happen? And, as fast as they offer the hope and the possibility that, well, you didn’t waste your whole fucking life, they give you the only answer that matters, friends, the fact that, however you answer, you’re taking it to your grave: “only you and your ghost will know.”
Now, we could easily say “only you will know,” in the end. But of course, if the answer is “yes”—there was a mouth, a hand, a place—then someone else knows too. That he or she as the case may be. But do we know that? Maybe that person is already gone, maybe that place is long since emptied of any sign that anything happened there. More than likely. So, that’s where the phrase “your ghost” makes its necessary contribution. Because it’s not just “you”—at this point you are more spirit than flesh, if spirit exists, and that other, that shape you barely recall (but do recall), receding into that impossible distance that is your entire life and all the time allotted to it, is a ghost too. Is part of whatever spirit you take out of here when you go.
This is not the moment for the father confessor; this isn’t mea culpa time. This is time for you to grab hold of your ghost—and listen to how Tom Greenhalgh enunciates so clearly the syllables of “you’ve got just one sym-pa-the-tic com-pan-ion”—and head for the hills. Because you had one at least, didn’t you? For a time . . . . Maybe a lot of times, but, really, never too many.