This was on some level the subject of what was probably punk’s finest moment, The Mekons’ 1985 return from oblivion with Fear and Whiskey, in my opinion the best record of that decade. It is a lot of things: a great collection of drinking songs, a dark meditation on the death of labor and of the promise of America, and the first and best and most convincing of what would eventually be far too many fusions of punk rock and country. (The Mekons sold even less than Gang of Four, but are just as responsible for vast amounts of terrible music made by other people.)
As Marcus writes, this record “carries an unmistakable undertone of self-mockery, of humiliation, of shame, because it cannot count. Fear and Whiskey is just fear and whiskey, nervousness and oblivion; it is the music of people who are sure that the world they cannot change will never find a place for them, that what they have to say will never be heard.” It is the best record about a terribly modern fear, that in the vast cacophony of people liberated to say whatever it is they feel they need to say, no one will ever hear what you have to say.
Improbably, given The Mekons’ origins as the sloppiest and most amateurish band in the world, Fear and Whiskey was just the first of an uninterrupted string of wonderful records that continues to this day. They are not really a going concern and not quite a business, but every so often they take a short tour or release a new record, and their audience, which barely rises to the size of a cult, takes it as a gift. All along that was the future of rock: a great old band in a small club, cheerfully oblivious to their utter obscurity and everything but their lives and what compelled them to start in on music at all.
Marcus never comes to a direct answer to the question of whether this is failure, and if so what kind it is, but he does offer an oblique one. Along with The Mekons and The Clash and a host of other groups, many of them just the kind I admired most at age fourteen (X, Sonic Youth, Black Flag), these pieces trace the careers of two singers who were, at most, fellow travelers: Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen, the crowd pleasers of the title. In Costello, he sees someone trying and failing to express a single idea of surpassing importance: “that fascism, far from being defeated in 1945, simply went underground, where it now functions as the political unconscious of the West.” In Springsteen, he sees something like the living embodiment of rock music, his anthemic treatments of working class immiseration and his stark acoustic ballads of murder on the high plains the natural and fitting obverse of, say, The Mekons’ obsession with striking coal miners.
“The Sex Pistols’ first achievement,” he writes in his introduction, “was to burn rock ‘n’ roll down to essentials of noise; if punk ever really ended, it was in the middle of its tale, when two singers from whom most punk chroniclers would withhold the name burned punk down to something close to silence.” It is a striking claim, and in it one can just discern an answer to the problem posed by The Mekons. There is a worse thing than not to be heard and to not have an audience, it would go; it is to be heard and not understood, to have a vast audience that simply doesn’t care what you have to say. (This is a fate with which a Rolling Stone writer whose intricate, dense articles on various rock genealogies are skimmed or skipped by millions of subscribers eager to make their way to the latest interview with Jackson Browne is perhaps unusually sympathetic.) And there is a real victory in freeing oneself from the need for validation, in being content with an audience that may be small but has ears to hear you.