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Q&A: Inaugration Eve with Jon Langford (and his bodyguard)

January 30, 2009

| Image by John Ryan

Hours before the inauguration of President Barack Obama, musicians and crew are scrambling backstage to catch their bus after the Big Shoulders Ball, at Washington’s Black Cat. Jon Langford, of the Mekons and the Waco Brothers, who played a blistering set tonight, talks with City Paper about the historic moment and about the Chicago takeover of Washington. He’s joined by his “bodyguard,” Columbia Law School grad, Future of Music Coalition co-founder, and Obama campaign supporter Walter McDonough.

CityPaper: [while waiting for Jon Langford to finish packing his gear] Who’s idea was this show anyway?
Walter McDonough: I think Bloodshot Records. This is the first punk rock event in the history of American inaugurations. I’m OG punk. Barack Obama was two years behind me at Columbia Law.

CP: Does Obama know any of the performers tonight? Is he down with the Chicago alt-rock scene?
WM: I don’t know. I can’t answer that question.

CP: Ever been to Baltimore?
WM: I love The Wire. It’s the greatest TV show ever made. It’s one of the greatest accomplishments in my entire life.

CP: Is it art, or is it recycled journalism?
WM: Well that’s a different issue. One of my best friends is one of the top sportswriters in America. Journalism is basically dead in America.

[Jon Langford enters with two beers, hands one to McDonough, then runs out of the room.]

WM: If Jon Langford can’t get Walter McDonough a beer the world has gone down the drain.

CP: Huh?
WM: I’m searchable on Google. I’m not a famous person, but people know who I am.

[WM wanders off, and JL returns, somewhat out of breath]

Jon Langford: Did Walter leave?

CP: He went out to get his cigarettes.
JL: OK, we have to do this really fast.

CP: You and the Waco Brothers recorded “Freedom and Weep” in the middle of Bush’s second term. How did the last eight years affect artists and songwriters in terms of inspiration?
JL: Lots of material, if you like writing depressing, apocalyptic, anti-government songs.

CP: Did that sort of reaction coalesce into any sort of movement?
JL: I think the Bush years were so depressing, so corrupt they coalesced into someone like Obama getting elected through massive grassroots support. People just had enough and gave up being apathetic and cynical because it’s like you know what we need to get someone in there who’s not a maniac.

CP: Is the message of hope going to alter that effect on the arts community?
JL: Oh you know what, we’re like a hopeful punk rock community; oh, we’re so hopeful. You have to be. You know, the whole punk rock thing, everyone said it was so nihilistic, I think it was hopeful, because it was about people fucking taking back what had been taken from them. And I think this is about the same thing. But I don’t think the world is suddenly going to become perfect and we’ll have nothing to write about. The world is fucking shit. Basically, Obama is supposedly on our side. So, we’ll see what happens. He’s not in charge of everything. He’s the President of the United States. He has massive power but he hasn’t got the power to solve all the problems in the world.

CP: So there’s a great deal of pride in Chicago right now?
JL: Center of the universe. He’s the most hopeful politician of fucking several generations after the most corrupt politician of several generations. So no one can compare with Chicago at the moment.

CP: What do you like about Chicago?

[WM re-enters and thanks JL for the beer]

JL: I like Chicago because it’s not L.A. and it’s not New York. It’s not D.C. It’s something different. Chicago’s a cesspool of corruption and craziness. Obama came out of that, I just feel like he has a different perspective.

CP: Did he simply rise above that political culture you are talking about?
JL: I believe he crawled over it, he crawled through it. I really believe there’s something there that is intact. He managed to keep something intact with his principles.

CP: You’re a visual artist as well. Do you get involved with community activism or politics through your art?
JL: I get involved with all sorts of shit. Music and art is all tied up in that. I do all sorts of stuff for the Olde Towne School. The Wacos are always doing free benefits for this and that and the other thing. Welcome the Kids, I donate stuff to that. Crossroads is a charity for the homeless. There’s all sorts of stuff, we give whatever we can, anti-death penalty campaign.

CP: What’s the deal with the whole Lincoln thing? Is everyone in Chicago all crazy about Lincoln?
JL: What’s the Lincoln thing?

CP: Lincoln is a constant image featured in the Obama campaign. Does everyone herald Lincoln?
JL: Well, we do. My mate Sheila and I, we celebrate Lincoln’s birthday every fucking year at the Lincoln restaurant on Lincoln Avenue. We have about 40 people there and it fucking takes forever to get served. There’s only ever one waitress. You sit there for about three hours to get your breakfast. It’s a fucking stupid thing to do but we do it every year. The picture outside the restaurant, we call it “Missing Lincoln,” he looks a like a stone-age dude. I can’t speak for everyone but I think Lincoln’s fantastic.

CP: Got time for a Baltimore trivia question?
JL: Trivia? I dunno. O’Bryckis is the best crab restaurant in Baltimore. That and Faidelys.

CP: What is Lincoln best remembered for in Baltimore?
JL: Lincoln?

[WM interjects in the conversation at this point.]

WM: I know the answer to that. Can I speak on behalf of Jon?
JL: [laughing]You’re saving my ass Walter.
WM: Jon’s our family. Lincoln declared martial law in Baltimore.
JL: [singing] He declared martial law, in the streets of Baltimore.

CP: You mentioned you have tickets in the Blue Section for the inauguration. What’s the figure on top of the U.S. Capitol dome?
WM: [agitated] Why are you doing this to him? You’re not asking fair questions. I’m a huge fan of Jon.

CP: When did you move to Chicago?
JL: 1992

CP: Are you a U.S. citizen?
JL: I’m not but I’m gonna become one.

CP: You’re from Wales. How does Wales compare to Chicago?
JL: There are things about it that are really different, but actually, it’s all the fucking same. I mean, one day I woke up and had moved to Chicago and I didn’t even notice. It was like, you know what, it’s all the fucking same.

CP: Are your Welsh friends and relatives fans of Obama?
JL: I’d have to say, just about everyone I know, all over the world, thinks Obama’s fantastic. In Australia, Holland, all the places where I go or have friends, you know, and my mother, they all think Obama’s fantastic. And they all think Bush is this despicable fucking wanker.

WM: I don’t think he’s being fair.
JL: What?
WM: I don’t think he’s being fair to you.
JL: He’s not being fair to me, why not?
WM: He’s trying to set you up. He’s trying to set you up.

CP: What about Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, is he going to survive this current ordeal?
JL: Blagojevich? No he’s gonna go to prison.
WM: You should stop this conversation right now. This guy is deliberately trying to get you to say embarrassing things.