Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Death of Moby Dick as imagined by Jon Langford – plus an anonymous thank you

Today’s book is Skull Orchard Revisited by Jon Langford “with David Langford & photographs by Denis Langford,” Verse Chorus Press, 2010.  Jon is best known as a founder of the Mekons, an art-punk band from long ago; David is a British science fiction writer; Denis is their father.  The hardback book is a hodgepodge of family snapshots, Jon’s paintings (see above) and lyrics, David’s “South Wales Alphabet” (R is for Rationing, S is for Sheep), and a short story entitled “Inside the Whale.”  All of this is jumbled together, like in a scrapbook.

Oh, there’s a CD, too, a re-recording of Jon Langford’s 1998 album Skull Orchard, this time featuring the Burlington Welsh Male Chorus.  Both versions of the record are excellent.  The songs, like the book, are mostly, if cryptically, about growing up in, or living away from, Newport in South Wales.  One of the best songs, “The Butter Song,” is actually from Gertrude Stein’s libretto Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, but it presumably has thematic resonance – R is, after all, for Rationing.

The book is an enormous help in explaining the songs and paintings and vice versa.  Why is Sputnik in the painting with the whale?  Because Jon Langford was born in the same week as the Sputnik launch.  But then why the whale?  Many reasons:  1) Melville’s Moby-Dick is a rich source of imagery and ideas, 2) Wales = whales, yes?  “But no light escapes \ from inside the whale” (p.15).

Enough about the book, of high interest to fans of the Mekons or of Langford’s art, and, I would suppose, to anyone who from South Wales.  How many of those people have wandered by Wuthering Expectations?  I want to look at that short story.

“Inside the Whale” is narrated by Moby Dick himself; he has met a well-read dolphin who has filled him in on Melville:  “’You’re most famous,’ she clicked. ‘You’re bloody mythic,’ she added with a frantic nodding screech.”  But Moby Dick does not remember any of the events of Moby Dick, or even realize that that is who he is.  The story ends like this:


In one early version of the book I am the only survivor, the bit about Ishmael and the savage’s coffin got lost at the printers and, despite the first-person narrative, I am the only one who doesn’t die.  Imagine that!  Now you can write a song about me and call it The Death of Moby Dick, and though the hunt is over and the monsters have finally won, it’ll be the last thing ever to cross your lips, because now I’m just like you.  There’s really no difference at all. (79)

Last summer, during the Moby Dick Fantasia, I, too, envisioned the death of Moby Dick, although Langford’s version is quite different than what I had cooked up.  Moby Dick should have many deaths.

Now, it seems that I have been nominated for an award – I am on this Classics Book Blog list.  Many thanks, really, to whomever put me on there.  It was kind to think of me.  My understanding is that the list of five will soon be boiled down to three.  To support my nomination, I picked out five posts, including The Death of Moby Dick, a real favorite of mine, which should put a quick end to this award business.  It is an honor just to be nominated, etc.  But it really is, so thanks again.

Oops - I forgot the useful Skull Orchard myspace page which seems to load quietly, bless 'im.


  1. Though the Mekons began long ago (I remember the first time I heard "Frustration") they continue on. In fact, they're on tour right now.

    I would pay good money to see a one-man show of Moby-Dick with Jon Langford as Ishmael. And as Ahab. And as the whale. That would be very cool.

    What? Your actual post? Oh, yes. I hadn't heard of this book at all and now I must have it. Later today I'll write a song and call it "The Death Of Moby Dick." See if I don't.

    -scott bailey

  2. Yes, some version of the Mekons soldiers on. New album out and all that, probably pretty good. I may have overcompressed Langford's musical history - his career is amazing, but quite complicated. I have maybe 15 Langford-led albums, which is, what, a quarter of his catalogue?

    And that's before we get to the painting. The examples here are not typical in that neither of them feature Hank Williams.

    Those more interested in the Mekons and/or the paintings should (also) look for an earlier book, Nashville Radio: Art, Words, and Music.

    Eager to hear, or read, that song!

  3. The lyrics are coming together; I'm of course using Hank Williams' "Angel of Death" as a starting point. Tonight I'll spend some time with the books of Jonah, Job and Moby-Dick, looking for the right images.

    -scott bailey