FOUNDER of punk band The Mekons, artist and campaigner against the death penalty in his adopted US home state of Illinois, Newport's Jon Langford, 55, talks to MARIA WILLIAMS about his childhood, the late seventies musical explosion - and the meeting between his musical hero Johnny Cash and his mum.

"I have a very vivid first memory of going up to Croesyceiliog. My grandparents lived there in Florence Place and the Cambrian Arms was run by Auntie Alice, who was either my grandmother's cousin or her best friend, I'm not sure. She ran The Six In Hand after that.

They used to clean the pub up in the morning and would stay at weekends with my grandmother. I remember the mixture of cleaning fluids, stale beer and cigarettes. That pub in the morning smell. I'm still very keen on that smell. I love pubs before they open.

I'm the youngest of two boys. My brother David is 60 and lives in Reading now.

He was a physicist at Oxford and basically retired at 26. He has since dedicated himself to writing about science fiction.

We are very different personalities. I have two kids and there are similarities with them. They are about the same age difference as us, and the youngest is desperate for attention, singing and dancing, and that's me.

I never got into trouble, because I saw my brother always getting rescued. He had no sense of danger.

I have this memory of us both being rescued from some rocks by air sea rescue on a trip to the beach - I had gone up there after him, worried he would get into trouble. My parents would blame me if he did.

My dad Denis, who died in 2001, was an accountant for Lloyd's Brewery. For a while he was a kind of private detective for them, watching where dreymen would deliver beer barrels when they shouldn't be.

I went to Gaer infants and junior school, then on to Brynglas, the Newport High School middle school, before Queen's Hill for a year. That was before they opened the brutalist nightmare at Bettws.

I really liked it ther, but I showed no musical talent. I just played sport until I was 15.

I played rugby and football. Rugby for Newport High School Old Boys on a Saturday morning. I also played for Grove Park Rangers under 14s and 16s, and the men's team, Gaer Casuals, which David Hando got me into.I have a lot of respect for him.

There are photographs of the team with me with Bay City Rollers hair playing with 'old men' with beards.

The rugby killed me. I didn't want to be grappling around in the mud any more with boys of 15 who looked like grown men.

And that's when I started playing music, around 15. It was around 1972/3 and I got into glam rock, Bowie.

I also started listening a lot to Man (legendary South Wales rockers).

I met the band's Martin Ace and asked him how much they would cost to book for TJ's. They said they wanted £250. Johnny Sicolo paid for the PA.

There was something about Man being local.

Then I heard The Ramones on the radio in 1976, something off their first album. The first time I had heard punk.

They stripped things down and sometimes the simplistic things can be the most profound.

I moved to art school in Leeds. We read about punk long before we really heard it. It seemed shocking. The Sex Pistols - i just read about them for ages. I sounded so exciting I just had to like them.

Music was exciting and painting for me wasn't exciting.

I didn't really do anything. I met two freshers, Mark White and And Corrigany, who took me to the pub. We would go to Kevin Lycett's house to listen to music.

We and Tom Greenhalgh became The Mekons.

Andy Corrigan said his pal Andy Gill had started a band which he said was a cross between the Velvet Underground and Dr Feelgood. That was the Gang of Four.

I didn't know who the Velvet Underground were at that time.

The Pistols, The Damned and The Clash played Leeds. Kevin was photographed on the front of Yorkshire Evening Post under the headline 'Punks Go To Sex Pistols Gig'.

It was a weird scene in Leeds at the time, there were lots of students at the university and polytechnic, art student commie types like us, and then local kids who were into things like the National Front. It was very political. There was a lot of confrontation.

The Mekons' first gig was made by Simon Snake, the Godfather of Leeds Punk.

He had two handmaidens, Rats and Delicious. Rats always had a rat with her, and Delicious was rather delicious. They all got up and danced at the first Mekons gig. It was a success, even though we had expected to be bottled off.

There was a lot of spitting in those days. John KIng of the Gang of Four always had a kagoul on stage - that's also why they ran around so much.

It was pretty disgusting. I was playing the drums at that time when what my American wife would call a 'loogie' landed on the cymbal.

Our first proper gig was at The F Club , supporting the Reziillos, who at 23 were slightly older than us and an art school punk band.

Their road manager Bob Last wanted to set up a record label, and asked us if we wanted to put out a record. We said: "Yes please!"

Bob Last's label put out records by the Human League, Gang of Four, Mekons and the Scars.

A group of people from St Joseph's and Hartridge schools had formed a band called Ralph and the Pony Tails and the next time I was in Newport, I went to see them play and ended up producing their first record, and Ralph became my room-mate in Leeds for a while.

I was going back and forth between Leeds and Newport, and had a circle of friends in Newport like Carlton B. Morgan and Ken Moore, people in the band Give Me Memphis, who are still my friends to this day.

There was a music scene in Newport - people doing their own stuff - and it's still like that to this day.

The Mekons were signed to Virgin Records, then got fired.

There's a great bit in Spinal Tap when someone says "Who wants to be 40 and just milking it in Europe?"

Well we were 22 and washed up. Andy had a girlfriend who lived in Berlin, and she said she knew many people in Europe and that we should go to Holland., which we did for a while.

I went back to college and finished my degree, and there were a few years when we didn't have a record deal. Then I went to New York for a New Year's Eve gig and stayed for a week, hanging out. It wasn't until 1985 that we started working in America in a big way

I was also working with The Three Johns - there was a lot of drinking with The Three Johns, not so much The Mekons. That was more a family atmosphere - there were always women involved. It was more civilised.

We were working on The Mekons Story, different people became involved and we had a different vision of ourselves. We became interested in country and folk music.

I met Johnny Cash three times. He was a fantastic man.

He was playing Newport, and I wanted to give him some artwork as a present, so his manager put me on the guest list. I thought: "I know, I'll take my mum (Kit)."

He and June Carter were in their dressing room, He was very, very nice, very humble and still appreciative of the fact people were interested.

I may have been a little awe-struck, but my mother just starts chatting with them. They had just suffered a bad break-in at their place in Jamaica, so she starts chatting about the burglary she had. Then, Cash says he had to go and play the gig. And as we were leaving, Johnny Cash kissed my mother right on the lips!

She never gave me any grief after that!

We had made The Mekons Story without thinking about whether anyone else would like it, but suddenly someone wanted to put it out.

I was working in a studio in Bridlington, then by 1984, both The Mekons and The Three Johns were in demand - and I had three of the busiest years, touring the States. I spent the 1980s in a van.

The Mekons signed to A&M in the States. It was like being in a commune, a giant art project with lots of different people.

I met my wife Helen in 1986 at a party after a gig in Chicago, her home town.

I spoke to her briefly. One year later, I met her at another party and she said: "Do you remember me?". I told her I did!

I didn't see her for another year. It was the slowest rock and roll encounter. We didn't get together for around six years from that first meeting, and we became good friends first.

Helen had moved to France in 1991, but then said she was moving back to America to finish architecture school, she would be working seven days a week and the relationship was over.

So I thought "maybe I'll move to America".

It never seemed a big deal. I had been there lots of times before. While New York was a great place to visit, I couldn't see myself living there. But I felt very comfortable in Chicago.

God knows what Helen's family thought of me asking her to marry me. I didn't have a job. I had no prospects, really. Helen made it clear she was not going to be a rock and roll widow - that was not going to work for her.

I started making art so that I could pay the bills.

As a working class socialist from Wales, I soon realised I was off the political map in Chicago. Especially when the murderer John Wayne Gacey was executed. He was revolting, but my opposition to the death penalty is not about the murderers, but what the death penalty, state-sponsored murder does to us.

I became involved in the campaign to abolish it because people knew I was good at getting the message out. The current Illinois governor passed the statute abolishing it, but the process was started by a Republican governor, George Ryan. I never thought I would be standing up in a church applauding a Republican, but I did when he spoke.

I have two sons, Jimmy, who is 16, and Tommy, who is 11.

Jimmy has a band called The Ungnomes. One of their songs is called Kill Rahm (the mayor of Chicago). I told him I don't think that's even legal. I see parents of his classmates pulling their kids out their gigs and looking at me with blame in their eyes - it's not my idea!

He likes me to go to his gigs, mainly to stop my wife form dancing at the front.

And Tommy, he has a really good singing voice and knows my songs. We sang a song of mine about Newport called Pill Sailor at a wedding in Chicago a few weeks ago"