Normal History Vol. 33: The Art Of David Lester

Lesternormal33Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 25-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

David’s illustration is about the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) currently headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio — just down the road from Dayton, where Swearing At Motorists played a song-by-song run-through of Number 7 Uptown last night with original drummer Don Thrasher. dave doughman is back in the USA for one show only.
We met dave in Toronto, in 2001. He was Unwound’s excellent live sound man. Mecca Normal was joining the tour to open shows from there to Atlanta. This was a few days before 9/11 — we lost our Boston and Manhattan shows, but play on 9/13 in Hoboken, at Maxwell’s, where Unwound’s music is profoundly soothing. dave starts doing Mecca Normal’s sound too, because he likes us. He wants us to sound good.
In Philly, Mecca Normal stays the night at the huge space dave shares with his drummer Joseph. dave puts on a Swearing at Motorists CD, the incredible Number 7 Uptown. I love this album — the sound of it, the sound dave gets — and I know I want to work with him in some way. Mecca Normal leaves the tour in Atlanta, driving north to Toronto to fly home to Vancouver.
dave and I hatch a plan to record at Unwound’s studio outside Olympia. I rent a car and drive four hours south to hear what our voices will sound like together. At Farm No Heat I am given a room with a mattress on the floor, a room where they put all the stuff they took out of the basement — piled it in, worse than random. Going to sleep is a matter of putting on a jacket, hat and gloves, to lie in my sleeping bag, waiting for warmth. Come on warmth. Just enough to fall asleep.
dave sleeps in the living room, where tomatoes are ripening on a blue tarp over the bright green shag carpet. On day two, dave makes a geometric shape with the ripe tomatoes, to see if anyone notices. No one does, because none of the residents stay at Farm No Heat. They have gone to their girlfriends’ places in town where there is heat.
Tally of furniture in the living room — three big couches, two matching chairs, and an oddly stylized painting of Muhammad Ali. One of the chickens in the yard is called Cassius Clay.
In the basement, the recording studio control room eventually gets warm. We stay in there, inventing guitar tracks, passing my 1960-something Martin 0-18 between us, over-dubbing vocals, deciding to call our duo Transmarquee because we’d both owned 1980-something Grand Marquees as touring vehicles.
On day three, Justin, Vern and Brandt of Unwound come to see how we’re doing. Vern asks about the white powder laid out in the control room. It’s baby powder. I use it on my hands, for playing guitar. OK, so I made it look like a bunch of coke. Hey, I’m straight edge, man — gotta get my thrills somehow.
dave comes to Vancouver to record and produce the next Mecca Normal album — The Family Swan — the songs he mixed night after night on tour. Who better to record them? dave gets great guitar sounds and we love working with him. Finishing the album in three days, dave gets on a bus to the airport — LA, Dayton, everywhere — touring until we meet in San Francisco where Mecca Normal finally sees Swearing At Motorists play at the Bottom of the Hill. dave’s great warmth is matched by giant leaps in the air that look as necessary as barré chords, crucial to guitar playing.
Out of all this action and chaos, two gestures stick in my mind, describing dave. 1.) Standing outside at Farm No Heat, waiting for Unwound to do something in the studio, waiting to get back in there, dave’s cell phone rings. He puts a finger in his ear. It isn’t a good connection. A  friend asks dave how to do something, how to set something up to record. dave is incredibly helpful and patient, giving her information and encouragement. 2.) After losing the show in Boston, Mecca Normal didn’t have a place to stay. dave hands me his Red Roof Inn guide from the window of their van. 9/11 crisis all around us, it’s more than a list of motels; he is extending the universal map of help.
“Give me ten minutes and we’ll be friends.” — Hex or No Hex, Transmarquee
“I have a plan. I’ll draw a map when I get to where I’ve been. For now, I’m not lost — I just don’t know what things mean.” — Don’t Be Another Double String of Fake Pearls, Transmarquee

He’s there, standing in the bamboo section of the garden store, heavier than I thought he’d be. He’s very nervous. We walk up to the Drive for a coffee at Calabria. Fred talks a lot, telling me about his childhood and things he did before he got married, had a kid and divorced. After an hour, I want to get going. I am sad about not being attracted to him. I try to recall how I came to have a different image of him.

I log on to Lavalife to look at his photos. I see how he has carefully cropped them, selecting poses that are most flattering—as we all do. He has ticked the box “fit” as opposed to “a few extra pounds.” I update my profile, ticking boxes “slim” and “muscular” rather than having no preference.

Thinking about successful relationships over the years, I add a comment to my written section: “Seeking someone who is actively involved in culture rather than passively waiting for a big break.”

Several days later, Fred arrives unannounced at a Mecca Normal performance: an art auction to benefit books for prisoners. I’m very surprised to see him since we didn’t really click over coffee. The place is full of punks and artists, Vancouver’s impressive crossover contingency of underground musicians and political activists. Fred looks out of place in his white button-down shirt and Dockers. He stays for our set and leaves without saying good-bye. The next day I am lying in the sun, thinking about the art auction; my painting was bought by a guitar player I really like. I step inside to get water and check the computer. Fred has sent an email:

Jean,
I am certainly a green light on this “relationship” thing. It was hard to get any signs from you in the weird atmosphere of a poorly ventilated room packed with prison activists. I was way more nervous at the art gallery than our first meeting. The few words I exchanged with you were delightful, and further cemented my promise that I shall like you no matter what.
I am sorely tempted, like some chump from Shakespeare, to win your heart. Thank god I am attracted by your talent. I really am. You recall an old fire in me. A punk thing. You meld your clear intellect with feet planted on the ground. No pyrotechnics, you are completely there in the moment. I would leap at the chance of directing you in a play. You are true and have a broad range of expression and skill. I could go on and on and on.
I’ve been writing on silk since meeting you. My project has a whole new energy. I haven’t felt this good in ten years. The timing of your arrival is significant. It won’t be a setback if you say the magic just ain’t there for you—I will be sad, but life will pick up again. Do let me know as soon as you can whether you wish to continue.
Meantime, great show, thanks so much, you rock.
Fred

Lying down in the sun again, eyes closed, thinking—I don’t feel like responding. I don’t have to tell him yes or no on demand. I don’t know. I wasn’t attracted to him physically last night, but I was in performance mode. One coffee meeting and him appearing unannounced at my show and he needs to know if I want to start a relationship with him? Crikey. I try to imagine him being romantic or sexy. How would that be? Do I want to see him again? I’m not sure. He’s not even asking me out. Why doesn’t he just ask me out for dinner?

10 p.m., email from Fred:

Jean,
So I deserve finding out how you feel by a revised Lavalife profile? Such hostility. I made a point of warning you I was stocky with a spare tire. Was I wrong to presume that a woman of your age would have grown beyond letting surfaces be quite so important? For the record—like you give a fuck—I fight the war constantly.
Re: passively waiting for a big break. I’ve had huge achievements working with major talent. So sorry I erred on the side of modesty in our Calabria meeting. I’m not waiting for a big break because I’ve had mine baby. The rest is gravy. You don’t know anything about me. I deserved a bit more investigation. I can tell you I sure as hell never sold my achievements in a ratty old suitcase at the end of any of my shows.
An established riot grlll? What a calling card. Riot grlls are expected to behave badly. You are only doing what you are expected to do.
You perpetuate the Lavalife disposable syndrome, judging me this way. Good luck with your shopping list. I was more than content overlooking your imperfections to instead explore your inner beauty. That short story you sent me was staggeringly incomplete—I could not understand how you would show that to anybody, let alone send it out to magazines. I was simply astonished at your idea of structure.
I came to your show in good faith. I even bought your CD knowing this might happen. Were you always such a drama queen?
Fred