Normal History Vol. 34: The Art Of David Lester

lesterHistoryVol34Every 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

As a kid in the ’60s, we had a big orange portfolio type-thing—photos from Life magazine. My father was an ad-agency art director, and I think this came to him through his business. The photos were divided into sections related to themes, and I forget the themes other than the photographs of people in concentration camps.

Other books in the brightly colored modern cubes that housed both books and LPs, were Future Shock, Marjorie Morningstar and a paperback about Picasso—it had blue pages. I found the photos in this book mildly disturbing. He had a sort of jester’s costume on—tights and a funny hat—and goats. My parents were both painters, and I was quite happy that, while they were definitely a couple of weirdoes, at least they didn’t wear costumes and keep farm animals. There was a great book called Private View, about painters in Britain, photo essays about studio spaces. The Life Cookbook revealed to me that everyone wasn’t having pot roast with boiled onions and mashed potatoes for dinner. Somewhere people were adding anchovies and freshly grated parmesan cheese to much livelier fare than we were being presented. Although I did have more butter clams than probably any other kid in Vancouver at that time. I think we had the same small bottle of Tabasco sauce in the cupboard for my entire 15-year stay in that house. I thought it was a brown sauce until I moved out in 1978.

My parents were born in the 1920s. My mother was 19 in 1939, when Canada entered World War II reluctantly, to support Britain. When the war ended in 1945, there were 46,998 Canadian soldiers dead. I believe, but I don’t know for sure, that my mother might have had a beau who was killed in the war. I think he was a fellow from her neighborhood—Kerrisdale, the right side of the tracks, in Vancouver. There is a photo somewhere of her standing next to a tall, handsome man; I think my mother was waiting for him to come home from the war. I don’t think my brother and I were supposed to know this.

While I was a kid, my grandfather lived in the house my mother grew up in. When my mother told me how families on the street were notified of a son’s death in the war, I looked at the front steps of a house down the street and imagined soldiers, hearts in their mouths, preparing to knock on the front door. I remember touching the smooth leaves of ivy in that garden, imagining passersby snipping bits to transplant in their own yards. This was a compliment to the gardener, I was told.

My father enlisted in the navy and went by train from Vancouver to the east coast. He was an artist, and he did cartoons of the other fellows on the train across the country. In Nova Scotia, they had him carry rocks from one end of the beach to the other and back again. The war ended before he’d finished carrying rocks. I guess he took the train back home. Maybe he sketched landscapes from the train—he’s never said, that I remember.

He quit the ad agency in the ’70s to paint fabulous abstracts in his studio in the backyard. My mother had her own studio in the other half of the building. They had separate doors, side by side, but whoever designed the building thought it would be groovy if they both had access to their art books, so there was a wall with an open section of shelves between them. My father, while being incredibly eloquent and interesting, does have a propensity to talk. Maybe it’s even a compulsion. He talked through the bookshelves, and my mother—I can see her exasperated look—would have benefited from solitude in her studio, while she painted.

It was not too easy to support a family on painting, and soon my father was doing a lot of freelance work—commercial art jobs—and then there was a period of time when he went in with two brothers—two German guys about his age—Jurgen and Joff. I’m not sure of my father’s exact status at their new creative agency, whether he was a full partner or what. I remember that when the brothers, two big guys, started speaking German to each other, my father stood there with a weird look on his face. I thought he thought they were discussing the war, or saying things like, “Look at the silly little runt. He has no idea what we’re up to. We will certainly be screwing him over big time, and he won’t even know what hit him.” That’s what I thought my father thought—that’s what I thought. Seemed pretty obvious to me; I’d seen Battle Of Britain (accidentally, at the Twin Theaters at Park Royal), and I’d read All Quiet On The Western Front.

At one of my parents’ parties—loud jazz on the hi-fi and lots of laughing, right outside my bedroom door—I heard my mother sobbing. I got up to look at whatever scene was being played out in the living room. The German brothers and my father were standing. My mother was sitting in a Danish modern chair with orange cushions. I guess she was a bit drunk, making comments that seemed be along the lines of, “How could you?”

I was probably ordered back to bed, but I added the sounds and images together and in my mind, my mother was confronting the Germans about killing her boyfriend. I mean, maybe they were talking about the little canned asparagus spears that were wrapped in soft white bread and held together with tooth picks. Maybe my mother was saying, “How could you eat the last one, Joff? Jeannie loves those, and she didn’t even get one of them, you bastard.”

I went back to bed thinking about the possibility that my mother’s intended husband had been killed in the war, that my father was her second choice, years later. And yes, I was hoping there would be some bits and pieces left over to nibble while watching Saturday-morning cartoons, including those asparagus thingies.