Normal History Vol. 285: The Art Of David Lester

Every 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 30-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

This week’s free download is the first song from Mecca Normal’s second album, Calico Kills The Cat, which is only available on vinyl from K Records. That is to say, vinyl from the original LP pressing 25 years ago, back in 1989. On the K Records page, Calvin describes the album. “This one’s got it all: love, murder, hate, frying pans, jealousy, prison, bullets, bonfires and a blue TV behind the iron curtain. Wordsmith Jean takes on the world while guitar man Dave rocks ‘n’ rolls it.”

In this, and subsequent columns, I will be comparing songs on Calico Kills The Cat with songs on our new album, Empathy For The Evil, from start to finish.

I’m just noticing that this new album’s title is strangely reminiscent of Calico Kills The Cat in both alliteration and depth of meaning. Empathy For The Evil was produced, mixed and mastered by the legendary Kramer (see David’s illustration), who describes the album “more like a great gig, than like someone sitting down in front of their record player with a stack of singles.”

1. “Then” (Calico Kills The Cat, 1989)
I wrote the lyrics while I was living in the north of England, in what felt like quite a brutal little city called Huddersfield in West Yorkshire. This was where a Mecca Normal tour had ended and I decided to stay on, to rent a room in a house that once belonged to a captain of industry. A woolen mill owner. It was a pretty run-down stone building outside the city. I recall writing “Then” after walking up to the front door past the rubble heap in the front yard. The song was an alchemy of past, present and future unpleasantness that forms a difficult weight, making it seem like nothing can be accomplished in that general sense of gloom.

At that point, David had gone off traveling in Europe for a number of months and, in those days, there was no way to be in contact other than letters through the post or telephone. I forget if I received either during that time of great challenges—both personal and artistic. I secured a few poetry readings on bills in the area and I taught a women’s writing class. From this, and a bit of graphic-design work that came my way, I managed to pay my bills for the six months my passport allowed me to stay in the country. I continued to write what I thought were poems until I returned to Canada and started turning them into songs with David.

1. “Art Was The Great Leveler” (Empathy For The Evil, 2014) is directly out of a novel I wrote called The Black Dot Museum Of Political Art in which a museum curator cures narcissism. This section of the story outlines how her parents met. Overall, the novel intends to illuminate how and why personalities—including the narcissist personality disorder—form. The protagonist’s parents met at a time when people weren’t assessing personalities; it was more about class and money.

In “Then” and again with “Art Was The Great Leveler” I can feel both my 29-year-old and 50-something selves grappling with how psychological conditions can hinder our potential. In the case of “Then,” there is a frustration with others—as was more typical of my earlier songwriting. When I began writing book-length fiction, I was more interested in how early interactions came to define us in terms of what we expect from others in personal relationships. Having taken a step away from blaming others set me on a course to invent and examine scenarios with a consciously balanced hand. I developed an understanding of classic behaviors and created characters by assigning them various traits that play out by interconnecting their psychological proclivities with those of other characters. I guess most stories are like that, but mine seem to be only about that. How people are with each other—and why.

“Then” from Calico Kills The Cat (K, 1989; Matador, 1991; Smarten Up!, 2003) (download):