Normal History Vol. 482: 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 34-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

Mystery and secrecy seem very important in celebrity culture. As a band, Mecca Normal has always been very earnest and maybe even overly transparent about our motives. We’ve explained many things about why we do what we do, perhaps to our detriment. Then we look at someone like Jandek, and I don’t recall him explaining himself at all. He made a bunch of albums and took a bunch of photos that were on the same level of quality as his music and inadvertently(?) created intrigue. I’ve noticed that men seem very curious about other men’s lives. The art they make, their sexual conquests. When I see top-10 lists for literature, art or music made by men, it’s rare to see women represented. 

Is there a female equivalent to Jandek? Where a charming ineptitude and mystery swirl together to create cult status intrigue?

“Crimson Dragnet” from Sitting On Snaps (Matador, 1995) (download):

Normal History Vol. 481: 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 34-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

I believe most artists want their art to speak for itself without it requiring extraneous explanation. Men seem more likely to grant themselves this creative freedom, whereas women seem to end up defending their artistic viability in terms of whether what we create should be called art at all. Look out! Maybe it’s a craft or, god forbid, a hobby. Maybe a man helped us with it! Definitely, before we advance to any secondary stage in The Arts, we’re going to be asked about gender. Something men are rarely subjected to.

“So tell us Mr. Dickswing,” the interviewer says. “What’s it like being a male artist?”

“Something To Be Said” from Sitting On Snaps (Matador, 1995) (download):

Normal History Vol. 480: 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 34-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

Follow-up phone call with my dad (93) this morning after a long talk last night about how he’ll get to the hospital today to visit my mom (98). I registered him with HandyDart—public-transit short bus for otherly abled. I booked the trip, got the details and waited (semi-patiently for an hour) while he struggled to write everything down. I’ve seen what his notes look like, and it’s not too good.

Telephone number, account number, fare. Gong show.

So, this morning when I phone, he’s re-writing everything. The time, the automated 10-minute warning call, the fare ($2.85). We go over (and over and over and over) everything again.

I ask him if he has change for the fare, and he said he does.

“Good. You can even let the driver take it out of your hand if you want.”

“They’ll take a two-dollar bill won’t they?”

“There hasn’t been a Canadian two-dollar bill since the mid-’90s, Daddio.”

“Oh.”

“If it was me,” I say, “I’d give him $3 and forget about the 15 cents.”

“Have one yourself, chum,” he says, without missing a beat.

I laugh. “Go ahead and say that! Maybe he’ll get it about half way through the trip.”

“Vacant Night Sky” from Sitting On Snaps (Matador, 1995) (download):

Normal History Vol. 479: 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 34-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

Shake this land
raised up to wait
without windows

Shake this land
Shake it

Muttering about a strength to ignore all tools
rasp, chisel and oil

Shake this land
Shake it

Red proud eyes
born on a shadow of a legend

Shake this land
Shake it

Muttering about a strength to ignore everything
all tools
rasp, chisel and oil

It’s a truly uncivilized nation
that treats medical care
as a commodity to be sold

Take it
It’s yours

“Museum Of Open Windows” from Flood Plain (K, 1993) (download):

Normal History Vol. 478: 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 34-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

The oblique nature of the lyrics here are a kind of fortress against saying too much—or anything, it seems. In the late 1980s, five people were convicted of several high profile actions including damage at a factory in Ontario, Canada, where U.S. cruise missile guidance systems were being manufactured and tested. Interestingly enough, at one time, the Tomahawk missiles fired in Syria in April employed this system. Maybe they still do.

To a certain extent, these events were the backdrop to my politicization. Because one of those arrested was a high-profile musician in the punk scene, there were constant updates and speculation, as well as benefit shows for legal funds, and an introduction to what trial by media looked like as it unfolded. There were also charges of fire bombing a video store that distributed violent porn. Snuff films.

Years later I went out with one of the people (for about six months) convicted (after he’d served time). I’ve never said much about this association, but these lyrics were written during (or shortly after) that relationship, and they reflect my very uncomfortable filtering of expression, leaving a sketch of my personal curiosity about what happens to a person after they’ve been through something like that—a profound loss of freedom—and how that might change a person.

Somebody might tell you
how to say it
“You’re wrong.”

You’re going down
Whatever happened
to your own life?

You’re going down

Better catch it
somebody might tell you
you’re going down

Whatever happened to
what you say?

“Texada Warns Me” from Flood Plain (K, 1993) (download):

Normal History Vol. 477: 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 34-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

This alcohol-doused slither through a spontaneously combustible improvisation (at least, on my part) is somewhat cringe-worthy to listen to after being sober for almost 20 years, but, at that time, I took the luxury of recording a song that built itself lyrically around the simple idea of the voice being a valuable tool to push through progressive social change. Not saying this song is any kind of success in that regard, and, in fact, I look back at the era as being a failure of sorts.

Yet, there will always be artists, who, while tending to be less capable of articulating and achieving specific results, take cracks at using public art to protest, and perhaps influence those who use their voices more directly.

With the lines shooting through
the break
it didn’t come
pushing through

The voice took it
the voice pushed it through

The voice was taken
through

And the giver took to taking
And the giver took to singing

And the given took to singing
too

“On The Row Of Dials” from Flood Plain (K, 1993) (download):

Normal History Vol. 476: 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 34-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

If asked way back then, I may have said this song is about the prison industrial complex or simply being in prison, but, as former Kill Rock Stars owner Slim Moon pointed out last week when I asked my Facebook friends about song lyrics, “The best songs always have two legitimate interpretations.”

My question to Facebook: “In ‘Sugar Sugar’ (I was referring to the Archies’ version) does he mean: You are my ‘candy girl’ or ‘candy, girl’?”

And so I will insert my song into that cannon … I mean canon (of songs with two legit interpretations), and say that while being incarcerated in a physical prison has been the subject of several of my songs, I am, today, struck by the way the lyrics here, sparse as they are, resonate with the ongoing, but now heightened situation I’m currently in.

I have a feeling I was really enjoying listening to Dave’s guitar, and sometimes singing over the intensity of what he’s creating doesn’t seem like the thing to do. And likewise, it has been Dave’s friendship and kind words this past week that I’ve gratefully listened to while feeling roughed up by my parents’ ramped-up urge to control me after moving them into an assisted-living facility a month ago. Which relates back to why I started an anti-authoritarian punk duo while grappling with the fall-out of having endured living with them for 17 years.

There is something to be said for expressing injustice on every scale. Here, in this song, the words come rushing toward me from the 1990s, reminding me that being tethered to psychological drama with personalities that are very self-involved (to be polite) can, at times, make it feel like there is no way out. For myself, I found Jesus … just kidding.

Walking the walls of this small room
wondering how you’re gonna get out

Walking the walls of this small room
wondering if you’re gonna get out

You’re walking the walls of this small room
wondering if you’re ever gonna get out

“Walking The Walls” from Flood Plain (K, 1993) (download):

Normal History Vol. 475: 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 34-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

Yes, that’s right! We take the kernels of corn, dry them, then we heat them up until they pop open into white blossoms that we then pour the melted fatty part of cow’s milk over. Oh! We sprinkle salt on it, too. Salt is hard to describe; it’s a mineral that comes from sea water and other sources.

It’s very traditional to buy popcorn at movie houses, where we all sit in the dark together and quietly watch cinematic re-enactments of people being killed with guns.

Why? I’m not really sure. Maybe it’s the only grain we’ve found that pops open into a tasty blossom.

“Straying To Summer” from Flood Plain (K, 1993) (download):

Normal History Vol. 474: 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 34-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

I wrote the words for “Waiting For Rudy” in the early 90s after finding out that an apartment building we frequently stayed at when we played in San Francisco was slated to be torn down once Rudy, an elderly tenant, died. He had some sort of deal with the owners that disallowed them from evicting him.

“Waiting For Rudy” from Flood Plain (K, 1993) (download):

Normal History Vol. 473: 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 34-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

I can’t help but think violent games are part of a well-thought-out system of indoctrination that helps lubricate the impulses of economically oppressed youth to slide off to war. Putty in da man’s hands. What if all those hours of shooting were actually replaced with something positive and useful—like a rising up against the corporate ogres and shady politicians who are running the show?

Where’s that video game?

“Greater Beauty” from Flood Plain (K, 1993) (download):