Normal History Vol. 44: The Art Of David Lester

lesterNormalHistoryVol44Every 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 26-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

“Political”: A song about me. John Mann (boyfriend circa 1985), singer in Spirit Of The West. I could respond, never have, as to why “every little thing had to be so political.”

And ya, I wrote a couple songs about him, too—on the first Mecca Normal LP (Smarten UP!, 1986). “Not With You” (“I won’t live my life, no, not with you … I’ve got my dreams, they’re nothing to you … I’ve got my dreams, I’ll see them through … I’m gonna see my dreams come true … If you’re not changing, well, that’s OK, that’s OK, too … I’ve got my life, it’s not with you”) and “Sha La La la La” (“You vote Socred next time, instead of NDP, and I’m gonna have to wonder about you me … Sha la la la la la”)

“When we started out [in 1983], we were quite folky,” Mann recalls. “We were trying to write as best as we could about things that were going on in British Columbia, hence the name. And around Expo 86, the band became more politicized.”

It was a time of labour unrest, of Downtown Eastside hotel evictions, of Bills Vander Zalm and Bennett (Socred party leaders in British Columbia). It was also around that time that Mann became romantically involved with Mecca Normal singer Jean Smith, who remains an influential figure in the Vancouver rock underground.

“She was—and still is—a really political person, a political being who really walks the talk,” Mann says of his former partner. “And the effect of her views on me in turn affected the band. We started looking at the world differently—and certainly from more of a left-of-centre viewpoint.” —Georgia

Jan. 20, 2010
Hi John,
Popping up, out of the blue, to send powerful thoughts your way. Wishing you every form of strength you need to overcome this current health situation.
Jean (so political) Smith

Wait … January 20 … an anniversary.

On the morning of Jan. 20, 1983, the Vancouver Five were captured on the road to their training area by an RCMP tactical unit disguised as a road crew. The five received sentences ranging from six years to life. —Wikipedia

To avoid having any more songs written about how annoyingly political I was, I took up with someone even heavier than me. Gerry Hannah of the Subhumans and the Vancouver Five—someone even more “so political” than me, albeit, when I knew him, he’d served his time and was more in-tune with the great outdoors and freedom. The direct act of being free. Direct action in terms of, as Gerry put it in an interview—”The song (“Nowhere To Run”) describes more of a personal struggle with depression, anger and a fear of failure. It’s a song about how easy it is to keep making the same mistakes over and over again when one is afraid to make the necessary changes in one’s life to become a whole person. It often seems easier to run away from the fear and pain one feels inside, but eventually (hopefully), one realizes that you can’t run away from something you’re carrying around inside of you. You have to deal with it. You have to understand it and to meet it face to face in order to eventually be free of it.” —Culture Bully

The Subhumans have been playing shows recently. John Mann is playing shows. Mecca Normal continues on. The politics are not obvious. The personal is political. Carry on, my wayward ones ( … don’t you cry no more —Kansas).

Normal History Vol. 43: The Art Of David Lester

LesterNormalHistoryVol43Every 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 26-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

Song slivers arrive in shipping and receiving, between photo-cutter roar and dry-mounting rumble. With my mind, I add the sounds together and turn the nearly inaudible music from Eileen’s radio into Marvin Gaye—regardless of what’s playing, I hear “Sexual Healing.” Sexual, sexual healing.

Paul, a young guy from the digital department, comes to look out the window. Wincing at the brightness, he fingers the paper-white orchid. I turn away. He asks me, “What’s your favourite movie?”

Harold And Maude,” I say. “It’s about a suicidal young guy who falls in love with an eccentric old woman.”

“OK. What’s your second favourite movie?”

Picnic At Hanging Rock,” I say. “It’s about Australian school girls who get lost in the outback.”

Paul lays his head on the postage scale.

“Ten pounds, 10 ounces,” I say.

On our morning coffee break, Zoila is eating three pieces of thickly sliced white bread stacked together.

“Wow,” I say to Zoila. “It’s a bread sandwich.”

Maria talks about her new roommate. “He’s white. He’s single. He’s 50, but he’s circumcised.” She looks at me. I’m the only Caucasian in the room. “Do you prefer cut or uncut?”

In my mind, I see the penises of recent dalliances, dicks and cocks of old relationships—cut, uncut. Cut, uncut. Maria and the other Filipinas are waiting for my answer, for my preference.

Maria says, “Uncut is ugly.”

Eileen says, “How do you know?”

Maria says, “I’ve seen a photo.”

The dark side of Maria. We are nibbling on Mike Dean’s banana bread. Mike is the Jethro Bodine handyman of the photo lab. He’s been phoning his mother across three time zones to get her recipes. He brings baked goods to work, on the bus, triple plastic-wrapped. Pies, cookies, biscuits—he wants a reaction. He wants a reaction from the dark side of Maria.

Normal History Vol. 42: The Art Of David Lester

LestrNormal-HistoryVol42Every 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 26-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

Hi Michael,

Happy New Year.

Contacting the gallery without a timeframe isn’t the best way to proceed, but I know galleries require a lot of lead time. I need to figure out the when part of the puzzle before pitching our event. Actually, I’m wondering what the timeframe is for the end of classes this year. April into May potential. I am starting to formulate a possible plan—flying to Milwaukee for events in Racine, Evanston, Chicago and maybe Champaign-Urbana, as well as shows on the west coast. Vancouver, Seattle, Olympia, Portland. A two week rock show, lecture art exhibit tour. Flying SeaTac to Milwaukee is $94 each way, while Chicago is $149 (adding $200 to total airfare if we went in and out of Chicago).

I am starting week four working at a fabric store—$9 an hour, part time on an ever-changing schedule that intends to make it impossible to secure employment elsewhere. Pure evil. They keep staff at part time, at their disposal, seven days a week. It almost pays my expenses. If I buy nothing. It’s the sort of job that I will need to quit and while I’m in my preferred state of unemployment, I figure—why not do a rock tour?

Sometimes people suggest that I work in arts administration, but it is part of a more stimulating process to be out in the general work force, challenging myself in this way. At the fabric store I haul around heavy rolls of cloth, measuring and cutting cloth for customers who are involved in creative projects. The clientele is 95{e5d2c082e45b5ce38ac2ea5f0bdedb3901cc97dfa4ea5e625fd79a7c2dc9f191} women—primarily East Indian and Chinese with about 30{e5d2c082e45b5ce38ac2ea5f0bdedb3901cc97dfa4ea5e625fd79a7c2dc9f191} Caucasian, quite a few of whom are Russian.

Thanks for your comments on the MAGNET series—it has turned out to be a very good project between David and I. Applying our individual and collaborative strengths in forms other than Mecca Normal. Some of the writing comes from the novel I’ve been working on for about five years—Love Wants You. I hope to get it done this week and send out queries to literary agents. It’s “about” online dating experiences, but more accurately—it shows human behaviour. I received a Canada Council for the Arts award to write it. And yes, I can see doing a tour of stories and paintings based on this material.

In the illo, text and mp3 terrain—our long history of turning almost nothing into rather a lot is brought into focus by pushing the audience to interpret nearly-unrelated components. If the song, the text and the illo were all about the same thing, it would be a closed system without encouragement to grapple with their lack of noticeable connectivity. I love it that the three elements create a tension similar to the way Mecca Normal operates, where the music and the words aren’t always complimentary—or even complementary. Mecca Normal listeners are invited to consider the “missing elements”. I like including what isn’t there by assertively foisting ourselves into inappropriate situations, placing ourselves where we shouldn’t be. Non-academics presenting a lecture, the rock element at a poetry reading, the poetry at a punk rock show. I am least comfortable in front of like-minded supporters.

If you have any ideas for either literary agents or publishers, I’d be very grateful for your input. We’re getting some great unsolicited responses to the MAGNET series, although, in general, I think our audience and fans are not big on making comments—which, in a way, underscores our strange operating stance. We do things regardless of reaction and profit because this is how we want to live our lives—collaborating on projects, presenting work through means we make available to ourselves, making things happen without being high profile artists who require validation of our worth through positive reaction and profit.

Don’t get too choked about host anxiety. We did an event in April with less than a dozen students and then we stayed with the host for two days—everyone survived. I think we just raided her fridge extra hard in retaliation for the small turn-out, but then, weeks later, one of those students wrote to say that after the lecture she and friend talked about our ideas for hours. She said we’d had a profound impact on her creative output—she was still gliding along on our inspiration. I’m not going to make that cliché statement about the value of inspiring just one person—I do what I do because it is what I love to do. I’m selfish that way.

If we could arrange to have the lecture videoed and archived—streamed—(jeez, two crappy verbs in one sentence… videoed and streamed… ) that increases the value of a visit.

The questions here are—when do classes end? April, May. And—any ideas for literary agents and publishers.


Normal History Vol. 41: The Art Of David Lester

LesterNormalHistoryVol41Every 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 26-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

The sun is setting and the sea is sparkling. Billy Idol is singing “Dancing With Myself.” Ann, a 60-something former world-class ballerina, is doing classic moves between the hydraulic gym equipment. I’m dancing around in front of her saying, “There is no place I rather be than dancing with you Ann—it doesn’t get any better than this.” This or maybe watching Gertrude Stein run through a huge rose garden with electric clippers while the song” I Never Promised You A Rose Garden” plays, Gertrude saying, “A rose is a rose is a rose,” which is often misinterpreted as “things are what they are,” but, by which she meant simply using the name of a thing invokes imagery and emotions associated with it. Which is why I prefer to be around people who don’t toss noun-petals at my feet, in my path, in my way. I like my experiences without roses.

“Anything new with the online dating?” Ann asks.

“The last two guys I started something with had Rottweilers. I’m not a Rottweiler fancier at all.”

Ann laughs, and looks at me over the top of her glasses. “Oh dear,” she says with her now-faint English accent.

“Guy One’s dog was young, dumb,” I say. “It jumped up and got its nose between my legs—and it ate the sleeve of Guy One’s wool sweater.”

Ann shakes her head. “Why would a dog eat a sweater?”

“It think it was passive aggressive. Guy One wanted to control the way the dog behaved. Actually, Guy One wanted to control everyone. He was starting a new religion—a new religion without a god.”

“I guess Guy One wanted to be the number-one guy.”

“Yes, that sums it up perfectly,” I say, dancing around.

“Oh Jean—you are finding some very odd men in this online dating,” says Ann, doing lovely kicks and twists.

“Odd is a very good word, but I’m not sure the problem lies in the method. There are some odd men out there, maybe especially in this age bracket—the over-50 set.”

“I think if a man is starting a new religion you can safely delete him from your list of potential suitors,” says Ann.

“It can take a while for all the clues and hints to add up.”

“What were some of the clues?”

“Well, there was no door on the bedroom and the dog and his jumping ways and his cold wet nose were distracting during sex,” I say and Ann rolls her eyes while doing her graceful swan arms. I continue, “Guy One got up and took the door off the bathroom and hung it on the bedroom hinges, but the bathroom door was simply smaller and it did not close, so Guy One got a big chunk of coral from his collection to hold the door closed. He was a big guy—over six feet tall—and he picked a big piece of coral and for myself, when I went to the bathroom, I bent naked, naked and ticklish, lifting and carrying the large chunk of coral across the room. With the door now freely open—and Guy One’s dog with the cold wet nose—and me being naked, naked and ticklish—looking for where to set the coral down … ” My voice trails off when Ann begins shaking her head in dismay.

“No door on the bedroom would be enough for me,” Ann says. “You are meeting the wrong men, Jean.”

I laugh and say, “You may be right, but it’s hard to know until you let them behave for a little while.”

“You must have some way of finding out about them before you meet them.”

“Guy One looked good on paper.”

Ann finishes her work out, packs up and heads for the door. “I’ll ask you about the other Rottweiler’s owner next time I drop by the theatre of the absurd.”

“Yes, see you then,” I say, waving good-bye, imitating her very graceful swan arms, thinking about that version of the story and what her reaction says about her experiences beyond the footlights of London’s ballet stages into the bed sits of Earls Court in the 1950s, the 60s and then on into her married life with whom? Perhaps a very refined David Nivenesque character or a Sherlock Holmesian fellow (all tweed, mustache wax)—men with impeccably glossy veneers who hid, as men do and did, what is perhaps now more common to expose, to explore. Back when a man, on a whim, did not take the door off his bedroom.

Normal History Vol. 40: The Art Of David Lester

LesterNormalHistoryVol40Every 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.

Guy One
On our first date, we take his dog for a walk through Cates Park. Guy One tells me of the names of trees and plants, and he describes how rocks and cliffs and islands were formed. Basically, he explains the origin of the universe to me. At the end of the walk, he gives his dog a wash in the creek. I stand on the slippery plank bridge waiting for him. A group of elderly people from a nearby care facility shuffle across the bridge. Guy One spends an extra long time washing the dog’s genitals. The old people stop to watch; they see a tall man standing in the creek rubbing a dog’s penis.

The group leader says, “Who wants to play bingo before dinner?”

“Here, Bingo!” an old woman says, crooked fingers extending towards Guy One’s dog. The group leader claps her hands twice. “Chop chop,” she says and the old people move along.

Guy One looks disappointed to be losing his audience. He wanted to explain things to old people: springtime, dogs, penises.

We are in bed for the first time. You are lying on your back, eyes closed, after giving up on penetration. I am wondering if you are wondering how I feel about not turning you on. I am on my side, looking at you. You say, “You remind me of a woman I used to have sex with.”

“How so?”

“Not you as a person, but your body.”

In my mind, my body separates slightly away from me. Legs and hips, shoulders and breasts, are slightly less mine with this assessment. I’ve never wanted to be anyone else. A song pops into my head in a lonely way. I can see Tobi Vail singing in a San Francisco record store, “I don’t always want to be me and not her.” West Coast tour with Calvin and Tobi, who was probably still in high school.

Your eyes slowly open, you scratch your bare chest and say, “She was the most sexual person I’ve ever been with. We had our sex at work. She was incredible.”

My body extends through time and space to the office building where you and the incredible woman worked together. I am watching you have your memories of sex with her, wondering why you’re telling me this. I am assessing how it feels to hear about the sexiest woman ever, after failing to turn you on. I don’t feel pain because this is too ridiculous. It appears that you say things without considering their impact. Is that a lack of empathy? Can empathy, like an orgasm, be faked? I want to ask you right now, but I’d have to explain the nuances of my surrounding thoughts. Language would turn my thoughts into accusations, disrupting more than it would clarify.

I am a body, enough like the body of another woman that you have put me to use to stimulate sexy memories of her. I am free to have my thoughts while you do this. Nothing is required of me while you use me in this way. It appears that you have not made a connection between your words and my thinking. Absolutely fascinating.

“Once,” you continue, turning onto your side to look at my face, which possibly reminds you of a third woman’s face, “she took me to into an unused office and locked the door and pulled open a desk drawer. She put her foot in the drawer, pulled up her skirt for me to fuck her that way.”

I watch your face as you illuminate your detachment. My body melds into the actions of the sexiest woman you have ever been with. I see my body doing these things: my foot in a drawer. I am attempting to become a person who considers it your problem that you can’t get an erection. It has nothing to do with me. I am now the sexiest woman you have ever been with.

“Your breasts are almost too big,” you say. Bigger than hers, is what you mean. Pieces of me, parts of her. I’m a compilation, a compendium. You appear not to wonder about my thoughts or feelings. I am a connected dot, connected to the incredible woman with one foot in a desk drawer, skirt pulled up to reveal my genitalia. I’m alone next to a man with a soft penis who is using my body to fantasize about the greatest sex he ever had.

“Were you both in other relationships?” I ask, intending to get information while you’re in the mood to give it.

“Yes, I was living with someone and she was married.”

This is how people are. I must get tougher. I’m not tough enough yet; this is sad and scary and I don’t want to be hurt in this way. I look at your face carefully, looking for regret or pain. You told me that this is how you used to be—that was your past and now you are a one-woman-man and you would not cheat on a woman again. Yes, I know, I know. That’s right, you explained all this to me in email, before we met. You are a one-woman-man fantasizing about having sex with another woman while you are in bed with me for the first time. Did you want me because you hoped I’d be as sexy as the sexiest woman ever? I get up, grab my royal blue dressing gown and go into the bathroom to run water for a bath.

Sitting opposite each other in the tub you say, “We are going to be open and talk about any problems that come up.”

“OK,” I say, encouraged, even though you interrupted me to make this pronouncement. I continue with what I was saying, but your eyes drift around the bathroom in an intentional demonstration of disinterest. I continue talking and you cover your face with the orange washcloth.

“You aren’t listening to me,” I say.

“Whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa,” you say, taking the washcloth off your face. “You can’t state that I’m not listening to you. You can’t make a statement like that. You have to say that you feel I’m not listening to you. Try it again.”

I stare at you not wanting to say anything, thinking, “I feel you are not listening. I feel you are condescending. I feel you aren’t interested in me. I feel you are a fucking asshole.”

We’re sitting on a no-leash and clothing-optional beach—which, I’m thinking, is perhaps not the best combination of concepts. “I’m not a restaurant guy,” he says. “It doesn’t work on my budget.” Dinners have been between $6 and $8 for two people. Pizza slices, salad rolls and a plate of noodles. We take turns paying. He’s out about $12 since we met.

At Guy One’s apartment for day-old bagels, he shows me a book about communism: black-and-white photos of unhappy workers in China and Russia, austere factory walls. I pick up his binoculars and look at the mountains. Guy One says, “I use those to watch the young people across the street having sex.”

“Nice,” I say, continuing to scan the hillside.

“The woman is a musician. She has various people come over to play music with her. Once she had awkward sex on the couch with one of them. I could tell they didn’t have much experience under their belts. The guy left and never came back.”

“Really? How do you know he never came back?” I say, setting the binoculars down.

“I never saw him again, that’s how I know,” Guy One says, on the verge of being annoyed with me. I freeze, unable to say anything. Guy One goes to the kitchen; I hear him putting water in the kettle. I step into the bathroom and look at my face in the mirror. Frowning, unhappy, tension around my mouth. “Breathe,” I tell my face. “Breathe in. And exhale.”

In the kitchen I pull a stool up to the counter and look out the window at the apartment building across the street—maybe he’s right, maybe the guy never visited the musician again. Maybe they had awful sex once and never spoke again.

“Once,” I say. “We were heading to Seattle to open for Fugazi and my car died at the border.”

“Once I was at the border between Mexico and the USA,” Guy One says. “I was crossing on foot and the customs guy turned my acoustic guitar upside down and a peyote button fell out, but it rolled under something and wasn’t found.”

I sip my tea, listening to his story. I feel less like finishing my story—it’s a good story, I tell it well. It says a lot about me. I want to tell Guy One that I bought a Grand Marquis from the tow-truck driver. How the stick-on tinted window would only go down two inches when we pulled up to talk to the customs guy. That we made it to sound check.

I am fiddling with tiny dried gourds in a lop-sided pottery bowl on the counter. Guy One appears to be thinking back to the peyote, Mexico, the guitar.

“You know what?” I say, selecting one gourd to inspect.


“I would like to be able to tell you about my experiences.” I suppose I appear to be addressing the gourd, but I don’t really give a shit.

“OK,” says Guy One, seeing that I’m upset.

“I want to be allowed to tell my stories without you re-processing everything I say or referring to something in your experience.” I drop the gourd back into the bowl. It barely makes a sound.

Guy One sticks out his chin. “You’re trying to change me. This is how I am and I’m not changing. This is who I am.” He taps his chest—an empty sound, like the dried gourd. I start to cry. I hate it that I am crying, unable to talk.

“Oh,” he says gently. “You’re having a bit of an emotional time aren’t you?”

I’m wondering if he wants me to cry so that he can do this comforting thing. He seems quite familiar with this part: this comforting thing. Odd guy.

“There there,” he says, putting one hand lightly on my shoulder. “I am a very loving and caring man.”

Deception in this case is a man deceiving himself. Not me.