Normal History Vol. 25: The Art Of David Lester

LesteHistoryVol-25Every 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.

Back in the ’80s, David Greenberger used to send me copies of Duplex Planet, the publication he created about his interactions at the nursing home he worked at. Writes Greenberger, “In 1979 I took a job as activities director at a nursing home in Boston. I had just completed a degree in fine arts as a painter. On the day that I first met the residents of the nursing home, I abandoned painting. That is to say, I discarded the brushes and canvas, not the underlying desire to see something in the world around me and then communicate it to others. In this unexpected setting I found my medium. I wanted others to know these people as I did.” Greenberger’s questions resulted in vibrantly distorted haiku answers. I think he asked things like, “So, whadda think about storms, Marge?” and “Hey Frank, any thoughts on love?” Mecca Normal and Duplex Planet—two weirdo enterprises connecting in a specific time. I’m not sure why Greenberger sent me Duplex Planet. Maybe I’ll ask him, but what should the question be? Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of Live Peace In Toronto, where Yoko Ono performed an incredible version of “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand In The Snow).” You can watch it on YouTube or elsewhere online. When asked, a certain blogger suggests that the crowd’s lame response is attributable to Eric Clapton’s guitar being ever so slightly out of tune. “What was the question?” you may well ask. Last April, while making a documentary, I videoed friends answering my question: “What did you think when you first heard Mecca Normal?” Answers, as they added up, revealed to me that Mecca Normal was new and different and now we represent that point in time. I wish I’d asked a different question. So much depends upon an answer’s question.

Normal History Vol. 24: The Art Of David Lester

normalhistoryvol24cEvery 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.

Looking around on YouTube, finding Crass interviews, songs with static images made by fans, live clips and documentary footage, I saw a comment—”it’s so? fuckin awesome how Crass’ message can be related today!” In a way, yes, totally awesome, dude, but in another way: It still is today. Technology and culture spin along at remarkable speeds, churning up new products to consume, dumping last week’s model for the latest marvel—profit-driven intensity regulated by consumer propensity. Other facets of life don’t change as quickly: pollution, poverty, feminism, racism, out-dated political constructs and corruption. There’s an interview with Crass drummer Penny Rimbaud where he’s saying he was amazed that people—the audience—found their way to a tin hut in a field in Wales for an enjoyable evening that included conversation about ideas and inspiration. He said if they’d been offered a pile of money to go and ponce around on a stage with lights, they wouldn’t have taken it. “It wasn’t what we were doing.” I’m happy their influence is being felt today. I’m inspired by Crass—now, today. Their ideas are worth considering and bringing into new projects. Crass colleagues Poison Girls were fronted by Vi Subversa—she was a middle-aged mother of two when she started a punk band to sing about sexism and gay rights. Mecca Normal’s first show in England was on a bill with Vi at Apples & Snakes in London in 1989. We ended up with a show with Poison Girls six months later at an East London hall, and we stayed with them—Poison Girls—for a day or two before the show, during which time Vi was having a birthday party. I thought it was her 60th, but Dave figures it was more like 55; either way, she seemed old to us, and we weren’t even all that young—about 30. They lived in a fairly big house with a garden, and evidently, when they needed cash, they sold slices off the back end of the property to their neighbor. This was somewhere near Dial House: the Crass house. Poison Girls had a history with Crass—working together, doing shows, a benefit single—10 years prior. To us, visiting in 1989, that all seemed a long time ago. Time creates distance differently as I get older. As a kid in the ’60s, World War II seemed like the distant past. Now, 40 years later, World War II seems remarkably recent. Anyway, we were sort of hanging out, trying not to use all the hot water or finish the last bit of milk, you know, basically just stay out of their hair. We didn’t have a car and they weren’t really near anything and we didn’t really know them; we were just there, waiting to do the show. It was a bit awkward being at Vi’s party—people arriving, flowers, booze, food. I think Vi and Richard Famous lived at the house with a little white dog named Mister. Their drummer, Lance d’Boyle, turned up, as well as one of her kids, I think. It was extremely exciting—thrilling—to be playing with Poison Girls. My god!!! Poison Girls!!! Christ. I’m sure we were nervous, wondering if they’d say anything to us. And, indeed, Richard came over after, and we waited for him to say what he thought, wondering what Richard Famous, guitar player of Poison Girls, thought of Mecca Normal—about our songs, our sound. He suggested we get matching outfits.

Normal History Vol. 23: The Art Of David Lester

davidlesterhistoryvol23Every 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.

Michael is really big for 16. He crosses the patio where his 14-year-old sister is frolicking with two friends in an above-ground pool. Michael shuffles through puddles in a black dressing gown and Chinese slippers, his greasy shoulder-length hair swinging. The girls ignore him. “We really hit a wall with him in the spring, but now he’s doing better,” says Wayne. Michael sits down at the patio table, gobbles a peach and wipes his mouth on his filthy T-shirt front. On each of his oddly dainty fingers, he’s wearing women’s wedding rings. “I’m well-known for being humourless,” he informs me in a Rainman monotone. “Nightmares & Dreamscapes. May 4, 2004. 704 pages.” “Michael retains a lot of information about Stephen King novels,” Wayne explains. In a slightly higher voice, Michael says, “Celia, I’m going to tell you something that may surprise you.” “OK,” I say. “I’m not like other 16-year-old boys. I don’t think about sex or perversions.” “That’s good Michael,” Wayne says. “But Celia doesn’t need to know that.” “Desperation. Aug. 1, 1997. 560 pages. I’m going to put my Band-Aid on now,” Michael says, sliding his patio chair back noisily. I watch him trudge back to the house through the puddles. Wayne says, “I’m proud of him. He’s done a lot of hard work. He has Asperger syndrome, which is a type of autism that means he has problems interacting socially and he has very limited interests.” “I don’t mean to be crass,” I say. “But that describes a lot of the men I’ve been meeting through online dating.” Wayne laughs and says, “Well, it does occur in men more than women.” Tiny garden lights come on automatically. Back from the house with a Band-Aid in the middle of his forehead, Michael sits down heavily, rubs his head with both hands and says, “I’ve decided not to go to bed until Celia leaves.” I laugh and ask, “Are you tired?” “Yes, I’m fairly tired.” I glance at Wayne and catch a flicker of irritation. “Why don’t you tell Celia about the book you’re writing, Michael?” “Can I have a sip of your beer, Wayne?” “Sure.” Michael sips and burps loudly. “Thanks, Wayne. That’s good, but it has a powerful aftertaste.” “A powerful aftertaste, eh?” Wayne laughs, and turns to me. “We had some problems with the beer. Michael thought he should be allowed to drink beer whenever he wanted.” Michael sticks out his chin and says, “I didn’t quit for you, Wayne.” “I know you didn’t, Michael. You quit for yourself.” “It’s great to meet another writer,” I say to Michael, changing the subject. “I’m going to go and see the next teenage girl movie that comes out,” Michael says. “I just hope it doesn’t ruin my reputation as a horror writer.” “Do you think Stephen King only goes to horror movies?” Wayne asks. “I like writing,” I say. “Because I’m in control of every little detail.” “I like that too,” says Michael in a clear sweet voice. I say, “You can find inspiration for stories in the most unlikely places.” “I don’t want to be in any unlucky places,” says Michael. “Unlikely,” I repeat, but the girls in the pool are screaming, drowning me out. Wayne looks at me to see how I’m coping with construction of interaction that defines his life. The screaming gets louder. “Unlikely,” I say again. “Not unlucky. Unlikely, meaning unusual.” Michael acts like he understands. “Unlucky places, right.” “Well,” I say. “It’s time for me to get going.” “The Long Walk. April 1, 1999,” says Michael. “384 pages.”

Normal History Vol. 22: The Art Of David Lester

davidleastervol-22Every 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.

War Between The Neighbors
I suspect I’m part of a war between the neighbors, and soon enough, the doorbell rings. I am a guest, pressed up against the wall, closest to the screen door. A man outside, plaid shirt. The sun is behind him. Light bouncing off him, as if he’s in a film. Very smooth. His eyes are adjusting to the light inside. He looks without seeing me. I’m right here in the hall, holding a cup of bad coffee. If I had a split second more time, I could have disappeared around the corner of the living room. I stand still. In this lapse, I observe a man preparing for confrontation. My host is crouched and giggling, in his dressing gown, behind the sofa. The man at the door moves, he shimmers. He’s sweating now. Dark eyes flicker, pixelated by the screen. I’m noticing objects relative to other things—I enjoy this example, it’s riveting. I watch as his eyes connect to me. Focusing. He’s waiting for me to acknowledge him before he speaks. Small courtesy. As if we’re acting in a play. God only knows what would happen if we stopped behaving predictably. I’m in a war between the neighbors. I’m a guest, pressed against the wall. Coffee going cold in the silence before we speak. I take a sip, forgetting how bad, how cold, it is. Hey, maybe he knows where I can get a good coffee. “Down below,” he says, and points straight down. “I’m Leroy. He hasn’t told you about Leroy? Oh boy.” He turns, shaking his head, and makes his way back down the concrete steps, soft hand gripping the rail. My host is up off the floor, still giggling, holding his root-beer float. A dry residue of ice cream on the inside of his glass. I’m part of a war with the downstairs neighbor. I’m a guest, pressed up against the wall.

Normal History Vol. 21: The Art Of David Lester

davidlestervol21Every 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.

Howard Zinn is from Lester’s Inspired Agitators poster series. The song below, “This Is My Summer Vacation,” mentions Malcolm Lowry, author of Under The Volcano. The author drank himself to death near where the annual Under The Volcano Festival is held.

I saw Howard Zinn on TV a couple of years ago when we were in a motel room in Anacortes, Wash., for What The Heck Festival. I felt like jumping up and down on the bed listening to Zinn, whose opinion seemed to be that progressive social change will occur through a new social movement of small groups working independently and overlapping here and there. In a question-and-answer session, a young woman came up to the microphone to ask, in a frustrated tone, “How do I find these groups? Where do I find a group to work with? How do I begin?” This was a sentiment that resonated with me on August 10, National Prison Justice Day in Canada, when I attended a small rally in Vancouver. On this day, prisoners take action—not working, not eating—to protest prison conditions and to mark the lives of those who have died inside Canada’s prisons. Speakers talked about their work with prisoners and about specific situations: a mother-and-baby program has been cancelled at a regional facility. It used to be that if a woman delivered her baby while incarcerated, she could keep the baby with her. Now, if a woman delivers during her sentence—even if it’s only a month-long sentence—the baby is apprehended by social services. This situation is not good for the mother, the baby or society at large. It can take a lot of time and legal attention for the mother to get her baby back once she is released. Being released, I learned, can be very problematic. One speaker told a story about the release of a prisoner for whom he was an advocate. Basically the guy was let out the back door of the facility with four cardboard boxes of his stuff dumped beside him. No services were provided to assist him in any part of whatever was to happen next. Even with the advocate’s assistance, it was extremely difficult to find the guy a place to stay. Social services on the outside were no help; they required that he have a fixed address before they would become involved, and it was assistance in finding a fixed address that he required. The advocate ended up dropping the guy at a hotel one block from Hastings and Main on Vancouver’s infamous downtown eastside, Canada’s poorest neighborhood, rife with property crime and drug use: exactly where the guy requested he not be placed, to be tempted into negative behaviors that could propel him back to prison. Another speaker, a woman who works with prisoners in a legal capacity, pointed out that prison is the punishment. Having liberty taken away is the punishment. Prisoners are not there to be further punished by guards, wardens and administrators. I wanted to understand how we, as Canadians, as humans, tolerate cruelty in prisons. Like Zinn, I believe prisons should be abolished, but that is a less popular vision. I wanted to know how I could contribute to the process of reinstating the mother-and-baby program. I signed a petition and walked home at dusk, stopping at a gas station to buy a rice-crispy square. I was cold and damp after sitting outside for two hours listening to activists speak. I felt sort of useless. I could join a group or visit women in prison, but most likely I’ll write a song or a story. I walked home thinking I’d gone out for song ideas in the same way another person might go out for milk—not a particularly noble feeling. Mecca Normal had, the day before, performed at Under The Volcano, a political festival where I suspected my online-dating songs were deemed not political. I could defend my writing by saying, “The personal is political, man,” or I could illuminate class and gender issues within the lyrics. My songs seem imperfect at such events. I want to say everything the right way, to make a difference, to be seen as useful, but I feel like an interloper whose activities don’t measure up. This can be a debilitating position to work from. Because I don’t gravitate to collectives and roadblocks, I sometimes feel like I’m not political enough, but I accommodate this feeling by including inadequacy in my creative process—I don’t expect anything to be anything other than entirely uncomfortable. Howard Zinn’s comment gave me an impression that what I do might be of value, that we can respond in many ways and this is how progressive social change occurs. Perhaps it is his intention to encourage participation rather than thwart it by expressing the inadequacy of idiosyncratic activities. I can express enough inadequacy all on my own. Inventing methods to stay—or become—involved in is the challenge. At the very least, can we be less critical of individual attempts at political and cultural activism?

Normal History Vol. 20: The Art Of David Lester

david_lester_histvol20Every 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.

The Politics Of Sleeping
My band is a duo. One man and one woman. We are not a couple, but in the beginning, that seemed weird to people. The beginning was 1986 when there weren’t many women in bands, and I guess it seemed weird that a man and a woman would be a band and not be a couple. In cities where we didn’t have friends, we’d go home with nice strangers from the show and hope there wasn’t a party or three flights of stairs or annoying pets or early-morning parking restrictions. We’d arrive at the home of a fan or a friend of a friend or the drummer from the opening band, and there’d be one bed—they assumed we were a couple. There was a lot more assuming going on back then. In the ’80s. We assumed people would notice we were a band and not a couple. I do all the driving in our band, and David does all the lifting. Amps, guitars, luggage, merch; it all comes out of the car every night. I do not lift anything at the end of the night because I drive all day, but sometimes the people we stay with watch Dave lug all this stuff in and I’ve plunked down and picked up a magazine and they’d assume I’m some sort of princess—”Hey, I do all the driving, man.” Driver also includes changing tires and minor repairs—removing corrosion from batteries and checking fluid levels and tire pressure on those old cars I used to drive: the ’72 Impala and the 80-something Grand Marquis. So the policy began that I got the bed and David took the floor—based on me being the driver. The driver got the bed and controlled the tape deck: simple, practical rules of touring. We listened to a lot of Scrawl. We gravitated to our tasks quite naturally. Naturally, I took the bed, but I get up first and it is my job to find Dave a coffee and bring it to him, setting it down next to him on the floor with a stir stick, creamer and a couple of sugars. After too many awkward conversations in kitchens, we implemented a policy of never saying the person’s name we’re staying with because we almost always got it wrong. “Good morning, Steve, do you have any coffee around here?” Name’s not Steve. We have learned to ask about coffee before the not-Steve-guy goes to sleep: “Where’s the sugar, the filters, the beans?” Once, in Philly, we stayed with one of the Strapping Fieldhands with whom we’d been out late eating cheesesteaks after a show. The bathroom floor in his place was coated in shampoo. It was unbelievably slippery: a deathtrap. I kept telling everyone how slippery it was, but no one believed me until they went in there and practically died—crashing around, grabbing the sink, towel rods and shower curtain. In Boston, we stayed with a guy who really wanted us to stay, which I am always wary of; we don’t like to stay with people who really want us to stay. It’s too scary. He had a dog that we didn’t relate to. The dog, after hours of being the focus of attention and hours of me being bored to tears, went and pissed all over my sleeping bag. It came back into the kitchen looking so fucking pleased with itself. There were nights when I slept inside my nicely padded, fold-out guitar case, and once we ended up sleeping in an econo-size rental car in San Diego. There was no other option at the end of the night. I remember the passing residents of San Diego looking at me with disgust as I brushed my teeth on the sidewalk in the morning, pouring bottled water over my toothbrush and spitting extra noisily onto the parched grass of the boulevard.

Normal History Vol. 19: The Art Of David Lester

davidlesternormal191Every 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.

Love Wants You: a novel-in-progress about online dating. Chapter one:
1.) I am the kind of guy who at a moments notice might want to make love to you wherever we are, doesn’t matter where.I enjoy sudden acts of kindness and also a good home cooked meal that I could eat right off of your body. 2.) nice body& handsome, , clean cut , realy clean , you allways smell good from me, , , im orgonized, i treat you like a lady , hope i see the same in return, , , , , 3.) After you get to know me you will find me a person of many talants,Iwork hard and like to build things ,travel a little but mostly stay home with the company of a worm loving passonate women 4.) Hi — looking for a lady who likes sex . ( alot ) . I like a shorter wemon dont ask me why . And wemon who like to take care of themselfs . I consider myself to be a gentalman , but that does not mean I am tame in bed. I am a very clean person , and safe sex is a must . I am looking for a bit more then just sex , someone who does not mind to go out for a movie or maybe dinner now and again 5.) High standard man love many things in life like playing piani ,tennis ,sailing traveling ,movies,theatre, but also very sensual women how are also openminded 6.) I knwo I’m in Paris but today with fly is very easy 7.) i will tell uses later cause i am not sure how i want to say it in my owen words i no what i want to say it is just trying to fine all the words to tell use that’s all 8.) I’ve been bad. Can you help?

Normal History Vol. 18: The Art Of David Lester

davidlestervol18Every 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.

In the lecture Mecca Normal presents, How Art & Music Can Change The World, I sometimes tell the story of how quilts, hung out to air, were used to assist escaping slaves. Various quilt patterns were code for which way to go, danger ahead and how to dress. Because there is very little written evidence about this practice, historians are reluctant to acknowledge the role codified quilt-making played in the enslavement of Africans in the United States. I am researching the possibility of a psychological pre-disposition in men who gravitate towards history. Do historians lie and obscure the truth more than non-historians? Lying is the intention of one party to disallow the other party from knowing reality. The liar has decided that his objectives are more important than the other party’s experience. Lying generates complex and chaotic results, including the unpredictable new reality the party being lied to participates in. If the truth comes out, the existing false alchemy requires a re-writing of history, but what remains to be documented when there were no authentic experiences? Along gender lines, there are more male historians than female historians, which is maybe why many women gravitate toward editing. Men, through history, have impeded women from telling their own histories—in recent times, by labeling art made by women as confessional or victim-oriented. I tell the story of the quilts because it inspires me. It may be folklore, fable or fiction—it is the story of how art was used to change the world.

Normal History Vol. 17: The Art Of David Lester

normal-historyvol-17Every 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.

At the end of Jean-Luc Godard’s film In Praise Of Love, inside a car at night. Smeared windshield, rain, glare, city and traffic lights undulate through the murk and darkness. The guy driving says he’s going through a break-up. Some things—quelque choses—about the relationship are changing now, at the end. The woman says history is arriving: History with a capital “H.” I got an email this week from a guy who read a piece of my non-fiction in a new lit mag. He’d looked to see who I was, adding that listening to Mecca Normal was a time machine for him: taking him back to the past. I emailed back to say, “We didn’t stop making music. We aren’t from the past. We are in the present.” He didn’t reply. Perhaps he’d moved along to the future already. In 1987 we went to play with Beat Happening and the Screaming Trees in Bellingham, Wash., where we met Slim Moon for the first time. I thought he was retarded. Rich Jensen seemed to be his caregiver. We did an interview with Argon Steel for Maximum Rock ‘N Roll. Ten years ago (and about 10 years later), Argon moved to Honolulu to go deep into his Zen practice at a monastery in the mountains—he intended to stay seven months, but ended up staying three years as a temple keeper. Tall grass in a steep-sided, rainy valley. Solitude, silence, wearing black—Argon cut the grass. Argon is visiting Vancouver this week for a virology conference. David and I met him for coffee, and we talked for hours. Afterward, walking past a group of people in their 20s, I thought about expanses of memory at different ages and the profound endeavor of adding a new past to the more distant past—repeating this process, over and over, generating new versions of History. Histoire: the story. As Godard said, “A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end—but not necessarily in that order.”

Normal History Vol. 16: The Art Of David Lester

normal-history-viol-16-illo-by-david-lesterEvery 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.

I asked David to tell me more about this image, which has intrigued me since I first saw it a year ago. It isn’t me, but yet, it could be. She isn’t looking into or out of the rectangle farther down the wall. The rectangle could be either a window or a mirror. She is facing what she creates: a shadow on the wall. When I asked David about the illustration, he twice called the shadow a reflection. Mecca Normal has, from its inception, been a vehicle for my words and ideas in relation to an equal portion of David’s guitar. In our original intensity in the mid-’80s, I was more literal in my lyric content through which I address issues between men and women. As I continue to use writing to both explore and create experiences, I am more frequently aware of my own shadowy reflections on the walls in front of me.