Normal History Vol. 45: The Art Of David Lester

LesterNormalHistoryVol45Every 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.

FADE IN:

EXT. A 1975 BABY-BLUE FORD PICKUP TRUCK IS AT A STOPLIGHT AT A DESERTED INTERSECTION IN A QUIET INDUSTRIAL AREA—NIGHT

The driver of the truck—CHAD, a well-built, 40-year-old man with curly blonde hair sticking out beneath his cowboy hat—reaches in front of VERONICA—an unhappy-looking woman in her 40s with long straight brown hair—and tosses an empty Budweiser beer can out the passenger side window. CHAD impatiently turns left before the light turns green. He pulls up in front of VERONICA’s building, beside an orange-juice factory, slams the truck into park and continues to look straight ahead, engine running.

CLOSEUP OF VERONICA LOOKING AT CHAD.

VERONICA
(tentatively)
It’s late so I’m not going to invite you in.

CLOSEUP OF CHAD LOOKING STRAIGHT AHEAD.

CHAD
(hands gripping the steering wheel tightly)
OK. It’s late. Fine.

CLOSEUP OF VERONICA LOOKING AT CHAD. Two beats. VERONICA opens the truck door, gets out, closes the door and looks at CHAD through the open passenger window.

VERONICA’s POV. CHAD keeps looking straight ahead.

VERONICA
(softly)
Good night.

VERONICA’s POV. CHAD pulls a U-turn, tires chirp.

SHOT OF VERONICA walking across the parking lot. VERONICA stops and turns.

VERONICA’s POV. SHOT OF THE TRUCK SITTING AT THE STOPLIGHT.

CLOSEUP OF VERONICA.

CHAD
(VOICE OVER with echo)|
A gentleman doesn’t just drop a lady off my dear; he walks her to her door.

BACK TO VERONICA’s POV. SHOT OF THE TRUCK GOING DOWN THE STREET AND OUT OF SIGHT.

VERONICA
(under her breath)
What an asshole.

SHOT OF VERONICA walking to the door of her building.

FADE OUT.

If you want to say that you don’t drive a baby-blue truck, that you don’t wear a cowboy hat, that I don’t live in a warehouse district—that it wasn’t like that, that you weren’t irritated when you dropped me off—you would be right, but some tiny part of you dropping me off after the opera on that icy winter night informs this scene. I know you were concerned about driving slippery streets in your sports car, and that you were pre-occupied with getting home—that’s why you didn’t wait to make sure I was safely to my door. You were thinking about getting yourself home safely, but I can twist and turn that incident however I want and make it part of a whole other scope of meaning.

Are you beginning to accept that I can write a screenplay that is not simply a thinly veiled version of me? It is insulting that you persist in assuming that I simply change “I” to “Veronica” and call it fiction.

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 Straight.com

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.

Jean

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.

Ann
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.

“What?”

“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.

Normal History Vol. 39: The Art Of David Lester

lesterHistoryVol39Every 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 Good Painter
Dad is leaning on the kitchen table. He is old. I am light and graceful. I should float away—up the mountainside. I’m wearing my favourite dress: dirty pink and murky green smudges on white. I call it my good painter dress. The dress is like a simple painting—a landscape—when everything is working. A connection has been made between the painter and the viewer. Yes, that’s what this dress feels like—appreciating the of value simplicity. The good painter knows when to stop and leave it alone. The good painter knows when it is exactly the right time to stop.

Mom is leaning, even older than Dad, on the counter by the kitchen sink. I look past her, out the window. I can smell pinesap in the dry July heat.

Dad asks, “Do you know anything about selling diamonds?”

“Not really,” I answer. “Why?”

“Eighteen years ago, your brother walked in here after visiting your grandmother at the hospital. I had … ”

“Pneumonia,” I say. “You had pneumonia.”

“A nurse from the hospital kept phoning me to say I’d better visit my mother before she died. I told her that I couldn’t, that I had pneumonia. And do you know what she said to me? She said, ‘We’ve all heard about your pneumonia.'”

“Wow,” I say. “It seems incredible that Granny Belle died 18 years ago.”

It was Christmas, and we were having pancakes when Granny Belle said she felt odd. Mom told her it was indigestion, but the pain didn’t stop. They began to talk about taking her to the hospital. But which hospital? Should they drive or call an ambulance? Mom was worrying about leaving the oven on and locking the back door. I told them to go, that I’d stay and make sure everything was turned off and locked up.

It wasn’t indigestion. It was a heart attack. When I visited Granny Belle in the hospital, she said, “It’s too bad you couldn’t come with us, but you wanted to finish your pancakes.” I wanted to say, “I don’t even like pancakes.” I didn’t say anything.

Dad starts the story again. “So your brother arrived here in a real mood after visiting your grandmother in the hospital. He put an envelope on the table and said it was for you. It was your grandmother’s diamond rings. I put it in my safety deposit box. It’s still there, with your name on it.”

“OK,” I say, wondering why they didn’t give me these diamond rings 18 years ago.

“When you find out how to sell diamonds, I’ll give them to you.”

“OK,” I say again.

Granny Belle’s diamond rings. One would be her engagement ring.

“Where did your father ever get the money for a diamond ring anyway?” I ask.

Dad says what he always says: “Mac was quite a character.”

“Tell me about him,” I say. “What was he like?”

Dad puts down his fork and leans back in his chair. “He had a lot of ideas for how to make money. At one point, as a teenager, it was my job to sort through barrels of used bottles at the dump. I was looking for a particular square bottle that Mac wanted for his perfume business. Belle-Mac perfume. He made it in the bathtub.”

Mom says, “Belle-Mac sounds more like axle-grease than perfume. They always had something going on in that bathtub.”

“We stuck labels on the bottles,” Dad says, making a rectangle with his crooked fingers. “And Mac sold them in bulk to loggers. $100 for I forget how many bottles, but that was big money. The loggers came out of the woods with their pay, and Mac talked them into buying the perfume to sell door-to-door. Then they came and pounded on our door, yelling that they couldn’t get rid of the stuff.”

“What did this stuff smell like?”

“It was pretty rough stuff. Acrid is maybe the best word for it,” says Dad.

“What did you do when the loggers came back with the bottles?”

“We hid. All three of us hid behind the furniture.”

“How did Granny Belle feel about all of Mac’s enterprises?” I ask.

“Enterprises,” Mom says. “That’s a nice way of putting it. More like an endless list of crazy schemes.”

Dad looks at Mom patiently and continues, “Mac got a lot of his ideas into production. Things were always just about to work out. The future was bright. Success was always right around the corner.”

“I said almost the same thing yesterday. Do you ever see Mac in me?”

“All the time.”

“How come you’ve never told me that?” I ask.

“Well, he had his problems,” Dad says.

“Problems like not being able to keep food on the table or pay the rent,” says Mom. “He was a man who never lived up to his potential.”

“Here’s a question for you Mom. When I was a teenager, did you think I’d just get married and not have to worry about earning a living?”

“I don’t know what we thought you’d do,” Mom says. “I’m still hoping you’ll live up to your potential.”

“After the Belle-Mac perfume disaster it was Sea-Foam wall cleaner,” Dad says. “Also made in the bathtub.”

“Did you ever get a chance to take a bath?” I ask, laughing.

“Not very often.”

“Did the loggers sell the Sea-Foam, too?”

“No, I sold the Sea-Foam,” he says.

“Door-to-door?”

“Yes. The idea was to get a foot in the door, get inside the house and rub it on the wall as fast as possible. Once a patch of the wall had been Sea-Foamed, the sale was in the bag. I think Mac used the extra perfume for the Sea-Foam, so it had an acrid chemically smell.”

Changing the subject to her own childhood, Mom says, “The vegetable man came to our house in a horse-drawn cart. During the Depression, men came with trays of hairpins to sell. I guess your father could have been one of them.”

I look at Dad, “You sold hairpins on a tray?”

“No, I didn’t sell hairpins, but I did have a cookie route.”

“How did that get started?” I ask, thinking I’d better get as much as I can out of him while he was willing to talk about these things.

“I heard about a bakery on Commercial Drive where, if you knocked on the back door, they’d sell overly brown cookies at a discount. So I got out my Sea-Foam tray and went across town to your mother’s neighbourhood to sell cookies door-to-door to rich people. I told my customers that I’d be coming back regularly, that I’d invented the cookie route. But I shouldn’t have told anyone the name of the bakery.”

“Why not?” I ask.

“When I went back to buy more cookies, they slammed the door in my face. I guess word had gotten back to them about my unofficial cookie route.”

“Did you come up with this idea or was it one of Mac’s schemes?” I ask.

“I came up with it,” Dad replies, proudly. Mom is wincing. I think all these stories were supposed to be kept quiet.

“Once, when I was a lot older, I was working straight through the night late on a freelance art job,” says Dad. “It must have been three in the morning when an ad came on the radio: ‘Come down to Crazy Mac’s. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s practically giving things away. You’d be crazy not to come down to see Crazy Mac.'”

“Wow. Crazy Mac’s. Where was his store?”

“It was on Hastings, one block west of Main. Basically it was a bunch of junk: knick-knacks and novelty items. What remained of his big ideas.”

“Did people call him Crazy Mac?” I ask. “And what happened to the store?”

“No one called him Crazy Mac and what happened was, he died. He’d gotten very, very tired. I drove past the store before the funeral. Guys were loading all his junk into a truck. He was in debt all over the place. I didn’t want to get involved, so I kept driving.”

Granny Belle’s diamonds are presumably still in the safety deposit box, in the envelope with my name on it. From time to time, I think about asking for them, saying that I now know how to sell diamonds, but another part of me doesn’t want to take them and sell them. Call it potential. And they’re not really mine— they’re part of digging around at the dump collecting bottles and the loggers banging on the door and all the other crazy schemes I may never hear about.

Her diamonds are fine where they are, then, one day, I’ll use them to pay for my crazy schemes.

Normal History Vol. 38: The Art Of David Lester

lesterNormalHistoryVol38Every 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.

Encouraging the small cat to go home
to cross the hall
staid reluctance—why?
why should it go anywhere?

Standing in the warm clutrification
of the high-ceiling kitchen
noticing guitar picks under plastic
on the floor
a warm ice layer
artifacts from other times
gone all
soft—I wasn’t there
I wasn’t here
I don’t know these people

And then the car to the cold dark room
to watch nearly unbearable video clunkification
of a pixelated past I don’t even remember

A dozen black beans in a colander
ants
randomly traipsing in a Plexiglas farm
doing what? don’t they know they’re being studied
subjects behaving
dragging treasure through circulatory channels
up and over other ant bodies going the other fucking way
hauling some other shit
lugging some other treasure

Is this the agreed upon
dusk
we’re placing ourselves near?
the end?
I’m not done yet

Is it time now
to sit with the others
to recall youth
drained out in
halls and centers
Japanese, Ukrainian, Russian, Indian?

The weight of a session like that
is cement at my ankles
I’m not stopping
I’m evading a withering unstrong enough
to fray or snap at the touch
if the touch was to find its way
to finger my fragments unhinged from the past

I reject a dragging
into relevance that relegates
doings to coloured surface
components
sure, I like museums
but I don’t want to be one

I’m going to sidestep the gloom
seeping onto concrete floors
do a dosey-do
an a la main left the building

Now is a constant re-writing
of the continuum
a conditional compendium
unlatched on a city road
a wooden lock on a tilted gate moving
back and forth at dawn
low pickets wearing
grooves in the earth
making the path
hard

passing around
memories
drives me
to climb into the aluminum confuselage
of resistance
to speed
inside the dank of an impudent vehicle
yelling through plastic covered windows
semi-sealed with clear tape balled up in a confusion
of red twisted letters

spewing vitality
against nostalgia
I won’t be filed
under
old
past
done

Normal History Vol. 37: The Art Of David Lester

lesterHistoryVol37Every 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

Winter, 2007. I am on my way to work, catching the 7 a.m. bus to West Vancouver, Canada’s wealthiest neighborhood. It is dark and cold out. I walk past a guy under a bunch of blankets sleeping on the sidewalk. A skinny guy holding a black cross asks me for money.

“No, sorry,” I say and walk part way down the block to wait for my bus. I look back and the guy is shivering, talking sweetly to himself, twisting the cross delicately in his long fingers. He has long dirty hair and a grey sweat suit on, no coat. He regards the item in his hands in such a way that it seems like it isn’t a cross to him. He’s twirling it, inspecting it. I look down and see one shoeless foot twitching in a thin black sock. I decide to go and talk to him. I walk toward him even though something in me is saying, “Don’t, don’t talk, don’t get involved.”

“Do you know where your other shoe is?” I ask.

“Oh,” he says, looking down. “No, I don’t know where it is.”

“I was hoping it was right around here somewhere,” I say.

He looks around, but there is no shoe. I sit down on an empty bench, and he sits beside me.

“Are people being generous with their spare change this morning?” I ask.

“No.”

“Where did you sleep last night?”

“In a doorway.”

“Isn’t there a shelter or some place you can go to?”

“Where?” he asks excitedly, as if I can help him.

“I don’t know. Downtown Eastside?”

He says nothing and twirls the black metal thing.

“Is that a cross? Like, a religious cross?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “I just found it. What is it?”

“Some people might think it’s a cross. It might work to your advantage.”

“How do you mean?” he asks, holding it up to see it at arm’s length.

“Well, I don’t believe in god, but maybe some religious people will give you money if you’re holding that.”

“Really?”

“Maybe,” I say, starting to feel like do-gooder lady giving the guy advice. “How long have you been living on the street?”

“Six years.”

“Wow. How old are you?”

“Twenty-six,” he says and then, turning cheerfully to me, he asks, “How old are you?”

“Forty-eight.”

“Wow, you could be my mother. Do you have any sons?”

“No, I don’t have any kids. I’m a musician. I never wanted to have kids.”

“I could be your son,” he says hopefully. He extends his hand. “My name is Dennis.”

We shake and I think about his hand—when was it last washed, where has it been, what diseases does he have? I put my hand back in my pocket thinking, “Must wash hand when I get to work.”

“Do you play music?” I ask.

“Sometimes I play the piano. There’s a piano store in the next block. We could go there—you can sit in my lap, and I can play piano.”

“Not the worst idea, but they won’t be open and I have to go to work.” I open my packsack. “Let see if I have any change.” I find $2.60 and give it to him.

“Thanks,” he says.

“You’re a very charming guy Dennis and you have a wonderful smile,” I say, hoping to make him feel good, wondering if that might help him at all. “Can you get some food around here?” I ask.

“I might go to the safe-injection site.”

“They have food there?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have a plan for how to survive the winter?”

“I may go back to Winnipeg.”

“Winnipeg?” I say, thinking Winnipeg is about 12,000 times colder than here. I look past Dennis, down the dark street to see if my bus is coming. “Do you have friends there, a place to stay?”

“Not really. I might get some food, get high a couple more times and commit suicide,” he says, hands busy with the cross. “It’s too cold on this planet and I’m hungry all the time.”

“I hope you don’t kill yourself, Dennis. I hope something good happens to you soon,” I say, thinking about my warm clothes: the pink flowery Chinese sweater, down vest, rain jacket. I think about giving him the pink sweater, but he’d probably get the snot beat out of him if he went around wearing it. I need the down vest. I like my rain jacket. My bus pulls in. I stand up. Dennis stands up. “Will you take me for coffee?” he asks.

“I can’t,” I say. “I have to go to work.”

He takes a few dainty hopping steps towards me, saying, “Will you help me get on the bus to warm up?”

“It goes to Horseshoe Bay. You don’t want to go to Horseshoe Bay,” I say, moving to the bus stop. He really shouldn’t go to Horseshoe Bay. I don’t think I could recommend he go into West Vancouver with one shoe, matted hair and a filthy grey sweat-suit.

“Where’s that? Where’s Horseshoe Bay,” he asks, following after me.

“It’s where the ferries are,” I say, wondering if he thinks I mean fairies. “You can catch a city bus on Howe Street,” I say, pointing in the opposite direction. Pointing away from me, moving away from him, catching my bus, going to work in West Vancouver, Canada’s wealthiest neighborhood.

Dennis, shivering, one shoe, thinking about suicide because it’s too cold on this planet and he’s hungry all the time, goes back to the corner where I first saw him. The bus pulls out and moves past him.

I look out the window and cry without making a sound. I have cried on the bus before, for one reason or another, usually self-pity. It is starting to get light. I love to look out the window on the way through Stanley Park, but this morning the trees loom most sorrowfully. Dark and lonely silhouettes.

Normal History Vol. 36: The Art Of David Lester

LesterHistoryVol36bEvery 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

On the weekend, I went across town to Zulu Records to see political singer/ songwriter Billy Bragg. A free, rainy afternoon in-store. The place was packed.

Dave found out about Billy Bragg in 1985 reading the U.K.’s NME. We had been doing Mecca Normal for a year or so, unaware that Bragg was doing a voice-and-abrasive-guitar thing with political lyrics—this was unusual in those days, between the wars, and for many years Mecca Normal was compared to Billy Bragg in reviews and articles.

In 1986, just after we released our first LP, we went to play in Montreal. We did an interview at CBC Radio (Canada’s national radio network), where we heard that Billy Bragg was part of the Red Wedge in the U.K.: socialist musicians on tour to encourage people to vote for the Labour Party in the U.K.’s 1987 elections, in order to oust the Conservative Party from power. We were inspired by this idea—musicians and poets working together based on similar political beliefs. We formed the Black Wedge that night, there in the basement of the CBC, and toured the U.S., Canada and the U.K. in the following years to illuminate our underground and anti-authoritarian ideas.

At the record store, 51-year-old Billy looked and sounded great—he did about a half dozen songs and turned the chorus of his most famous single, “A New England,” into a sing-along. “I don’t want to change the world/I’m not looking for a new England/I’m just looking for another girl.” From my vantage point, beyond Bragg, several young women sang with delight, but I wondered if the protagonist’s perspective—the guy in the song—was perhaps lost on them, when, in this era, the idea of being able to change the world has been relegated to unrealistic, while the concept of participating in a re-structuring of society has been set aside for immediate comforts. “I don’t want to change the world/I’m not looking for a new England/I’m living with my folks, looking for a cell-phone plan.”

If it’s possible to detect the difference between lower case and capital letters in aural communication, I got the impression people were singing “I’m not looking for New England”: the region north of New York state or the white clam chowder as opposed to the Manhattan red. A place on a map and a bowl of soup are easy, tactile associations; a new England is a more complex prospect to grapple with. Please pass the Rand McNally’s and the Tabasco.

Or maybe it’s that thing that happens when the sound of a song becomes synonymous with its purpose. Lyrics turn into agreeable noises to be chanted without connecting them to the words—their actual, undeniable and important meaning. Seems to me that the song’s purpose was to foist an average youth, circa 1983, into our awareness, to expose a vignette of apathy within the human condition—not to celebrate the guy’s decision to opt out in favor of finding a new girlfriend.

I guess the young women were enthralled in the moment, part of this rendition and probably their views click with Bragg’s, so I’ll focus on my experience, which definitely included a wave of nostalgia, not for the days of overtly political songs, but simply for those days, that time—the thrill of seeing Billy Bragg at the Town Pump in 1986 or so, feeling hopeful and encouraged, part of something.

I didn’t sing along at the record store, but I noticed that I was one hell of a lot closer to the I-can’t-change-the-world-clam-chowder interpretation than I felt comfortable with. My conclusion is that we need new political songs to add to the ones that may become diluted by becoming popular. The friendlification factor has a way of putting intention and meaning on the back burner.

In an article online, Bragg explains the song “I Keep The Faith” from his 2008 album, Mr. Love And Justice: “In it I talk about the faith I have in the ability of the audience to change the world,” says Bragg. “I recognize that my role is to inspire them. But really, the important thing is what happens when I step down from the stage—empowering the audience to make progressive change in the world. We all feel cynicism from time to time. But when you encourage people to overcome that, telling them you have faith in their ability, it’s a powerful message.”