Normal History Vol. 13: The Art Of David Lester

lester13365Every 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.

Music: a physical, emotional and intellectual infrastructure that, regardless of intention, passes closest to experiencing essence. Closer than other art-i-tectures (art “manner, mode” + tekton “builder, carpenter”). Essence = being. Rock, where traditional and commonly held beliefs are subverted or derailed, commandeered for use in comparative explorations. Destination: essence. In jazz, mutual understandings of conventional structures from which to deviate astound in ways that rock—from roll to punk—doesn’t. Music more like art, where technicians bust out in abstractions closer to the semi-savant syndrome expressions of untrained outsider artists, who, if not cynical imitators employing the power of deception, are driven beyond intention, to experience being inside the things they make. For further explanation, contact the author: throwsilver@hotmail.com.

Normal History Vol. 12: The Art Of David Lester

leasterv12370Every 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.

Questions from the audience … The recent Mecca Normal tour included “How Art & Music Can Change the World,” an art, music and lecture event that intends to inspire audiences to add political ideas to their creative self-expression. The lecture features David’s “Inspired Agitators” poster series, which includes Paul Robeson. At a high-school event, David talked about Robeson, outlining his beliefs and actions, telling the students that the U.S. government punished him by revoking his passport. After the lecture, two young Asian women—girls, really—came bounding up to ask, “What’s lynching?” At another lecture, a young woman looked bored out of her tree. Hunched in her chair, eyes down—I wondered if we were making an impression at all. Two weeks later she wrote to say that she and her friend had spent the rest of that night talking about things we’d said and that since then she’d been in an extremely creative mode. This is a realistic model of how small actions multiply into waves of inspiration that can change the world.

Normal History Vol. 11: The Art Of David Lester

davidleaster_11_360Every 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 1985, David and I went to a Vancouver record pressing plant to watch the final preparation of our LP. We asked the guy to write “we live on Indian land” around the inner groove of the LP, and the guy asked if I was singing in Indian. Huh? Some weeks later, we loaded 500 LPs into the trunk and backseat of my Toyota Corolla. We sent the record out to a handful of college radio stations in Canada, and soon the first response arrived: two pieces of mail from the University of Alberta in Edmonton on the same day. A radio-station playlist with Mecca Normal at number one and the station’s magazine with a review of the album saying it was the worst record ever made. The guy said I should be killed. Actually, he said Dave should kill me. This polarity has continued through Mecca Normal’s history: Some hate us, others are passionate about what we do. A very interesting vantage point to occupy for 25 years. There is great value to the activity of debate in the margins, where it is important to establish and maintain many voices. We are happy to stimulate this enterprise. It is not a service we set out to provide, but a strange bi-product of making music as social and cultural agitation. In her NPR column Monitor Mix, Carrie Brownstein recently quoted what I wrote about nasty comments on Brooklyn Vegan after an excellent piece about our recent tour. “People participate in media now, and this is what people interject with in this quadrant of culture—it’s rather depressing to think that there have been a lot of quiet people, and now they speak in comment boxes and type things like—’hag’ and ‘douchebag’—and I thought about the sad, low state these guys must be in psychologically, and how men in general, have, as well as being socialized to hide emotions other than anger, have also learned to hide misogyny, allowing it to spew in blog comment boxes, anonymously—it’s some kind of barometer.” Along with the name-callers were the defenders of Mecca Normal and a most interesting comment: “Just because a lot of people agree on something doesn’t mean they’re right.”

Normal History Vol. 10: The Art Of David Lester

lester10_366Every 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.

Was it 1988 before we made it to New York City to play for the first time? I’d been a couple of times as a tourist, but perhaps it was Mecca Normal’s first NYC show: an event hosted by Bob Z. Not sure how we heard of Bob Z. In those days, musicians and poets used to mail stuff around—cassettes, booklets, zines—and you’d check with other bands to hear who put on shows, Checking by mail: snail mail. I recall when it came time to book tours—when I actually had to phone people—I bought answering machines with the tiny cassette tape, made my calls, got my  responses and plotted out the tour. On the day we left town, I’d erase the tape, package up the answering machine and take it back to the store for a refund; it was still on its 21-day return policy. When you think about playing in NYC, you think big, maybe too big, when, especially for New York, it is better to think small, very small. And in this case, it was down very steep stairs into the cellar—stairs like the ones you see when grocery stores are loading stuff off a truck into a hole in the sidewalk—down there. That’s where we played. At the Anarchist Switchboard. I found a cassette tape of this show that I was thinking about putting online, but it is just so bad. Not us; the recording. I guess it was a sort of disappointment when we saw that the show was in a hole in the sidewalk, that the place was so dank and weird, but I think we were in a strange state of shock, too freaked out to be indignant. It seemed like the place had a history of doing shows, and I recently found a reference to it online. A brief history of this activist center.

Normal History Vol. 9: The Art Of David Lester

davidlesterv9366Every 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.

On the Black Wedge Tour in 1986, Bryan James and I decided to write a zine to distribute in San Francisco at the legendary Mabuhay Gardens; the Mab was just about to close after years of punk bands playing there. We knew we weren’t part of the great wave of punk that had already happened; we were just out there, part of nothing, until that—our nothingness—became what others seem to feel is the thing they missed out on. Bryan and I made our zine and surprised our tour mates when we handed it out at the show. The zine was called Bus Tokens—me being the only woman on the bus and Bryan being a black guy (back then people were black—or maybe Black—and not yet African-American). By San Francisco, Bryan and I each had some beefs about traveling with a pack of white guys, white guys with political ideas. In 1989, for one reason or another, Calvin Johnson was with Mecca Normal for the drive back to Olympia from San Francisco. We left early to get to Eugene, Ore., where Mecca Normal played an opening set with Vomit Launch. Immediately after playing, we drove to Portland, where we headlined a show after which we drove to Olympia, arriving around dawn. One day, three states, two shows, more than six hundred miles. I did an interview recently with a guy asking me what it was like to meet Calvin the first time, if the earth moved or something (no, it didn’t), if there was an energy that foretold of the impact we would have on of a bunch of bands, and I said, “It wasn’t like that.” The interviewer wanted to know what it was like to trade LPs with Calvin: the first Mecca Normal LP for the first Beat Happening LP. (It was Calvin’s idea to trade.) I slid the Beat Happening LP under the seat on the bus, and we headed south to the California heat, and when I got it home, it was a bit warped, but I didn’t really care because it wasn’t my cup of tea. It became my cup of tea later, after I started to see that a political community could be created without focusing on overtly political ideas. Community, I discovered, was also baking pies and swimming at the lake.

Normal History Vol. 8: The Art Of David Lester

davidleaster8Every 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.

August, 1992: During mainstream-media interest in the social movement known as riot grrrl, a producer from NBC’s Boston-based The Jane Whitney Show phoned me, inviting me to be on an episode called “Women In Rock.” It involved a plane ticket, a hotel room, a limo ride and the general weirdness of tabloid TV. Of course, I agreed. During the blank spots where they would later insert commercials, they powdered our faces and encouraged us to interrupt each other. I think the producers wanted to create a cat fight between the feminist musicians and a rock-video “MTV girl.” (The woman, I forget her name, phoned me at the hotel the night before the show and begged me not to rip her to shreds, which I had no intention of doing.) She was pretty wound up about it, but it was her own granny who stood up and said, “My granddaughter does everything for herself,” or some other crazy indictment. The real action came from audience members who had been given a lot of sugary items before the show and told that the Women In Rock used foul language incessantly in their lyrics. Finger-wagging lectures from Boston moms ensued. For years after, Calvin Johnson used to mimic the woman who interrupted me when I was talking about K Records to blurt out the name of her label: “I’m on Def Jam.” It was all pretty bizarre.

Normal History Vol. 7: The Art Of David Lester

david-lestervol-7366Every 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.

December 1, 1991
Hi! It’s enough! I’m Dirk and I like your musik. After one year looking for your records I’m tired of not finding it. I’m interested in all your stuff. Every record, tape; oh yes for t-shirts or tour posters too. If you can send me anything, it would be very nice. In this letter I send you 100$ and this heavy duty cigarette and if there is any money left use it up for a beer and enjoy and maybe you get a kick for another great song. If you ever get to Germany let me know, maybe I could be helpful with some tour contacts.
So this was my idea.
Dirk

I sent Dirk everything we had. It took a long time to get there. “Maybe it went by submarine across the north pole,” he joked in his April letter. “I talked to a few promoters about a tour and it wasn’t so promising. OK. Now my idea. I will do it for you! Let’s dare it.” David and I talked a long time about Dirk’s idea, and after a few faxes back and forth, we decided to take a chance on this guy we’d never met, who had never booked a tour. One tour turned into half a dozen incredible tours with Dirk, and to this day, we still say “Let’s dare it” when we decide to take a chance on something that could just as easily turn out to be a disaster, but usually doesn’t.

Normal History Vol. 6: The Art Of David Lester

davidlester6_400Every 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.

Smith: Auckland: the Gate (Michael Morely), Peter Jefferies, Mecca Normal tour. David, at that time (the 1990s), typically threw his guitar in the air; it twisted around, he caught it and continued playing wildly. On this night, when we reached that point in the set—in the middle of the song—the guitar stopped. I kept singing, staring straight ahead. Sometimes the guitar comes unplugged or a pedal gets bumped. I was waiting for David to resume playing. No sound. I looked to my left, to see the guitar dangling by its tuning pegs, tangled up in netting hung above the stage. David couldn’t reach it. A tall guy came out of the audience to free it while David stood waiting. Not the rock godliest of situations. After the show, I think we sold one cassette: total merch sales. We were packing up rather grumpily when the people who bought the cassette walked back into the club to say they’d put it on in their car and it didn’t work. They wanted their money back.

Normal History Vol. 5: The Art Of David Lester

davidlester5_360Every 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.

Smith: Munich, sometime in the 1990s. When we arrived for soundcheck, the booking guy had the microphone in pieces: bare wires. The PA was a pile of crap. I don’t think we even got a soundcheck. The club was packed, and management was pressuring us to start the show. The set was pretty intense—wild. At some point, the booking guy started coming up to me while we were playing to tell me management wanted us to stop; we were well short of completing the set. I probably told him to fuck off. He came up and said if we didn’t stop, we weren’t getting paid—and the money was good in Europe. They pulled the plug on their shitty PA, which suited me just fine. The mic had been an obstacle impeding my ability to be heard. Free of it, I stepped off the stage into the audience of beer-drinking Bavarians and sang right in their faces. Dave’s guitar was still coming through his amp. The DJ put the music on to drown us out, and the booking gu said we weren’t getting paid. I found the manager and yelled at him until he got out some money and threw it at Dirk, our tour manager, who we’d known for about two days. Dirk didn’t speak English at this point. We had to push our way out, lugging guitars, amps and merch through the crowd the whole length of the bar. Dirk had the car out front. There were about six of us, and we went to a restaurant and met some record store people and journalists. Dirk seemed upset—he was concerned that I was really upset—and I was like, “Hey man, this is what we do. That was great!” And our excellent friendship began.

Normal History Vol. 4: The Art Of David Lester

davidlester4_380Every 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.

Smith: In the 1990s we played some shows with Fugazi: Seattle, Olympia, New York. At the Vancouver show, someone threw his shoe at David while he was playing. Some of those young guys were really bugged to see and hear a woman onstage who is powerful (and the songs are weird and arty) and she’s angry looking and yelling—yelling at guys. Hmm, this isn’t what they want at all. Some of those guys, many years later, wrote to us on MySpace saying they hadn’t seen anything like what we were doing and, at the time, they didn’t like it, but it changed something for them. They became more open to women’s perspectives in music and more interested in different music, different than four guys onstage, and they felt it began with seeing Mecca Normal at a Fugazi show. For us, that sort of thing has been very helpful in allowing us to see how individuals can make an impact, how things change.