Normal History Vol. 288: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 30-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

In this week’s column, I continue to compare songs on Calico Kills The Cat with songs on our new album, Empathy For The Evil, from start to finish. See notes from Sept. 6, 2014.

4. “My First Love Song” (Calico Kills The Cat, 1989) I think this is the only song of ours with the word “love” in it. It was awkward to sing a song about writing a song about love. I opted never to do that again.

4. “Between Livermore And Tracy” (Empathy For The Evill, 2014) This is the first song we recorded once we got set up in the studio. David played a piece of music he’d worked on, but I’d never heard. I played piano to this and then sang sections from six pages I’d compiled about my father, who was in the hospital recovering from a heart attack when we left Vancouver. Actually, his heart wasn’t the problem at that point; it was the delirium that had set in during his hospital stay. The song’s title is the second reference to the Rolling Stones after the album’s title. Altamont Speedway—the site of a free Stones concert where an audience member was killed by a Hell’s Angel in 1969—is between the towns of Livermore and Tracy in Northern California. The film Gimme Shelter documents the concert and, of particular interest to me, Mick Jagger’s reaction to the murder as he watches film footage at some point after the show (keeping in mind that, in those days, film had to be processed). I found there to be something very ominous about the way the hyper-reality of a killing collides with and alters the intensity of an ego-based exercise in rock showmanship. I suppose I drew a parallel between my father’s temporary dementia—a completely unexpected reality that seemed like it could change things forever—and the sense that Mick had perhaps noted his own mortality on that day between Livermore and Tracy, and then again while he watched the film footage of the disconnect between his persona and a murder right in front of him.

In comparing these two songs, I look back at what seemed like two monumental turning points at the time—love intensifying and madness looming—but these eventually softened and fell into place within a continuum that can be examined from many different vantage points in an ever-expanding past. Specific love ends, sanity returns. Life goes on, albeit somewhat differently.

“My First Love Song” from Calico Kills The Cat (K, 1989; Matador, 1991; Smarten Up!, 2003) (download):

Normal History Vol. 287: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 30-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

In this week’s column, I continue to compare songs on Calico Kills The Cat with songs on our new album, Empathy For The Evil, from start to finish. See notes from Sept. 6, 2014.

3. “One Woman” (Calico Kills The Cat, 1989) This song intends to reduce political activism down to specific elements, to demystify how change occurs. One woman made a decision and took action. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.

3. “Wasn’t Said” (Empathy For The Evil, 2014) I wrote the lyrics during a break in communication with someone I had been emailing back and forth with—someone I’d never met. When communication stopped, I became very aware how unavailable that person was and how my brain hadn’t made a distinction between an internet connection and a tangible person right in front of me. Such emotions can be very powerful, and I think it’s difficult for people who haven’t experienced internet connections to understand how that can be. For a time, I was quite fascinated by what the brain was doing that encouraged intensity without a physical presence. The lyrics are from my novel Obliterating History—a guitar-making mystery, domination & submission in a small town garage in a scene after a couple splits up and the woman moves to another city, lamenting what was never said between them. She didn’t anticipate the confusion it would cause her not knowing if he’d loved her.

Comparing these two songs brings to mind the idea that stereotypes need to be challenged by acknowledging that women in music—or other forms of self-expression—are not one-dimensional entities we require to stay in character to be understood or believable. Women are many things all at the same time: powerful, smart, funny, intense, sexual, vulnerable and everything in between. It’s utterly tedious to keep having to digest the image of a one-dimensional woman as an object that men feel entitled to define and use. That this spills out into the lives of actual people is a ridiculous travesty.

“One Woman” from Calico Kills The Cat (K, 1989; Matador, 1991; Smarten Up!, 2003) (download):

Normal History Vol. 286: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 30-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

In this week’s column, I continue to compare songs on Calico Kills The Cat with songs on our new album, Empathy For The Evil, from start to finish. See notes from Sept. 6, 2014

2. “Blue TV” (Calico Kills The Cat, 1989) From the vantage point of the street in front of a suburban house, the blue light flashing behind the curtain represents the lies that TV propagates and complacent citizens swallow.

2. “What’s Your Name?” (Empathy For The Evil, 2014) Here, the singer attempts to turn the tables by asking listeners questions that intend to implicate and hold accountable citizens who rely on anonymity to abdicate responsibilities and behave badly. I think this stems from a sense of powerlessness, so, in a way, the song intends to return power to individuals. The power of identity—a name. The power of emotions, of caring, and the things we say and do when we are vulnerable in those ways.

Perhaps “What’s Your Name?” is a form of reverse psychology that aims to make the same point that “Blue TV” focused on using a more accusatory tone.

“Blue TV” from Calico Kills The Cat (K, 1989; Matador, 1991; Smarten Up!, 2003) (download):

Normal History Vol. 285: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 30-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

This week’s free download is the first song from Mecca Normal’s second album, Calico Kills The Cat, which is only available on vinyl from K Records. That is to say, vinyl from the original LP pressing 25 years ago, back in 1989. On the K Records page, Calvin describes the album. “This one’s got it all: love, murder, hate, frying pans, jealousy, prison, bullets, bonfires and a blue TV behind the iron curtain. Wordsmith Jean takes on the world while guitar man Dave rocks ‘n’ rolls it.”

In this, and subsequent columns, I will be comparing songs on Calico Kills The Cat with songs on our new album, Empathy For The Evil, from start to finish.

I’m just noticing that this new album’s title is strangely reminiscent of Calico Kills The Cat in both alliteration and depth of meaning. Empathy For The Evil was produced, mixed and mastered by the legendary Kramer (see David’s illustration), who describes the album “more like a great gig, than like someone sitting down in front of their record player with a stack of singles.”

1. “Then” (Calico Kills The Cat, 1989)
I wrote the lyrics while I was living in the north of England, in what felt like quite a brutal little city called Huddersfield in West Yorkshire. This was where a Mecca Normal tour had ended and I decided to stay on, to rent a room in a house that once belonged to a captain of industry. A woolen mill owner. It was a pretty run-down stone building outside the city. I recall writing “Then” after walking up to the front door past the rubble heap in the front yard. The song was an alchemy of past, present and future unpleasantness that forms a difficult weight, making it seem like nothing can be accomplished in that general sense of gloom.

At that point, David had gone off traveling in Europe for a number of months and, in those days, there was no way to be in contact other than letters through the post or telephone. I forget if I received either during that time of great challenges—both personal and artistic. I secured a few poetry readings on bills in the area and I taught a women’s writing class. From this, and a bit of graphic-design work that came my way, I managed to pay my bills for the six months my passport allowed me to stay in the country. I continued to write what I thought were poems until I returned to Canada and started turning them into songs with David.

1. “Art Was The Great Leveler” (Empathy For The Evil, 2014) is directly out of a novel I wrote called The Black Dot Museum Of Political Art in which a museum curator cures narcissism. This section of the story outlines how her parents met. Overall, the novel intends to illuminate how and why personalities—including the narcissist personality disorder—form. The protagonist’s parents met at a time when people weren’t assessing personalities; it was more about class and money.

In “Then” and again with “Art Was The Great Leveler” I can feel both my 29-year-old and 50-something selves grappling with how psychological conditions can hinder our potential. In the case of “Then,” there is a frustration with others—as was more typical of my earlier songwriting. When I began writing book-length fiction, I was more interested in how early interactions came to define us in terms of what we expect from others in personal relationships. Having taken a step away from blaming others set me on a course to invent and examine scenarios with a consciously balanced hand. I developed an understanding of classic behaviors and created characters by assigning them various traits that play out by interconnecting their psychological proclivities with those of other characters. I guess most stories are like that, but mine seem to be only about that. How people are with each other—and why.

“Then” from Calico Kills The Cat (K, 1989; Matador, 1991; Smarten Up!, 2003) (download):

Normal History Vol. 284: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 30-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

In a recent interview, I was asked which song best states who I am. I answered “Not With You.” I wrote it in 1985 about my then-boyfriend John Mann—the singer in Canadian Celtic band Spirit Of The West. I met him when they’d only put out their first album, when John was opening solo for Art Bergmann or his band Poisoned. I saw him do his a cappella thing and rushed over to commend him. We were together less than a year—I guess we broke up when Spirit Of The West were playing a regular gig at Expo 86 while I was making anti-Expo bumper stickers and contributing a Mecca Normal song called “Sha La La La” to a D.O.A. propelled seven-inch called “Expo Hurts Everyone” to benefit residents of the Downtown Eastside who were displaced by the capitalist fervor that was Expo 86.

“Not With You” was the first song I did a vocal overdub on, and I was really excited about it. I guess I sort of forgot what it was about and played it for John. Awkward. It’s basically about telling a guy (John) that I have my own dreams and I’m going to do things my way and see my dreams come true. He went on to write a song about me called “Political.” He definitely got me back for “Not With You.” I’ve never publically answered why “every little thing had to be so political” but there were very good reasons why I didn’t like some of his friends. But I’m still not going to say what they were.

Anyway, I’ve worked successfully with some of my partners and lumped it when others didn’t like Mecca Normal (or my singing). Gerry Useless, bassist of the Subhumans, was not a Mecca Normal fan (when we were together circa 1991 or so), but he did like my writing. I worked successfully with Peter Jefferies for several important years (albeit ones fraught with upheaval) when we were either here in Vancouver working on his albums, our albums in New Zealand working on 2 Foot Flame or on tour in the U.S., N.Z. or Europe.

I’ve tried not to let a man’s agenda impact my course of action; not for very long anyway (says the long-time single, 55-year-old lady).

“Women Were King” from Mecca Normal (Smarten Up!, 1986; re-released by K, 1995) (download):