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.

Normal History Vol. 15: The Art Of David Lester

lester15370Every 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 has sent me a new illustration—Strange Shows We’ve Played—and yes, there have been more than a few. In 1994, we were invited to perform for “German futurists” in New York, one of these deals where they want to pay us too much. “Too much” meaning, we know they don’t know what they’re doing, who they’re inviting. Mecca Normal had been touring quite frequently in Europe during the growing interest in grunge, riot grrl and Pacific Northwest DIY. We’d had articles and reviews in Rolling Stone Europe and Der Speigel, and I think Matador, our label at that time, set up this show for the futurists, which was in a small meeting room in a high-rise for maybe a dozen men sitting on chairs, arms folded across their chests. It must have been a Johan Kugelberg koncept; he appeared part way through our presentation wearing a bullet-proof vest. I recall being out of breath a lot because the songs back then were demanding and I was trying to give a lot of information between songs to these futurists about how they should proceed … with the future. Johan started asking questions—silly questions about my boyfriends or something unrelated, which was maybe why he was wearing the bullet-proof vest. He was the sales guy at Matador. I forget what Spencer Gates’ title was—publicist, I think—and whether this event was before or after Spencer made a comment to me about taking off my panties at shows when I asked her how she envisioned Mecca Normal achieving better sales, which was meant to be funny—and it was—and a possibly a comment on the general state of affairs in the music business, and I’d mentioned her comment to Gerard (Cosloy, head of Matador) and he pretended to be outraged maybe because he thought I was outraged and perhaps this is why Johan was wearing the bullet-proof vest. It was all very odd: the futurist show and being on Matador. On one of our tours in Europe, we were very much looking forward to playing with Jad Fair in Nürnburg. We arrived while they were sound checking; Jad was onstage, front and center, pretending to play a guitar without strings. Some of these details in all these stories are a bit sketchy—just trying to give you an impression here. There was a curtain set up onstage, and the actual guitar player was behind it. OK. Maybe I’ll try that in my band. Or … maybe not. So we watched them sound check, and then they went down to the kellar, to the band room, to drink beer, and we did our sound check and then we went down into the kellar, which is sometimes awkward, when it’s another band’s show and you don’t know if it’s a private or shared band room. And we did play a lot of opening spots. We opened for Hole in Vancouver, and I wasn’t too sure if I was allowed to eat the grapes in the band room, that sort of thing. I remember Courtney had her guitar player, Eric, come over and buy my book, my first novel. I guess she didn’t want to do it herself. In 1988, on tour in England, we played the Wakefield Opera House: a big anniversary event that had been in the works for years, and it was all very amazing that we’d been invited. And yes, it did appear to be a case of very bad judgment on someone’s part to include Mecca Normal on the bill. We were touring with political-activist poet Peter Plate, which we did quite a bit of back then and we had great times and amazing conversations. I have, over the years, tried to replace Peter’s intensity and intelligence in our tour groupings, but the stimulation he provided cannot be matched. We arrived at the Opera House late afternoon to get way too involved in a mind-numbing sound check that went on and on. They had technical problems and they took them out on us, which we resented; so they had resentful punk-rock poets running through the backstage passages of their Opera House. Peter unscrewed some of the light bulbs—or maybe it was just one—from a row of bare bulbs lining a dressing-room mirror. He unscrewed it and threw it on the floor, where it shattered idiotically, and we probably all ran away giggling and, yes, the show was a disaster and what was to be learned? Don’t invite punk poets to the party prematurely. The most gracious of band-room-sharing occasions was opening for Fugazi at Roseland in New York. Ian was very nice to us, Ian and the other guys. Very welcoming. I was anxious about the fact that there was no beer backstage and the place was packed and the bar was miles away and Mecca Normal was supposed to go on soon and Ian said, “What kind of beer, Jean?” I said, “Rolling Rock.” He went out the stage door, into the alley, and returned with a six pack of Rolling Rock. I think he actually went to a store. Wow. Now that I think about it, Ian was very friendly when we opened for Fugazi in Vancouver, too: a show where someone in the audience threw a shoe at David while we were playing. At that time, I was going out with Gerry Hannah (a.k.a. Gerry Useless of the Subhumans), who had quite recently been let out of prison after serving five years in a direct-action conviction. I think Ian and Gerry had met at some point in early punk-rock days, so it was interesting to re-introduce these two men. Back to Nürnburg and Jad Fair. I was walking tentatively down the steps into the kellar and heard the guitar player say, “I don’t like Mecca Normal. They stink it up big time.” Or, you know, something like that. I was just setting foot in front of them and I didn’t bat an eyelash and he didn’t blink and I grabbed a beer and we all sort of awkwardly hung out until show time. I mean, he’s a guy playing guitar behind a curtain for god’s sake. Maybe he was jealous of David being allowed to play without a curtain. Anyway … Personally, I think the biggest fucking failure to endure as a punk band would be having everyone love what you do. Cooing over you, treating you like a rock star. Purgatory, I say. If you’re not agitating, you’re stagnating. Punk bands that broke up because not enough people liked them? Spare me.

Normal History Vol. 14: The Art Of David Lester

davidlestervol-14Every 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 our lecture How Art & Music Can Change The World, David and I reveal the behind-the-scenes workings of our creative partnership to show that being in a band with intentions other than fame, money and power is infinitely more interesting than participating within the status quo. With that in mind, I want to reveal the unorthodox process for creating this series of illustrations paired with captions. Usually an illustration is of a written concept or story. The text arrives, and the artist does a drawing to provide visual fortification. In this series, in true Mecca Normal fashion, we are working backward. David gives me the illustration, and I write the caption. This one arrived with a title The Importance Of Speaking Out, but me being me, I don’t feel compelled to explore that exact idea, and within our partnership, a literal response to stimuli the other generates is not required. The drawing reminds me of its forerunner, a similar image with text about Mordecai Vanunu from David’s Inspired Agitators Poster Series. Vanunu went to jail for exposing the Israeli government’s secret nuclear-weapons program. I like the poster very much and have put it on various Mecca Normal websites, including one that a guy I was dating looked at. He was a policy analyst for the federal government of Canada, a Jewish guy in his late 50s I met during my online-dating adventures. He wanted me to remove the Vanunu poster from our websites, and I think he wanted me to remove Dave from my life. He said Vanunu was an insane person, which brought up an interesting point in a later discussion with Dave. He explained that his mandate for the poster series wasn’t to present portraits of perfect activists, but to generate more awareness around individuals who had stood up to speak out against injustice, to risk persecution, to speak the truth as they knew it. In my short-lived romance with the policy analyst, his irritation with the poster opened avenues of conversation that would have otherwise remained closed. We were sitting on elegant lawn chairs on the back porch of his huge house on an island populated by film stars and overly wealthy recluses when he revealed that he was a Zionist. In a heated defense of his beliefs, he told me that he would happily see all Palestinians dead—or some such statement that felt like that’s what he’d just said. I took an extra large chunk of cheese from the hors d’oeuvre plate, recognizing that once off the island I would never see this guy and his fancy cheeses again. Dave’s poster served a purpose that wasn’t what he’d anticipated or intended, but that often results when ideas are put into the public sphere. Information arrives and debate ensues. After this encounter, I researched Israel and found consumer boycotts in place for a number of companies that I wouldn’t have otherwise known were strong supporters of Israeli policy: Starbucks, Home Depot, Motorola and Nestlé. More information is available on the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid website. My point is that while Dave didn’t essentially know what impact his poster would have, he created it and made it public—and it continues to instigate thought in ways that these things do, when people speak out against injustice. At demonstrations, in words and images, songs and films, and within poetry. As images of popular protest and social injustice collide around the world this week, David’s drawing honors the courageous voice of Nada Agha Soltani—silenced in Iran. To end my caption for The Importance Of Speaking Out on a positive note (and a reference to Patti Smith, currently on tour in Europe and beyond) … A tweet out of Iran this week: People have the power.

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:

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.

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.