Normal History Vol. 283: 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.

I wasn’t really part of the Vancouver punk scene as such. When I was 20 (1981), I was travelling around Europe for six months in a VW van going to all the art museums I could find. Prior to that, I was at the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University of Art & Design) for a couple of years studying painting. I didn’t come wriggling out of East Van all hepped-up with working-class angst. I sort of sashayed across the Lions Gate Bridge from North Van after being raised in an architecturally designed house by abstract painters who listened to a lot of jazz.

I left home at 18 because I wasn’t responding well to what I’ll call injustice. I worked full time, bought a sailboat, got married—and writing that here makes me aware that a person like this (like me) does not belong in a punk-rock scene. I was drawn into it as it was re-configuring into the 1980s, at a point when I felt very strongly about the injustice of being held within constructs that relied on psychological oppression—including sexism and capitalism. By 1985, I’d left the marriage (the boat was long gone) and opted out of my job to read, write, play music and go to shows. Punk was the very loud abhorrence of injustice, and that, for me, was articulated by the audience—dancing, colliding, sweating and engaging without relying on our own voices; we were out there bashing around in response to a very pure form of music that demonstrated our dissatisfaction and dissent. There wasn’t a feeling of violence or anything malicious going on. If you fell down, the person next to you would drag you back up again so you didn’t get hurt. It was a throbbing society of beings reveling in a sort of synchronistic building and releasing of energy that also fueled the bands. There was a weird reciprocity intrinsic to the band and audience dynamic. It seemed to me that there were larger philosophies at play in the scene : equality, fairness, anarchism and maintaining a presence with benefit shows, politicized posters, a few zines (before they were called zines) and various demonstrations. To me, not being part of the early days of punk, it seemed as though the individuals involved were a kind of emotional nobility who didn’t fit with the heartlessness of capitalism—maybe they’d been met with enough adversity early on and had veered off to a subculture of those similarly inclined toward idealism, to create deep friendships, some of which turned into bands and political actions.

For whatever reason, when I decided to participate in the punk scene as the singer in a band of two (Mecca Normal), I realized I wasn’t part of whatever I thought I was part of as an audience member. That is to say, people didn’t like us. They ignored us, basically. We were what you call room-clearers. Which turned out to be OK, because we ended up going on tour pretty quickly and found scenes in other cities where we were welcomed and included. Our first out-of-town shows were in Montreal, where we played two sold-out nights at an anarchist cafe and got standing ovations. It was totally weird.

“Fight For A Little” from Mecca Normal (Smarten Up!, 1986; re-released by K, 1995) (download):

Normal History Vol. 282: 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.

David and I went to tons of shows in the 1980s, but seeing D.O.A. was always special. They were stars. I recall seeing the Industrial Waste Banned—all women—quite a few times, which would have been the only all-women band around other than Emily (Faryna), who was a solo act. I think there was a show on East Hastings where she opened for NoMeansNo (when they were still a bass-and-drums duo), but this is all much later than the official punk scene that, while it was only a few years earlier, I felt like I’d missed this incredible time. Having said that, maybe there’s always a bit of mythology about previous eras and their importance. I get the feeling that younger people now regard the time when we were most active (the ’90s) in the same way—they feel like they missed everything, that there’s nothing now. Maybe it’s a way to abdicate responsibility to thrive in one’s own era.

We’d only played a handful of shows at the point when we went into a studio in 1985 to mix tapes we’d made on our Fostex four-track in a garage a block off Commercial Drive in Vancouver. After we released our first album (on our record label Smarten UP! Records), someone “in the scene” said we shouldn’t have released it because there were bands more deserving than us. I recall someone saying that we hadn’t paid our dues. That phrase really stuck with me. From time to time, 30 years and 16 albums later—13 Mecca Normal, one Jean Smith solo (Kill Rock Stars, 2000), two as 2 Foot Flame (Matador)—I still wonder if I’ve paid my dues.

“Phone’s Unplugged” from Mecca Normal (Smarten Up!, 1986; re-released by K, 1995) (download):

Normal History Vol. 281: 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.

Last month was the 30th anniversary of Mecca Normal’s first show (Smilin’ Buddha, opening for D.O.A.).

Part of the idea for creating Mecca Normal was a reaction to the lack of women in bands in Vancouver. It definitely seemed like the guys were in the bands and the girls watched the guys. It was annoying. To me, starting a band demonstrated a solution to the issue. Luckily the idea caught on with the advent of riot grrrl in the 1990s. And if that’s the case, then Joe (Shithead) Keithley and Dave Gregg of D.O.A. played a role in the origins of riot grrrl, too, because I was definitely inspired by Joe’s political lyrics, Dave’s good-natured energy and their general sense of trying to make the world a better place.

I missed the Dishrags and the Modernettes by a few years, but it was hugely inspiring to see—and play with—San Francisco’s Frightwig, who have been playing shows again just recently.

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

Normal History Vol. 280: 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.

Today on the stationary bike at the gym there was a notice on the white board below the giant FIFA World Cup delivery system. (The TV.)
 
Tips for Summer
1. use sunscreen
2. drink plenty of water
3. seek shelter
4. take it easy on the hot days
 
So there I was, pedaling away, looking at the game … and then I noticed that the same blue marker that had been used to write the Tips for Summer was over by the cardio machine sign-up board.

What temptation!

I finished my 20-minute ride and wandered over to erase my name from the cardio sign-up board. I casually picked up the blue marker and sauntered over to the white board under the World Cup delivery system, hoping the small middle-aged Asian lady on the treadmill was fully engaged in The Game.

I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself, but I did have to bend slightly to erase the tail on the ‘a’ and close the gap on the top of the ‘y’ in Tip number four.

The lady on the treadmill laughed. I turned around and made a little face at her and said, “You weren’t supposed to notice that!”

4. Take it easy on the hot dogs

“I Walk Alone” from Mecca Normal (Smarten Up!, 1986; re-released by K, 1995) (download):

Normal History Vol. 279: 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.

[continued from last week]

It is expected that women should take care of men’s egos and make it all OK for them to get rejected and if, as a woman, you decide not to provide this service for a man, you are opening yourself up to having some jerk come and stand over you at the gym complaining about how you decided to let him know you aren’t interested in him.

His big point (while saying it was “fine, just fine, Jean“) was that he didn’t like how I’d handled things. I hadn’t attempted to soothe his ego.

I stayed calm, but really—what an asshole—and this guy taught teenagers. Oh, and he’s self-publishing a book of poems and he plays in a Celtic band, and I hate self-publishing and Celtic bands just a little bit more now. I may even like poets a bit less.

I actually saw him on the street an hour after all this. He waved. I smiled just enough and kept walking.

I have been very careful letting men down in the past so that they don’t turn into psychotic freaks who then stalk me, harass me, phone me endlessly, ring my buzzer for hours or whatever other idiotic shit they do that they then blame on me for rejecting them.

Jesus H. Christ.

Does this shit with men never end?

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