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 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.