Category Archives: DAVID LESTER ART

Normal History Vol. 299: 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.

What was the first song you wrote?
It’s a pretty basic angry punk-rock song called “Conform” that has never been released, but it’s strange how its validity has been circling back over the years, getting closer and reminding me of its purpose.

Which was what?
To illuminate the pressure of being directed away from who I was becoming. By 1986, I’d left my husband, quit my job and started responding to various economic and social philosophies—including feminism and anarchism. The lyrics itemized specific comments that intended to manipulate me towards a more conventional life. We recorded it for the first album, but there wasn’t room for it.

How is it getting closer to its original purpose?
Its purpose was to amplify and rail against the experience of being a young woman who wanted to express various emotions, sentiments and ideas—and by express I mean loudly in words, music and art. I wanted my experience of being actively thwarted to be known by other young women, because that’s when things start to change; when we know that we’re not the only one experiencing some injustice or another.

Where was the concept of conforming coming from at that time?
The husband I ended up leaving and from my family. There are subtle and not-so-subtle ways of directing and distancing. When the first album came out, my mother was happy that I hadn’t used the family name on it.

So she’s not a fan, eh?
I have never understood how anyone can write angry punk-rock songs with their mom and dad cheering them on.

What are the songs on the new Mecca Normal album about?
The new album is largely about power and power exchanges with most of the lyrics coming directly out of two recently completed novels. In “The Black Dot Museum Of Political Art,” a museum curator discovers her uncanny ability to cure narcissism. In “Obliterating History—a guitar-making mystery, domination and submission in a small town garage” a powerful woman with a sexually submissive side enters into a BDSM relationship to explore trust. By complying with her version of intimacy, the man is able to get what he needs to, which involves being respected and trusted.

“20 Years/No Escape” from Water Cuts My Hands (K, 1991; Matador, 1991; Smarten Up!, 2003) (download):

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Normal History Vol. 298: 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.

Mecca Normal Tour Diary
NYC
Oct. 1, 2014

First thing in the morning we drove our rental car from our hotel in Newark, N.J., to the Manhattan studios of Democracy Now!—a TV program hosted by journalist Amy Goodman—to be interviewed about American war-protester Malachi Ritscher who, in 2006, self-immolated.

We were in the middle of a tour in the northeast when we got word that a senior producer for the  show would have time to pre-record a segment for later broadcast. This was perfect because an exhibition about Malachi was about to open in Chicago (running until December 14). Mecca Normal has a song about Malachi, and some of our art and writing is in the exhibit, which was created for the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

I’m absolutely a morning person so I was unfazed by the 5:45 a.m. alarm. I made David—who is less of a morning person—a decent espresso on the hotplate I carry around on tour and we drove into NYC, succeeding at beating rush hour and finding parking.

We found a spacious café to settle into with the amp and guitar. I went over to Whole Foods for supplies (sandwiches, nuts and coffee beans) while David changed his strings. Once we were at Democracy Now! it was a bit other-worldly sitting in the reception area watching Amy doing the show through the sound-proof glass. We met various staff members, including a guy who said he was both a fan of ours and a friend of the guy who runs the record label we’re on.

A panicky sound technician arrived and introduced us to Amy. He tried to convince us that performing live would be problematic because they didn’t have any monitors.

“David can turn down the guitar amp,” I said calmly. “It’ll be fine.”

He continued to discourage me, telling me that they didn’t have a hand-held mic; that I’d be singing through the clip-on lapel mic.

“It’ll be fine,” I said.

“But you won’t be able to hear yourself,” he said.

“I have a loud voice,” I said.

Amy, frowning deeply, explained the issue further. “What he’s saying is that you won’t be able to hear yourself over the guitar.”

“It won’t be a problem,” I said warmly, trying to instill confidence. “We’ve been doing this for 30 years.”

“Taking The Back Stairs” from Water Cuts My Hands (K, 1991; Matador, 1991; Smarten Up!, 2003) (download):

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Normal History Vol. 297: 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.

An acquaintance asked me for feedback on an article he wrote in which he claimed that misogyny and sexism are mental health issues. “Everybody has to deal with the mental illness that is misogyny and sexism,” he wrote.

I emailed back: “I don’t think people who hate women are necessarily mentally ill. Misogyny and mental illness are, in my opinion, two distinct issues.”

He replied with: “So are you saying misogynistic tendencies can be a product of a healthy mind?”

Never really liking assertions disguised as questions that start with “So you’re saying …  ” I nonetheless proceeded to outline my thoughts on the matter:

“A healthy mind is more subjective than mental illness. People who believe in God might not think I have a healthy mind because I don’t believe in God. Does that mean that I’m mentally ill for not believing in God? Are racists mentally ill? Are homosexuals mentally ill? Are conservatives mentally ill? Are liberals mentally ill? Are all people we dislike mentally ill? Mental illness is a catch phrase referring to specific, diagnosable behaviors and afflictions like depression, narcissism, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, etc.

A healthy mind has more to do with exposure to various types of stimuli and how any given person processes information. Is that person fearful of exploring outside cultural and religious boundaries, empathetic, illogical in their methods of deduction, lazy, curious, etc.? Mental health can be impacted by physical factors including psychological trauma, physical injuries and chemical levels in the brain. An unhealthy mind seems more about how easily a person is indoctrinated into belief systems that stem from family, religion, peer pressure and a cultural landscape that includes advertising, video games, music and movies.

Then there’s good old fashioned intelligence, which is evidently measurable by testing across various cerebral functions for the ability to deal with data. Can intelligent people be mentally ill? Yes, they can. Can misogynists be intelligent people who do not fit any criteria for mental illness? Yes, I believe they can. I believe misogynists have been affected by cultural stimuli and personal experiences that encourage them to believe and act as though women are evil, inferior, untrustworthy deviants to be hated and or feared.”

“I Know A Little Bit” from Calico Kills The Cat (K, 1989; Matador, 1991; Smarten Up!, 2003) (download):

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Normal History Vol. 296: 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.

Mecca Normal Tour Diary
NYC, Sept. 26, 2014

Walking along Bleecker Street after John’s Pizza (where I asked for the same booth we sat in back in 1984), we stopped at Starbuck’s to replenish the coffee supply for the stovetop espresso pot I’m using on a hotplate at the motel. I was informed that they don’t sell half pounds. Idiots. We continued along Bleecker until we both slowed at a storefront of some intrigue. What caught my eye were the burlap bags in the window into which a guy was plunging a metal scoop and extracting something that was then put onto an old-fashioned scale. Porto Rico Importing Co., established in 1907. It was a coffee bean store! Inside, coffee in burlap sacks dominated the floor space. I asked the guy for a half pound of the darkest decaf and then a half pound of Sumatra for Dave—both ground for espresso. And now, today, outside Boston, we’re enjoying coffee with Boston cream donuts from the Dunkin’ Donuts next door to the Motel 6 where they stuck us on the third floor directly below the construction they are doing on the roof. With four hours sleep, we’ll drive to the Providence Motel 6 where we’ll sleep some more before a lobster dinner and then before the show in Providence! Tonight, it’s the Thalia Zedek Band and 75 Dollar Bill.

Great to see Thalia Zedek with her new project E last night. Haven’t seen her since we did the Suffragette Sessions tour together with the Indigo Girls in 1998 when her band Come released Gently, Down The Stream on Matador Records the year after Mecca Normal released its final album on the same label.

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

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Normal History Vol. 295: 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.

After the whirlwind of action that landed us in a cheap, but totally serviceable Newark hotel ($64 a night), we set off to Brooklyn to pick up merch we’d had shipped—including a box of the new LP sent by UPS from the pressing plant in L.A. Turns out the LP package had arrived an hour before we got to our pick-up point (total strangers; friend of a friend we haven’t met yet). This is the same place I sent the amp I bought on eBay. Too bad they were on the fourth floor of a building with no elevator. After Dave carried it all to the car, we drove to the venue (I do all the driving and Dave does all the lifting). We thought Trans Pecos would be a cultural center or a café sort of thing. Turns out it’s “gently labeled” in very light chalk above the door (which we didn’t see). So the street addresses appear to go from 913 right to 917 with a few random doorways in between. Very disconcerting. It really didn’t look like we were at the right place, but we were an hour early so we parked the car across the street to begin opening boxes of merch to put together a selection for the show. Luckily we were early because the LP was shipped in three parts—vinyl, jacket and plastic sleeve. So we set up a two-person assembly line on the sidewalk and got it done DIY style. This is all happening in a section of Queens that is not at all hipster, but a hipster did happen by. When he saw us, he took out his earbuds and asked, “What are y’all doing?” And I said, “It’s a long story.” He took a step closer, and I explained. I pointed to the deserted building across the street and told him we were playing a show there later. He frowned and went on his way, unimpressed.

We kept an eye open for any signs of life across the street and right on time, at 6:30, we saw someone unlock one of the mysterious doors and step inside.

Our previous Todd P show was at Union Docs in 2006—on tour with Shoplifting. Great to see him again and hear about this fantastic new space run by a group of committed individuals (who swept and washed the floors before and after the show).

Angus did a sensational job with the sound during the Mount Eerie soundcheck, so we knew we were going to have an excellent experience.

Oh—and the amp I bought on eBay worked perfectly!! Dave sounded excellent. And we debuted a new song called “The Ferry To The Launch.” That was a thrill. And what a great audience. Holy cow.

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

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Normal History Vol. 294: 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.

One of the reasons Mecca Normal formed was to address sexism and misogyny. “Smile Baby” was written in response to being accused of provoking men into street-level verbal harassment because of how I looked or what I wore. “Why do you want to wear something that you know is going to provoke men?”

The album art for Calico Kills The Cat is an illustration of one of the only views a woman has of herself without looking in a mirror.

While Mecca Normal developed and implemented various approaches to define and combat sexism, that work feels somewhat naive compared to the magnitude of misogyny that the internet informs us is out there.

Earlier this year, while rehearsing for a West Coast tour in July, I wrote a song called “Anguish/Misogyny” about a sense of failure based on what we thought could be achieved and where we’re at now. We’ve been playing it live recently, including during a performance on Democracy Now! after we were interviewed by Amy Goodman.

On October 21, I inadvertently learned that Mecca Normal had been referred to on Democracy Now! the day before during an interview with Anita Sarkeesian about misogyny in video-game culture. At around the 25-minute mark. Amy introduces “Anguish/Misogyny” and cuts to us performing. Then they cut to the misogynist video-game images that Sarkeesian had been talking about with the song still playing. It was a real thrill—and somewhat strange—to see the song used in a context that was not of our making.

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

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Normal History Vol. 293: 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.

9. In “12 Murders” (Calico Kills The Cat, 1989), Kelly Green is not concerned about the effect of rejection on the erection of a man who is about to sexually assault her. She stabs him. He dies. It would seem that she deals with 11 other instances of harassment the same way.

9. “Odele’s Bath” (Empathy For The Evil, 2014) The lyrics are directly out of my novel The Black Dot Museum Of Political Art in which various characters’ backgrounds are examined in an attempt to explain their adult proclivities including, in this case, the mother of a narcissist named Martin Lewis. Odele grew up on a potato farm, which she fled at 17 years of age. The rituals of bath night allow Odele some privacy in which she brandishes a soot-blackened poker, as she imagines murdering her father with an awl.

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

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Normal History Vol. 292: 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.

8. “Joelle” (Calico Kills The Cat, 1989) This is one of my more compact story narratives. It came directly out of a chapbook called Hot Pink, which is sub-titled “the history of a situation” and on the back cover “the history of the frying pan” (fiction, Smarten UP!, 1987). The song and the book are based on my own history and opinions on the male/female dynamic . When I was about 18, my parents went away for a week or so and my boyfriend stayed over. I’d already lived on my own for some time, but moved back in with my parents to return to art school. In the morning I made my boyfriend pancakes and then, there I was washing the frying pan while he was in the living room watching TV. “With all the history and the energy of the situation” I brought the pan out of the soapy water and smashed it on the edge of the counter, thus denting it just enough so that the lid wouldn’t fit on it. My mom made me buy her a new pan. It was a copper-bottom Revere Ware piece: a 12-inch pan that seemed to cost rather a lot to replace. Anyway, that part isn’t in the song. When Mecca Normal was touring around the time of that album (Calico Kills The Cat), I recall buying fry pans—cheap ones—at thrift stores along the way and chucking them out into the audience from the stage during the part in “Joelle” where I’m singing about the history of the situation. Once, when we were playing the black box theater at the Washington Center for the Performance Arts in Olympia, they had the place lit so that I couldn’t really see the audience beyond the people directly in front of us. I remember waving the pan, working up to the part I was going to throw it and I was thinking. “This is sort of crazy, just throwing it out into the darkness and potentially hitting someone in the face.” I tossed it into the darkness, heard it land and carried on with the song. Many nights I forgot to go and find the pan, but I always savored losing it—letting go of it mid-song and then forgetting about it due to being involved in packing up equipment and talking to feminists, anarchists, librarians, writers, scientists and all the other interesting people along the way.

8. “Maisy’s Death” (Empathy For The Evil, 2014) The lyrics are directly out of my novel The Black Dot Museum Of Political Art, in which various characters’ backgrounds are examined in an attempt to explain their adult proclivities including, in this case, a narcissist named Martin Lewis. In next week’s column we will look at Martin’s mother Odele, who grew up poor on a farm that she fled at 17 years of age. Here we have Odele in her formative years, taking over the chores at age 14 after her mother’s death. In the absence of his wife’s presence, Odele’s father switches gears and starts ranting—”hurling his high-pitched railings”— at Odele, just like he did to his wife when she was alive.

It’s interesting how, with 25 years between Joelle and Odele (and I’m just now seeing the similarity of their names!), I’ve moved away from narratives based on my own history towards entirely imagined scenarios, yet both songs are solid examples of patriarchy on the home front. A sort of relentless repetition of male oppression saturates both tales.

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

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Normal History Vol. 291: 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.

7. “I’m A Bit Confused” (Calico Kills The Cat, 1989) Jobs have an unpleasant capacity to plunk the tedium of conventional life right under my nose. If it isn’t the general public sniffing around for bargains on consumer goods, it’s the co-workers who have not dared to dream beyond dental plans and annual vacations. I was in my 20s when I wrote this song. I had already opted out of the work force to spend 15 years making music, travelling, touring, writing and creating art. After that, at 40, I began a succession of dumb part-time jobs through which I have learned how to protect my creativity while vehemently disallowing banality to destroy my happiness.

7. “Naked And Ticklish” (Empathy For The Evil, 2014) The lyrics are directly out of my novel Obliterating History – a guitar-making mystery, domination & submission in a small town garage, in which the female protagonist tells a story about her online dating adventures. While the song is fictional, aspects of it are from my experience online dating, where, like working at various jobs, I felt exposed to people I never would have met otherwise. For the most part I encountered selfish liars seeking self-gratification. In the song, and in the novel, the protagonist attempts relationships with men she has little in common with, but eventually her inability to trust them is, for her, impossible to ignore.

In my early years as a lyricist, I was more apt to express anger, whereas, in recent years, I’ve found my way back into storytelling with humorous overtones that resonate with audiences. As an anarchist currently working in retail—and a former participant in online dating—I am truly grateful that a good chunk of my life has been spent with likeminded people who continue to inspire me with their ability to sidestep what is apparently regarded as normal behavior.

“I’m A Bit Confused” from Calico Kills The Cat (K, 1989; Matador, 1991; Smarten Up!, 2003) (download):

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Normal History Vol. 290: 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.

6. “Don’t Shoot” (Calico Kills The Cat, 1989) I wrote this song when I disappointed with a general level of apathy. If there was going to be a political confrontation—or an occasion that warranted being prepared for—would anyone actually be ready and able to step up and deal with it? It seemed like work and partying were the priorities.

6. “One Man’s Anger” (Empathy For The Evil, 2014) The lyrics are directly out of my novel Obliterating History—a guitar-making mystery, domination & submission in a small town garage, in which the parents and siblings of various characters come into focus from time to time to indicate how behaviors may shape personalities while they are forming. In the novel, this is from a section where a mother talks to her son about the anger that his father seems unable to control. She explains that anger is often the manifestation of pain. I suppose she understands that boys are socialized not to show pain or fear, but she stops short of passing along that information to her son.

The connection between the two songs is the willingness to abdicate responsibility in difficult situations. To me, this is a form of cowardice. The characters in “Don’t Shoot” are perhaps intentionally ill-prepared and pre-occupied—in avoidance mode. In “One Man’s Anger,” the man experiencing pain and fear lashes out in anger, blaming others for what he is unwilling to deal with in himself. In the novel, this cowardice extends to the mother herself, who does not explain more about the expression of emotions to her son.

“Don’t Shoot” from Calico Kills The Cat (K, 1989; Matador, 1991; Smarten Up!, 2003) (download):

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