Category Archives: DAVID LESTER ART

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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Normal History Vol. 289: 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.

5. “Ancient Fire” (Calico Kills The Cat, 1989) The image this song creates in my mind is theatrical more than cinematic. The incident described seems to be happening on a stage more than in real life or a movie. The smoke from the ancient fire in question is a metaphor for male entitlement. The woods the woman is running through is permeated with the smell of that smoke.

5. “Normal” (Empathy For The Evil, 2014) The lyrics are directly out of “The Black Dot Museum of Political Art” in which museum curator Nadine MacHilltop cures narcissism based on her ability to understand abstract expressionism. In the song, her quirky family is revealed in idiosyncratic snippets hinged to her older brother’s urge to be normal. It is through his tantrums that Nadine understands that being different poses a threat to some people’s sense of identity.

Both songs demonstrate the oppressive nature of male entitlement. The men talking around the fire might harass women on the street or exhibit power and privilege by other methods—methods they feel they are entitled to employ because they are male. In the case of the male child in “Normal”—he believes he’s entitled to be part of a family that eats Cheez Whiz on Wonder Bread with glasses of Tang instead of steamed clams dipped in melted butter with a Caesar salad made from a recipe out of Life magazine.

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

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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):

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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):

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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):

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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):

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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):

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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):

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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):

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