Category Archives: DAVID LESTER ART

Normal History Vol. 388: 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 32-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

Mecca Normal is currently working in many modes at once. We’re writing new songs and rehearsing for three shows in October opening for the Julie Ruin (Vancouver, Seattle and Portland). David continues to work (with a very inspiring, high-level of discipline) on his graphic novel about Emma Goldman’s final years, while I’ve recently started writing a YA (young adult) novel that I hope will have a positive impact (in terms of how creativity works) on my $100 portrait painting series—which looks great, piling up online, archived by month with a separate page for the ones currently available. People tell me I should put the price up, but I’m kind of hooked on the thrill of selling so many of them (80 or so of the nearly 150 I’ve done so far). Every month I make a new version of a video with all the paintings up to that point.

“His Own Madness” from the album The Observer (Kill Rock Stars, 2006) (download):

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Normal History Vol. 387: 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 32-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

Someone in Germany sent us an mp3 of their band covering Mecca Normal’s “Who Told You So?”—the first song on our first album. If, in 1986, someone had told me that 30 years in the future, this might happen, I would not have believed them!

You can listen to the Mecca Normal version of “Who Told You So?” in Vol. 275 of Normal History below the caption of David Lester’s fitting illustration “I’d Rather Play Punk Rock Guitar.”

“Fallen Skier” from the album The Observer (Kill Rock Stars, 2006) (download):

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Normal History Vol. 386: 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 32-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

This song, “1922,” was used at the end of a short film called Cash Free (2009, video, 20 minutes) by EE Miller and Bernadine Mellis (director of a documentary about her father, civil-rights lawyer Dennis Cunningham, and the court case to clear an Earth First! activist’s name). In Cash Free, a group (including lawyer, author and activist Dean Spade) gets together to discuss sustainable artful living and the struggle of individual queers working in groups. It’s strange in a way, because I was at a meeting with some of the same people while I was on tour alone about 10 years ago. So, while I’m not in this film, I feel like it’s an abstract version of the meeting I attended when the subject was land acquisition—where, by what means and yes, how to sustain this artful way of living. I don’t go to meetings, so the event was memorable to me. At the time, I thought it might be smart to be in on the ground floor of such a project, however unlikely it was that I’d ever make my way across the continent from Vancouver to live sustainable or otherwise in a foreign country with a group of people I hardly know.

I’m wary of having Mecca Normal’s music used in films. Sound and images are a powerful combination. One of the few times we allowed a song to be used in a film it was counter to both the meaning of the song and my feminist perspective. I don’t think that movie was ever released, but we saw evidence of “A Kind Of A Girl” being used to imply negative associations to a woman who had been murdered. It was horrible to see this blatant violation of intention. Anyway, this is not that. I know EE Miller, but I’m never that keen on my work melding with another artist’s overarching vision when I’m not there to have a say—even if it’s a group of counterculturalists coming up with ideas for how to live outside the gloomy restraints of cash-based culture. In Cash Free, the Mecca Normal song, “1922,” plays while the end credits roll, including information on how to connect with the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee and the National Community Land Trust Network.

“1922” from the album The Observer (Kill Rock Stars, 2006) (download):

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Normal History Vol. 385: 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 32-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

Mecca Normal has always viewed music journalism as an important component in the process of releasing music. When we put an album out, we compile a list of journalists and publications to send promo copies to. For most bands, this act is part of an almost unavoidable economic equation. From a band’s perspective, reviews are supposed to stimulate album sales, but, if a band is at least as interested in social discourse as sales, what exactly gets said in those reviews should be as significant as how many people end up buying their album. I think it’s pretty obvious that Mecca Normal (a group of two devoted to cultural agitation since 1984) has never gone out of our way to make music that intends to, above all else, sell. We’ve always been interested in coaxing journalists to extend conversations we instigate in songs, to give them the opportunity to further illuminate on behalf of potential listeners at large. David and I both come from newspaper backgrounds, albeit from the art and production side of things, but knowing how publishing works, including the ins and outs of how editors function, has always played a role in how we present our press material and, because rock writers are words-and-ideas people, we’ve found them very appreciative of having social justice themes to write about—and perhaps even opinions they share about violence against women, feminism, poverty, inequality, the prison industrial complex, capitalism etc.

Jessica Hopper‘s review of Mecca Normal’s The Observer (Kill Rock Stars, 2006) in the Chicago Reader was significant to us in many ways. Actually, it was more of an article than a review, subtitled “an unsparing investigation of what it means to be an independent woman”—which referred to the album, but seemed also true of the article itself. As a feminist, it was important to me to have a feminist rock critic engage and react to the work as a whole—and song by song—and to use it to make bigger points. Hopper included the piece in her 2015 anthology The First Collection Of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic, giving our investigations and commentaries the kind of longevity that may well encourage further understanding of what independent women face when they willfully interact with men within the construct of online dating. Or at least the unique perspective of one rather feisty 45-year-old feminist online dating between 2002 and 2005 as interpreted by another rather feisty feminist rock critic some years younger, whose importance, with the publication of this book, has vastly (and rightfully) increased since that time.

“To Avoid Pain” from the album The Observer (Kill Rock Stars, 2006) (download):

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Normal History Vol. 384: 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 32-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

I’ll Call You
I want cold and impersonal sex
during which I’ll be pretending I’m with someone else
I only care about my satisfaction

I will jerk you around
to get as much for myself as I can
If you object—I’ll be on my way

If you dare to communicate with me
after I’ve let you know where you stand
I will belittle you
I will disrespect you with comments
that I call “joking”—if you don’t get it
you need to lighten up

You will play by my rules
and I’m not into telling you what my rules are

I’m very highly evolved
I’m very attractive
I have a lot of options that I am keeping open
so don’t expect me to treat you as if
you’re someone special—you’re not

I’ll let you know when it’s your turn again
until then, let’s be friends

I’ll call you

“I’ll Call You” from the album The Observer (Kill Rock Stars, 2006) (download):

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Normal History Vol. 383: 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 32-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

“Attraction Is Ephemeral” gets more laughs than any other Mecca Normal song. We wrote it a few days before we went into the studio to record the album it was on. Dave had the music ready to go, and I picked up a poem I was working on. I hadn’t thought of the poem as song lyrics, because it was long and involved. We recorded it in our rehearsal space as we wrote it—something we’ve done since we began playing together in 1984—and it was perfect! When we write like that, we have to try and replicate arrangements in subsequent versions. On this occasion,, our strategy was to stop working on it for fear of taking it too far away from its initial greatness. I listened to it over and over, and then, by the time we were recording it in the studio, it was only our third or fourth time through it.

Because of the graphic nature of a couple of the scenes, I was pretty nervous about performing it live, but it turned out better than I expected because the audience at most shows laughed in all those spots—albeit, a nervous sort of empathetic laughter. Sometimes I actually had to stop and wait for them to finish laughing before continuing to sing. That people laughed at most shows made the ones where they didn’t easier to do. Those people stood there quite grumpily with their arms folded, not laughing. No, not at all. And yes, I guess there are some circumcisions where it is inappropriate to sing about a man having trouble putting on a condom.

“Attraction Is Ephemeral” from the album The Observer (Kill Rock Stars, 2006) (download):

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Normal History Vol. 382: 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 32-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

In 2015, music critic Jessica Hopper included her review of Mecca Normal’s album The Observer (Kill Rock Stars, 2006) in her book The First Collection Of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic. Originally written for the Chicago Reader, Hopper began the two-page spread by saying the album was “so mercilessly honest and personal it’s hard to believe it can exist in the pop-music marketplace.”

Hopper calls “I’m Not Into Being The Woman You’re With While You’re Looking For The Woman You Want” self-explanatory, adding that it is “a glowing example of the interplay between vocals and Lester’s guitar, which is equally distinctive and powerful.” Other than that, she doesn’t spend much time on the sound of the music. Which, when forming Mecca Normal in the early 1980s, was part of an overarching strategy to limit what could be said about the music because it’s typically one electric guitar. It has always been important to David and I to read what critics say about the various types of injustice that Mecca Normal elaborates on, and I knew I’d be hitting a nerve with an album about a middle-aged feminist’s online dating experiences. And indeed, it was cringe worthy to the no doubt, young, male critics at Pitchfork who added it to their list of Top 25 Worst Album Covers of 2006. It’s actually a really good cover, but they wouldn’t be equipped to know any such thing.

The line in Hopper’s piece that has stuck with me is near the end, after she references the book Are Men Necessary? In the 10 years since the album came out, I have, from time to time, wondered about her assertion that I was suggesting that “independent women wind up alone.” I don’t believe I was, although there is a built-in, unavoidable truth to the statement.

If I had met a man with whom life was more fun, that would have been fine, but now, 10 years after I wrote those songs, being alone feels pretty much like winning the lottery.

“I’m Not Into Being The Woman You’re With While You’re Looking For The Woman You Want” from the album The Observer (Kill Rock Stars, 2006) (download):

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Normal History Vol. 381: 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 32-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

London-based artist Hew Locke was at the Miami artist residency while I was there for the month of February in 2013. He was in town on official Art World business, and I was painting fiendishly in the main room of the house with all these professional, Art World artists coming and going. Lovely people, but it was somewhat terrifying to be exposed like that. All in all, it was a grand time!

It’s great listening to Hew speak about how he designed the London Tube Map cover. It’s a beauty!

I had a very interesting exchange with Hew at the artist residency. There I was, day after day, painting the No Coal series while various artists walked past my table and out the back door to talk, eat, smoke and/or drink in the back yard. Other than art school (in the late 1970s), I’ve always painted alone. To me, it’s a private thing best done in solitude—let alone that these were all professional artists with gallery representation, accountants, etc.—their work is collected by actual museums, for God’s sake!

I just kept painting.

There was an open studio event planned where various Miami collectors and art lovers would arrive to meet the Art World artists. I decided to participate, even though it was basically for the Art World artists, but there I was in the middle of things with a bunch of finished paintings, so I decided to hang them on the wall for the open studio night. At some point, Hew came through the room, and we got to talking. I explained that the paintings were done by Martin Lewis, a character in my novel The Black Dot Museum Of Political Art and that I’d also just recorded an album with segments from that novel turned into songs that I sing. Hew was quite excited by all this, saying he’d never heard of anything like it—paintings by character in a novel and an album, all connected. It was a thrill for me that he was genuinely intrigued by the additional information I gave him. It’s complicated to explain—especially when I start talking about my imaginary friends, etc. Plus, it has been years in the making; the culmination of which has not yet arrived.

Update on the elements: After several rounds of revisions, my literary agent decided the novel wasn’t for her, but it has been submitted to other agents and is being considered by an independent publisher. I’m hanging onto the dozen or so No Coal paintings I did in Miami for exhibition events when the novel is published. The album Empathy For The Evil came out in 2014 … 2015, really. The Black Dot Museum of Political Art itself functions online, but I am still trying to figure out how to launch a bricks-and-mortar version of it based on the novel and my time in Miami.

“Convince Yourself” from the album The Family Swan (Kill Rock Stars, 2002) (download):

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Normal History Vol. 380: 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 32-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

Ice Floes Aweigh
The queen mother calls to mother west wind.
“Let’s be nice, alright? Bless the castle, and the titles, and protocol.”
Dad asks if there’s anything I’d like to ask, like, before he dies,
anything I’d like to know.
I ask, “Dad, where did your dad come from?”
But what I’d really like to ask is,
“Why did you throw that huge glass of chocolate milk at me
when I said I was moving out, at 17?
And did either of you read my last book?
And why do you tell people
you’re going to kill the man in the trailer next door?”

I’m waiting here alone, drinking tea instead of gin, I’m respectable!
My brother tells me, on the phone,
“Civilized people do not leave their parents in their old age.”
I have ice floes in my mind, everywhere white.
Fur-trimmed mittens, arms linked.
The backs of hooded parkas. The mist whips between them and me.
Ice floes aweigh. I feel guilt and relief.
I should run after them, bring them back, and serve them tea.
The desire to run after them disappears.
I grab the door of the plane, hoist myself in.
I don’t look down.
Are they waving up at me?

Tea is at 11 and again at 3. Breakfast comes right after coffee,
which is at 8, with a muffin or a scone.
Breakfast is oatmeal and lunch is at noon,
dinner is at 6 right after the 5 o’clock news.

Dad talks too much, stories from 35 years ago;
something someone said at the office is still bothering him.
Or what about the time he threatened to throw the tax auditor down the stairs?
Or the time he turned the hose on the guy next door.
Or what big losers Margaret Atwood and Joni Mitchell are.

The queen mother calls to mother west wind.
“Let’s be nice, alright? Bless the castle, and the titles, and protocol.”
What I’d really like to ask is,
“Why’d you throw that huge glass of chocolate milk at me
when I said I was moving out, at 17?”
The queen mother calls to mother west wind, to mother west wind.
“Bless the castle, and the titles, and protocol.”

“Ice Floes Aweigh” from the album The Family Swan (Kill Rock Stars, 2002) (download):

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Normal History Vol. 379: 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 32-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

In late February, I was beyond thrilled when an artist whose paintings were exhibited in the 2014 Whitney Biennial bought a painting from my ongoing series of $100 portraits, and soon thereafter made this bold comment on my Facebook page.

“Jean Smith is a fucking genius. She is one half of the long running avant garde band, Mecca Normal and she is a published novelist and lately she is writing and posting lengthy tender reports on the banality of aging, living, loving, working. She is unsentimental, but her work always leaves me with my own bruised longing exposed.”

—Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Adjunct Assistant Professor, Art Institute of Chicago; Visiting Critic, Yale University School Of Art

tag: art, labor history, tender reports

“No Mind’s Eye” from the album The Family Swan (Kill Rock Stars, 2002) (download):

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