Globe and Mail

Ten Famous Canadians you’ve never heard of
Canada’s best-kept secrets in the arts

June 29, 2007 at 11:59 PM EDT

JAMES ADAMS

Late last year, critic-musician Franklin Bruno, writing in the Boston Phoenix, one of America’s oldest “underground” newspapers, declared that the best rock record of 2006 was The Observer by the Vancouver-based duo Mecca Normal (a.k.a. Jean Smith, 47, and David Lester, 49). Better, he claimed, than White Bread Black Beer by Britain’s Scritti Politti, his No. 2 choice, better than Sound Grammar by New York jazz legend Ornette Coleman, better even than Songs and Other Things by Television founder Tom Verlaine.

It’s a pretty safe bet The Observer didn’t end up on any similar list from a Canadian critic. In part, this is because the disc was released by Seattle’s small Kill Rock Stars label and distributed, as most of Mecca Normal’s records usually have been, as an import. Partly, too, it’s because Mecca Normal, with a repertoire of self-penned songs with titles like I’m Not into Being the Woman You’re With While You’re Looking for the Woman You Want and Don’t Heel Me Like a Dog Just to Break Me Like a Horse, remains stubbornly sui generis – “the Buckley’s cough syrup of rock” – 20-plus years and 12 or so full-length records after its formation. As vocalist/keyboardist Smith remarked recently: “We operate Mecca Normal as a vehicle to put across ideas. I didn’t start a band and then try to think of things to say. I had things to say, so I started a band … We aren’t changing to satisfy trends or new audiences; anything we want to do, we give it a try.”

She added: “From the very beginning, there have been those who love what we do and those who hate it, and both of those positions give us inspiration and encouragement.”

Sometimes the things Mecca Normal has wished to say haven’t taken a musical form. Indeed, Lester, the group’s guitarist, and Smith – who stresses they’re “not a couple … We have an excellent friendship” – have “included art exhibits, lectures, publishing, writing (Smith’s novel Broke Like Me, her third or fourth work of fiction, will be published next year) and graphics into the Mecca Normal vehicle.” The duo has worked various day jobs to keep the vehicle running — Lester’s the editor and designer of B.C. BookWorld while Smith, a former ski instructor, has a steady gig as “a fitness technician encouraging and instructing women in weight-bearing exercise.”

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David Lester and Jean Smith are Mecca Normal (photo by Jean Smith)
Neither Lester nor Smith has ever seriously considered moving out of Vancouver to, say, New York (Mecca Normal has opened for Sonic Youth and Fugazi) or Seattle. True, “we have made a lot of friends in the U.S. over the years,” perhaps because “Americans believe or hope that art and music can change the world – more than Canadians” and because “the gregarious nature of Americans, their energy” provides more of a boost to Mecca Normal’s live shows. But, noted Smith, “we did not set out to be famous … [we’re] not essentially a ‘get-ahead’ kind of a band.”

Yes, if fame and fortune ever come to the band that once produced this couplet “You vote Socred next time instead of NDP/I’m gonna have to wonder about you and me,” it’s gonna come on their own terms.

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