First appearing in Normal History, the weekly Mecca Normal collaboration column of music, art and writing for Magnet Magazine. Currently at Vol. 612.
In her own words, here is Evelyn McDonnell’s Book Notes entry for her memoir, Mamarama: A Memoir of Sex, Kids and Rock’n’Roll:
“Some people fantasize about who will play them in the movie of their life. I think about the soundtrack. Mamarama: A Memoir of Sex, Kids and Rock’n’Roll is as much about my lifelong obsession with pop, punk, funk, rock, hip-hop, R&B, etc., as it as about my long odyssey to parenthood.
The first playlist I came up with, of songs that were mentioned in or captured a mood or moment of the book, had more than 100 tracks. (I gave it to the DJ who’s spinning at my Feb. 16  launch party in Miami; you can also see it at http://www.mamaramabook.com.) Then I honed it down to the essentials: 50. Finally I got brutal. Below are the tunes that without which, there would be no Mamarama; sometimes, I feel like there would be no me.” — Evelyn McDonnell
1. Mecca Normal, “Narrow”: Jean Smith sets an analogous moral compass as I set out to retrace my life steps.
In the new 10-minute CBC video by filmmaker Rami Katz, “you’ll see David Lester take you through his intricate process of illustrating this notable protest [Winnipeg General Strike, 1919] and the challenge of depicting historic figures and events with contemporary urgency.” -from the CBC article by Lucius Dechausay
A scene from David Lester’s ‘1919: A Graphic History of the Winnipeg General Strike’.
“Recurring themes of social justice are at the heart of David Lester’s drawings and prevalent in two of his upcoming graphic novels. The first centres on the last year of the life of anarchist, political activist and writer Emma Goldman, who died in 1940; the second is about Benjamin Lay, a radical Quaker who fought against slavery in the 18th century. In choosing to tell Goldman’s story right now, Lester is profoundly interested in depicting how she maintained her commitment to her ideals even though she would never live to see them realized.” – CBC article by Lucius Dechausay
The room was full by the time we started, with a handful of late arrivals crammed into the foyer by mid set. It was important to Dave and I that we do a run through before upcoming big shows and I think everyone there knew that, yet it was definitely its own show and as such, it was fantastic! Wait. Am I allowed to say that
I was giddy from the get go. Thrilled that the car started after I connected the battery! On the drive to the venue (beautiful, sunny afternoon) I was rattling on to Dave about houses and mortgages, periodically asking if it was too much, with him replying that he wanted me to do whatever I needed to do in advance of the show and me saying back that I didn’t want to be overwhelming him. What a great band dynamic, eh?
Part of the endless thrills was no doubt due to the euphoria of selling so many paintings in February (78). Adding to this result is the basis of my situation — I don’t do any socializing, so it was fantastic to get a few hugs and more than a few laughs!
One of the themes was forgetting. Some of it due to age and changes of the brain, at other times it would be that events were simply a long time ago. One of those was the case of someone introducing himself and asking if I remembered him. Nope. Sorry! He showed me a photo on his phone of a show that I didn’t remember playing. His band, the name of which I didn’t remember, played. Then he went to Dave and I overheard the same scenario. Nope. Nope. And nope. Then I heard Wendy asking Dave to not let her forget her coat in a closet and I had to ask Dave to remind me to disconnect the battery after we loaded in.
As I was singing, I was thinking about the long history of… everything. Playing shows here and on tour, writing songs with Dave, our connection to Bikini Kill and Olympia. The venue — a park fieldhouse — was apparently significant to Dave because he grew up with them. The City of Vancouver has been offering these fieldhouses up for art and community projects and this one, run by Lisa Marr (formerly of Cub) is a satellite of her LA-based project, Echo Park Film Center. Walking into the space during the protest sign making workshop was… visceral in a way that’s specific to the length of time I’ve been around and my proximity to… and appreciation of… small, but very intensely focused projects that can and do have the potential to create the exact type of change they intend to, but also, above and beyond that, there’s a sense of explosive potential that’s palpable. The light, the height of the ceiling, the shadows on the wall, the temperature, the Indian sweets and samosas laid out with great generosity, welcoming gifts for both of us, many laughs in the sparkling repartee, warmth, a sort of astonishment swirling around accepting that we’re still here, alive and kicking, all these years later, meeting yet again to consider and respond to the ways of the world with how we structure our lives, what we create, how we share it. Knowing that for anyone who thought they missed the boat, that right now actually feels way better than it did in the 80s and 90s as far as personal interactions go. Now all the things we’ve learned along the way can be implemented into, for Mecca Normal, the very same structure. Tricks of the trade and knowing more about human nuances.
Lisa offered us the opportunity to use the fieldhouse for rehearsals. This is fantastic! I mentioned that I would like to write songs in a place where I’m not aware of my neighbours hearing me. I don’t like bothering people and I don’t want to be restricting my creativity. I’m looking forward to writing more loud and fast songs. And, when I move and open the artist residency, we can rehearse there at times when it works better for Dave to stay in Vancouver! It’s been bugging me how this would all work. The answer has arrived! It felt like a giant door had opened! Again, quite a visceral sensation.
All of this was after everyone had left. I’m jumping around here.
Nearing the end of the set, two people arrived and, as I was singing, I was thinking… cripes… we don’t have any extra songs… should we try and play longer, but… the end had already been established… but the great thing was that after we played the woman came over to the merch table and told me our bands played the same bill in Montreal. She didn’t know where and I didn’t recognize the name of her band. The Snitches. I asked if it was the show where the guy lit the pig’s head on fire. Nope. Then her husband came over and basically the first thing he said was funny and I said to her, “Wait. Is he funny?” She said that he was and that’s why she picked him. They found each other on OK Cupid. He’d also said something fairly fabulous about looking for someone who lived with specific intention… some lovely bit of romantic philosophy that resonated with her. He said she was funny too. This conversation was really great and I was wondering how much of it was because of the giddy relief of having done the show and had such a fantastic turn out and reaction or because I am wildly out of balance living in the solitude I’m thriving in. I’m not lonely, but some days I’m highly aware that the person I socialize with most is Mona at the post office and we talk about her daughter’s dog and her husband’s inversion table (as well as everything I’m doing).
I had an urge to say, “Hey, I’d be into getting together for coffee some time and continuing this great conversation!” Um, this is practically the opposite of my general stance of not meeting anyone for anything. So… what’s up with that? Some kinda glee had set in. I should say that this was the result of getting to a point of talking about narcissism. They had both nodded knowingly. “Not like vanity or whatever,” I clarified. “But the actual personality disorder.” And yes, they knew of what I spoke. So that was all good!
As people were leaving, I finally got myself over to the Indian sweets. There was a person sitting there who hadn’t been there for the show. We were introduced. The partner of one of the lovely organizers and a former member of Cub (three in attendance as the wonderful Valeria Fellini was there too!) All good, but I was hyper aware that this person was not on the wavelength that had been created in the room. Anyway, so I said to Lisa that I’d had a great conversation with these two people who had in fact been at other fieldhouse events, and I mentioned that I’d even suggested we meet for coffee. To which Lisa said, “But you don’t meet people for coffee.” Which was really funny because when we met last month to talk about the show, that was my thing. Not coffee. It turned out to be sushi. Better! So I said to Lisa, but to anyone who could hear, because when you’ve just done a show as a singing / speaking role, you’re “on” for as long as the audience members are there. It’s a continuation of the show and it’s what I love about smaller shows and I was riding yet another roller of the euphoric wave du jour. So I said to Lisa, “I met some really interesting people!” …but, as I said this I looked directly at the partner of the former Cub member sitting next to the plate of Indian sweet wearing a watchman’s cap pulled down low, almost over the eyebrows, totally different vibe, likely there to pick up their partner. Pick up… like, with a car. I still hadn’t managed to get at the Indian sweets. So (I’m getting there) I made eye contact right as I was saying “interesting people” and then, very aware that this had happened, I quickly looked back at Lisa and returned to the energy that had been built, some of which is me being slightly unfiltered and hoping for the best in terms of being funny. It’s a great dynamic that’s important to the complexity of our performance. So… I ended up looking back at the partner and saying, “I’m sorry but I haven’t known you long enough to know if you’re one of those interesting people.” …omg… who does that? Anyway, I didn’t get punched or anything, but I don’t think it was appreciated.
I almost had to pull over while I was telling Dave this story on the drive home. I was laughing so hard tears were blurring my vision.
There was a moment as we were pulling out of the venue parking lot that shows you what kind of guy Dave is. First, he made and brought small signs to direct people to the show from the road into the parking lot and then, as we drove back to the main road and I saw his signs for the first time. He said, “Should I take them down?” And I said, “No. Let’s leave them for posterity’s sake.” Which, I realized didn’t exactly make sense, but somehow these signs reminded me of a show we did in Berlin soon after the wall came down. Die Insel. The Island. Very difficult to find for very complex reasons — some of which were because of how streets and maps were being rejigged after the city was unified. Someone had gone out well in advance of our arrival and put up signs on posts for us and others to follow!!! Like, way beyond the call of duty, way farther afield than anything normal. We finally found the venue (photo below) and I’m sure someone was waiting there for us to help load in across the bridge! I hope I never forget the sensation of being shown where we would be sleeping. Three white mats laid out on the floor of a beautifully austere white room in this amazing Kulturhaus. One for both of us and one for our beloved tour meister and dear friend Dirk. Some nights it was difficult to find the angry feminist and man, those shows were long in Europe. They wanted an hour… sometimes two.
So Dave says, “I don’t want Lisa to have to take the signs down.”
How did I get so lucky to have such a considerate friend as David Lester?
photos from the show by the great Bob Hanham
Time lapse video by Lisa Marr
March 14, 2020
At some point, K Records staffer Dirk Kinsey wrote about us, but I’m not sure where or for what purpose.
Mecca Normal stands as one of my favorite bands, K or otherwise. In putting together a playlist, I kept coming back to them, to the point it made more since to just indulge in my role as chooser and go 100% Mecca Normal. For those of you that are unfamiliar with these seminal northwest anarchists, consider it a primer. I’ve tried to include both classics and some relatively deep cuts. Jean and David have tapped into a thing you would be hard pressed to replicate. The simplicity of guitar and vocals, the kinetic power of the performance, the fact that these two are coming into their THIRD decade of working together, blows me away every time. Often times, Mecca Normal will come up in conversation amongst musicians I know and a seriousness will take over, heads nodding gravely, a mix of reverence, fascination, maybe a little intimidation. “Waiting for Rudy”, “Are You Hungry Joe?”, “I Walk Alone” remain as politically relevant now as they were 25 years ago. The older I get and the better I understand how much it takes to survive your youth with ideals intact, the more these songs mean to me. Strident, unflinching, topical, the Mecca Normal vibe is not the most easily digested. But beyond the initial challenge, you’ll be rewarded with music that has a grace, depth and razor sharp edge.
“Empathy for the Evil” (M’lady’s Records, 2014)
“…Smith’s characters deal with the inequality and power imbalances that mark modern society.” – Colin Joyce, Pitchfork (USA)
“…the songs speak to understanding the inherent nature of frayed humanity.” – Eric Risch, PopMatters (USA)
“Turning long, thick passages of prose into singable, memorable songs, Mecca Normal have revolutionized their music again. If you think you’ve already heard everything this band is capable of, you need to hear Empathy For The Evil and find out just how wrong you are. After a long-delayed release, you will finally get a chance. Do not miss this one.” – J Neo Marvin, Ear Candle Productions (San Francisco)
“For the thoughtful listener who appreciates both a good work of fiction and a nice dose of indie folk ‘Empathy for the Evil’ is the record for you.” – Mark Anthony Brennan, Ride the Tempo (Canada) rated 4 out of 5 stars
“… Smith’s words are full of wisdom and humour and cut right through the materialism of the world of rock.” – Tucker Petertil, The Big Takeover (New York)
“Duo Jean Smith and David Lester have been making raw, stripped-down garage rock since the mid 1980s. It’s rare to have this much power and emotion come from one guitarist and one singer. They always keep it real.” – Dawn Jewell, NPR-affiliate WOUB (Athens, Ohio), Top Albums of 2014
“The songs on Empathy are mesmerizing, with Smith sucking you with her trance-like vocals and poetic lyrics backed by Lester’s equally as spellbinding guitar riffs.” – Steve Long, Red Dirt Report (Oklahoma)
“Songs like the rollicking “Art Was the Great Leveler” and the more subdued “Normal” focus on the intricacies of the artist’s life – the things that connect, join folks together and perhaps drive wedges between them. I can think of no one better than Smith and Lester to show us the way.” – Alison Lang, Broken Pencil (Canada)
“It’s not really important that Mecca Normal has hung around for thirty years, what is important is that they’ve weathered the constant assaults on a disabled industry, and the destructive powers of time, which can eat away at your passion and your partnership. You put on Empathy for the Evil, and it’s like your listening to Mecca Normal at the height of the Riot Grrrl movement, when the Northwest was the center of the music world, when people appreciated the ingenuity and the artistry of artists like Jean Smith and David Lester.” – Brian Snider, Secretly-Important (Seattle)
“Art is the Great Leveler, is a beautiful tale weaving Smith’s love for art and relationships, how art can bring two people together.” – Troy Michael, Innocent Words (Chicago)
“This is a masterpiece of story and manifesto, a lesson in life…” – Sean Michaels, Said the Gramophone (Canada)
“Mecca Normal is not a normal band. They’re free of clichés, unconcerned with catchy pop hooks or mass appeal. They have made some art, and they’d like you to enjoy it on their terms. It’s refreshing, and I’m digging it.” – Abe Beeson, Nado Mucho (Pacific Northwest)
“If you’re interested in an adrenalin experience which features angst rock themes that challenge the slow flow of our society, look no further.” – Eden Gillespie, Happy (Australia)
“Their sound is now and ever shall be weird, unhip, oddly alluring and precise.” – Patrick Rapa , Philly City Paper
“Empathy For The Evil is as pure an expression of conscious, intelligent rock music as you’re likely to hear, with every track, from Art Was The Great Leveller to Odele’s Bath, providing food for mind and soul alike.” – The Crack Magazine (UK)
“The uncompromising art of Mecca Normal has been one of the more inspiring stories of the last 30 years.” – Bob Ham, The Weekly Spin (Portland)
“It’s interesting to hear a group from THEN — the ’80s—continuing to play into the NOW. Like, Mecca Normal have been together for 30 years, and in context with contemporary “indie” groups, they sound like fucking GIANTS! Their maturity and immediacy screams in the face of contemporary “indie,” which, as it became pop music, has become parody. Mecca Normal never conceded to pop-radio aims, they just kept growing their own.” – Mike Nipper, The Stranger (Seattle)
“I had never seen Mecca Normal perform live before, and I was totally thrilled and blown away. They mostly performed songs from their new record Empathy for the Evil, which is fantastic…” – This is Fag City (New York)
“This is a thoughtful, moving, and reflective album completely out of step with anything in commercial music – which is, of course, a good thing.” – Allan MacInnis, Georgia Straight (Vancouver)
“A fascinating piece, minimalist and upsetting. This new album is beautiful.” – K-Fuel, webzine (France)
“Moved inside for Mecca Normal. What can you say? Listening to Jean intone a phrase like “Art Was the Great Leveler” (1st song on the new album, Empathy for the Evil) while David whacks the elasticity out of what always sound like brand-new strings has been one of the consistent pleasures of my music-going life.” – Franklin Bruno, live review of a show at Troost, New York City
“Mecca Normal has been speaking truth to power since 1984. By day Mecca Normal is mild-mannered writer Jean Smith and graphic artist David Lester, by night the duo wield voice and guitar as weapons of mass provocation, spreading their message of change and social justice far and wide.” – Shawn Conner, Vancouver Sun
“They remain in fine form on the provocatively entitled new album Empathy for the Evil, again mixing the personal and political.” – Kerry Doole, New Canadian Music
“Their insistence that a punk group could be made up of just two people following their own rules — no bass player, quiet guitar/loud vocals, storytelling as a performance art — challenged the prevailing definitions of “punk,” re-enforcing an alternate, more radical definition rooted in the DIY ethic.” — Wondering Sound (New York)
“But instead of celebrating or castigating evil, Smith traces how the absence of empathy manifests as something that looks very much like it: narcissism.” – Bill Meyer, Magnet Magazine (USA)
“The new album’s guitar- and organ-driven single ‘Wasn’t Said’ offers an introspective introduction to their lyrically focused and poignant rock realism. Their set should be a charmingly unhinged, rare treat. Recommended.” – by Brittnie Fuller, The Stranger
“Her (Jean’s) performance is like a thunderstorm, breathtaking and powerful, in which every lightning bolt is politically-charged.” – Dillon Ramsey, Master’s candidate at SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts, Vandocument (Vancouver)
“With this awe-inspiring show of moral and musical strength, Mecca Normal concludes Wrong Wave 2014 in all the right ways.” – Dillon Ramsey, Master’s candidate at SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts, Vandocument (Vancouver)
“The overall vibe of this interview is testament to the fact that Mecca Normal is definitely not some relic of bygone times but a vibrant and prolific artistic force. I’ll admit that I was only familiar with their musical output, of which I consider to be absolutely necessary to listen to if you haven’t already. I have had my eyes opened to the other artistic outputs of this duo — Jean Smith and David Lester.” – Getting Past The Static (Austin, TX)
“In the early nineties I bought my first Mecca Normal album, the cassette tape of “Dovetail,” released in 1992 by Olympia-based independent record label K Records. I was 13 or 14.” –
Politically, riot grrrl blasted feminism into the future
Mecca Normal ‘I Walk Alone’ (1986)
“Because of their geographic, sonic and political proximity, the Vancouver duo Mecca Normal got swept up in the categorization of riot grrrl, but in fact, Jean Smith and David Lester had helped inspire Hanna to pick up a microphone. They have also survived the moment, still collaborating to this day. “I Walk Alone,” from their first album, set the tone for much of what was to follow. It’s the anthem of a woman staking her claim to independence, solitude, home, safety, the streets and freedom. Bold, blunt, raw and feminist, it remains timely and necessary.” – Evelyn McDonnell
“I Walk Alone” is also on our new album in a three-song medley with “Man Thinks Woman” and “Strong White Male”
LIVE in Montreal, 1996 is part of the CBC Radio Brave New Waves Sessions series (Artoffact Records, 2019)