Thursday, May 22, 2014


This is my Grandpas's brief sketch of the details of his life, written when the rest of the family requested him to, a few years ago. 

I never met any of my grandparents. I think my dad's parents died in Europe.  My mother's family was upper middle class. Her father owned a small department store in the Black Sea port city of Odessa. Fleeing both radicals and anti-Semites in l902 they came to the US, where they settled in Meridian, Mississippi.  I think my Uncle Ben and Aunt Molly were both born in Mississippi. There were four sisters (Molly, Mary, Celia, and my mother,Luba).There were three brothers (Mike, Charley, and Ben). Mike and Charley were in the Navy in World War I; Ben was just a boy. Sometime before World War I they moved up North.

My mother worked as a waitress and cashier in a restaurant whose name I never knew, but she says that the composer Victor Herbert was a steady customer, so it must have been in Manhattan.  My father came from dirt poor farmers the area of Belitza. The closest city to make it onto the map was Kovno, sometimes in Russia, but mostly in Poland. He and his siblings came to the US one at a time in the first decade of the twentieth century. A sage and a scholar and an extremely smart and good man, he found work as a plumber and helped lay the sewer line of Hartford Connecticut at what was then the princely sum of a dollar a day,
my great grand father
six days a week.  He put his kid brother,Bernard, through the University of Michigan medical school.  Days after we entered the First World War he enlisted in the 101st machine gun battalion of the 26th (Yankee) Division, along with many other rash youngsters, many of them undergraduates at Yale and Trinity College, Hartford.

When these aristocratic guys came as middle aged physicians
and attorneys and businessmen to conventions in Atlantic City, they often visited Bill Crane, who had honeymooned in AC, and when my mother compared it favorably to Paradise, pulled up stakesin New England and moved there. It was a boomtown, and Freddy (born in '22), and I (born in '26)and Bobby (born in '28)  all graduated from ACHS, and went on to snappy schools like MIT and Princeton, although none of us were as sharp as our parents, who never finished high school. Your mom's great aunt Harriet left her 10,000 dollars for college, which bought her a Bachelor's from Penn and a Master's from Chicago, two good schools. I don't have a BA but I had a war and I earned an MA at Chicago in '50 and a PhD at Illinois (where I started teaching college) in '53.

Somewhere in there I attended Villanova, which was the luckiest break of my life, because I ran into your Mother (editor’s note:  my grandmother) on a bus going from Philly to AC. We have four marvelous children, whose names I forget, plus five grandchildren and a couple of beautiful greatgrandchildren, all of them really nice people. In March we'll celebrate Mom's 80th birthday and our 58th anniversary. We'll probably buy a couple of Big Macs to help celebrate the fact that we have helped populate this earth with some genuinely admirable folks.

My Dad's brothers were Harry, Bernard, and Max. Harry's children were Herbert (Skippy), who welcomed you and Beth to the Great Northwest, Sidney (Smokey), Florence (Flossie) and Miriam (Mitzi). Herb was a combat infantryman in Europe, Sid flew bombers in the Pacific. You went to a party at Flossie's house in Margate. You don't know Mitzi at all. Herb does a lot with opera in Portland. Bernard had two daughters, Phyllis (whom you've met) is a court stenographer in Portland, Ruthie is a concert pianist and author and ex-professor in San Antonio. Her husband, Sam Friedberg, taught for years at Duke Medical School. He was a navy doctor in the Korean war. Their son Michael was an attending physician in El Paso when I went to see my brother Bobby for the last time. He's pretty sharp. Max had one son, Milton Crane, who taught at Harvard, Hunter, Wm&Mary, Chicago,and George Washington. He wrote a lot of books; I read only three, "The Roosevelt Era", "The Sins of New York", and "Shakespeare's Prose," which ALL doctoral candidates in English have to read. Milton was section chief in the OSS during the war, and consulted with the CIA up until his death.  You and Jon visited him in DC in '73. His son John blows oboe with the NYU Philharmonic. His son Peter, an attorney, lives near you. (Seattle, Maybe.) Milton's wife Sibylle was a holocaust survivor and a genuine linguistic genius.  I went to U of C because Milton was there. Mom went because I was there. Montel can't use any of this but I thought you'd like to know. If you need more send me specific questions.

Grandpa taking it all in when we visited Olympia, WA

Grandma and Grandpa on a double date

Grandpa, my father and aunt

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Be Cool

It’s so much harder to be cool these days.  I don’t chalk it up to me being in my thirties, because I’m not talking about the kind of cool that happens from being ‘with it’ and knowing what’s popular these days.  If I was able to have an extended conversation with a 20 year old about dubstep or I-phone apps, for instance, I would feel sorry for myself for having wasted my time knowing about these things.  I only care about being able to consider myself cool, and I’m not measuring it by my tastes in things or my sense of aesthetics, which I feel to be just perfect (I never feel uncool, for instance, for owning a bunch of action comedies – instead I feel like I’ve earned the right to chuckle at a Bruce Willis quip, considering all the hours I’ve spent enraptured with huge downer films like Melancholia or Badlands).  What type of coolness concerns me is a cool mindset, and being able to stand behind my actions. 

I’ve come to the conclusion that Facebook has ruined my coolness.  Facebook approval (hyperlink) is the same kind of thing for me as when the internet didn’t exist and I’d sometimes seek face-to-face approval by saying “Oh, I know!” about things I didn’t agree with.  I can remember living in Olympia, where there was a really prescribed set of cool standards (only highwater pants, only dyed black hair (no purple or green etc because that’s trying too hard), no favorite Grateful Dead songs (only favorite Chuck Berry classics or the deep cuts from the Nuggets Psychedelic Era box set, early Rolling Stones, The Vaselines – these are a few examples of the approved regimen when I lived there). Sometimes I’d find myself joining in a conversation about the new arrival trying too hard to get friendly with everyone, and I’d inwardly be thinking “Aw, she reminds me of me last year.  Not cool, Robin.” 

Similarly, I feel kind of ashamed of myself when I have recently posted a picture of myself on Facebook and check my Facebook page over three times that day.  I admire people I know who are not on Facebook, but if I canceled my FB account, I would not know what was going on with several of my family members or old friends I’ve been curious about before I was on social networking sites.  I feel seriously and profoundly dull and bored when I go on Facebook, though.  When I post videos of a live Thin Lizzy performance or an old Pretenders song, I think, “Why am I not just listening to the record right now?”  

my idea of cool, a pictorial

Dressing Crazy to Hang Out on Your Porch Instead of Saving it Up for Events


Acute Smartness


Love and Rockets Comics

Henry Darger Art except the Really Disturbing Ones

Choosing Not to Fix Bad Teeth

Secular Humanism

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

My Interview with Mecca Normal

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, still crafting my identity, and the albums I bought by my favorite bands were instrumental in showing me a variety of Underground aesthetics.  In addition to Mecca Normal's amazing and full sound (the fullness would have seemed impossible to me before I’d heard them, since the band only consists of two people), they were instrumental in showing me that aesthetics could be blended together, instead of stringently separated.  I was growing to love the verse-chorus-verse structure and screamed sexual politics and outrage of bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, but I was also drawn to the experimental atonal classics of Velvet Underground.  Mecca Normal’s Jean Smith and David Lester combine experimental, atonal sounds with sexual politics and outrage to create songs both socially aware and strangely melodic.

I recently interviewed both Jean Smith and David Lester, requesting that they each answer the same questions; knowing that they’ve worked together for twenty-plus years, I was incredibly curious to know how their answers to the same questions would be in tune or differ.  

Jean Smith and David Lester of Mecca Normal.
Photos by Sean Raggett.

Mecca Normal BIO: The literary rock duo of Jean Smith (vocals) and David Lester (electric guitar) has released thirteen albums on Kill Rock Stars, Matador and K Records. Mecca Normal's 14th album "Empathy for the Evil" will be out September 16, 2014 on M'lady's Records.

1.   There is a lot of mention in the media of a renewed interest in 1990's culture.  Do you find that to be so, and if so, does it have a direct impact on your life?

JS:  It is extremely important to our intensity and longevity to feel that there is some sense of the past being both accessible and of interest to people who participated back then or to those who are just learning about the 1990s now. There were some very important ideals that originated within the D-I-Y and independent scenes that are still valid today. Women writing and performing music about their specific concerns is still essential. The creation of local, grassroots scenes or communities is perhaps more important than ever now that one can choose to opt out of local culture and immerse oneself in the much bigger picture -- or to work in solitude – both of which are fine, but not at the expense of having some sort of role or presence in communities based on grappling with personalities standing right in front of you.

DL:  I hope this look back at the 90s isn't just a new wave of nostalgia. For myself, I get a lot of inspiration, perspective and ideas out of history. I find that the older I get the more I want to discover what happened -- not just what happened 20 years ago -- 120 years ago, 520 years ago. I hope that when people look back at the 90s it is a way of looking forward.

Looking back can also shed light on how little has changed socially. The idea behind the Mecca Normal song "I Walk Alone" -- about a woman walking alone, wearing whatever she wants, entitled to be free of harassment -- is still relevant as seen in recent years with the activism of "Slut Walks" and the prevalence of "rape culture" on campuses across North America.

2.  Who, if anyone, do you credit as your greatest musical influence?

JS:  My father, I suppose. He frequently went to NYC (from Vancouver) during part of the 1960s when he was an ad agency art director using a Vogue photographer named John Rawlings (over 200 Vogue and Glamor covers) who was in the elite circle of Vogue photographers that included Irving Penn and models (including Lauren Hutton) for his ad campaigns.

My father typically called men by their last names. He worked with a variety of photographers; I remember hearing about Rawlings this and Rawlings that. It’s a good name. When he went to New York on business, he’d check in with John Rawlings  and I guess Rawlings liked my father because he’d somehow organize things so that he could shoot what my father was working on around what was happening. So, if Rawlings was doing some big fashion shoot, he’d add my father’s project in at the end and use the same lights and models that were set up for the bigger shoot.

Anyway, He brought me back incredible clothes from FAO Schwarz, the famous children's store, and he enthused about live jazz he saw at places like the Hickory House where Marian McPartland was, I believe, in residency [possibly at that time, but definitely in the 1950s], so I got lucky; I was exposed to a female jazz musician without being indoctrinated into the basic understanding that there were none (as per the vast majority of my parents' record collection, and, in those days, I didn't really think of singers as musicians per se).

He played a lot of jazz records at home and I watched how passionate he was about the music. It wasn't that he articulated his love of jazz; he exhibited it emotionally. He also brought back soundtrack LPs of a few shows he saw on and off Broadway including "Stop the World I want to Get Off" and "The Fantasticks". These included songs that were about very mysterious subjects. I got it that they pertained to specific storylines, and that my father's enthusiasm was related to the overall New York experience and everything these theatrical productions had ignited in him – so the songs weren't just stand-alone presentations of universal truths like boy-meets-girl. The way the songs were written -- and the way my father reacted -- provided me with the insight that the lyrics had back-stories and characters whose emotions progressed through a storyline. I have taken that approach in my own song-writing, especially when I make songs using the text from my novels. Our new album "Empathy for the Evil" is probably the best example of this.

DL:  Well... I could say Gang of Four, Phil Ochs, Paul Robeson, MC5, Poison Girls, Gustav Mahler, Au Pairs, but that would be too easy. The irony is that my greatest musical influence is Jean. By virtue of working together in Mecca Normal for 30 years, the music I create is inspired by Jean's evolving style of singing and writing. I think there is a point in an artist's life when they go from being influenced by others to being influenced by their own creativity.

3.  is there any band or solo artist you feel has been directly influenced by Mecca Normal?

JS:  Mecca Normal is referred to as an inspiration to the co-founders of the Riot Grrrl movement. David and I present a classroom event called "How Art & Music Can Change the World" within which we outline the ways in which Mecca Normal inspired Riot Grrrl, as an example of how it is actually possible to change the world. It is, in some ways, unacceptable to take credit for inspiring other bands -- or an entire social movement. It's awkward. It sounds pompous, but it's essential to recognize that it is actually possible to change the world, that we're not utterly powerless, that people should attempt to make the world better, that it isn't futile or idealistic… well, it may be idealistic, but it can actually happen.

In our early years in the mid-1980s, I spoke a lot from the stage, in between songs, encouraging young women to stop being the girlfriend of the guy in the band and get together with their women friends to start bands in which they were not the sexy front person, but to actually express what it was like for them as women in the scene or in society in general. I said this over and over at shows and the co-founders of Riot Grrrl were in attendance. We played in Olympia, Washington frequently because our record label was there.

DL:  Some musicians have told us how much a particular Mecca Normal show or song meant to them in there own development, either as musicians or just in life. When you make music, you never know how your work will be experienced by others. It's exciting when the music goes beyond our own expectations. We can make art with intent, but that art is not necessarily limited by our intentions.

4.  Do you have a favorite gig you ever played?  any crazy tour stories?

JS:  The tours we did with Peter Jefferies were some of my favorites. There's a video of a ten song set Mecca Normal played in Chicago at Lounge Axe in the mid 1990s that captures that era. David has a great guitar solo-y type thing (marked in the YouTube "About" section) and I play guitar on a couple of songs.

DL:  We played a show at a used-clothing store called Dumpster Values in Olympia in 2008. It was a benefit for a group called Books For Prisoners. The stage was a sort of wide box-table that was cleared of clothes. I put my amp in it and Jean and I climbed up on it and did a set of new songs. It was somewhat absurd and slightly awkward standing, performing on this tiny make-shift stage. Calvin Johnson of K Records was in the audience and he was really moved by our song called "Malachi" about anti-war activist Malachi Ritscher who self-immolated in 2006, in protest of the U.S. war in Iraq. Calvin later asked us to record it as a single for K. Which we did in 2010. The cover art and lyrics went on to be included in an exhibit about Malachi as part of the 2014 Whitney Biennial in New York. In 2012, we also recorded an acoustic version of the song with KRAMER in Florida, who contributed bass. I really like that Mecca Normal is flexible enough to play shows virtually anywhere and it isn't always the big shows that are most memorable. It can be the intimate performances that resonate for years in ways we could never have predicted.

5.  What is your favorite Mecca Normal album?  Your favorite song of yours (mine is "A Kind of a Girl)?

JS:  I tend to say "Flood Plain" for a favorite album, which "A Kind of a Girl" is on, but, as I go through all the albums and songs in sequence for our weekly column on Magnet Magazine online, I re-listen to everything and end up having new reactions to songs that have taken on different meanings or bring me back to when those ideas or emotions were fresh. It's tragic really that a lot of the angry feminist lyrics I wrote in the 1980s are still relevant.

For a favorite song, I'll go all the way back to the beginning, in 1984, when I wrote "Are You Hungry, Joe?" while listening to a radio documentary about poverty in Canada and the journalist interviewed a guy named Joe who was standing in a food bank line-up and the interviewer asked Joe what the worst thing about being hungry was and Joe said, "Almost worse than the pain in my stomach is knowing that nobody loves me. I could live or die and nobody loves me. It scares the hell out of me." He sounded pretty choked up. He stopped talking for a second before saying, "I can't talk when I cry."

This is what David Lester, Mecca Normal guitar-player, calls 'bearing witness'. Writing powerful lyrics can sometimes be the simple act of documenting what is happening politically, socially or personally.

Actually, Wasn’t Said on this upcoming album is pretty favorite-y. I love what KRAMER (the producer, plays bass on all songs, plus organ here and there) added to it on organ.

DL:  My favourite Mecca Normal albums are our first lp released in 1986 and our latest one, Empathy for the Evil, to be released in the Autumn of 2014 on M'lady's Records. There is a raw beauty to our first album that I don't think we could ever replicate because it was a product of the beginning of a musical partnership. Whereas our latest album is created from the experience of 1000 shows and the 13 albums that came before it. The pleasure of making songs with Jean is as exciting as when we began, and I think the new album reflects that.

Currently, I love listening to "Wasn't Said" off the upcoming album. Jean does an exceptional vocal on it.

6.  Who are your favorite contemporary musicians?

JS:  I think that either the idea of favorites has played out with me due to my age or that because everything is instantly accessible. I don't really hinge myself to the inherent limitation of favorites. Having said that I like the new album by Smut which sounds like the Jesus and Mary Chain doing sped-up Pavement songs. Also liking Hysterics – an all female hardcore punk band and Good Throb from the UK who sound like Vi Subversa of Poison Girls on vocals and Crass/Slits on the instruments.

DL:  It varies from day to day, but I like Chain & The Gang, Justin Trosper's new band Survival Knife, and Ruby Pins. But I keep discovering music that isn't particularly contemporary, like, Arvo Part's "Alina", or the Korean drumming group SamulNori with Kim Duk Soo.

7.  What/who are your favorite:  visual artist?  band?  Song?  Movies?  city/town?  Animal?

JS:  It’s amazing to have David Lester as an active creative partner for over 30 years. We actually worked together in a newspaper production department before we started Mecca Normal in 1984. In recent years, David and I have been cultivating individual projects, making time to write books and make art, and then we seem to find ways to bring these projects back into a group project as Mecca Normal. After David’s graphic novel “The Listener” was published in 2010., I created a stage adaptation that we performed as actors and as Mecca Normal on a book launch tour in Canada.

So... therefore David is an across-the-board favorite. Favorite city? David Lesterville!

DL:  Mecca Normal practices at Jean's apartment where she has some of her paintings up on the walls. They are richly evocative. I appreciate her bold use of line and colour. Sometimes she'll talk about how she painted them which I find really interesting because she's so articulate. It's the same when we discuss how she's editing one of her novels. A big part of any Mecca Normal practice is conversation, and that usually involves a discussion of the state of the world -- artistically, politically, socially -- all cut with a lot of laughter.

I'm a big fan of two British films, "Shooting The Past" about a photo library threatened with closure, but its really about history, and telling stories through visuals. "The Girl in the Cafe" is about making decisions based on what is right, rather than what is expedient. It stars the great Bill Nighy.

8.  Besides music, what are your other favorite artistic talents?

JS:  I have two published novels and four that I've completed that I'm working on getting published. Lyrics on the new album are directly out of two recently-written novels. “The Black Dot Museum of Political Art” is about Nadine MacHilltop, a museum curator who cures narcissism with abstract art. “Obliterating History – a guitar-making mystery, domination & submission in a small town garage” delves into the histories of three characters to reveal how personalities form.

I paint. Both my parents are painters. Good painters – abstract expressionists mainly. Some of my recent paintings are related to novels I've written. Several characters in the novels are painters whose work I described in great detail in the text before it struck me that I wanted to paint those images.

I write the text for a weekly column David Lester and I collaborate on for Magnet Magazine. I take FaceBook pretty seriously. I write about work or other kinds of social interaction and post it there. So, I guess I use FaceBook more like a blog. If it can be construed as an artistic talent to take up residence in uncomfortable situations, then I find that, as an enterprise, to be a talent that generates artistic expression. That is to say; I don't have a part time job in customer service so that I can write about it and I don't go on dates and start relationships with inappropriate men so that I have material to write about, but these things happen.

DL:  I'm currently working on a graphic novel about the anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman. My previous graphic novel was "The Listener", a dual story about Hitler's rise to power in 1933, and an artists search for meaning in the art of Europe after the death of a political activist. 

Jean Smith and David Lester of Mecca Normal.
Photo by Jean Smith.

Mecca Normal, Empathy for the Evil, M'lady Records, September 2014,
produced by KRAMER, cover by Jean Smith