Surviving The Underground: On Making Art And Getting By

Rather than present a quasi-factual, semi-amusing trajectory through origins of the word "underground" — complete with references to the Underground Railroad and the Weather Underground — I want to open a window into how and why I do things. I invite everyone reading this to compare this to conventional objectives of mainstream bands.

Historically, artists have been put into categories invented by the media, defined by journalists who grapple with language to supply the general public with impressions. Naming groups and movements makes it easier for the media to chronicle versions of history in terms of beginnings, leaders, influences and demise. Beginning a group practically demands that it end, to make room for new groups, new terms, new fashions — all required to keep selling product.

My band, Mecca Normal is an underground duo of voice and guitar that has never intended to be famous, rich or even liked. In 1985, I started a record label from my fanzine which was sub-titled "A How to Change the World Publication" — amusing, yes, but I knew that individual voices were important to the process of positive social change. When we put out our first LP, it was promptly called the worst record ever made by a reviewer who added that my guitar player should kill me. Meanwhile, the same city's college-radio station had us at No. 1. Being disliked and appreciated have both contributed to our intensity and longevity.

Listen to "Strong White Male" by Mecca Normal (Oh Yes You Can! 7" on Smarten UP! Records, 1987, K Records CD 1995):

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The activity of not attempting to get somewhere in terms of what already exists presents an opportunity to make things up as we go along. It was a thrill to get a playlist in the mail from Moscow, Idaho — a place we'd never even heard of — and a strange sensation to get a letter from a guy in Arkansas who'd been beaten up for wearing one of our weirdo T-shirts. We went on tour because it was a scary adventure, not to sell records.

When we talk to journalists, we use the opportunity to bring up useful ideas about organizing grassroots culture as opposed to boasting about how many hot dogs our drummer ate after the show. Besides, we don't have a drummer.

After 15 years of cobbling together an income as a musician and a writer, I needed to get a job. Once ensconced in routine, working seemed like a vacation compared to managing the band, booking tours, dealing with artwork, recording, labels and promotion. Problems don't disappear for bands that make big money: They employ roadies, drivers and technicians who are counting on that income, and the artist is then under pressure to keep things going — albums, tours, maintaining the style that sells, not taking chances creatively.

Listen to "Armchairs Fit Through Doorways" by Mecca Normal (7" on K Records, 1991, CD 1995):

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I thrive while turning customer service in a clothing store into performance art, or reading sections of my manuscript to clients while I worked at Curves — the gym for women who hate gyms. I use jobs as a source of songs and stories, and as a sort of abstract comparative study — how conventional people live. A part-time job takes pressure off my creativity. I'm not thinking about how well a song will sell. I make songs for other reasons, including happiness.

I live frugally, but I must also deal with a lack of financial security. My employment insurance runs out this week. I need to get a job, and I will apply at shops in the neighborhood. I won't work for Nike or McDonald's, but I may work someplace that someone else might deem to be a sell-out based on their interpretation of my views on the viability of capitalism as opposed to something better. The descriptive terms people use reflect their understanding and orientation, not mine. It is not my priority to live in implausible circumstances — in purity — to avoid twits calling me names. See? I can be as hypocritical as the next joker.

Listen to "1922" by Mecca Normal (from The Observer, Kill Rock Stars, 2006):

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The value of being creative is not the object that remains at the end; it is the time engaged in the process. Really, it shouldn't matter if anyone else is exposed to it, let alone if it is deemed good enough to sell. Commerce doesn't inherently apply to every aspect of life. There can be quality without an imminent exchange of goods for money.

We were playing at What the Heck Fest in Anacortes, Wash., and we watched a discussion on a motel TV in which author and historian Howard Zinn was answering a question from the audience — a woman asked how she could participate in underground culture. How should she begin? Zinn gave an overview of networks of activities, overlapping and interacting; this would encourage and facilitate social change. I felt included in the big picture. Zinn delivered his ideas so eloquently — even though he's probably said nearly the same thing a thousand times — that it felt like a moment of clarity occurring. I felt fortified. I think I might have actually jumped up and down on the bed. Okay, I did.

I think that for many lyricists, painters and filmmakers, there is a sense of not wanting to say the wrong thing. I find it difficult to make political art and, hey, I'm pretty much known as a political artist. It is difficult to live this way, but it's exciting to come up with viable solutions within a creative collaboration as a focal point. It is possible to take something you care about and make it your life.

Listen to "In Canada" by Mecca Normal (Who Shot Elvis?, Matador Records, 1997)

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Every Saturday, Magnet Magazine posts a new illustration by David Lester. "The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band's 25-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith." There is also a free Mecca Normal MP3 with every post.

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Listen to "This Is Different" by Mecca Normal (7" on K Records, 1991, CD 1995):

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Mecca Normal "Attraction is Ephemeral" (A self-portrait film by Jean Smith):

Mecca Normal "Trapped Inside Your Heart" (film by Jean Smith):

Mecca Normal is Jean Smith (vocals/lyrics) and David Lester (guitar).

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