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Malachi: Musical Act Mecca Normal Pays Tribute to Antiwar Activist Who Died by Self-Immolation

Web ExclusiveOctober 08, 2014
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Eight years ago, a Chicago musician, archivist and activist named Malachi Ritscher died after setting himself on fire to protest the war in Iraq. Before he died, Ritscher posted a message online that read, in part:

“If I am required to pay for your barbaric war, I choose not to live in your world. I refuse to finance the mass murder of innocent civilians, who did nothing to threaten our country. I will not participate in your charade — my conscience will not allow me to be a part of your crusade. There might be some who say ‘it’s a coward’s way out’ — that opinion is so idiotic that it requires no response. From my point of view, I am opening a new door.”

Earlier this year, the 2014 Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art featured an exhibit dedicated to Ritscher’s life. The pioneering Vancouver-based musical act Mecca Normal took part in the exhibit. In 1998, Mecca Normal recorded and released a song titled “Malachi.” The cover of that record was included in the Whitney exhibit. Also included was a poster about Malachi designed by David Lester.

The Malachi exhibit is now headed to Chicago, where it will open later this month at the Audible Gallery at Experimental Sound Studio.

Jean Smith and David Lester of Mecca Normal recently joined us to talk about their work and to perform two songs, “Malachi” and “Anguish/Misogyny.”

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re joined now by Mecca Normal, a band from Vancouver once described as a “pioneering anarchist-feminist-literary-punk-rock duo.” The group formed 30 years ago when poet Jean Smith teamed up with guitarist David Lester. They’ve just released their 14th album, Empathy for the Evil. Over the years, Mecca Normal has become an iconic band within the underground, do-it-yourself music world. It’s widely credited as a major influence on the feminist punk riot grrrl movement. Kathleen Hanna, who founded the band Bikini Kill, once said, quote, “Lyrically, Jean Smith of Mecca Normal was really poetic and had feminist ideas at the core of a lot of her songs and she wasn’t ashamed of it. She wrote a song about street harassment and the male gaze. And when I saw here I was just like, that’s it. I’m done. I’m sold.”

Well, earlier this year, Mecca Normal took part in the 2014 Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art as part of an exhibit dedicated to the life of Malachi Ritscher. He was a Chicago musician, an archivist, an activist, who died in 2006 when he set himself on fire to protest the U.S. war in Iraq. Before he died, Malachi posted a message online that read, in part, quote, “If I am required to pay for your barbaric war, I choose not to live in your world. I refuse to finance the mass murder of innocent civilians, who did nothing to threaten our country. I will not participate in your charade—my conscience will not allow me to be a part of your crusade. There might be some who say ’it’s a coward’s way out’—that opinion is so idiotic that it requires no response. From my point of view, I am opening a new door,” Malachi wrote.

Two years later, Mecca Normal recorded and released a song titled “Malachi.” The cover of that record was included in the recent Whitney exhibit. Also included was a poster about Malachi designed by, well, the guitarist, David Lester. The Malachi exhibit is now headed to Chicago, where it opens in October at the Audible Gallery at Experimental Sound Studio.

Jean Smith and David Lester, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. So, talk about this kind of installation that you did for the Whitney, “Malachi,” Jean.

JEAN SMITH: Well, it came out of mostly the poster that Dave did. We felt that was the seminal piece of our contribution. Malachi, of course, as you mentioned, was a sound archivist, so our set, that he had recorded a number of years earlier at the Empty Bottle in Chicago, was part of the exhibit.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, wait, no, explain that. So, you performed, and he recorded you.

JEAN SMITH: That’s right. But he did a lot of that. He was on the scene for mostly the free jazz in Chicago, but we overlapped a little bit. We had mutual friends. So—

AMY GOODMAN: And you came to know him because he told you, “I recorded your set.”

JEAN SMITH: Oh, no, we met him. We talked with him. We knew him. So, we also had an art exhibit up at that venue, a rock club. We had a little room upstairs that had David’s posters, the “Inspired Agitators” series, that had a lot of activists who—Paul Robeson, Emma Goldman—a collection of art that Malachi would have looked at. And then, later, the poster that David did would have been added to the “Inspired Agitators” series. But yeah, he recorded us and then later mailed us the CD of that recording and took a photo of it. But that’s just what he did in Chicago. He’s got hundreds, if not thousands, years’ worth of recordings. And that’s how he was known in Chicago. That was his contribution. He’s a true documentarian.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the poster that you made, David.

DAVID LESTER: Well, I have this long-running series called “Inspired Agitators,” as Jean mentioned, with people like Howard Zinn and Phil Ochs. And when I heard that Malachi had done what he had done as a protest, I thought that he fit the category for my poster series. I wanted to honor him in that way and to bring awareness to what he was protesting and use his words on the poster and create an image of him, but not an image of his face, but an image of him actually protesting in the street against war. And that’s how the poster came to be. And then Marc Fischer, who created the—who was asked to create an exhibit at the Whitney, he approached me about including my poster. And that’s kind of how it happened. And then, from that, after I did my poster, you—we—

JEAN SMITH: Well, we had already recorded the song, “Malachi.”

DAVID LESTER: Yeah.

JEAN SMITH: And that was at the point that we—we wrote the song at the point that we heard Malachi—we got an email from a friend. And as we normally do in rehearsal, we were just discussing his life. That’s how most of our songs come about, really, is a philosophical discussion of what’s on our mind. So on that particular day, we were together for rehearsal, and we wrote the song about Malachi. It’s a very straight narrative, really, about what happened and why he did this. But as time went on, we realized that we had now documented—made a document about the documentarian. And again, this is how art often works. Art and music and culture in general might shine a light on an act that otherwise would have not gotten much attention at all. I mean, his act was failed. His self-immolation was not seen as it was meant to see. He videoed the act, and it was never seen by the public.

AMY GOODMAN: He had it videotaped.

JEAN SMITH: Well, he set up a camera. He was alone there at the spot that he chose in Chicago.

AMY GOODMAN: And the date was?

JEAN SMITH: I think it was—was it 2006?

DAVID LESTER: Yeah, I don’t know the exact date of the actual—

JEAN SMITH: It was in November maybe.

DAVID LESTER: Yeah, I think so.

AMY GOODMAN: And he turned on the video camera.

JEAN SMITH: That’s right. As a documentarian, he documented his own death and the protest words that you’ve just read related to the incident. And he intended for someone to come and get it, which they did, but from there, it was meant to be aired widely and viewed, and it was meant to wake people up, to shake people up to the unjust war. That was his entire action. But it was severed, and it was not seen widely. I believe the family didn’t want it to be seen. So, we haven’t seen it. We don’t know anyone who has seen it. But it’s—the whole situation is tragic on many levels, but that seems the biggest part of the tragedy, that he gave his life, he died, to do something as an activist. He was a long-standing antiwar activist, and this was his final statement. And it was not—it was not viewed.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Mecca Normal, Jean Smith and David Lester, playing “Malachi.”

MECCA NORMAL: And the camera goes click
as you press record
and you hand the document
to the jazz musician
after they perform

And you talk and you listen
and you protest this war

And there is pain
and it instigates change
and there is frustration
that your voice is not heard
when you protest this war
with a sign above your head
in words

And your camera goes click
as you press record
and the can of gasoline is there
on the ground
for this final document
your protest against this war
and some of us understood
you know the history well

And your camera goes click
as you press record
and you pour the gasoline
and Malachi you light the match
that ends your life
in this final statement
and some of us heard
and some of us understood

And Malachi you light the match
that ends your life
in this final document
your protest againtst this war
and some of us heard
and some of us understood
your final word

AMY GOODMAN: Mecca Normal, playing “Malachi,” Jean Smith and David Lester in our studio. Can you talk about Mecca Normal, how you got started 30 years ago?

JEAN SMITH: Well, we got together. David and I were friends, and we were very political and wanted to change the world. In fact, that was sort of the subtext of our band—how to change the world. And we did that, really, with the riot grrrl movement, knowing that we did inspire the co-founders of a social movement that then went on to—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what riot grrrl movement is.

JEAN SMITH: Riot grrrl is a social movement in the mid-'90s of mostly young women across North America and into England, and really it went around the world, of women deciding that they no longer wanted to be the front piece in a band or just the bass player or the girlfriend or groupie of the guy in the band. They got on stage with their own lyrics about their own experience, both within culture and within society. So there was a lot of anger at that time, because women really weren't as pervasive as they are now in music or in culture. So it was a point where en masse they collaborated with each other and created quite a fervor that went to the highest echelon of media, and Newsweek and TV shows dealt with what was happening. And it was very inspiring to watch it climb and to encourage young women to express themselves through art and music.

AMY GOODMAN: Introduce your next song.

JEAN SMITH: This is a song that we wrote in advance of some shows on the West Coast in July. And I just felt, you know, we had the album done, it was coming out, but I didn’t feel like we had a current anthem. And it seemed at that time there was a lot of talk—as there is now—about feminism, a return of feminism, and misogyny, the general way that it’s infiltrating on the Internet and in comments sections. And, you know, we’re getting another look at how pervasive misogyny is. And for me—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean by that, misogyny on the Internet.

JEAN SMITH: Misogyny is a hatred of women. It’s oppression. It’s sexism, the patriarchy, and all that supports those features.

AMY GOODMAN: And how it’s blossoming, you feel, on the Internet?

JEAN SMITH: Well, in many comments, if there’s a feminist tweet that goes out, there could be rebuttals there, and in the comments section, if there’s an article about—you know, I’ve had it myself, where talking about feminist this or that. It might be a fairly benign review, but then it will get into atrocious sort of attacks on women in general, or me specifically, or my voice or how I present myself, or that sort of—what’s that expression? “I’d do her,” or, “I wouldn’t do her”—that whole world of objectification. It just seems, because it’s—if we want to talk about cowardly acts, there’s one. When it’s completely anonymous, and whoever these people are, for their own psychological predisposition, that’s how they are expressing themselves. So it’s a more known—it’s a new way of misogyny and sexism being known in our society culturally.

So, because I didn’t have a song that really addressed that—these songs on the album are mostly out of two novels that I’ve recently written. One is about a curator of a museum who cures narcissism, because I’ve heard frequently that readers, women readers in particular, want female characters to do important things, to be strong and to do decisive, amazing things, so I thought I would have my protagonist cure narcissism, an incurable personality disorder. So we go into some backstory about her and that individual, the narcissist. So I get very involved in the novel’s informing—

AMY GOODMAN: And this is in Empathy for the Evil.

JEAN SMITH: Exactly. So the songs on that are out of two different novels, and the other one is called Obliterating History: A Guitar-Making Mystery, Domination & Submission in a Small Town Garage. So we veer off, you see? And that’s great, because there are—in the long form, the novel, there’s all sorts of tales that, of course, are of interest to us. There’s underground culture. There’s feminism, sexism, human interactions. But I felt that for this tour that we were preparing to do, we didn’t have a real anthem of our origin, of anger, of rage against what is out there currently, what we all face as cultural activists or social activists, political activists. So I created this song to highlight, really, our journey through culture, in that we didn’t resolve what we intended to; for however much we thought we could combat sexism and change the world in all the ways that we wanted to, we failed. And this song acknowledges that.

AMY GOODMAN: Jean Smith, David Lester, Mecca Normal, performing “Anguish/Misogyny.”

MECCA NORMAL: There’s a desperation
Tell me you don’t feel it
This hopelessness coming down
These times demand a reprieve from the anguish

These times like no other before us
Like no other to follow

In the anguish of uncompleted missions, disappointment and futility
I knew you then and I know you still
The anguish of nothing being resolved
It didn’t get resolved at all
And I call it the anguish—misogyny
Misogyny, misogyny

We hide the anguish not too well at all
Not too well at all
Why should we hide the anguish of misogyny
Misogyny, misogyny

The hopelessness of all that’s unresolved
I call it anguish, the disappointment

All those times we thought there was a future built on
Words and actions
Swept away
I call the violence, malicious behavior, anger and misogyny
that rules the streets, rules the days and rules the nights
I call this failure anguish
I call this—our shame—misogyny
Misogyny

l call this lack of empathy my personal anguish
your violence and aggression—this misogyny

The perpetration of aggression against all women
I call this misogyny our shame
I call our failure and disappointment—anguish

I’m electrified, repulsed and angry at all that’s unresolved.
I call our failure—this misogyny
Misogyny
I call this a hidden anguish
I share with you
I call it anguish and pain
I share with you
Misogyny, misogyny
This anguish this shame
I share with you
Misogyny, misogyny, misogyny
I share with you

AMY GOODMAN: Jean Smith, David Lester, Mecca Normal. They’re latest album is Empathy for the Evil. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

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