The Lemonheads: Lemon Fresh Joy - Rolling Stone
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The Lemonheads: Lemon Fresh Joy

They look good. They sound better. Why aren’t Evan Dando & co. on top of the charts?

Evan Dando

Evan Dando

Ebet Roberts/Redferns

EVAN DANDO has just arrived in London in time to discover he has a drug problem.

Actually, the head Lemonhead already knew he had one. After all, that was something he went through back in Los Angeles a few months and a couple hundred interviews ago when he was working on his new album. Dando’s problem now, however, is that he has flown into England at exactly the perfect moment to be able to read all about it. “I’m busted,” he says with a weary laugh. “And I did it to myself.”

Dando’s famously pretty face has been plastered all over every London newsstand, with a number of magazine stories playing up his recent confessions of using crack while recording Come On Feel the Lemonheads, his band’s latest effort. EVAN DANDO COMES CLEAN is the headline on two separate stories in New Musical Express and Q, the latter even offering a boldfaced quote in which a helpful Dando explains some of the intricacies of crack-pipe deployment. The Lemonheads first broke England back in 1988 with their grunged-up cover of Suzanne Vega’s “Luka,” and Dando’s behavior – misbehavior in this case – is obviously big news here. For all the justifiably encouraging words about the band’s tuneful new album, the subtext seems to be “So, is Evan Dando a Lemonhead or a crackhead?” This is all Dando needs.

“I WAS BORN IN THE SPRING of the Summer of Love, and I’ve come to say, ‘Hi,’ ” Dando once said, offering his statement of purpose. With talk like that, it’s no surprise that he seems well on his way to developing a reputation as a goofy, space-case rock babe. And while he may in fact be a true child of that trippy time, Dando’s also a complex kid who came of age uneasily in that era’s far darker aftermath. “I guess you could kinda say that I grew up in a town called Mansonland,” he says before breaking into a Beavis and Butt-head-like snicker. Somewhere between the Summer of Love and Charlie Manson are clues as to exactly who this charming but rather confusing 26-year-old man-child really is.

A slacker superstar in the eyes of the media if not yet in record sales, Evan Dando begs many serious questions. Is this former Boston punk rocker turned internationally beloved alterna-hunk a legitimate new rock god for our times or just some posing, press-friendly, bubble-grunge Muppet? Does he offer the offbeat voice of a new generation or simply the reheated ramblings of a photogenic stoner who has dabbled in hard drugs?

Naive and witty –sometimes at the same time – Dando is given to writing infectious grunge-lite pop tunes with such willfully lightweight lyrics as “If I were a booger/ Would you blow your nose?” He’s also a genuinely talented, somewhat tortured singer/songwriter who can dig deep enough to come up with such songs as “My Drug Buddy” and “It’s a Shame About Ray” that suggest he’s fueled by the same twisted generational angst that drives the likes of higher-credibility and higher-charting folks such as Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder. Not that many years ago, Dando was too edgy for the mainstream. In today’s brave new world of rock, some naysayers perceive him as somehow too soft to really matter. Dando kicks off his latest album with a haunting track entitled “The Great Big No,” yet he sure seems to have a lot of trouble answering in the negative when called upon to pose or chat or do anything else that might advance the Lemonheads’ cause.

And God knows he’s being called upon to pose with that pretty face of his a lot these days. As attested to by a sustained music-industry buzz, as well as countless sexy photo spreads in every magazine except Guns and Ammo, Dando certainly looks like a big star even if he has yet to sell like one. But way before he was a poster boy for the twentysomething generation – even before he and pal Juliana Hatfield were nominated King and Queen of the ’90s Pop Culture High prom – Dando was already something of a natural attraction. Just ask his mother.

“The truth is that Evan was always adorable,” confesses Susan Dando, a rock & roll mom who’s a former fashion model. “When Evan was a little kid, he would constantly be invited to all these birthday parties, just like everyone else, except that Evan was the only little boy there. It was him and all these girls. See, girls have always loved Evan. And, of course, Evan has always loved girls.”

Further proof that the little girls understand.

Today, many birthday parties later, Dando and his fellow Lemonheads – drummer Dave Ryan and bassist Nic Dalton – have converged from assorted points around the globe to meet up in the lobby of their glitzy London hotel. As a group of Japanese businessmen conduct a serious-looking meeting nearby, the lean and lanky, flaxenhaired Dando is sprawled out on a couch in all his tattered, gangly glory. This increasingly tight and – it must be said – endlessly cute power-pop trio has assembled here to hit the hype trail and get ready for their British, European and United States tours. A clearly exhausted Dando flew in this morning from Milan, Italy, where he has already been pushing the product at a furious pace on a whirlwind promotional tour.

“The trip was cool, I guess,” says Dando with a tired laugh. “I met all these people, and all they all want to know from me is the same thing: ‘Vadt iz dah truth about your relationship with the Juliana Hatfield?’ Or they want me to explain what I think alternative rock means. And to me, alternative rock means about as much as circus peanuts.”

Recently, Dando and company seemed poised to move beyond that alternative tag and explode into the mainstream. The band’s 1992 breakthrough effort, It’s a Shame About Ray – with a major boost from the late-added cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” – sold approximately 500,000 copies, as opposed to less than 20,000 copies of Lovey, the band’s 1990 major-label debut for Atlantic. The band’s sound had evolved in recent years into an increasingly accessible merger of ’60s pop smarts and ’80s punk spirit, and that sound, combined with the sex appeal of Dando, seemed to make the Lemonheads, and Dando in particular, a hot commodity. But Come On Feel the Lemonheads, though a major hit in England, has gotten off to a surprisingly sluggish start in the U.S. The infectious, romantic first single “Into Your Arms” topped the alternative-rock airplay chart and became a MTV Buzz Bin video, but the album’s already dropped out of the Top 100 from a peak position of No. 56 on the Billboard chart. Atlantic attributes part of the problem to the fact that the Lemonheads were out of the country when the album was released. Still, it seems possible that in a time that finds Pearl Jam and Nirvana at the top of the charts, the Lemonheads somehow come off as too pop for their own good. Perhaps Dando’s media friendliness has created an impression, unfair or not, of him as something of an ambitious, lightweight talent compared with some of his more inaccessible colleagues.

In London, a chagrined Dando seems to be feeling the heat. As he somewhat reluctantly addresses the controversy that has met him in England, the only drugs in front of him are bottles of Day Nurse and Night Nurse, both of which he swigs from steadily. “Maybe we should do a speedball,” he jokes a bit sheepishly. A man who says he only recently discovered that he is in fact ambitious, Dando seems stung by all the drug talk he has generated and clearly would prefer to be discussing just about anything else. “I hope drugs aren’t going to be the main focus of your article,” he says, sounding uncharacteristically serious. “I’ve overdramatized the whole thing in my life, and now I’ve overdramatized the whole thing in the press.”

The gospel according to Dando is that he went through an extended lost weekend in Los Angeles that kicked off when he played the opening night of pal Johnny Depp’s Viper Room. As he worked on the new album, he found time for plenty of L.A. fun, like hanging with Depp and jamming with legendary Love leader Arthur Lee. He had everybody from Sneaky Pete to Belinda Carlisle to Rick James in the studio to appear on Come On – indeed, he proudly says the last two were in on the same day.

Eventually, though, after Dalton went back to his native Australia and Ryan to his hometown of Boston, Dando had too much chemical fun in the City of Angels. The singer explains that the whole affair was not some misguided attempt to bolster his sagging punkish credibility but simply a stupid fuck-up, a joke that didn’t translate. “For a guy who talks to the press all the time, I guess you couldn’t exactly call me media savvy,” he says, shaking his head. “I’ve got to stop talking about drugs. To me the whole thing’s sobering. I mean, it’s so stupid.”

In all fairness, Dando appears more in danger from being killed by hype than heroin. Not only hasn’t he done any hard drugs lately, he says, he’s even making a concerted effort to quit smoking. The final word, however, goes to his mother who perhaps knows him best of all.

“Evan’s been under a lot of pressure, and he stumbled,” says Susan Dando. “But he’s going to have to deal with the drug thing. See, he’s not just this pop person. He’s got this perverse, dark side that makes him take chances in his music and in his life. I was just surprised that he was so unoriginal in his risk taking. I figured Evan would do something much more interesting like, I don’t know, maybe bungee jumping.”

“MY LIFE BEGAN real good, then there was kind of a tough part, and now I’m happy again,” says Dando.

Accounts of his childhood sound like some sort of idyllic, bohemian dreamscape – one long, family surfin’ safari. “My partners at the law firm have expressed some surprise at seeing me described as this hippie surfer,” says Jeffrey Dando, Evan’s father and a Boston real-estate attorney. “I mean, yes, we did go on surf trips, and I guess my hair was probably a few inches longer than some of the other lawyers’.”

The Dando family – Jeffrey, Susan, Evan and older sister Holly – lived in the rural suburb of Essex, Mass., until they moved to Boston’s North Shore when Evan was 9. Evan explains that his family was comfortable and middle class, “but we always hung out with a lot of rich people.” The music around the house was an eclectic mix of Motown, Neil Young, Steely Dan and many others. Jeffrey turned his son on to Jesse Colin Young, Holly played him Black Sabbath. “Holly’s said that Evan was a rock star since he was 3 years old,” says Jeffrey Dando. “You could say he’s always been a high-performance, high-maintenance machine.”

Jeffrey and Susan split up when Evan was 12. “It was bad,” says Evan. “I don’t think I recognized at the time how bad it really was. I just sort of glazed over.”

“After the divorce, everything changed in his life – in all of our lives,” says Susan. “Evan suffered by himself, he wouldn’t let any of us help him.”

Perhaps coincidentally around this period, Evan turned away from skateboarding toward his Charlie Manson-intrigued punk phase. (The Lemonheads would cover Manson years before Guns n’ Roses.) “I remember walking into Evan’s room one day,” recalls his mother, “and his hair was so short, blond and spiky, I thought he was Billy Idol.”

The Lemonheads – originally Dando, Ben Deily and Jesse Peretz – started playing in the mid-’80s as a punky high-school outfit, the Whelps. Dando says the Commonwealth School, just down the road from the Cheers bar, in Boston, was a “very cool place where you could take a course on Kafka’s diaries in 10th grade.” He was so fond of the place, he spent five years there. Later, Dando spent a decidedly less happy and significantly shorter time at Skidmore College. “I think it was 60 days and 60 nights,” he recalls with a grimace. “My grade point average was 0.32 – four Fs and a D–. The D– was in acting.” (This relative success in drama may explain Dando’s funny cameo in the upcoming film Reality Bites.)

It was a high-school friend who suggested the band call itself the Lemonheads (after a popular Midwestern candy). “It seemed to fit, ’cause Lemonheads are sweet on the outside and sour on the inside,” says Dando. “We definitely helped them sell an extra few boxes. I know, because kids buy them and throw ’em at us.” The band practiced in the weight room of longtime Lemonheads bass player Jesse Peretz’s father – New Republic Editor in Chief Marty Peretz – and cut an indie 7-inch, “Laughing All the Way to the Cleaners,” that helped get them signed to Boston’s Taang! label. Dando looks back at the Taang! era with a mix of wistful nostalgia and slight embarrassment.

“I was never really satisfied with the music we were making,” Dando says. “At least it was something to do.” Part of the problem was that the band – with Deily and Dando sharing songwriting duties and switching off on guitar and drums – lacked a leader. “For the first three records, the Lemonheads were completely a band,” says Dando. “We weren’t that great, but we were democratic.”

Inevitably, a power struggle ensued between Dando and Deily. “I mean, at one point, here I was, this dropout drumming in this band of Harvard guys, feeling like a slouch,” says Dando. For a period, Dando even left the Lemonheads, going off to play with pal Juliana Hatfield – whom he met through his mother – in her band, the Blake Babies. For the record, Dando and Hatfield – who appears prominently on Come On and for whom the album’s delicate and seductive “It’s About Time” was written – are really just friends. An unusually cagey Dando says, “We’re good friends, but there’s always that undercurrent of something else.”

DEEP INSIDE THE CATACOMBS of the BBC studios the next morning, a kindly older woman from the network is saying, “I’m sorry, but I believe that ‘I don’t need you to suck my dick’ line might be a bit of a problem, really,” explaining to the band that the line from “Big Gay Heart” – the lovely, anti-gay-bashing country lament from the new album – won’t make it onto the BBC airwaves. A more hot-headed alternative rocker might cause a scene, but Dando considers his options and quickly decides to just change “suck my dick” to “stroke my brick,” a line he decides he actually likes. Recording a session to be broadcast later on Radio One, the band is in fine form and knocks off wonderfully loose, rapid-fire versions of the new album’s “Down About It,” “It’s About Time” and an impromptu new arrangement of “Favorite T.” Given the opportunity to simply play rather than promote product, Dando seems suddenly healthier, happier and more focused.

“I love making the music, and I finally feel like I’m getting good at it,” says Dando after wrapping up his vocals. “But then there’s always all this other stuff in the category of things you gotta do to get your music heard. They always tell you that you have to do everything now so that the next time you won’t have to. Then, of course, the next time they tell you the exact same thing.” Significantly, when called in New Zealand last year and informed he had been named one of People magazine’s 50 dishiest people, Dando misheard and thought he was one of the 50 busiest.

The morning after the radio session, Dando looks the worse for wear. Still, there are a few hundred school kids in Yorkshire waiting to see the Lemonheads rock their gymnasium, and so the band sets out for the long bus ride through the countryside to Minsthorpe High School. The band scheduled this highly unusual afternoon gig after receiving a huge package of letters sent by students pleading for a visit to their school. Upon arrival, the band discovers it is not alone in this honor: House of Love, the Levellers and Redd Kross are among the other groups moved to accept similar invitations. A film crew from a British TV show for teenagers is even here to document the event, but the generally agreeable Dando balks when asked by them to depart the bus a second time for the cameras. “They didn’t think I did it well enough the first time,” he says.

Under distinctly unglamorous conditions, the band somehow delivers a winning show at Minsthorpe. Dando has explained on the bus ride to the school that this is the last and final Lemonheads lineup, and one can see why. Ryan – a good-humored fellow who proudly explains that he’s the ninth and 11th drummer in the band’s history – has developed into a powerful and agile timekeeper. And with the addition of bassist Dalton – a witty, fun-loving music freak and budding Aussie underground-rock tycoon who joined the band during the last tour – the Lemonheads have turned into a tight and surprisingly tough little band. “Sometimes the press gets it wrong and makes it seem like we’re just Evan and a revolving door of players,” says Ryan. “But anyone who actually sees us play can tell we’re a real band.”

A feverish Dando keeps the patter to a minimum, though he does take time after an edgy version of “Ride With Me,” from Lovey, to tell the crowd, “See, kids, don’t do any drugs. Drink a lot of tea instead.” Afterward, one smitten schoolgirl declares the Lemonheads the best band ever to play the gym. “And that singer, he’s really quite lovely, isn’t he,” she asks rhetorically.

Unfortunately, Dando’s feeling anything but lovely the following day, and the decision is finally made to cancel two TV shows – The Big Breakfast, in which Dando is supposed to appear in the popular In Bed With Paula Yates segment, and Raw Soup, on which the band is set to play. Luckily, Juliana Hatfield has just arrived in London for her own tour and gladly fills in on Raw Soup. So Dando spends the day confined to his room without phone privileges, though he does accept a brief visit from Hatfield and her band. Dalton takes the opportunity to spend all his available cash doing some record collecting, and both he and Ryan check out a Paul Westerberg show that night while Dando sleeps.

The next day, the band’s well enough to do a photo shoot and tape the electronic press kit, though, as a precaution, a London doctor is called to come by the hotel to check out all three members before they hit the road. Tired before their tour’s even begun, the Lemonheads look a bit of a rock & roll mess. As Dalton jokes, “The doctor took one look at us and said, ‘Right. I’ll be right back with my methadone.’ “

As they sit around the lobby after the doctor’s finished with them, Dalton giddily informs Dando that Debbie Gibson is also staying in the hotel, though he immediately regrets telling Dando – a self-confessed world-class flirt and occasional slut who claims he has been living “like a monk” lately. “If you meet Debbie, you’ll fall in love and blow all your credibility,” Dalton says.

“What credibility?” says Dando with a laugh. “Come on, Debbie would just be the last nail in the coffin.”

GIBSON AND DANDO never did fall in love, and Come On Feel the Lemonheads has failed to inspire Dandomania in the U.S. Call it a stalled single, a pop tragedy, a credibility gap. Whatever the reason, Dando’s reaction seems to be unrepentant and not all that concerned. Consider the story in the authorized Nirvana biography that has the band and producer Steve Albini making a prank call to Dando, keeping the excited Lemonhead on hold waiting to chat with a nonexistent Madonna. “Listen, I’d still jerk off if Madonna called me,” says an unabashed Dando. “I wanted to release the tape of the call and say it was produced by Steve Albini. He’d hate having his name on something I did.”

For the time being, Dando will stay the course and on the road. “I don’t need to be mega,” he says. “I mean, I wouldn’t mind having enough money to buy a house in Australia so that Tom Morgan and I could just hang out there and write songs. See, the truth is that I feel like the band’s finally making music I’m proud of, so now maybe there’s a good reason for people to hear these songs. But if people don’t really want to hear our stuff, well, I guess that’s cool, too.”

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