EVAN DANDO has been marketed as teen sex symbol, scagged out hippy doper and serious artiste, but now THE LEMONHEADS’ main squeeze is trying to wrest control of his career back from those who would prefer him to get his shirt off just one more time. JOHN HARRIS hears the sorry tale of the slacker who had to wake up, sobered by the news his buddy had just killed himself.
SO, EVAN’S back in a hotel room, with a woolly hat covering his new haircut, listening to Japanese rap music because that’s all anyone’s got, swigging from a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka, poncing cigarettes off his press officer and switching between shrugging happy-cool and mute, baffled sadness.
He’s just been told about the news that his friend Dylan, from a Seattle group called Earth, was the one who got Kurt Cobain the gun, and he suddenly seems strained. It might be the Marlboro smoke billowing around the room, but it also looks like his eyes have filled up.
It’s awkward chewing over what happened to Kurt with Evan. Such are the ties that bind the products of the American Underground that at every corner you find another link: another reason for him to shake his head at the tangled horror that’s unravelling more and more each day.
He once jammed with Kurt and Chris and Dave, sitting in on drums while the four of them goofed around and drank red wine. He’s also looked after by Gold Mountain, Nirvana’s management company. And a few times, he’s made bizarre appearances in the sprawling death saga…
In Rome, in the midst of the mini-riot that erupted around the Rohypnol overdose, Kurt held up photos of Evan at photographers crowding outside his hotel, as part of some joke that was never explained. And then there are the crass rumours about him and Courtney. She phoned him after the death, she’s his friend, but that’s all.
“That stuff makes me feel so horrible,” he says, “knowing that some people are thinking things like that. I respected Kurt so much that I’d never, ever do something that would piss him off.”
There are other reasons for the trickle-down of grief from the house in Seattle. Evan and the other graduates of college-rock could see more than a little of themselves in Kurt Cobain: the tousle-headed drop-out plucked from the cosiness of rock’n’roll’s fringes and thrown into an unending series of interviews and video shoots and f— knows what else, playing to crowds that came, more and more, to resemble the packs of knuckleheaded frat boys that he’d only ever got into music to kick against.
You sense the same frustration when bass player Nic Dalton tells undulating masses of corpulent male students to stop crowd-surfing and slam dancing because it’s “f—ed”; when Chris Colbourn of support act Buffalo Tom tries to sing a tender ballad called ‘Late At Night’, only to find that he may as well be playing ‘Borstal Breakout’: when David Ryan, sitting at the back of the bus, talks about how the Lemonheads’ college tour has been disillusioning and eye-opening, because he’s seen the kind of thickhead assholes that make up the human foundation of our old buddy Crossover Success.
Then there’s the link that centres around Evan’s descent into drugs — fuelled by a mixture of self-destructive impulses, traditional hedonism, and, most crucially, pressure about Come On Feel The Lemonheads — that left him feeling wiped-out, kind of worthless and, horribly, subject to fleeting ideas of suicide.
“I have had those kind of thoughts, like everyone,” he says. “Right around that time, I was feeling really low, like, ‘Wouldn’t it better for everyone if I wasn’t around?’ But since that happened, it’s been like a similar thing to when my best friend’s father killed himself when I was 20, and I just had this realisation that it wasn’t something for me to do.
“You know, the grass is green, the sky is sometimes blue. That’s the way I have to think about life. I have to take steps to make sure that I’m standing my own ground, and not getting into that corner. That kind of negative thing creates more of a positive reaction in me, like, ‘I’d better speak my mind and not let people talk me into shit that I don’t wanna do…’.”
So, in keeping with all this, Evan says he can’t look at some of the things he did in the press last year, because it just makes him feel embarrassed — and he muses on how he wants to strip the Lemonheads of all their unnecessary baggage, kick the ‘meejah’ stereotype of the drugged-up sex icon into touch and get back to being a down-home, simple, sharp pop group again.
Which, one assumes, must be the thinking behind the shorn head. Anyway…
WE ARRIVE late on Saturday afternoon. We’re due to meet the Lemonheads the next day, in Salem — a placid, picturesque place full of station wagons and pristine gardens, where they keep the local economy running on the story of the witch trials of 1692. We content ourselves hanging around Boston, trying to grasp the endless fall-out from Kurt’s death.
The newsstands, of course, are festooned with his image, covering dispatches filed by journalists hastily sent to Seattle, and shell-shocked attempts at putting Nirvana into some kind of context: at sticking Kurt at the end of a logical historical lineage.
But all you feel, reading it all and talking to the kids who swarm into a college gymnasium on Sunday to watch the Lemonheads and Buffalo Tom, is an overwhelming sense of puzzlement. Apparently it’s cool on campus to express shrugging indifference about it all — that way you’re in keeping with alienated f— up chic. And on the West Coast, the in thing is condemnation. Cool kids — the children of the hippies, don’t forget — say screw Kurt: he was a smacked-up waster from up North and he brought it on himself.
At the gig on Sunday, Dan — a high school student with a wispy wannabe goatee and a Helmet T-shirt — tries to tell me what went through his head when he heard the news. All he can manage is accounts of his friends and he discussing it non-stop for two days, trying to hatch ever-more elaborate explanations, and regret that he’ll never get to see a band he liked. Nothing more profound than that.
Other people come up with warped theories about whether Kurt did it all from utterly rational motives, wanting to push his way into rock’n’roll martyrdom and make sure he’d nestle next to Lennon and Elvis instead of Eddie Vedder. They talk about the kid in the Nirvana shirt who appeared on CNN, saying that suicide was a mortal sin, and Kurt was burning in Hell. You get few heartfelt expressions of sympathy or shock.
It’s as if all this was a latterday Who Shot JR?, and people are meeting it with little more than sneaking curiosity. Worse, if you’re not titillated, you’re indifferent. The grieving slack multitudes we expected are very thin on the ground.
Such, it seems, is the hyper-reality of the TV life that people live behind the walls of the slatted New England houses and tenement blocks. Kurt Cobain’s messy end is just another short-lived talking point, simplified to the point of banality and served up to slot in between Donahue, Oprah, and soft-focus ads for Raisin Bran, then jettisoned from the collective consciousness within days. That messed-up grunge kid from the small town has killed himself, goes the subtext, but it’s not much to worry about.
Within the reaction to the death, you can see the same things that maybe drove Kurt to his death: the way that 57 channels and newsstands that look like a condensation of the world forfeit complexity and intelligence, serving up everything as digestible, pallid tablets that deny anyone’s existence as a human being.
It happens in every industrial society, for sure — but America seems to have turned it into a sick art. Everyone and everything gets distilled down to an idiotic essence; so Kurt’s tangled, eternally troubling persona was reduced to nothing more puzzling than, oooh, “punk poet”, “alienated reject”, “drug addict rock star” — to the point where he failed to recognise the chimera created by the media, and hated what he seemed to have become.
All this is hardly something unique to the 1990s. Down the road, in Lowell, is the grave of jack Kerouac, driven to exasperation and death at 47 by the same things: the way that someone who tried to speak far-sighted truths about the thrill of living and the misery of its dark moments could end up stuck in a box and periodically brought out to answer idiot questions like, “Tell me, Jack, are you a beatnik?”, and then asked to read a bit of his writing while the house band played cabaret jazz. Kerouac said, after he’d got obese, drunken and incurably bitter, that — given a choice he never had — he’d always pick being fat over being famous. It wasn’t hard to see why.
And so to Evan Dando. Evan’s cardboard identity, since the creation of the trashy millstone that was ‘Mrs Robinson’, has revolved around three conceptions of him: that he’s a dippy, laid-back boho who’ll take his shirt off and smoulder as soon as he sees a camera; that he’s got an insanely self-destructive strand that led him into a two-week flirtation with crack; and that he’s so full of God-given talent that he’s about to make it very, very big.
And, like Kurt and Jack before him, Evan wants out of all this. Pretty quickly.
HE SITS at the bar of his hotel in Salem, smoking an endless succession of Marlboro Lights, moving in that gawky, charming way and letting fly that gawky, charming laugh. The haircut has changed him almost beyond belief, bringing out his ungainly side, making him look like a doe-eyed army private. On stage, he now looks like the awkward kid at the school hop trying to figure out how to dance.
We try a cartoon conversational gambit, centred around marking his current peace of mind out of ten.
“Four,” says Evan, ruefully. “It hasn’t been very good lately. Just the usual things: fatigue, the road, partying and drinking too much. And I haven’t had a girlfriend for seven months, and that’s starting to irk me a little bit. In fact, I haven’t been, er, active for seven months. I haven’t actually had a girlfriend for two-and-a-half or three years. So that’s a little bit lame. Combine that with touring and drinking and all that, and you get a four.”
And why the haircut?
“Well, I was in Sydney just hanging out, I was pretty drunk, and I was just thinking ‘I wanna get a haircut’. So I went back to my friend Tom’s house and he has a buzzer and he just gave me a buzz cut. I just wanted to try something different, that’s all. Just for fun.”
There is a brief, uneasy silence, before we stumble upon the theme that’ll dominate the first part of the interview: media entrapment, frustration…
“And,” Evan confesses, quietly, “I did get sick of my image, that horrible composite monster that was created. I’d read about myself, and — like everyone else, I would imagine — I’d just cringe. That was part of it — to shed some of all that. I thought it’d get people to concentrate on the music. Not the hair.”
Before we go further into his disenchantment with the circus built around record labels, photographers’ studios and satellites orbiting the Earth, it’s worth remembering that Evan — like Kurt, like J Mascis, like most every graduate of the US underground — fell into his art with no thought of mass adoration or earth-shaking cultural relevance. He joined a band because he saw Minor Threat and Black Flag and the Angry Samoans and it looked like fun; and he was warmly content with the idea of playing rat-hutches and selling paltry numbers of records so long as his songs were cool and, like, some people liked them.
So, after he’d put out three albums on Taang! records and released an album called Lovey on Atlantic that sold fart all, he wasn’t best prepared for life on the shimmering MTV screen. At first he shrugged, and did what he was told. He promoted a bum cover of ‘Mrs Robinson’ (“I’d be embarrassed every time it was on… it was cringeable”), and it did his profile endless good. So he went with it a little more, and with record company fingers prodding at the small of his back muttering darkly about imminent hugeness, and photographers gladly doing their bidding (and without any of the hard-faced self-control that tends to run far thicker through British veins), he was easily cajoled into all kinds of nonsense.
“When people were taking pictures of me,” he says, “I always went along with them. They picked the dumbest pictures, and like…
“…I just don’t like this whole sex symbol thing. It just doesn’t work for me. That all comes from being gullible enough to go along with people who spend their whole time going ‘yeah! right! do this! do that!'”
So you won’t be taking your shirt off again.
“Yeah, right. That’s over with now. The damage is done. I guess — but I can laugh about it. It’s not real important. You know, sticks and stones…”
Sure. There are times, however, that for all his shrugging, regretless air of happy nonchalance and zen contentment, Evan betrays a real dismay (offset, of course, by that laugh) with the tanned, dippy spectre that was mistakenly created in his image. Like now, for instance…
“I did get to thinking ‘that’s not me!’. And sometimes I’m still kind of apologetic when I meet people. It’s like, ‘I’m the singer of the Lemonheads. I’m sorry!’ I got pretty self-deprecating after a while. I was just embarrassed to be the person I was in their eyes. It seemed like they were thinking, ‘Oh God, I’m meeting that weirdo from the Lemonheads’…
“Like, if I was meeting that guy, I’d be very wary. I’d be on my toes. I’m sure I’d be in that league of people thinking I was a real asshole; a real worthless…”
“Well, I don’t know about worthless. But if I hadn’t checked out the music, and I’d just seen this guy all the time, I would’ve been one of those people thinking, “Woooah… who is this guy anyway?'”
SO, IN our tracing of the birth of the chimera that Evan’s had enough of, we’ve got as far as the moulding of a kind of dippy left-field love god, with beads around his neck and flowing tresses of hair and dopey eyes that could melt icebergs.
We’ll now stick some tin foil and a crack pipe in his pocket, and send him round LA for two weeks, living the craziest life anyone can imagine. And we’ll make sure that, when he meets NME to launch Come On Feel The Lemonheads, he’s astoundingly open about it, as a strange way of kicking against the forces that filled up the recording studio with journalists and photographers when all Evan wanted to do was get on with finishing his album and finding his voice again.
“I was just pissed off at everybody who got me into that situation,” he says, “and that was the only way to lash out at anybody; lashing out against myself and writing the truth down. The last two weeks of recording, all these interviewers came in, and I wasn’t even supposed to talk, let alone talk to them. I was really angry at everything that had developed into that situation, so I wanted to tell the truth. I didn’t want to give a bullshit line, because that would be playing into the hands of the whole thing I was angry at.”
So, we read about Evan hanging out with thickheads who took him to crackhouses and scored him Mexican heroin, and led him on a two-week dalliance with Los Angeles that left him frail, burned-out and confused.
“It was dangerous, because the kinds of drugs you get these days have got loads of bad stuff in them… but I was just having a good time like a lot of people do. I’d been on binges like that since I was 19 or 20. It wasn’t a smart time to be doing it, but it wasn’t a big deal in itself.”
It sounded like it. You’ve talked about smoking crack cut with stuff that could kill you, and getting off on the fact…
“Let’s see… no, I never wanted to die. I guess I was just being self-destructive. I’ve always had that side to my character, but in the morning, when I didn’t have any Valium left, my heart was going ‘DING DING DING!’ and I was just thinking, “Why did I do this? I wanna be alive’. I’ve always had that struggle against myself.”
Why the self-destructive streak?
“I don’t know. I’d like to know, ‘cos it’s a character trait that goes way, way back. I have to try and figure it out, although I’m really wary of shrinks and stuff…”
Evan knows about the pitfalls of psychiatry. He had early experience of them, after all.
“I was sent in high school, just ‘cos I was a weirdo. I was a little destructive — throwing rocks at things, destroying property — and I got into trouble, so I got sent to a shrink. It just made me want to fabricate things to see what they said. I was just playing games, ‘cos that’s all I was ready to do.
“I did go back, when I was 24, and it actually did help me. He just said, ‘Stop smoking pot, stop drinking, and you’ll probably feel less depressed’. And it worked. The thing is, I just think you can go for a little while and get to a certain point where you’re better, and then you just start to plumb the abyss, where you just get worse. I haven’t been back since I came back from Australia, when I was living with Juliana, in 1991. That was the last time.”
Anyway, the two weeks in LA: the crack, the tar, the loss of his voice and the way it was trailed through the papers. What did his liberal, enlightened East Coast parents make of all of it?
“My mom was worried about me. My dad is pretty level-headed, and he knows I’ve always been experimental with drugs and stuff. He knows I’m a pretty cautious person with things like that…”
The last sentence hangs in the air. To recap:
Evan Dando was hanging around crackhouses, and smoking stuff that was cut with all kinds of crap, and he reckons he’s ‘pretty cautious’…
“I am pretty cautious, yeah. But I read Rolling Stones books, and I thought it wouldn’t be smart not to try out drugs… try them out, but keep a close watch on yourself and don’t get too carried away, like some people do. But I didn’t want to miss out, after reading Burroughs and stuff. When I was a kid, all those books were in my parents’ library, all those books about drugs, and I was aching to get my hands on them, since I was like ten. I had to try them all out…”
And does it make for great art?
“I’d sure like to think that it doesn’t have a lot to do with it, but sometimes it might help, just because if you’re staying up for a couple of days and partying, your brain gets so crowded with things that cool stuff comes out by accident. It’s just like a way of distorting everything. You could do it without drugs, just by trying to stay up. But it can be a useful tool for the lazy. That’s all I guess it is.”
“That’s such a difficult question to answer, because I don’t want to encourage it at all. It’s not a healthy thing at all, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll get as lucky as I did and get a career writing songs and making money. It might get you on the street, in prostitution…”
There’s always been something missing from Evan’s accounts of his drug binges. He’s never talked about crawling up walls, or hallucinating, or crouching in the comer of a room, vowing that he’d give anything for a fix. He sounds like one of those lucky, lucky people who’s been blessed with a non-addictive personality; someone who’d never trawl the depths of cold turkey.
“Well, I’ve had mild cases of it (Is that lukewarm turkey then? — Ed). Once, when I was 21 I was doing a lot of heroin every day for a month, and then I went down to Florida to visit my dad and had the whole thing like diarrhoea and stuff. I’ve had it a bit, but never anything like cold sweats.”
Evan only drinks and smokes the odd lump of dope now. He says he knows that stuffing himself full of class ‘A’ stuff makes him unbearably moody, and talking about it just feeds the chimerical monster that he wants to bury. He says it’d be nice to get back to the way that he used to be able to throw open the windows in the morning and just get off on being straight. It’s why he’s going to pack his bags next week and head off to his dad’s place on Martha’s Vineyard.
THERE’S A crucial footnote to all this. It springs from the mouth of Nic Dalton, when he’s sitting at the back of the bus, quietly mulling over the last year.
Nic, it should be remembered, is not a fully accredited Lemonhead. He isn’t signed to Atlantic Records, and he hasn’t exchanged contracts with Gold Mountain Management. He’s a loose cannon, made more dangerous by the fact that he’s got a fiery sense of independence coursing through his veins. He’s still small-time back in Australia, where he plays with a band called Godstar, and he runs an indie label called Half A Cow, home to trainee stars Smudge. The imperatives of the commercial circus cut little ice with him.
He starts talking about his bafflement at the explosion of publicity around the two weeks in LA, shaking his head and wearing an expression of mild distaste.
“I was probably the most vocal about it. I said to Evan and the management company, ‘Why has this happened? Why did you make this an issue?’ I think it was the worst thing to do. Obviously, the press picked up on it — the little pop star on drugs and all that — and I just thought it was the last thing we needed. We had an album coming out, and we should have let it speak for itself.
“The management said, ‘Evan’s just being honest’. And I said. ‘That’s bullshit. You guys are obviously part of it, because you want to change his image from teenybopper, to, like, cool rocker druggy type’. The whole thing f—ed up. It backfired.”
You think it was orchestrated?
“That’s what I reckon, yeah. Not on Evan’s part, because he was just being honest; but management can stop people from writing certain things (Ahem, not strictly true — Integrity Ed), and they didn’t. They went for it. As far as Evan’s career is concerned, they’re totally blind. They thought, ‘Let’s make him a pin-up pop star’. That worked for a while. Then it was, ‘Let’s make him a tortured artist, let’s bring out the drugs’. They were totally behind all of that, and I really think that they f—ed things up.
“I’ll say it to their face. I think Gold Mountain have made a lot of bad decisions. They’ve got all these different pop stars they look after, like Kurt, the Breeders, J Mascis and Evan, and they all push them in a different little way. With Evan, they went ‘Wow, we’ve got this pop star, this pin-up guy we can push’, so they put him in every teen magazine and made him take his shirt off. When that started backfiring, they went for the drug thing, and that started backfiring.
“Everyone was questioning why we hadn’t sold all these records. And my theory is that we were sold, at first, to little girls, and it’s that it’s uncool to like the Lemonheads. No boy’s going to rock off to school with a Lemonheads T-shirt, ‘cos it’s uncool. His sister likes the Lemonheads. The reason Alice In Chains and Pearl Jam are in the Top 20 and the Lemonheads aren’t is ‘cos we were pushed as this teenybopper band that sisters are meant to like.
“Whatever his management tell Evan to do, he’ll do, ‘cos if he doesn’t do it, he’s scared they’ll forget about him. And I really believe that our management has f—ed his career, and we’re now trying to get it back. And our chances are good, ‘cos I think we’re a good band. I truly believe that the Lemonheads are a fantastic band, Evan is one of the best songwriters around. He just has this problem with being too honest with the media, being taken for a ride, and the management just thinking, ‘Let’s see what happens with this persona’. They don’t give a shit.”
WHEN WE last see Evan, after a show in Salem that swings unevenly between effortless wonderment and dashed-off laziness, it’s five in the morning. Nic Dalton’s just left, David Ryan is back home in upstate Massachusetts, and Evan and Tom Morgan — the guy from Smudge who co-wrote half of Come On Feel — are passing an acoustic guitar between them, drinking last-ditch glasses of vodka and Fanta, and wondering where you can buy cigarettes.
In the morning, Evan’s setting off to take his second acting role (he had a cameo in Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites) alongside Deborah Harry and Shelley Winters. Then he’s over to the UK for a spurt of interviews centred around the release of ‘Big Gay Heart’ as a single — and then he’s just going to drift around the States and try and get his head together.
This tour’s lasted too long.
He’s seen too many knuckleheaded frat boys crowding the front of the stage. He’s still reeling from the night that he got back from a pasta restaurant in Springfield to find that the guy whose band he once jammed with had shot himself. And he’s clogged up with regret and embarrassment and a desperate wish to get back to things that fired him up in the first place.
“I’ve got to take a break. I’ve got to re-discover something that appeals to me again,” he’d said in Salem. “I’ve got to write some songs. I’ve got to live out on the Vineyard or somewhere away from everything, and just get some rest. Get a CD player and just listen to music and play music. I just wanna do that.”
And with that, Evan Dando finished his 57th Marlboro, flicked his hand through his new haircut, put on his goofy woolly hat and played his last show for a while with a calm, relieved assurance. Any time now, he’ll seize the opportunity that others were tragically denied, pack up his suitcase, and disappear into America to take stock. While he’s got the chance.
© John Harris, New Musical Express, 7 May 1994