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Indie Oldies

This summer, I took my son Jamie, 28, to Pittsburgh to see the Lemonheads. Jamie was born in 1991 with Down syndrome; his brother Nick is five and a half years older. Both of them have been Lemonheads fans since their youth (for Jamie, since toddlerhood), and my wife Janet is fond of them as well, but really, the biggest Lemonheads fan in the house is me. When It’s A Shame About Ray came out in 1992, I played it to death. At one point it was among my Three Records I Would Take to a Desert Island (well, somebody asked!), right up there with An Electrifying Evening with the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet and Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks. It spoke to me of youth and exuberance; the songs were melodic, sometimes goofy (“Ceiling Fan in My Spoon”), sometimes evocative (“Got me watching your eyes watching things go by outside / Out the window of a train,” from “Hannah and Gabi,” which features some beautiful pedal steel from Skunk Baxter, of all people), and sometimes simply sweet (“she’s the puzzle piece behind the couch that makes the sky complete,” from “Alison’s Starting to Happen”). And the title track, I thought, was brilliant. Alternating short and long lines in the verses (“If I make it through today / I’ll know tomorrow not to leave my feelings out on display”), it spoke of pain and loss so unaffectedly—and the chord changes were lovely.

It’s A Shame About Ray was their fifth album (I knew nothing about the first four but bought the fourth, Lovey, at the height of my infatuation), though when I say “their” I should acknowledge that “The Lemonheads” basically means “Evan Dando and various people playing behind him.” The original two were Evan Deily and Jesse Peretz on bass and drums; on this album those roles were taken by Juliana Hatfield and David Ryan, and Nic Dalton replaced Hatfield on 1993’s followup, Come On Feel the Lemonheads. I played that one almost to death; I thought it wasn’t as solid as its predecessor, but had a few gems nevertheless, like “Big Gay Heart” and a charmingly sweet version of Robyn St. Clare’s “Into Your Arms,” which I still find myself singing today. I was most taken, though, with “Style,” a headbanging-intensity thrash with the immortal line, “But I don’t wanna not get stoned / So I’m not gonna not knock things down.” Play it very very loud. You’ll thank me.

I have always believed that the Lemonheads never got their due. Dando himself got some attention as a pretty boy, that is true; in 1993 he was even among People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People. And they made a minor splash with “It’s A Shame About Ray” and “Big Gay Heart,” though it’s telling that their biggest single was a blistering alt-rock take on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson.” But even at the time, when I was an assistant professor still young enough to play their frantic “Rockin’ Stroll” on my own drum kit, I thought they were being overshadowed if not obliterated by the growling grungy Seattle corporate consortium of Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, and Soundgarden. (I am exempting Nirvana because they were actually great.) To this day, I can’t tell those jokers apart—they sound like a mashup of Bad Company and Grand Funk Railroad, with 40 percent more growling. You follow that road, you wind up with Creed and Nickleback. God help you. And yet Pearl Jam has their very own station on Sirius XM. The number of times I have heard a Lemonheads song on Sirius’s 90s station? Or their alternative oldies station, “First Wave”? Or their “Lithium” station, ostensibly devoted to “90s alternative and grunge,” which in practice apparently means “grunge”? Precisely zero—over the course of ten years.

Dando had a serious drug problem, and when the Lemonheads went on “hiatus” in the late 90s, I lost track of him. My Lemonheads CDs fell out of heavy rotation, sitting on the shelf alongside the Gin Blossoms and A Tribe Called Quest. When, in May, I heard Dando was touring with a new lineup, my first reaction was wow, he’s still alive? I checked the tour dates, and lo, the Lemonheads were booked into Mr. Smalls Theatre on June 12, in the Pittsburgh suburb of Millvale. It’s a cozy little place, converted from a church to a club, with a capacity of 175. And though there was a good crowd that night, it didn’t seem that the show sold out.

Dando is now 52, still rock-star lean, though a little grizzled. Throughout the 75-minute set, he kept his voice in the lower registers, unwilling or unable to reach for high notes; his long dirty-blonde bangs swung over half his face, so that I’m not sure we saw his eyes at any point. He looked like an indie-rock sheepdog. And he engaged in absolutely no between-song banter; he introduced “Big Gay Heart,” for example, by saying, “Big Gay Heart.” Despite that, the crowd supplied the rapport, turning Dando’s cover of “Frank Mills” (from the musical Hair) into an all-club singalong.

And I loved the whole thing, as did Jamie, who at one point unwittingly revisited David Lynch’s Blue Velvet by rejecting my offer of a PBR in favor of a Heineken. During “It’s a Shame About Ray” I actually got a little weepy, thinking of the days when Jamie was learning to walk, when Janet or I would sing him to sleep at night. These days, Jamie has developed the odd habit of asking me how many years he has known this song or that; for most of the night’s set list, the answer was, amazingly, “twenty-six years.” Twenty-six of his twenty-eight.

Which reminded me. Twenty-six years ago, in November 1993, I was in Minneapolis for the conference of the Midwest Modern Language Association. By happy chance, punk icons X were playing at the legendary club First Avenue at the same time, and a college-era friend of mine, recently married and living in Minneapolis, got tickets for us. It wasn’t the original lineup; Tony Gilkyson had replaced Billy Zoom seven years earlier. But John Doe, Exene Cervenka, and D. J. Bonebrake were all there, and they were kickin’ it. There was even a mosh pit, just like in the good old days.

At 32, I was not in that mosh pit. I was up in the balcony with my friend, sipping from a plastic tumbler of scotch. I felt faintly ridiculous, as if I were a pipe-chomping dad with horn-rimmed glasses, a tenure-track literature professor yelling out, “play ‘We’re Desperate’! I love that one!” and turning to his neighbors and saying, “Oh, yes, ‘Under the Big Black Sun.’ How we used to thrash back then!” The whole thing seemed so unbearably neo-, as if, at the ripe old age of 32, I was already nostalgic for the days when everything depended on the next release by the Clash or Elvis Costello or the Talking Heads.

Or X. In 1981, I remember thinking, upon seeing The Decline of Western Civilization, Penelope Spheeris’ epochal documentary of the Los Angeles punk scene, that X weren’t really punks. Not in the sense Black Flag or Fear or the Germs were, anyway. Billy Zoom, especially, appeared to be in the wrong genre altogether, looking like a refugee from the coeval rockabilly revival. They knew it, too, doing pointedly un-punk things like covering “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” and the Doors’ “Soul Kitchen” (for that matter, working with the Doors’ Ray Manzarek as their producer). Zoom didn’t say a word in the film; like a goofball, he simply wiggled his ears for the camera. But on that night in Minneapolis, I missed him. Gilkyson was fine, but just not as crisp and sharp as Mr. Zoom.

And yet in late-middle-aged retrospect, X, that night, were just over a decade removed from their most incendiary work; Evan Dando, in Pittsburgh in 2019, was almost a full generation away from his. At First Avenue, the demigenerational divide was clear; the nostalgic thirty-somethings were all up in the balcony with me, sipping their scotches and reminiscing about the days of Sandinista! and Remain in Light, and the new recruits in their teens and early twenties were on the floor, slamming as they should. At Mr. Smalls, there was no visible divide at all. Both crowds were overwhelmingly white, of course, as are punk and indie rock. But in terms of age cohort, the difference was striking.

During my mid-80s days as a drummer in an unclassifiable post-punk band, Baby Opaque, I played my share of “all ages” shows. Back then, “all ages” basically meant “18 and under, punks only,” as one club’s bouncer wryly noted when he checked my driver’s license and, seeing that I was 23, said, “welcome, grandpa.” But here, in Mr. Smalls, the Lemonheads really were playing an all-ages show. The family standing behind me and Jamie included two tweens; twenty-something hipsters with beards and man-buns abounded; to my left were people even older than I. As we filed out that night, a woman who appeared to be within shouting distance of my age congratulated me on bringing my son to the show, and told me of her own experience with people with Down syndrome; I thanked her and assured her that Jamie was a legit and longtime fan, having known their music for almost his entire life.

And why shouldn’t alternative, indie-rock musicians have gotten to this point, where oldsters can enjoy their work with their grandchildren? Over the past forty years, there hasn’t been any line-in-the-sand generation-defining moment, nothing comparable to the Elvis v. Sinatra divide of the late 50s or the punk v. corporate rock split of the late 70s. When Nick first discovered indie rock in his teens, he shared his Franz Ferdinand and Interpol and Ted Leo tunes with me, and I would say, hey, this Interpol song “Obstacle 1” sounds like it should be paying royalties to Television’s “Marquee Moon.” Whereupon Nick went out and bought “Marquee Moon,” and we were all one happy family, just like the Ramones sang.

Maybe this is just wishful thinking as I approach sixty and the number of fast songs I can play on the drums dwindles each year. But it just wouldn’t be right to consign all us oldsters to the demographic that pays hundreds (or thousands!) of dollars to see Billy Joel or Rod Stewart or the Rolling Stones. Some of us still love to hear old tunes from Veruca Salt or the Breeders or Liz Phair, after all. This summer, my family welcomed our first grandchild, Finn Hartley Bérubé—so I really am a grandpa, 35 years after that bouncer made that crack. And I’m looking forward to bringing Finn and his parents to the Lemonheads’ fiftieth anniversary tour seventeen years from now.

Michael Bérubé is an Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Penn State University and the only former president of the Modern Language Association to follow his presidential address, in 2013, by playing “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” “Hold On, I’m Coming,” and “Shotgun” on drums with his sister-in-law’s band, Eight to the Bar.


Featured image By Monkeypuzzler

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