Saturday, April 29, 2006
Evan Dando: Jell-o grunge boy, drug buddy, Lemonhead
A few years ago, before he performed live at Edinburgh’s Café Royal, I asked Evan Dando about the first song he ever wrote. He picked up his guitar and sang a sweet little verse called Deep Bottom Cove. It was uncertain in its scansion, but endearing. There was laughter between the lines, and a smile in the voice. This was slightly odd, because the song was about two boys who woke up on a beautiful morning, went out in a boat, and drowned in the glassy water of the deep-bottom cove. That song later came out as a B-side, but I treasure my recording, because - in the act of remembering more innocent times - Dando seemed to reconnect with the sense of wonder which had drawn him towards music. And, he was singing to me.
Later, on a pilgrimage to the Californian hotel room in which Gram Parsons died, I came across a couple of notes from Dando in the visitors’ book. In June 1993, he wrote: "I am addicted to Gram’s singing, but this room made me want to stay away from the hard stuff." The second note read: "More than five years later I’m back in Room 8. Had a great sleep - ‘it makes me feel better each time it begins’ - I’m awake now - I shall return."
There have been times during the last 10 years when it looked as if Evan Dando might not return. His hero, Parsons, died of a drug overdose, and Dando’s hedonism took him perilously close to this fate. The interview he gave about the merits of crack was not a highpoint. Nor was the occasion when he was deported from Australia and delivered to a psychiatric hospital. But there were occasional live appearances - just Dando, his guitar, and that heartbroken voice - to raise the spirits, and a live LP, complete with an EP of country covers.
And now, eight years after the split of his band, The Lemonheads, Dando is properly awake. On Baby I’m Bored, he sounds glad to be alive. There are songs about how he went too far, about hanging on, about being in love. He sounds, as he always does, wasted and enchanted. He sings, as he always does, with a note of ambiguity. He is happily sad, sadly happy.
Needless to say, the reasons for his return to the recording studio are less than prosaic. During the gap years he has been travelling, going to Vegas, hanging out in the desert, fishing, skiing: "Just living the good life. We could have gone on and on indefinitely, but we were about to run out of money."
"We" is Dando and his wife, Elizabeth Moses, a model from Tyneside. They were married in November 2000 at the Boathouse on New York’s Central Park. There were 400 guests, and music from J Mascis, Speedball Baby and Ben Kweller. The walk down the aisle was accompanied by a tapeloop of the opening bars of Lou Reed’s Street Hassle, though the vocals were excised. "We didn’t go into ‘Hey that cunt’s not breathing’," Dando says . "The lyrics would be inappropriate." He starts rapping like Reed. "I think she had too much/ of something or other, hey, man, you know what I mean/I don’t mean to scare you/but you're the one who came here.
"We couldn’t have that at the wedding. So we looped the beautiful cello part and put in operatic high voices. After we got married it was Electric Funeral by Black Sabbath, and full fog, dry ice. After we said our vows, it was like DOW DUW DUW! NEH NEH NEH! And the party started."
Happily, the new record does not sound like a work made out of necessity. This, Dando says, is because he has learned to separate his life from his music. "I was able to say, right, this is my job, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to be any less passionate about it. And I was having just as much fun about it. And I’m going to be daring about it."
At any point in the last two years, Dando says, he could have made a huge record. Punk rock was big, and Dando was a second-wave punk. But he chose not to do it, because that would have meant following a trend.
"I tended towards making much noisier records, but then when Nevermind came out, I was like, well, I’m going to have to go somewhere else. Nirvana is enough."
The pin-up boy of grunge fell back instead on the country rock sound of Gram Parsons. "I always liked the glamour, the fuck-the-world attitude he had. And he’d hang out with the Stones and have a really good time. He is one person who definitely influenced me. He taught me some things about relaxing. Just from listening to his records I found my own voice. Relaxing your voice as you sing, just speak the words clearly, but relaxed, and it comes out well."
When he was six or seven, growing up in Boston, Dando appeared in a Jell-o commercial. He was only allowed to watch one hour of TV a night so he never saw the ad, but he was teased about it at school. His mother was a model who appeared on the cover of Vogue. "She was," Dando says, "a perfect Sixties babe." His father was a lawyer.
"They were both heavy surfers, so I had the ideal childhood. Every other summer we’d go and stay in the Chateau down by Biarritz. It set me up for wanting more out of life later. That’s why I became a college drop-out and was a waiter for two years. I pursued this music thing because I saw in it the chance to travel all round the world as I did as a kid and have good fun."
What Dando now refers to as his "experiment in self-destruction and weirdness" was not an accident. "From 10-years old, I’ve been mostly interested in people who were indulgent, like Coleridge and the Velvet Underground, the Stones and Bukowski, Lenny Bruce. All these people were playing with the line of reality and taking tons of drugs, so that was what I was going to do when I grew up."
The experience, he says, did not disappoint. "Luckily I had a vehicle, a way to buy drugs, which is what the Lemonheads were. Pretty much that’s all they were, a vehicle to buy plane tickets and drugs."
He is sanguine about his arrest in Australia. "It was part of the story. I was like a protagonist. In my own mind I was like a Homeric figure. That was part of the bad side. You have to have all of it, the adventure and the acid foes, the cops: on the adventure there’s gotta be some hardship."
And the psychiatric hospital?
"My sister had a little sense of humour there. I didn’t have to go, but I was in bad enough shape that I did go in for a little bit. More for the family than anyone else. But it was really just a bad acid trip combined with intense heroin withdrawal." He laughs. "Which is really bad. But I was actually fine by the time I got home. I just went in and waited until I could ask the head of the place, ‘Can I fucking get out of here now?’ and that was after 10 days. I pulled the wool over their eyes and went back to New York and got loads of drugs again. Just because ... if I was going to get clean I was going to do it myself. I didn’t want someone else to get the credit. I don’t like AA, I would never go to an AA meeting or anything, because I think I can do it myself. I’d rather do it myself. I don’t want to talk to other people who have problems with alcohol. That’s not my idea of a good time. And I certainly don’t want to make friends with them."
Because addiction is a bad thing to have in common?
"It’s really not very interesting. It’s interesting if you’re part of the experience of taking the drugs, but other than that there’s nothing to talk about. Except it can help you write songs. It did help me in the past, but now I don’t need it. You know the whole Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test? I can summon up all those things. I guess I expanded my mind enough, thank you, to the point where it was starting to shrink. So I decided to get that out of my life. I figured out that life is plenty weird enough without drugs, and interesting enough."
Dando says the drink was worse than the drugs. "You feel like it’s not as bad or something. But for a while there, I was really going for it with the alcohol. When I was trying to quit drugs I was compensating by drinking 40 drinks a day. So that got boring, and I stopped that, and now I feel 10 years younger. It’s weird."
Was boredom the problem?
"Well, what did John Berryman say? Life, friends, is boring. It’s a question of getting out of it and creating something. That’s the whole punk rock ethos: bashing your way out of boredom somehow by creating some tunes."
Happily sad, or sadly happy, Dando’s songs have always embodied a contradiction. "It started off with darkness … the lighter stuff was like ‘I’m going to look at this the other way round’. I figured I was pretty much by nature a depressive person, so by force of will I got optimistic, and tried to spread a positive message around. But really, the whole time I was a very dark, depressive, really fatalistic person."
He has been diagnosed "bipolar, whatever", but affects a shrug about medical opinion. "I can keep it under control. I enjoy sleeping a lot. Dreaming."
Fame, he says, did not help, and he has now arrived at a new attitude towards performance. "What did Katharine Hepburn say? Success and failure, treat these two illusions the same."
And his sad, happy songs, are they autobiographical? "That doesn’t really mean anything to me. I’m not really a person. I’m just like a voice on a record. It’s just a voice and a guitar."
The Scotsman 7th March 2003
Posted by Kirk Elder at 8:34 AM