Friday, January 29, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: The Lemonheads' Lovey (1990)

In all of Robert Christgau's vast trove of criticism on his excellent web site,, I could find only one review of a Lemonheads record:
Come On Feel [Atlantic, 1993]
Evan Dando is a good-looking guy with more luck than talent and more talent than brains who conceals his narcissism beneath an unassuming suburban drawl. Twenty years ago he would have affected an acoustic guitar and acted sincere; now he affects a slacker-pop band and acts vulnerable. His songs don't bite, they sidle over and nibble your ear when you're not looking, and if you throw him a withering glance, no problem--he'll just move on to someone else. Exception: the one about drugs. C+
Brutally dismissive as it is, and applied to an album that most of us who were Lemonheads fans at the time would freely admit as proof that the band had lost its purpose (the dividing line for Taang!-era Lemonheads devotees like myself was Dando's cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" on the album that preceded Come on Feel the Lemonheads, 1992's It's a Shame About Ray), it is pretty much how I felt about Lovey (1990), The Lemonheads major-label debut on Atlantic Records, when I started listening to it again this week.

But after only a couple of days, I changed my opinion. There is no indication that Christgau had anything more than a superficial familiarity with Taang! bands such as The Lemonheads, Bullet LaVolta and Moving Targets, bands that were powering the Grunge revolution before it turned into a Grand Barbecue the summer of 1990 when Sonic Youth released Goo on Geffen Records.

What is not readily recalled is that Lovey was released in July shortly after Goo. Considering that it would be another year before major-label honchos would bring Nirvana to market, not to mention Hardcore founding fathers fIREHOSE and Meat Puppets, we have to ask ourselves the question, What did the corporate recording industry power brokers see in The Lemonheads to put them in the same bracket as Sonic Youth?

And here is what I concluded: The Lemonheads were not signed by Atlantic to be the equivalent of a Grunge Bobby Sherman act; if that were the case, the label would not have allowed Dando to make "Ballarat," an homage to Charles Manson's Helter Skelter eschatology, the first cut on Lovey. And while "Ballarat" might not be the equal of Sonic Youth's "Tunic (Song for Karen)," I would argue that it is of a piece (and that is not pretty boy Grunge).

The next clue is that of all the Taang! back catalog songs selected to appear on Lovey it was "Left for Dead," a re-titled "Clang Bang Clang" from Creator (1988), that made the cut; it is a truly great song that points clearly to what Atlantic had planned for The Lemonheads -- a chick-friendly Hüsker Dü.

The fact is that Lovey is loaded with grand gesture Grunge statements like "Li'l Seed" and "(The) Door," both of which are powered by the superb "guitar hero" playing of Corey Loog Brennan, filled out with an uptempo number like "Stove" and a Grunger, "Year of the Cat." As Brennan says in an interview that appears on the English fan web site devoted to Dando and The Lemonheads, "I thought that Lovey was going to sell a million copies. Then I was devastated when it semi-flopped."

But what Lovey did do is turn Dando into a Grunge heartthrob (see the video for "Half the Time" at the top of the post). I can bear witness. In last week's post I described seeing The Lemonheads at CBGBs the summer of 1989 and the only women there were the dates of the record industry guys at the back by the bar. I saw the band again at CBGBs the winter of 1991, seven or eight months after Lovey's release, and rather than being deserted, as it was the time before, the place was packed. So packed that it was difficult to move about. And most of the people at the front near the stage when Dando appeared in a 1960s-era red nylon windbreaker with racing stripes, his beautiful long blonde tresses catching the spotlights, were young middle-class women. The only explanation, given Brennan's assessment that the album semi-flopped, is that video for "Half the Time" found a passionate audience on MTV.

Hence, The Lemonheads coming pop flame-out, casually derided by Christgau as narcissistic, is set in motion by Lovey. Which is too bad because Lovey is an excellent album, one that was important to me and that I played a lot. Hearing it again repeatedly this week -- that and the fact that light is already starting to return at the end of January -- I started to feel not so bad about myself. I realized that at 26 years of age I was a solid householder, but one who nonetheless was hounded by the troika that has felled many a man -- work, women and alcohol. Maybe to become who we are we need to go back and figure out who we were.


  1. Excellent post! I just today got to THE BAFFLER No. 29 and an article there (a Gen-X fan's meditation on punk and its legacy) mentions Christgau. Although the punk article was only good, most of the rest of the issue was outstanding, even by BAFFLER standards. I particularly appreciated the piece on Christopher Lasch.

    Your Friday entries are the one and only thing that make me consider getting Internet that is fast enough to watch YouTube.

    1. I had a sub to THE BAFFLER when it was brought out of hiatus under the auspices of MIT but without Thomas Frank. I read the first one and liked some of the stuff in later issues but ended up letting it lapse, like my sub to THE NATION, because I can't keep up with the reading. I maintain my HARPER'S and COUNTERPUNCH subs even though I don't get around to reading them very often because I want to make sure and support their journalism. I recently got a JACOBIN sub for the same reason. But, J.O., if you say THE BAFFLER is outstanding I'll give it a go again.

      Thanks for the vote of confidence on Hippies vs. Punks. I meant to go into more detail about that night at CBGBs -- getting there, standing in line out front with everyone talking about the Minutemen five years after D. Boon had died, seeing the Blake Babies warm up, getting home to Washington Heights -- the whole night was this long but very pleasant ordeal. I remember getting off at some unfamiliar subway stop in SoHo and approaching CBGBs from the south. It was cold and dark and I was really drunk already and it felt like I had been swimming at sea for days like Beowulf. But it's hard to get a lot written in 90 minutes before leaving for work.