Monday, February 20, 2017

Hippies vs. Punks: The Lemonheads' It's a Shame About Ray (1992)

I left my apartment building a little before 7:20, as I do every weekday morning, on Valentine's Day, and what was there to greet me when I stepped out on the avenue? Light!

Last year at this time, maybe a few weeks sooner, I noticed the return of the light, at the same time as was I was re-examining the first four Lemonheads albums, and quite abruptly I felt not so bad about myself.

Seeking to recapture that feeling, Valentine's Day I launched myself in an immersion of It's a Shame About Ray (1992). I happened to have it on my iPod knowing that I might want to pick up where I left off last winter.

What I remember about listening to It's a Shame when it was first released late spring of 1992 is, in fact, light. My buddy Mark and I, home from work, were drinking gin. The windows were flung open and June light filled my apartment. Mark was talking about a woman he had just started to date while "Alison's Starting to Happen" blasted out of the stereo speakers.

It was a moment of generational certitude. People forget. Reaganism was bankrupt by June of 1992. Unemployment kept rising (though Mark and I weren't feeling it because we both had steady jobs), and Bush looked cooked. The Dems were licking their chops. They were about to nominate a bright and shiny "New Democrat" known as "Slick Willie."

For those of us in our 20s who voted and read the newspapers, that was all fine. But what was really exciting was that underground, indie record labels like SST, Alternative TentaclesHomestead, Touch and Go, Sub Pop and TAANG! were on the verge of a major invasion of the majors. All that Punk we listened to and lived by in the 1980s was bleeding into the mainstream in the form of Grunge, exterminating the headbanger hair bands. 

Nineteen-ninety-two was the zenith. The next year would be the asteroid impact with negligible records like Blood Sugar Sex Magik,  Blind Melon, and Pocket Full of Kryptonite in heavy rotation for such long a time (years?) that those of us who knew better and wished to resist finally succumbed and purchased copies of Enter Sandman and Siamese Dream.

It's a Shame About Ray is more Pop Rock than Grunge. Produced by The Robbs at their Cherokee Studios, Ray is no Station to Station (1976). But I am surprised how often now that it is played on the local hipster radio station. "My Drug Buddy" is one of the station's staples.

At the time, the summer of 1992, I was disappointed. I was a Lemonheads true believer, and it seemed to me that Evan Dando had purged the rest of the band members and gone Hollywood. He appeared on the cover of SPIN making out with indie film star Adrienne Shelly.

After reading Everett True's The Lemonheads (1994), "A Melody Maker Book," on Saturday I can say that my assessment was fairly accurate.

The story about Ray is that the band, following a mere 11,000 Lovey copies sold (compared to 30,000 for Lick released by independent TAANG!) headed Down Under for one last tour. There Dando discovered himself.  Thanks to a lot of MDMA, surfing, songwriting help from Smudge frontman Tom Morgan and good old Aussie hospitality, Dando was able to piece together an album's worth (30 minutes) of material. Founding member, and my personal favorite, Jesse Peretz was out. Aussie Nic Dalton was in. Drummer David Ryan remained.

But the real story of It's a Shame About Ray is that it was headed in the direction of Lovey -- meaning, another dud -- until the the band was approached to do a cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" (1968) for a new video release of The Graduate (1967), one of the seminal Hollywood films of the '60s cultural revolution. The single took off. Ray was re-released with "Mrs. Robinson" as a bonus track. The album started moving up the charts, eventually reaching #68 on the Billboard 200 for 1993. It did much better in the UK (#33) and Australia (#23).

Though I was disappointed by the bubble-gum quality of a lot of the songs, part of me was foolishly proud of Dando. It wasn't but a few years earlier that I was standing next to him at an empty CBGBs. Now he was making out bare-chested with a beautiful actress on the cover of a national mass-circulation magazine, not to mention partying hard with Hollywood stars at Johnny Depp's Viper Room.

Youth will be served in its boundless hope and dead-end arrogance. When I want to remember what that feeling feels like I think about that June evening in 1992, drinking gin, and my buddy Mark bathed in light talking about carnal delicacies that would soon be his.

Immersed in Ray all last week what became apparent to me is that most of the songs are actually a lot sadder than they seemed when originally ingested back in the early '90s. All the demos that are included in the 2008 Rhino re-issue of the album make this plain. It's stoner music, a sonic account of a young man equipped with the slimmest of defenses confronted with the inevitable assimilation to a brutal world yet hoping nonetheless . . . waiting to be saved. (The demo version of "Rudderless" captures this.)

The genius of It's a Shame About Ray is The Robbs' production -- to take all those downer stoner songs and make them uptempo and sunshiny Pop.

My favorite track though is the mid-tempo "Rudderless." "Hope in my past." The honest statement of a confused young man waiting for recognition buttressed by a solid Grunge guitar and topped off by a fragmenting deep space Sonic Youth guitar effect at the end:

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