Music

"I Wanna Be Someone Else": The Lemonheads' Transformative Adventures in Cover Versions

Photo: Michel van Collenburg / Courtesy of Fire Records

By way of Charles Manson, Suzanne Vega, Gram Parsons, and, yes, Simon and Garfunkel, the Lemonheads once utilized cover songs to reinvent themselves and spark brilliantly infectious guitar-pop originals. And they will again. One day. Perhaps.

Varshons 2
The Lemonheads

Fire

8 February 2019

On their current reappearance, the Lemonheads are touring a covers album titled Varshons 2, a sequel to their covers album of 2009, Varshons, which was, in fact, their last non-archival release. The LP sees chief Lemonhead Evan Dando once again stake his claim as a sensitive interpreter of largely underappreciated indie songs, applying his soothing baritone to such country-inflected gems as the Jayhawks' "Settled Down Like Rain" and Lucinda Williams' "Abandoned". He has, lest we forget, a tradition of recording cover songs with his band, going back to "Into Your Arms" in 1993, "Brass Buttons" in 1990, and "Luka" in 1987. However, such releases served not merely as stopgaps, or B-sides or filler, but rather as lead tracks that stimulated and gave potency to often sublime original material, on the band's shape-shifting upward trajectory through hardcore punk, grunge pop, and country rock.

Now, sadly, we no longer hear the sublime original material, at least not on record. We no longer hear self- or co-penned Lemonhead songs to rank alongside "My Drug Buddy", "Rudderless", "It's a Shame About Ray", "It's About Time", "Big Gay Heart", or "If I Could Talk I'd Tell You", seemingly effortless strummers which have grown steadily in stature since they were released and which themselves deserve to be covered, so melodic, poignant and evocative are they of summers, friendships, and youth. In fact, we haven't heard any kind of original song from the band since 2006. What happened?

Some explanation may be found by invoking the initial manifestation of the Lemonheads in the mid-'80s, as there was a group that had to work at finding the right cover songs -- and a convincing musical identity. It would be of further use to pinpoint the reinterpretations that did and did not prove to be the catalysts for the band's self-conceived excursions into the unlikely realm of sunny alt-rock perfection. Such a process may facilitate insights into the cause of their current, frustratingly prolonged period as, well, a covers band.

"I am a rabbit"

Founded by high-school friends Dando, Ben Deily, and Jesse Peretz, the Boston-based Lemonheads initially strived to be a hardcore punk band, first by adopting a 1979 song called "Rabbit" by cult New Zealand punk group Proud Scum. A 19-year-old Dando assumed the role of a randy adolescent (probably quite easily) to belt out the lines of this boisterous curio that he'd lately heard on college radio: "I am a rabbit / I've got to have it / It's a force of habit / I'd like to share my carrot, with you." He further sang it not in the distinctively arch style of the original, but in a thuggish manner that contributed to a savage, revved-up sound that assimilated the group into a local hardcore scene established by such bands as Jerry's Kids, and Negative FX.

The trio put the resultant track on their self-released debut EP, Laughing All the Way to the Cleaners (1986), matching it with three visceral and frantic DIY originals in the form of "Glad I Don't Know", "I Like To", and "So I Fucked Up". They consequently got themselves signed to independent Boston label Taang! Records, but had a way to go yet to stand out.

"I once was lost"

Now on a roster of local hardcore acts including Moving Targets, Slapshot, and Gang Green, the Lemonheads made the dubious decision to reinterpret the American hymn "Amazing Grace" for their debut album Hate Your Friends (1987). Deily took charge of vocals this time, obviously wanting to play the subversive punk upstart deforming a sacred song in the tradition of Sid Vicious on "My Way" (1978), Ari Up on "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" (1979), or even Joe Strummer on ''I Fought the Law" (1979). As Sid, particularly, had supplanted Frank Sinatra, Deily displaced US icons Elvis, Aretha, and Whitney by rasping his way through a song they had previously given the full-on gospel effect. However fun the idea of a punk rocker adopting the words of an Anglican clergyman and former slave owner John Newton might have been, the end product sounded uninspired and unamusing, even with the frenzied guitar solo.

If nothing else, the band used "Amazing Grace" to distinguish themselves as an act more interested in playing as fast and hard as they could on the 24-minute Hate Your Friends than in songcraft, melody, or emotional sincerity. It showed that they were all about aggression at this point, with both Deily and Dando still to blossom as songwriters. They were being viewed as copyists of Hüsker Dü and early Replacements, luminaries of the Minneapolis hardcore scene. They showed signs, however, of becoming distinctive tunesmiths. Dando excelled on "Don't Tell Yourself It's Ok" with its euphoric, riff-driven verses offset by a melancholy chorus, as well as the witty title track on which he spurts: "Drink yourself silly / There's no use disguising that you hate your friends." Deily, meanwhile, delivered an exuberant slice of catchy pop-punk in the form of "Second Chance".

"I can't be satisfied"

Photo courtesy of Fire Records

Having hinted at a melodic sensibility beneath the hardcore attack on Hate Your Friends, the Lemonheads briefly morphed into a power-pop band when they covered Big Star's "Mod Lang" in 1987, for a compilation of Boston-affiliated post-punk bands titled Crawling From Within. They made a brave attempt at capturing the influential Memphis group's luminous guitar sound, too, on this Radio City track from 1974, with Dando once again adopting the required persona of a sexually frustrated youth. They also coupled it fittingly with singalong Dando original "Sad Girl", notable for its tempo shift into a guitar-thrashing outro, before making a less than convincing return to hardcore on sophomore album Creator (1988).

The Lemonheads proffered covers here that primarily contributed to a shambolic and incoherent record. These included Dando, first of all, attempting to make some kind of punk statement with a rendition of Charles Manson's "Your Home Is Where You're Happy", from 1970 album Lie: The Love and Terror Cult. Any shock value he gained by adopting a song written by a musical cult leader and convicted serial killer, however, who for many symbolized the death of the hippie dream by instigating the Tate murders of 1969, was quickly undercut by the reality of it. This was Evan, in stoner mode, performing a solo acoustic version of a clumsy song full of clumsy period lyrics about how your home "is not where you're not free". No, thanks.

He didn't fare much better on a full-band version of the Kiss favorite "Plaster Caster", either, about Chicago groupie Cynthia Plaster Claster, who famously made models of rock star penises out of plaster of Paris. This was a frankly unnecessary take on the theatrical metal band's 1977 track from the Love Gun album, which served only to signal the Lemonheads' predilection for braindead rock and alienate them from a Boston hardcore scene that had become increasingly message-driven, right wing, and militant with the dominance of straight-edge bands like SSD and DYS. They mimicked the Replacements in this respect, who'd included a raw version of Kiss's furiously riff-driven "Black Diamond" on their Let it Be album of 1984, as part of a deliberate break from the multitudinous restrictions imposed upon them by their hardcore audience. The Lemonheads lacked the same edginess and authority, but were at least able to complement their Kiss cover with a couple of standout originals: the driving "Take Her Down" and the plaintive "Postcard".

"My name is Luka"

The Lemonheads really began to hit their stride on subsequent album Lick (1989), on which they became a proficient rock band, showcasing a wonderfully abrasive version of Suzanne Vega's "Luka". Now with the added musical inventiveness of Corey "Loog" Brennan on lead guitar, they once more performed the trick of transplanting a hugely popular song from its original genre. But this time in a way that followed a fashion, of sorts, for rock bands to make capital out of the new wave of acoustic-guitar-wielding female singer-songwriters then constituting a "folk revival": Vega, Tracey Chapman, Michelle Shocked, and Edie Brickel.

They followed in the wake of Living Colour covering Chapman ("Talkin' Bout a Revolution") and Thelonious Monster covering Chapman ("For My Lover") but went further than simply rehashing or spoofing Vega's incomparable 1987 hit. Against a maelstrom of guitar buzz and feedback, Dando brought a new level of anguish and vulnerability to the role of the boy Luka -- the first-person narrator in the song -- who hopelessly relates his experience of being abused at home. In so doing, he displayed, for the first time, a knack for putting his stamp on highly unlikely source material.

The band placed enough faith in their cover of "Luka" to release it as the album's lead single, soon to become a breakthrough hit. They also appeared to have used it as a basis for applying a new level of songwriting sophistication to the originals on "Lick", which they mingled with new recordings of old songs like "Glad I Don't Know". On what was, therefore, a patchwork affair of an album, they offered "Mallo Cup", all jangly hooks and mumbling vocals worthy of early R.E.M., which was arguably their finest self-penned tune to date. They further turned in "Circle of One", another dose of top-drawer indie pop, characterized by a simple refrain shot through with a Dando vocal steeped in the kind of weary melancholy that would become his trademark. Deily, meanwhile, pitted something altogether harder in the form of "Anyway".

"The beat of a different drum"

If it was Dando, particularly, who favored a poppier direction for the Lemonheads, he had free reign to select songs to this purpose after Deily's departure from the band later in 1989 (amidst rumors that the two of them weren't getting along). He eventually decided on the Stone Poneys' 1967 hit, "Different Drum" (featuring a young Linda Ronstadt), as the lead track for a new EP on the independent Roughneck label in June 1990: Favourite Spanish Dishes.

Dando clearly felt at one with the country flavor and wry, break-up-themed lyrics of this Michael Nesmith-penned song ("we'll both live a lot longer if you live without me"), in his bid to take center stage as a vocalist. He also succeeded in replacing the irritating baroque stylings of the Ponys' version with some intoxicating guitar riffs and squalls. However, his real achievement in all of this was to set the scene for a game-changing original in the form of "Ride With Me" (track three), a country-tinged acoustic ballad that marked the way towards the band's remarkable golden period.

Dando, as he has personally attested, began to find his lyrical voice on "Ride With Me", having taken from "Different Drum" a simple, unpretentious and sing-like-you-talk approach that sounded personal and immediate. He also evidenced a similar melodic lightness of touch in the process of becoming every bit the smoky-voiced purveyor of wistful alt-country, singing intimately on the subject of loss, escape, and finding faith: "Time to get in my car / Been so dull, tired and tight / Time to trust these old tires / Time to not say goodnight." He further conjured up Gram Parsons in his performance of the song, not least because the former Byrd and inspirational pioneer of alt-country had sung the thematically identical "Wheels" with the Flying Burrito Brothers in 1969. "Come on wheels," he implored in his effortlessly emotive voice, "take this boy away."

"Brass buttons, green silks, and silver shoes"

Photo courtesy of Fire Records

After learning from a friend that "Ride With Me" evoked Parsons, Dando delivered a cover of one of his finest songs, "Brass Buttons", for next Lemonheads album Lovey (1990). He had been given the confidence, therefore, to take on the mantle of heartbroken country singer in his unusually faithful rendition of the 1974 track from Gram's posthumous Grievous Angel album: one who tells the tale of being left alone to dwell upon the intimate reminders of a departed loved one: "brass buttons, green silks and silver shoes". He hadn't heard of Parsons up to this point, nor indeed his late-period singing partner Emmylou Harris, but quickly came to look upon him as his "favorite artist", in large part due to "the way he relaxed when he sang" and his image: "all the cool pictures, and the drugs" (Uncut, 30 October, 2018). He consequently fed this influence into the Lemonhead originals on Lovey, which marked a new musical direction for the band after signing to a major label, Atlantic.

Dando started to pen songs that combined simplicity and sentiment after his discovery of Parsons, together with a domestic-short-story element and a distinct strain of melancholy. He worked on his voice, too, so that it sounded fuller, mellower, and more heartfelt while developing from Parsons a "slacker" aesthetic (and druggy lifestyle) that would set him up nicely for engagement in the alt-rock explosion of the early '90s.

Dando further introduced his own Emmylou in the form of Juliana Hatfield, from the fellow Bostonian group the Blake Babies, whose raucous vocals are present on the pop-punk opener "Ballarat". But while he generated a generally downbeat sense of suburban ennui on Lovey, it was on "Stove", particularly, that he really hit gold and found the impetus for the next album. "Stove" is a bright, hook-laden and energetically strummed rush of a track in celebration of something seemingly mundane: yep, a gasman coming to replace his old stove.

"How it all started in the kitchen"

By now straddling the boundary between punk and country, Dando became nothing short of a pop star with the release of fifth Lemonheads album It's a Shame About Ray in June 1992, grounded, as it was, by a cover song called "Kitchen". Since the last record, he'd been hanging out in Sydney, partying, surfing, and immersing himself in the genial jangle of Australian indie music, notably that involving band-hopping songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Nic Dalton, formerly of the Plunderers, and Love Positions, and lately of psych-pop outfit Godstar, who'd first recorded "Kitchen" for their Brightest Star EP the previous January.

He bonded not only with Dalton, who was additionally the founder of the Half a Cow record label, but also Godstar's drummer Alison Galloway and bassist/vocalist Tom Morgan, with whom he shared an obvious affinity for bouncy, open-hearted and catchy songs. He was therefore perfectly at ease on "Kitchen", singing as a wide-eyed youth besotted with a new girlfriend, who he eats cake with "every night" and walks home "along Mount Vernon Street" in Sydney. He was also, no doubt, attracted to the unexpectedly sinister element in the song that centers on the narrator discovering "secrets I was shocked to know", and the two of them repeating the same stories, but, of course, "never in front of friends".

Dando proceeded to make the happy/dark tone of "Kitchen" a touchstone for the Lemonhead originals on Ray, while also drawing influence from a band Morgan fronted, Smudge, and going so far as to acquire the Aussie musician's lyrical input on both the title track and "Bit Part". He was so energized by his new musical accomplices, in fact, as to come up with ten songs that would constitute half an hour of flawless guitar-pop for easily the band's most accomplished album. With a fresh lineup including Hatfield on bass/backing vocals and David Ryan on drums, he encapsulated his new musical outlook on the standout "My Drug Buddy".

Here was the Sydney setting (King Street in the suburb of Newtown), the light and breezy mood, the warm vocals, the simple acoustic guitar, and the whimsical organ part enveloping, on the face of it, the story of a happy day out with a girlfriend. But, with Hatfield's gloriously sunny harmonies accentuating this impression, Dando ensured this was no lightweight piece by spiking it with a painful, seemingly personal assessment of drug addiction as a deep-seated need to escape one's daily reality: "I'm too much with myself / I wanna be someone else."

Further in debt to Dalton and Morgan, Dando fashioned "Confetti" in deceptively simple clothes, being a rousing jangle of a thing that addressed the heavy subject of a man terminating his marriage: "He'd rather be alone than pretend." He also gave "Rudderless" a casual lucidity through its layered and spiky guitar chords, as he sang of the waste and deep regret that comes from drug dependency: "Tired of getting high / Guess I don't wanna die." Meanwhile, he perfected that laid-back, Parsons-style vocal delivery on the enigmatic title track, surely the most sweetly structured composition he put his name to, as he addressed some unspecified emotional tragedy involving a guy called Ray. And certainly, he littered these songs with enough drug content, dark subject matter and distorted guitar to tie the band in with the whole grunge movement then making its enormous impact on the rock mainstream.

"So here's to you"

Photo courtesy of Fire Records

The Lemonheads became something new again upon scoring a hit with Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" in November 1992, being popularly viewed as proponents of "bubblegum grunge". Now with Dalton playing bass in the band, they recorded their punk-inflected version of the 1967 track merely to please Atlantic, who wanted to feature it in the 25th-anniversary home-video release of The Graduate and, in the process, get a bona fide hit out of them. And, sure, the group gained huge crossover success for their trouble, especially when it was appended to a rerelease of Ray to increase its sales. But there can be little doubt that they put their name to an uninspired cover here, being mostly a sped-up version of the original, with a dutifully applied distortion pedal. They sounded vacuous and crassly commercial; it is no surprise to learn later that Dando had no respect for the song.

The Lemonheads frontman, furthermore, gained no creative momentum out of reinterpreting "Mrs. Robinson", with the hit record serving only to thrust him into the limelight and smother him with celebrity status and pinup ubiquity. As he partied hard, upped his drug intake, and generally became a little, erm, distracted, he drew the mistrust and resentment of rock critics everywhere, who judged the whole spectrum of his music, wrongly, as lightweight and insubstantial. He made particularly plain at this point his eschewal of the pained and tortured drug-addict image that the majority of grunge musicians were intent upon, as well as his disinclination to express feelings of rage and alienation through his music, all of which did little for his alt-rock credibility.

"I know a place"

Without any apparent concern to adopt the angsty demeanor of many of his peers, Dando went further in casting the Lemonheads as a radio-friendly pop act by recording the Love Positions' "Into Your Arms" for the 1993 album Come on Feel the Lemonheads. He once more punctuated a new LP, therefore, with a sunshiny love song plucked from Nic Dalton's Half a Cow record label, on which Dalton himself played bass as one half of a duo he formed with singer Robyn St Clare. Dando discovered the lo-fi track, penned by St Clare, on the Love Positions' obscure 1990 vinyl record Billiepeebup, finding that it fit the melodic and lyrical style he had developed on Ray. Specifically, Dando found here a busker-friendly, two-note guitar motif, and words that spoke simply of personal fragility and finding solace: "And if I should fall / I know I won't be alone / Be alone anymore." He even turned it into the band's biggest hit worldwide in November 1993.

Dando complemented "Into Your Arms" with 13 largely acoustic songs on Come on Feel that were immediate, playful, and focussed on everyday concerns. With Tom Morgan now firmly on board as co-writer and the familiar studio presence of Hatfield and Dalton, he ensured that most of them were, in fact, far superior to the lead single, containing that extra bite that made the Ray songs so distinctive. On the Parsons-tinged "It's About Time", he perfected the art of uniting melancholy and buoyancy in a single track, his vocal steeped in self-doubt against Hatfield's radiant backing vocals (and most life-affirming chime of the word "sunshine" you are ever likely to hear).

He achieved a similar feat on the harmony-rich "Paid to Smile", with Juliana's input always perfectly timed and never overused, but then there was "Big Gay Heart". On this, Dando brought together a doleful vocal, an anti-gay-bashing message, a wondrous bridge section, and heartbreaking steel-guitar licks courtesy of former Flying Burrito Brother Sneaky Pete. Yet he bolstered it with an altogether harder tone in the controversial lyrics: "I don't need you to suck my dick / Or to help me feel good about myself." The result: an alt-country masterpiece.

"I lied until I fit the bill"

The Lemonheads made probably their final transformation as a truly purposeful and current band three years later, for the album Car Button Cloth (1996). It wasn't a dramatic change this time, in large part because Dando determined that the defining cover song should be one already penned by his writing partner, Morgan, back in '93 as a Smudge single: "The Outdoor Type". Yet it meant that the Lemonheads, with a new lineup (no more Hatfield?!), could now check in as a self-deprecating country-rock band. They indeed gelled naturally with this humorous track about a guy who admits to trying to impress a girl by misinforming her that he is into mountain bikes and camping: "I couldn't build a fire to save my life / I lied about being the outdoor type."

Dando forged a handful of similarly styled originals on Car Button Cloth that referenced the drug-addled mess he had become in recent years. He dealt in grave subject matter on "It's all True", "Hospital", and "If I Could Talk", while being able to offer wry commentary on the misadventures he'd experienced, particularly the one where he was so high on crack that he struggled to communicate on the most basic of levels: "If I could talk I'd tell you / If I could smile I'd let you know". Dando could also rest assured that these were some of his sharpest and most irresistible tunes yet, though demonstrating that he could additionally conquer darker, more Nirvana-esque territory if he needed to (witness the guitar-crunching excellence of "Break Me"). He further provided ample evidence that his voice was more mature, more gravelly, and generally more emotive and sorrowful than before, being pretty much like that of a proper darn country singer.

The Lemonheads rode the wave of a solid seventh album, then, but Dando was subsequently spent, and in 1998 he put the band on hold. The band returned in 2006 with an eponymously titled record, but, of course, things just weren't the same, and there were no covers and no real standout originals to behold. They subsequently put out Varshons in 2009, a well-received album full of covers, before going quiet again as a studio band. That is until February 2019 and Varshons 2. And this is all fine: Dando has impeccable musical taste, and he is an undisputed master of cover versions, even when it comes to material outside of the country-rock tradition (by the likes of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Leonard Cohen, and, erm, the Bevis Frond). Yet with each covers album comes the inevitable question concerning the whereabouts of a "proper" Lemonheads album.

At this point in time, we can at least posit some reasons for the ongoing delay in Dando originals and co-writes. One is the obvious point about how fame and drugs have taken their toll on his creativity. Another is that the singer has become daunted by the prospect of making new material that will stand alongside his increasingly lauded songs on Ray and Come on Feel. And a further point is that he now feels contented and confident in his role as an interpreter, particularly in the knowledge that Gram Parsons himself applied himself to covers of country/soul/rock standards just as much as he did to originals.

It would be wrong, however, to lose hope completely in Dando as a songwriter. He has, after all, alluded in promotional interviews for Varshons 2 to new songs he hopes to record soon, even though he has ceased to mention the reunion record with Deily and Hatfield that was previously touted, which would have involved Ryan Adams as drummer and producer. He has said that covers are a fun way to "get your feet wet" and ease your way back into the studio (The Boston Globe, 31 January 2019). If so, he must surely view Varshons 2 as the beginning of a creative process rather than the end, just as cover versions always were for the band. Signs are that Dando will make at least one more transformation before he is through as the leader of the Lemonheads: into a songwriter. It's something everybody wants. More so, I feel right in saying, than they want Varshons 3.

Photo: Michel van Collenburg / Courtesy of Fire Records

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