Evan Dando is dead. Those rumors were floating as far back as 1996, when heroin was chic, grunge was a thing, and Mr. Dando, the troubled 29-year-old lead singer of the punk-pop band the Lemonheads, seemed destined to follow Kurt Cobain to an early grave.
On the face of it, that narrative seemed odd. In the grunge-rock firmament, Mr. Dando was supposed to be Mr. Cobain’s opposite. Unlike the tortured Nirvana frontman, who took the stage in unwashed hair and thrift-store rags, grinding out three-chord howls of pain in an assault on the very concept of rock fame, Mr. Dando slipped too easily into the role of rock Adonis.
With frontman looks to rival a young Jim Morrison and a knack for spinning out sugary melodies, the Lemonheads — so sweet, so tart — spun out some of more confectionary tracks of the flannel-shirt era, including “It’s a Shame About Ray” and “Into Your Arms.”
Soon, everyone wanted a piece of Evan. He partied with Keith Richards and Johnny Depp and mugged in paparazzi shots with Kate Moss. In an era where thermal undershirts counted as a fashion statement, Mr. Dando was the rare rocker to catch Hollywood’s attention, popping up as a soulful heartthrob in “Reality Bites” (1994) and “Heavy” (1995), a gritty coming-of-age story starring Liv Tyler.
He may have been too beautiful for punk, but he was more than ready to live it.
A British journalist showed up for a 1993 profile and found the singer perched poolside in Hollywood, mired in a depressive bout “as black as it is bottomless,” the article read. Unable to speak, on doctor’s orders, he was only able to scrawl “sorry, substance abuse” on a yellow notepad.
Another interviewer found him giggling childishly and spinning out surrealistic non sequiturs. He had just come back from a tour serving as a roadie for the New Age chanteuse Enya, he joked, but it ended badly when he called her out for growing a beard.
He had it all and seemed determined to blow it all. With the New Musical Express blaring “Venus and Dopehead” on a 1993 cover featuring Björk and Mr. Dando, his fate seemed clear.
Now, it has been a quarter century. Chris Cornell of Soundgarden is dead. Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots is dead. Evan Dando is not dead. He is not clean and sober. Life is not an old episode of VH-1’s “Behind the Music.”
But he is back, in some sense, with the first Lemonheads album in a decade and an international tour, which almost qualifies him as the undead, destined to roam the earth forever, keeping a lost rock era alive.
And at 52, he offers no apologies, not even to Enya.
“It’s like Dylan said,” Mr. Dando said, flashing a flinty smile as he fired up a Marlboro at his home in Martha’s Vineyard, the Massachusetts island, on a recent morning, “‘I’m glad I’m not me.’”
Come On Feel the Nostalgia
“It’s like the whole hooker thing,” Mr. Dando said, huddled over a steak-and-eggs breakfast at a Vineyard diner on a crisp, sunny morning in April. “I feel like I’m getting some respect for just hanging in there.”
Slouched in a booth with a gray baseball cap pulled low over his stubbled face and shampoo-agnostic hair, he is no longer the bronzed young man who made People’s “50 Most Beautiful People” in 1993. But he looked at home.
Mr. Dando grew up in leafy Essex, Mass., and later Back Bay, an exclusive Boston neighborhood, and his family has had a house in the Vineyard for decades. On an island of expatriate A-listers, he counts as a celebrity of a different sort, a naturalized local.
In a sense, the statute of limitations on his celebrity ran out long ago. Even in their heyday, the Lemonheads never wholly surpassed next-big-thing status. They managed two gold records, “It’s a Shame About Ray” in 1992 and “Come On Feel the Lemonheads” in 1993. But despite recording a string of unshakably catchy singles, they never managed an era-defining anthem like the Nirvana song “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Add to that the fact that the grunge era they helped define was a fleeting moment for a generation that has largely been written out of history with the arrival of the millennials.
A week earlier, the Lemonheads had completed a 27-date European tour, where plenty of fans were in their teens, Mr. Dando said, evidence that the Cardi B generation still cares about guitar-based rock.
A week later, the band was scheduled to embark on a 34-date North American tour.
The idea of a “Lemonheads” reunion is, in fact, highly relative. The band has had more than 40 members since Mr. Dando formed the band with friends at Commonwealth, an elite high school in Boston, in 1985 as The Whelps. “It’s kind of like a collective,” Mr. Dando said.
The idea of a Lemonheads “comeback” is also highly relative.
In 2009, Mr. Dando released the last Lemonheads album, “Varshons,” made up entirely of cover songs. Now, in 2019, he has released the next Lemonheads album, “Varshons 2,” made up entirely of cover songs.
“I felt like it was sort of funny to wait 10 years and do another cover album, like I’m the biggest slacker of all time,” he said.
Decades removed from his cover-boy era, Mr. Dando seems to consider himself a curator of the alt-rock tradition, much like Wynton Marsalis serves as an ambassador for jazz. The new album almost requires a syllabus, with Mr. Dando serving up interpretations of college-radio nuggets by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, John Prine, Bevis Frond, NRBQ, and the Eyes, the first band of the Go-Go’s’ Charlotte Caffey.
“I mean, these ’90s vibes, they can’t go on forever,” he said. “Strike while the iron is hot.”
Music is hardly the only topic that animates him. These days, Mr. Dando has a lot of time to read and think, and over breakfast, the former prep school student who managed four Fs and one D-, he said, in his one semester at Skidmore College found his thoughts dashing between the early American Calvinists, the 1960s cult known as the Lyman family, the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, the intellectual legacy of William James and the seamy underside of the ’70s soft rock scene. (“John Denver once sawed a bed in half with a chain saw!” he said.)
After breakfast, he was eager to lead me on a Vineyard tour, so we wandered a few blocks from the diner to Wesleyan Grove, a compound of colorfully painted Victorian cottages built for 19th-century Methodist revivalists.
Strolling among the gingerbread pinks and yellows, his face brightened. “You don’t even have to be on mushrooms to appreciate this place,” he said.
“But,” he added, “it is amazing on mushrooms.”
“Do I have a pick?” he said, thrusting his fist into his pocket. “Ah yes, I’m a professional.”
On a visit to his father’s house on the Vineyard, a sprawling shingle house on a working farm, Mr. Dando was standing in front of a ziggurat of hay bales in the soaring loft of the barn. He was toting an acoustic Gibson J-45 guitar with an old snapshot of himself clowning with Anita Pallenberg, the late model and Rolling Stones muse who had three children with Keith Richards, taped to it. (Their son, Marlon Richards, is a close friend of Mr. Dando’s.)
At points throughout the day, Mr. Dando reached for a guitar as absent-mindedly as a chain-smoker reaches for a cigarette, although he reached for plenty of those too.
Seating himself on a hay bale, he began strumming “If I Could Talk I’d Tell You,” a Lemonheads song from 1996 that captures everything you need to know about the band in two minutes, 51 seconds: the compulsively catchy melodies, the drug references and the mordant wordplay (“Khmer Rhouge, genocide quoi/ your place or Mein Kampf”).
The band emerged from the Boston hardcore underground, but they were never entirely of it. The original lineup included Mr. Dando, the son of a white-shoe lawyer and a model; Jesse Peretz, the son of the longtime editor-in-chief of The New Republic Martin Peretz and a future film and television director for shows such as “Girls”; and Ben Deily, who graduated from Harvard after his Lemonheads tenure. “We were the bougiest punk band ever,” Mr. Dando said.
Mr. Dando had all the obvious privileges — looks, wealth, connections. But those were not necessarily a plus in an era that prized tortured authenticity above all. With his surfer-ish looks, whimsical attitude and taste for LSD, which he said he began experimenting with in early high school, he seemed more like a hippie-era troubadour than a Generation X nihilist.
“He didn’t hate himself and he didn’t want to die, he was a jolly child of the universe!” wrote Sylvia Patterson in New Musical Express in 1996, referring to him as “the pop personality of the decade who walked lopsided and, ‘smiled like a dolphin.’”
Not every critic was entranced. Some wrote off the Lemonheads as “bubblegrunge,” and found plenty of ammo when Mr. Dando, say, posed for the cover of Spin magazine’s “‘S’ is for Sex in the ’90s” issue in 1996, shirtless, tanned and jousting tongues with the actress Adrienne Shelly.
It started dawning on him that he had become a teen idol when he would dive into the mosh pit and the fans would attempt to rip his clothes off instead of ferrying him back to the stage.
With the attention from groupies, he said, he would “just David Cassidy out,” hiding in his hotel room from rabid fans. “It’s an alienating thing,” he said. “I was actually celibate for eight months, at the height of it. It just got to the point where, this isn’t fun, different chicks every night.”
He was the popular kid in class, and had the cool friends to show it. Angelina Jolie appeared in the Lemonheads’ “It’s About Time” video. Courtney Love popped up in tabloid shots kissing Mr. Dando, not long after her husband, Kurt Cobain, committed suicide, although both denied they were romantically involved. “His sister Holly and his mother, Susan, were both in the room,” Ms. Love told Rolling Stone.
He joined the hard-partying members of Oasis on tour during their mid-’90s peak, and was tight with Johnny Depp, who appeared in the “It’s a Shame About Ray” video.
“We hung out together for like six months, just at his house,” Mr. Dando said of the actor. “We would lie together. We called it ‘sidewinding.’ We’d take Xanax and, like 5-year-olds in the same bed, talk all night.”
“We were really good buds until I slept with his girl,” he said.
Despite his budding rock-god persona, the fissures were easy to see.
In 1996, he was booed offstage after arriving two hours late for the Lemonheads’ set at the Glastonbury Festival, eventually explaining that he had been in bed with a supermodel, another woman and a bag of heroin.
“You go into this pop music thing where you are doing it on your own, and it’s this crazy journey,” he said. “There are no rules for it.”
Somehow he managed to break them anyway.
‘I Have Some Crazy Luck’
“One time, I thought I was going to overdose, and ‘Spinal Tap’ was in the DVD player,” Mr. Dando said, seated at a cluttered Formica table in his rented one-bedroom trailer. “I was like, ‘get it out, get it out.’ You can’t be watching ‘Spinal Tap’ when you die.”
Mr. Dando lives alone. He split from his wife, an English model named Elizabeth Moses, in 2010.
Mr. Dando seems to have taken his interior design cues from the old greenroom at CBGBs. The trailer ceilings are low, the stained beige carpet littered with a drum kit, guitars and amps.
The wall next to the table is covered with an expanse of lumberyard flakeboard, a Gen X mood board of sorts featuring a faded cardboard cutout of Socks, the Clinton family’s White House cat; a dime-store eyeglass chain packet featuring a shot of his mother from her modeling days; a photo of himself with a beard from a British GQ spread; and a warped cover of a Partridge Family LP.
Producing a plastic bag of marijuana buds from his sweatshirt pocket, he rolled a joint on the table.
Mr. Dando does not seem to care that his career arc has been more of an Etch A Sketch scribble. He has always felt an inexplicable desire to provoke, to confound. His tendency to indulge in truther-ish speculation about the September 11 attacks has spurred internet flame wars in more recent years.
“I’m not a careerist,” he said. “It’s like, I don’t know, I’m the real deal. It’s not always for the best.”
Is he a rock ’n’ roll madman, like Keith Moon, or is he actually mad?
A 1996 article from The Telegraph, “How Evan Dando Lost His Mind,” recounted a story about him getting so blasted on drugs on a trip to Australia that he ended up in handcuffs at the Sydney airport, insisting to police that he retrace his steps “to try and find his mind.”
Decades later, Mr. Dando shows no shame in recounting the story.
“I took some speed,” he recalled. “Next night I took some ecstasy, third night a hit of acid. I just totally lost it,” he said, singing the phrase like an aria. “Like, Christ overtones. I started giving people flowers. Magical thinking in the extreme.”
Eventually, he took a taxi to the airport. He had no ticket. He was not scheduled to fly home that day. The taxi driver was female, which triggered guilty feelings about a time years before that he had paid a Hamburg prostitute for oral sex.
“I was acting out my guilt about going to a prostitute, and I threw her change and walked out,” he said. “A few minutes later I was wrestling five cops.”
His family checked him into Silver Hill mental hospital in New Canaan, Conn., after the episode. “Edie Sedgwick had been there,” he said. “My sister thought I’d get a kick out of that.” It was the first of three stints in rehab, he said, but Mr. Dando remains ambivalent about drugs in general.
“Drugs eventually become a pain, they become boring, and they don’t do what you want them to do,” he said. “But that’s for everyone to figure out for themselves.”
But, he said, “I’m sort of a fan of drugs and music. I think they’re good together. I’m just going to be honest about it. Why lie?”
As for larger mental health questions, Mr. Dando said he considers himself a “wicked manic-depressive” and acknowledges that incidents like the Australia debacle were likely a bipolar break exacerbated by drug use. A psychiatrist saw evidence for that diagnosis, including his longstanding battle with night terrors that resulted in traumatic bouts of sleepwalking. “I’d wake up running down the street in my underwear,” Mr. Dando said.
But “actually, you know what, I’m not crazy,” he said. “I know people that are, but I’m not. That is hard, you know? Really hard.”
He is aware that the Evan Dando death watch started decades ago, as with his friend Keith Richards. Both are still here.
“I have some crazy luck and all my friends will tell you that,” he said. “I caught a thousand-pound black marlin the first five hours. People say they go five years without seeing a fish that big. I got a hole-in-one once at golf. I’ve played golf three times.”
Whenever he feels desperate, a royalty check seems to arrive, like when Martin Scorsese used the Lemonheads cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” in “The Wolf of Wall Street” in 2013.
“It’s like every time I’m about to hit the skids, some 80 grand check comes in from Nowheresville,” he said. Also, the publishing deal signed decades ago recently expired, “so what I’m sitting, is pretty. Now I own all my publishing again. I’m going to buy a house.”
And maybe even finish another album of Lemonheads originals.
Taking a deep hit off the joint, he reached for a purple Fender Jaguar. Tapping his black Vans slip-ons on the soiled carpet, he strummed his way through a haunting progression — familiar, in a subliminal way, to any member of his generation. It was inspired by the Whoville chorus from the original “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” at once sunny and heartbreaking — a perfect Lemonheads tune, in other words.
“No one believes me that I’m going to do another real record,” Mr. Dando said. “But I’m going to do it, if it’s the last thing I do.”
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