Interview with Evan Dando by Tom Lanham
From CMJ Magazine November 1996
The bird is bobbing with the waves. Every few minutes it dives, only to resurface seconds later with a fish. But what species is it? Gannet? Grebe? "Oh, no, that would be a cormorant," decides Evan Dando, squinting at this sleek black angler from his driftwood perch on a deserted Martha's Vineyard beach. He's been birdwatching for years. He's upset that famous bird illustrator Roger Tory Peterson recently passed away; he has Peterson's field guide upstairs at the summer house he's renting right across this sandy stretch of road. "I just love birds!" he declares. "Birds are definitely that combination of beautiful and scary, and it's weird: sometimes you think they're not related to you because they can fly away:"
Dando also has a birdfeeder at his place, and there he's spotted goldfinches, catbirds, warblers, tufted titmice, even the subject of his fifth grade class paper, the golden eagle. And did you know, he authoritatively offers, that "in Australia the magpies attack you in the springtime? The kids all go to school with little plastic ice cream bowls on their heads and wait for the bus, because the magpies go for your head and draw blood. The typical cute Australian thing is three different-sized bowls, sitting by the front door for the kids to wear while they wait for the bus:" Looking out on the increasingly charcoal horizon, Dando suddenly gets excited. "Oh! Oh! Oh!" he stammers as a still larger bird flaps slowly along the coastline. Then: dejection. "Aw, it's only a seagull. Sometimes they'll fool ya. I saw a snowy egret flying today - they're so pretty. This one's flying differently than a seagull, but they can definitely fool ya. And there are some big seagulls down here."
Ostensibly, Dando is here on this gnarled log on this privileged stretch of seashore to discuss Car Button Cloth, his new album as the virtual one-man-band, the Lemonheads. But he gets carried away, studying the birds. And right now, knowing the difference between a kestrel and a curlew is as important as the size of your bowl during magpie season. It's immediate. It's all around him. It matters.
"See that rock out there?" Dando is pointing to a shell-encrusted crag, slapped by the tide, that looks about as comfortable as an iron maiden. "I used to swim out to that rock, and it'll get ya 'cause it's full of sharp barnacles, but it's worth it." Last summer, he continues he spent a lot of time paddling over to that outcropping. "You can go sit on the rocks that's why the water's all salty, I guess. You can sit on the rocks, have a good time, and get cut up by the barnacles. A few years ago, Dando was named of the 50 Most
Beautiful People by People Magazine. The Lemonheads' '92 release, It's A Shame About Ray, went gold; '93's Come On Feel The Lemonheads beamed the singer's bov-next-door mug into countless new homes via the Buzz Bin clip for Into Your Arms, and the sunny, nonsensical song defined Dando's wry, winning way with a fluffy pop hook. Today, he's 29. Today, all his fame means nothing. Today, he's feeling as dark as the skies overhead.
What moved Dando to tears on that rock? "Just all the fucked-up shit in the world," he frowns, absentmindedly toying with the frayed cuffs of his long-sleeve T-shirt. "And it's been a little bit weird, ya know? But I always was a sensitive guy - you can cry about how beautiful something is, or you can cry about how fucked-up and miserable and useless and pointless it all is:" He nods toward the ocean. "Especially if the scenery's beautiful - it makes it all the sadder. Or when you don't feel a part of it at all - you're looking at all this beautiful stuff and thinking 'This has nothing to do with me whatsoever."' As if on cue, the tide creeps closer.
When Dando - whose cuteness landed him several TV commercial spots as a kid - thought the Beautiful People bit had gone too far, when hundreds of girls regularly screamed for him at Lemonheads in-store appearances, he responded accordingly: "I totally cut all my hair off and disappeared. You know what 'evanescence' means? Disappearing! Look in the dictionary!" This afternoon, Dando doesn't seem particularly aware of his appearance. His hair is shaggy and unkempt, his chin is prickled with three-day stubble, and his jeans are rumpled and paint-spattered. But the charisma shines through. He's got a defeated, self-deprecating manner that's as honest as it is innocent.
Car Button Cloth was named for three objects that Dando - during a gradeschool what-floats experiment - saw sink like stones. It's a metaphor for his tortured existence. Why is he tortured? "Because there's no other way. No matter how great your life gets, all this horrible stuff keeps happening, to people you don't know, to people you do know, to people you've met only a couple of times. And to yourself. But it's not about the stuff that happens - it's about the sheer sadness of having to pick one kind of shampoo or something. I get sad and freaked out about everything - it's in my nature. Ever since I was about four, I started to figure out that I just couldn't cope. I can get through, you know, and I try to be conscientious, but it almost kills me, just trying to stay out of people's way. It's so hard, because I always feel like I'm completely in the way."
In many ways, Dando has lived a privileged life: The son of a '60s fashion model, he was raised in Boston and spent a good deal of his teens surfing, skating and skiing. There was an aura of trust-fund-baby lurking around him when he formed the Lemonheads a decade ago. Was he just kidding around when he cheerily remade Suzanne Vega's "Luka" and Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson"? Or was he a serious musician? Either way, the tabloids have quickly ferreted out scandals. ("Evan Dando smoked heroin!" glared one
headline.) How did he reach the rehab decision he awkwardly celebrates in Car Button Cloth's "Hospital"? Getting handcuffed by the police in an Australian airport was a good starting point.
"I shouldn't talk about this, everyone tells me I shouldn't," frowns the now-clean singer. "But it's true. I lost my freaking mind, because I was strung out on smack and forgot that I needed to take heroin. I flew to Australia and shot up a bunch of speed the first night without sleeping, then the next night I did two hits of Ecstasy, and the next night I did a really strong hit of acid." Sound like a fab party? Far from it, Dando warns. "Then the withdrawal symptoms started kicking in and I started thinking about weird shit, like how it says 'In God we trust' on the dollar bill and how my ticket home said 'not for use in magnetic strips: I lost my mind completely.
"I left all my luggage at my friend's house and went to the Sydney airport with my knapsack, my passport and my ticket and tried to get on the plane ten days early and forgot to pay the taxi fare:" Next thing he knew, he was handcuffed and dragged to a room for interrogation. "And I was bleeding all over the place, because I was trying to get out of the handcuffs, and I'm sure there's nothing more horrible to a decent policeman, because they get so much negative shit. But these guys spared me, man, and that was it, my brink, and why I ended up in the hospital. I was bleeding all over handcuffs - that's how bad it got:'
Now, he has his own private system of checks and balances that work toward his survival: "When you start getting really stupid and evil, you always get the signs, you always can feel the correction coming. You get sick, you break your leg, you hurt your knee trying to destroy your rental car, which is what I did. I was trying to kick my rental Crown Victoria into nothingness, but it didn't work and I just hurt my knee and incurred $4,000 worth of damage on the rental car. Then you learn: 'I hurt my knee - I'm gonna quit doing this stupid shit!'
"But you know what makes me the saddest of all, is that I just love life so much. But you're set up - there are a lot of dangers out there, lots of horrible stuff happening all over the place, and I love life. It's so paradoxical - the reason why people take drugs is because they're afraid of dying. I did it to have fun, of course, but when things get really bad it's the only thing that'll comfort you when you're thinking about the empty, endless nothingness void. But it'll definitely put you there if you keep doing 'em - it's so funny." Nowadays, Dando prefers drinking - especially Baltics, a CBGB's-invented concoction of Stoli and grape/grapefruit juices. "And then you put a Swedish Fish in 'em, and they get all cold and you drink 'em at the end." He's already licking his chops in anticipation. "It's de-licious! A great drink!"
Dando has drawn himself away from the abyss long enough to complete not only Car Button Cloth (with current Lemonheads lineup of drummer Murph and bassist Bill Gibson) but material for David Johansen's new movie and even his own cameo role in an indie film, Heavy. He doesn't want to end up like Roky Erickson or Syd Barrett, he says. "No way - I wanna hold on." And his plan is remarkably simple. "I wanna stay out of the news. I wanna stay out of jail. And I wanna stay out of the insane asylum. All four of those!" He chuckles at his own dig at dementia, then paraphrases it: "I've got two words for you - I don't wanna end up in that hospital again!"
The wind is kicking up, and the Lemonhead is having difficulty getting his cigarette lit. "Watch this!" he yells, then pulls his windbreaker over his head. A muffled voice issues from inside: "This is called an Enjoyment Pit! I can come outta the ocean with a lit cigarette! I can do that!" Jacket down, and sure enough, the guy is puffing like a chimney. You've got to admit it. Dando is a talented fellow.
If the Lemonheads had rocketed to super-stardom, Dando believes it would have destroyed him. Literally. He likes the fact that Car Button Cloth is merely another piece in the journey-to-platinum puzzle. And as he watches the cormorant retrieve a final fish, then take flight for parts unknown, he quietly notes, "My goodness! I'm looking and I'm feeling, but I'm just an animal, too. That's all. When I die there's not gonna be anything, and I don't mind, either. I'm an animal that's just here having a look around before I have to go. And when I go, I'll be gone forever:"
But what about Lemonheads music? Doesn't that leave a deep, indelible mark? Dando smiles. "Yeah, and that's why I'm doing it. Because when I'm dead, there will be nothing more for me, I don't think - I don't believe in the afterlife in any way. So that's why I work so hard - I'm trying to make a lasting contribution to music. And that'll all burn up eventually, too. But at least it might make some people laugh or think or... or... something." And Dando's tentative, hopeful phrasing is - with some irony - lost in the roar of the sea and foam.