Ishay Berger remembers hearing The Lemonheads for the first time in 1992.
“I must have been in 8th grade and was already into bands like the Pixies and British groups like The Cure,” the 43-year-old Tel Aviv guitarist and cofounder of Useless ID, Israel’s entry into the Green Day/Offspring punk/pop ‘90s/’00s explosion, reminisced this week.
“But we had just started getting MTV and there was all this new stuff coming out. The Lemonheads’ version of ‘Mrs. Robinson’ came on and I couldn’t believe how good it was. Of course, there were two things I didn’t know about. One: I didn’t know about punk rock and that great beat it had, and two: I didn’t realize it was a cover of a Simon & Garfunkel song. I had a lot to learn.”
Berger quickly bought the album the song was part of – It’s A Shame About Ray – and played the infectiously catchy guitar-based pop songs incessantly. “It’s like Nirvana’s Never Mind or Guns & Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, just one of those winning-the-lottery albums. It’s untouchable. It became part of my DNA.”
Now, 30 years later, Berger has the privilege of warming up the crowd at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv on Saturday night before The Lemonheads hit the stage to play the gold album in its compact entirety upon its 30th anniversary.
The Lemonheads are essentially a solo vehicle for charismatic frontman Evan Dando. Offbeat, fragile and sometimes appearing like a lumbering man/child, the weathered 55-year-old Dando has been through the ringer since the mid-90s when he was named one of the 50 most beautiful people by People Magazine, dated models including Kate Moss and hung out with celebs like Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie and Chloe Sevigny, who also appeared in the band’s videos.
The Boston-based band’s fourth album, Ray – spurred by MTV’s incessant airing of “Mrs. Robinson,” – catapulted Dando into grunge-pop idol status, replete with gossip column mentions and even a cameo in the Gen X State-of-the-Union film Reality Bites.
The Lemonheads were like the poppy, good-looking version of Nirvana. They could have been as big as REM or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. A New Yorker feature on Ray’s 30th anniversary reissue earlier this year called it “a perfect album.”
“Dando’s songs are saturated with a kind of directionless longing – a troubling, inescapable sense that there’s more out there for him. Often, his protagonists are walking around waiting for something interesting to happen. For most writers, it’s extraordinarily difficult to catch and hold feelings of pathos, idleness, hunger, a kind of hazy but manageable melancholy. Dando’s songs are short (many are under or around two minutes), with choruses and hooks so easygoing, so suffused with nonchalance, that it feels as though they must have arrived fully formed and without struggle.”
However, along with the accolades and fame began a long slide into drugs and erratic live performances. The albums were still great, like 1993’s Come Feel The Lemonheads and 1996’s Car Button Cloth, but Dando was no longer appearing on magazine covers, and soon not appearing much anywhere at all.
“I’ve got to think that there must have been a pretty big issue that developed with Dando, being on the ‘best looking’ lists, the supermodel world, hanging out with Johnny Depp. It kind of makes people not take you as seriously as an artist,” said Berger, who when he isn’t recording or performing with Useless ID, is imparting his music wisdom at Tel Aviv’s venerable record/CD store Ozen Hashlishi (Third Ear).
“And becoming popular due to a cover song (‘Mrs. Robinson’) can also have a negative effect. No matter what you do after that, they were always ‘that Mrs. Robinson band.’ The records that followed were so good, but music fans fixated on the Simon & Garfunkel song and him being good-looking. That could have had an impact on him.”
“There’s such good songwriting going on there, his guitar playing is flawless and he has such a cool voice, with neat and weird lyrics, but that’s the guy. Having all that talent overlooked might have been devastating.”
Whether or not that’s the reason for Dando’s on-again-off-again relationship with hard drugs, The Lemonheads have not released new material since the excellent comeback The Lemonheads, in 2006. Since then, while sporadically touring, Dando has released only two albums, both consisting of tantalizing music nerd covers.
But with the 30th anniversary of Ray, all indications report that the weathered Dando is strong and clean, and looking for some kind of personal and public redemption. On the band’s current European tour, he’s been a giving fans much more than their money’s worth. It’s a far cry from the big laser-driven, choreographed extravaganzas that Maroon 5 offered to Israeli audiences last week.
Always a fan and practitioner of folk and country – even amid the band’s hardcore roots – Dando unassumingly comes out with an acoustic guitar for a loose set of tunes that include some of The Lemonheads’ gentler material and covers by everyone from his longtime muse, Gram Parsons, to John Prine to Lucinda Williams and Richard Thompson. He then plugs in, brings up the drummer and bassist currently under The Lemonheads banner (Mikey Jones of British alt-rockers Swervedriver on drums and Farley Glavin on bass) and charges into the classic Ray – 29 and a half minutes of pure pop pleasure.
Another acoustic set follows and the show winds up with a long encore of another dozen or so band songs and covers (including Linda Ronstadt’s “Different Drum”), likely leaving both Dando and the audience marvelously spent.
“I spoke to him recently and he told me that playing shows is what he wants to do now. He wants every show to count. If longtime fans are coming to see him, he wants to make it worth their while,” said Berger, who continues to make music and tour with Useless ID and this week released three new songs.
“We know the crowd is coming to see The Lemonheads, so we’re going to do a real quick set – four songs, 20 minutes and we’re out of there,” said Berger, who will be fronting a five-piece band.
Having appeared with bands like No Doubt and The Offspring during Useless ID’s heyday, Berger is no stranger to being around rock stars, but he said that meeting one of his idols like Dando is not a priority.
“I’d love to hang out with Evan, but it’s much more important for me not to do anything weird. I don’t want him to say afterwards, ‘oh those Israeli guys were strange.’ I’ll be conscious not to go over my time or not do anything fishy,” he said, adding the Lemonheads’ Israel debut will be a tiny increment forward in rectifying the band’s undeserved obscurity.
“I’m so annoyed that their songs aren’t known by everyone, the way, say, “Another Brick in the Wall” is. I think they’re vastly underrated. Even if they had five more levels of recognition and success, they still deserve 60 more.”