The Lemonheads started as a punk band in 1986, centered around their mercurial frontman Evan Dando. Dando was known to be personable and outgoing one moment and a selfish jerk the next. It was reported that at one point early in the band’s existence, he would deliberately sabotage his own shows by playing the wrong songs, or by playing the guitar solo of Guns-N-Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” whenever they were playing a song that he didn’t write. This naturally led to turmoil in the band, and a lot of turnover. Later, towards the end of the band’s existence, it was revealed that Dando was addicted to crack cocaine. That may or may not explain his erratic behavior.
While the first few records were decidedly punk rock, they made a major shift in the 1990s. Dando drove the other founding members away with his antics. They became a “college rock” band and signed to a major label. The 1990 album Lick was thrown together on the fly after another band member quit. It was cobbled together with five completed songs plus some odds and ends. It’s a Shame About Ray was two albums later, and it came out 20 years ago today. It was a step even further into the “college rock” or “alternative” dimension. It did quite well on college radio and on MTV’s “120 Minutes”. Immediately following the album, the band recorded a cover of the Simon & Garfunkel hit song “Mrs. Robinson”. It was released as a promotional item for the 25th anniversary of the film “The Graduate”. That song was later added to newer pressings of the album as a “bonus track”, an it ended up being a mainstream hit.
There was another strange thing about newer pressings of It’s a Shame About Ray. Once they discovered that they had a mainstream hit on their hands, the record company changed the title of the song “Drug Buddy” to “Buddy”. It’s silly that their objection wasn’t about the content or the theme. Sing about drugs all you want. Just don’t print the word “drug” on the longbox. There’s speculation that the song “Ceiling Fan in My Spoon” is about heroin. There’s speculation about a lot of songs being about weird things. It’s no secret that Evan Dando was massively into hard drugs back then.
This album has a lot of Juliana Hatfield on it. She played bass on the whole record and sang backing vocals on about half of the album, and she’s all over today’s song. There was a good deal of speculation that Evan and Juliana were a romantic item. This rumor persisted for many years. It even persisted simultaneously with all the gossip about Juliana Hatfield being celibate. She herself spread the rumor that she was a virgin. According to a new legend, she was misquoted about that, but she ran with it for all these years because she sort of enjoyed letting people believe what they wanted to believe.
Hatfield and Dando were absolutely good friends. They were like peas and carrots for a while. Just how “friendly” they were is a matter of much debate. No matter how hard she may have pushed her “clean living” agenda on him, it didn’t work. And his “dirty living” didn’t rub off on her.
Last autumn, The Lemonheads had a reunion of sorts for the purpose of touring It’s a Shame About Ray. I got pretty excited about the whole thing when the tour was announced and The Cat’s Cradle was one of the stops. As soon as the tour was announced, though, the news broke that Juliana Hatfield wasn’t part of it. I was disappointed and even annoyed by that news. I love that album, and I think that it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good without her. I felt the same about the tour. There’s no way it could be any good without her participation.
Now that I’ve rambled on for a bit, I’ll finally get to the song. Here it is.
“Rudderless” by The Lemonheads
While I find that a lot of It’s a Shame About Ray seems dated and I don’t love it quite like I used to, I still enjoy it. And I love today’s song for the same reasons that I loved it back then. The Juliana Hatfield part. I love that she just sings on one verse. Not in the chorus, and not even in harmony with Evan Dando. The fact that she’s there in that second verse creates an expectation that she’ll be there for the rest of the song. And when she’s not there, it’s a strange feeling of “something’s missing”. No matter how many hundreds of times I’ve listened to the song over the 20 years, I still expect her vocals to be there in the chorus and also in the third verse.
I’ll point out that while I like the song a lot, I’ve always hated one of the lines that Juliana delivers. After Dando sings
All the way down to the lake
she sings the absurd
found the lake was wet
I don’t like that one bit. I’m also on the fence about the fact that her vocals are treated differently. I don’t know if they’re double tracked, or if there’s a ton of delay on them, or both, but it makes it sound almost as if her vocals were recorded completely independently of the rest of that song.
Another thing that I love is the line that’s repeated in the last chorus:
A ship without a rudder is like a ship without a rudder
Obviously the aimless “ship without a rudder” is figurative. I think it’s probably like “Evan Dando without his drug buddy is like a ship without a rudder”. That’s just my thought.
You can buy It’s a Shame About Ray in many different forms and release versions from the amazon.com store. It should be pointed out that while the label changed the name of the song “Drug Buddy” while the band and album were trending at WalMart, they eventually changed it back in much later pressings. Confusing, I know. I’ve never heard the deluxe remastered version of the album, which was released in 2008, but it’s also in the amazon store here