I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
Evan Dando, a Black Flag beanie atop his beautiful head, was staring at me, dead-eyed and I was transfixed. This was the coolest guy I had ever seen on television. The Lemonheads were playing The Jenny Jones Show in 1996, and I was blown away. Hunky Bostonian Dando and his men delivered a decent, albeit goofy, rendition of “If I Could Talk I’d Tell You.” The second song, “It’s All True” aired during the credits. I knew something felt strange. I think about this performance from time to time because it perfectly illustrates what the music business was and always will be, a struggle between the artist and the powers that be. These unkempt adult men were strung out, uninterested, and obviously forced by a music business goon at Atlantic Records to trot out, play the hit, and hopefully help move some units. With no social media, no direct line to the fan base, the artist had to do whatever it took to sell records. Even if meant appearing on a brightly lit studio stage to play two songs for an audience full of Moms with “I need to speak to your manager hair” who had no idea who these guys were.
In 1996 I was a chubby teenager in suburban Atlanta. Neck deep in punk rock and hardcore, fighting the man in my own small ways. Not a boy, not yet a man. Like most kids my age in that era, I watched quite a lot of television. Everything from Seinfeld and ER to The Real World Miami, House of Style, and Singled Out. But those lost hours after high school, the mid-afternoon, was when television was the most interesting. The networks aired a plethora of tabloid talk shows. Hosted by names you probably remember: Ricki Lake, Montel Williams, Sally Jessy Raphael, Jerry Springer, and of course Oprah. They were wildly entertaining and eye-opening to someone in my position. Paternity tests, drug use, out-of-control teens, and makeovers made for captivating television chock full of crazy characters.
Jenny Jones was not Oprah, but she also wasn’t Jerry Springer. The over-the-top episodes titles often rhymed, making it feel light and fun! Classics like “I Look Too Fly! That Must be Why I Can’t Get a Guy!” and “I Roll With My Teen, Because Ecstasy Is Our Scene” and finally “Is She All Natural and Fantastic or … Just Fake And Plastic?”
But what really made Jones stand out, particularly to a music-obsessed teenager, was her penchant for booking musical guests, especially since none of her peers had them. She gave a daytime platform to people like Usher, Ludacris, Chubby Checker, Nelly, and Three 6 Mafia, who made their first national TV appearance on the show. The final live performance of my beloved Dinosaur Jr. before their first 1997 break-up was a performance of “Out There” on the show earlier that year.
Ten years after seeing The Lemonheads light up daytime TV, I found myself in the music business managing a band named Cartel. After a successful first album that included Top 40 radio airplay, big tours, and a surreal performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, things started to change. And let me tell you, the pressure you feel from the major label to do as asked because they are cutting checks is genuine. After a little experience, that Lemonheads performance on The Jenny Jones Show was still strange but made much more sense to me. When I was 25, high as a kite, I was sitting in a giant office in the Sony Building on Madison Avenue being heavily encouraged to do an MTV reality show called Band in the Bubble (sponsored by Dr. Pepper, Wal-Mart, and KFC) by a guy wearing John Varvatos who resided in New Jersey. For the show, Cartel would live inside a man-made fishbowl on Pier 54 outfitted with 23 webcams to capture them recording their new album, showering, and working on a Wyclef Jean remix. As you can probably imagine this four-part miniseries did more harm than good. The press destroyed us and ratings were, well, low. The album had some great songs on it, but the fans didn’t realize the entire thing was recorded in Atlanta and then faked for television, they judged it harshly. The band never really recovered, as their manager, I had major regrets, but at the time it felt like we had no choice. Epic Records thought this stunt would make them superstars, who was I to argue?
I watch countless videos of bands playing on YouTube, the performances run the gamut from awful to transformative, but none have the bizarre appeal of this video. The unique strangeness is what keeps me coming back all these years later. I am pretty sure The Lemonheads didn’t want to play on The Jenny Jones Show, but they soldiered through, made the best of it, and probably even had a little fun. In the post-Bubble depression, it was hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But then and now, when I watch this performance on YouTube, seeing The Lemonheads make a white-haired grandmother stand up and dance to a song that features the lyrics “Khmer Rouge, genocide quoi/Your place or Mein Kampf, now I’m giving the dog a bone” makes me grin. Even getting close to fame requires an unsettling amount of compromise, but all in all, it’s an enjoyable ride. Most people can’t look back at their questionable decisions on YouTube and have a laugh. Dando and I can.