It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything on this blog, and for that I apologize. To make up for it, I promise this piece will be entertaining. I was thinking about all the weird gigs I’ve played with the Lemonheads, and there have been many. What about the show inside the maximum security prison? Or what about the show at an elite prep school where we played outdoors through a severe thunderstorm? Or what about the huge punk festival in Portland Maine with a dozen big acts, and only ten people actually showed up to watch? Oh, or what about the show opening for the Angry Samoans at a straight-edge club where a cokehead stripper jumped on stage and stripped to a g-string while a pack of teenage skinheads moshed in the pit?
The show that stands out as the weirdest, however, was one of my first with the band in the late spring of 1987. If memory serves, I’d just joined the band as the drummer just before the release party for Hate Your Friends, the band’s first album. We played a release party, and we opened for the Cleveland punk legends The Pagans, and that was it. I was thrilled to be in the band, and I was having the time of my life – but the band wasn’t yet a particularly popular band. We probably had 150 people at the afternoon album release show, but the crowd consisted largely of the band’s high school friends and people connected to the Harvard radio station, which sponsored the event. People weren’t really talking about the band outside of their circle of friends.
Evan Dando (one of two singer-writer-guitarists in the original lineup, along with Ben Deily) and I used to hang around together quite a bit in those days, since neither of us had much in the way of daily responsibilities. I was an indifferent student in my final semester at Berklee (planning a career in punk rock), and Evan had dropped out of Skidmore. We had plenty of time to waste, and we wasted plenty of time at the pool at the Brookline Country Club, where Evan’s parents were members.
The Brookline Country Club, simply called “The Country Club” because it was literally the first country club (originally an equestrian club) founded in the United States. It’s the sort of place for which the term “WASP” was created. But it was (and I’m sure is) incredibly nice, and Evan delighted in charging food to his parents’ account as we gawked at all the incredibly beautiful young women who populated the pool every day. And they all loved Evan. I might as well have been invisible, but I didin’t mind.
Ben and Jesse (the bassist) came out from time to time, and in some perverse way they enjoyed being Jewish crashers of this WASP preserve. They’d known Evan through high school, and I’m sure other members as well – they felt right at home by that pool. Juliana Hatfield came once, and pretty much fit right in – but she didn’t appreciate all the attention Evan got from the girls. Which, of course, he didn’t discourage.
One day at band practice Evan sheepishly noted that we’d been invited to play a youth party at The Country Club. The money – a thousand bucks I believe – was mind-boggling at the time. But we all felt a little weird about playing there. I mean, we’d all tremendously enjoyed their facilities; but the actual idea of the place was a little weird for a punk band. Even deep into the second wave of American punk, we knew that punk bands were supposed to be generally “on the left” and against the trappings of elite culture. At least on a conceptual level, The Country Club was the enemy – even if Evan’s parents were members, and even though they served those incredible burgers poolside. But, of course, a thousand bucks is a thousand bucks. Two hundred fifty a man – that would’ve been rent and daily beer and pizza slices for two weeks, easy.
Behind the scenes, I’m imagining the conversation that might have given rise to this gig. I imagine Evan in conversation with someone roughly similar to the Ted Knight Character in Caddyshack. “So, young man, I hear you’ve got a little combo together? Care to play a mixer at the rec center?” There isn’t a single member of that club – other than Evan’s immediate family – that would have a single idea what the Lemonheads were about. But, yeah, a thousand clams…
On the day of the show, we drove up to the grounds in Ben’s ancient, navy blue Chevy cargo van with “The Lemonheads” spraypainted on the side. I’d seen the van around Boston before I knew they group, and it made me think they were probably lowlifes. It took a minute at the gatehouse, but we checked out. On the way to the rustic activity center deep in the woods that would serve as our venue, we passed a cluster of post-adolescent girls. They flagged us down and asked for a lift. Evan knew them and invited them to sit with us on the metal floor. They gladly, and without hesitation, obliged.
They continued a conversation they’d been having before entering the van, referring vaguely to “M’s”. “What’s an ‘M’,” Ben asked. “Oh,” one of the girls volunteered, “an ‘M’ is a ‘minority’.” “Yeah,” said another, “M’s work here, but they’re NOT members.” “I see,” said Ben. We all exchanged looks.
We quickly loaded in to the activity center and set up as a few dozen kids, ages probably 11 to 16, milled around. Mostly boys. They didn’t seem all that young to us, as we were all either 19 or 20. We’d see kids that age at the all-ages hardcore matinees we all frequented in Boston. In other words, it didn’t seem like babysitting.
Once we’d set up and checked the vocal mics through the low-power vocal PA provided with the room, we launched into our set. I guess we all thought the kids would get it, and just respond like a typical hardcore matinee crowd. Or perhaps we didn’t think that would happen, and we simply didn’t know what else to do. For a couple songs the kids just stood there, sort of stunned. They didn’t clap after songs; they just stood their ground, looking vaguely confused. Then, after three or four songs, a kid approached us, waving his arms. “Wait, wait,” he said. “We don’t even know these songs. We don’t like these songs. You need to play something we know.”
None of us had every played in a cover band. We’d never learned any other tunes, except maybe a few Misfits songs and maybe some Big Star – songs that would be just as meaningless as our originals. “Okay,” said Evan, “What is it you want to hear?” Without missing a beat he said, “we want to hear “Fight For Your Right (To Party).”
We huddled and made a quick effort to learn and perform the tune. The kids were clearly not satisfied with our efforts. The delegate kid came up once again and said, “you need to let ME sing it!” Ben took the mic off the stand, handed it to the kid, and once again launched into the song. He sang every verse, and I noticed before he was done that a line was forming. He handed the mic to the next kid, and we started once again at the beginning. We played it at least a dozen times, until each kid that wanted to sing took the mic.
After we’d played out that number, the delegate kid once again approached. This was when the movie Ferrie Bueller’s Day Off was popular. The kid said, “Do you know ‘Twist and Shout’?” Yes, I think we can figure that out. We did the exact same thing for the half-dozen or so kids who knew the words. Then for the encore, another dozen passes through Fight For Your Right. After that, our novelty had worn off and it was still broad daylight. The kids all just wandered off without so much as glancing back in our direction.