Certain Songs #921: Lemonheads – “It’s A Shame About Ray”

Album: It’s A Shame About Ray
Year: 1992

And then there was the hot second where Lemonheads were the next Next Big Thing.

This would be early 1993, of course. You know, that weird post-Nevermind period that spawned all sorts of unlikely hits from all sorts of unlikely places. And while Lemonheads had been recording since 1987, Evan Dando had only recently perfected his punk-pop songwriting chops, and was convinced — or got convinced — that maybe he could ride those chops (and his insane good looks) to Cobain-esque heights.

And so while he was photographed shirtless for the cover of SPIN making out with Adrienne Shelley, Julianna Hatfield to play bass, covered Simon & Garfunkle and had Johnny Depp in his videos, all of which no doubt killed his credibility, it was also true that It’s A Shame About Ray was filled top-to-bottom with great punk-pop songs, the greatest of which was the title track.

With Dando’s slightly lazy, slightly flat vocals trying to hold notes while the guitars pleasantly buzzed and the drums pounded, he unleashed an absolutely memorable chorus.

It’s a shame about Ray
In the stone, under the dust,
His name is still engraved
Some things need to go away
It’s a shame about Ray

But as memorable as that chorus was, it didn’t quite strike as much as the second verse, which felt like something that early-’93 slacker me — having just turned 30 with no discernible direction in life, and spending my evenings in bars and clubs — could totally relate to.

If I make it through today,
I’ll know tomorrow not to leave my feelings
Out on display
I’ll put the cobwebs back in place
I’ve never been too good with names
But I remember faces

I’ve never been to good with names, but I remember faces. “Goddamnit, what is their name again,” I’d think to myself as I was coming across yet another acquaintance whom I had never actually interacted with while I was sober.

That’s what this song and this album remind me of: that weird weird period of early 1993 where I was like a ship without a rudder — which as Dando sang in another great song staking out much the same slacker territory “is like a ship without a rudder is like a ship without a rudder is like a ship without a rudder is like a ship without a rudder” — not even knowing that I was setting events in motion (seeing Rox, getting online) that would affect the rest of my life.

Which is of course, the thing you don’t realize until you’re much older: how the things that make up your life are always happening, and some of them have already started and you won’t even realize until you either intersect with them or ride with them for awhile. That, of course, was the shame about Ray: he never got to find that out.

In the end, it’s the melancholy mood of “It’s A Shame About Ray” that really stands out: too upbeat and hooky to be sad, but also too sad to be an up in the same way that say, “Cannonball” or “Feed The Tree” were.

Also, if you’ve never seen their version of this song from Late Night With David Letterman, it’s well worth your time for not just the version, but the intro, where Dave reveals he requested they play this, not “Mrs. Robinson.”

“It’s a Shame About Ray”

“It’s A Shame About Ray” performed live on Late Night With David Letterman

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2 Responses to “Certain Songs #921: Lemonheads – “It’s A Shame About Ray””

  1. Ira Brooker says:

    I feel hugely lucky that I happened to come of age in this exact moment. If I could pick any year in history in which to be 14, I’d be hard-pressed to find a better one than 1993. I was just shy of the necessary maturity level to engage with “Nevermind” when it dropped, but I was wide open for “It’s a Shame About Ray.” Even though nothing Dando did before or after that album really did it for me (“Come on Feel the” is a good album, but not a great one), I’ll always regard The Lemonheads as my Nirvana.

    Every word of this piece rings true, right down to the Letterman appearance that’s crystalized in my memory as a genuine life-changer. That performance even made my mom a Lemonheads fan, because she liked that Evan smiled while he sang.

  2. Jim Connelly says:

    Absolutely: the three years from mid-91 through mid-94 were totally magic.