Missing - presumed on a pop walkabout

Some stars find the media pressure and banality of fame unbearable and choose to `disappear'. Barney Hoskyns tracks them down
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The Independent Culture
In Don DeLillo's 1973 novel Great Jones Street, a rock star named Bucky Wunderlick decides to quit his band and disappear from the music industry. After a gig in Houston, he boards a plane for New York City. "I was interested in how to survive a dead idea," he muses. "What came next might very well depend on what I was able to learn beyond certain personal limits, in endland, far from the tropics of fame."

Wunderlick sees that fame "feeds itself on outrage" - that in the end the star "is sure to be destroyed by the public's contempt for survivors" - and winds up living as a recluse in the Adirondack mountains of New York state, where he records a double album called The Mountain Tapes.

The clear inspiration for Wunderlick's "disappearance" is the period in which Bob Dylan hid away from the world after his motorbike accident in New York on 29 July, 1966. However much drugs had to do with Dylan's decision to jump off the runaway train of fame, the fact was that no pop star had ever turned away from his success so pointedly. The "disappearance" of this counter-cultural hero established him once and for always as an enigma: by the time he finally moved back to New York in 1969, there were people rifling through his dustbins looking for hidden meaning in his garbage.

The refusal, or disavowal, of fame has been a constant theme of pop culture ever since. The Pop Walkabout (as we might call it), usually accompanied by drug addiction and/ or mental illness but not exclusively contingent upon them, is a phenomenon that covers everything from the existential agonising of Scott Walker/ Engel in the Sixties to the tormented conscience of Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder in the Nineties. If the theme has any kind of culmination, it must be in the suicide of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and the disappearance of the Manic Street Preachers' Richey Edwards. As Wunderlick notes in Great Jones Street, "Perhaps the only natural law attaching to true fame is that the famous man is compelled, eventually, to commit suicide."

Among the classic examples of Pop Walkabouts are John Lennon's "lost weekend" in Los Angeles in 1973-4, Marvin Gaye's improbable sojourn in Ostend in 1980, and the 1982 flight to Paris of the Clash's Joe Strummer. To these one can add the "disappearances" of such pop geniuses as the Beach Boys's Brian Wilson, Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett, Love's Arthur Lee and Fleetwood Mac's Peter Green, although one has to take into account the part played in these disappearances by LSD and mental instability.

In each case, the star in question seems to have reached a point at which pop stardom is no longer tenable - a kind of lacuna in which the sheer banality of fame becomes unbearable. These are people unable to separate their internal lives from their external careers with the requisite degree of professionalism. Their careers are their lives, or at least blur too easily into them. And pop culture only too happily accommodates the mystique of their pain, obsessed as it is with the idea of great lost talents. The fact that Peter Green, one of the great white blues guitarists of the era, ended up in the Eighties working as a grave-digger and hospital porter has an irresistible poignancy about it - notwithstanding his recent and remarkable comeback.

Why irresistible? Simply because we find it so hard to understand anyone refusing fame. Conditioned as we are to see stardom as the greatest gift that can be bestowed on mere mortals, the idea of anyone turning away from such adulation draws us magnetically towards the person who declines it. This in itself should perhaps make us suspicious of anyone who claims they "want to be alone", but it shouldn't discount the very real desire to forsake the madding crowds of rock 'n' roll.

The most recent star to emerge from the wilderness of the Pop Walkabout is Evan Dando, who returns this month with a new Lemonheads album called Car Button Cloth. Dando's "walkabout" has been more visible than some, given his propensity for goofy cronying with the likes of Oasis and Hole, but he too has had trouble reconciling his talent to the inherent foolishness of pop culture. After the release of the superb It's a Shame About Ray in 1992, he was feted as the golden pin-up boy of grunge, his good looks receiving even more attention than masterful songs like "Confetti" and "Rudderless". "I thought it was hilarious," he says today, "but it got ugly and that's when I had to disappear."

Dando's disappearance followed his "final statement" to the press in 1994, which read as follows: "I'm just gonna get in my dune buggy with my gun and my girlfriend and drive to the next town and kill everyone who isn't beautiful." After making a complete ass of himself on Oasis's tour that year, leaping onstage with a tambourine at every available opportunity, he went AWOL in Australia, where he suffered an LSD-triggered breakdown in Sydney.

"I went crazy and forgot that I was addicted to heroin," he recalls. "I hadn't slept, and I took a hit of acid and fuckin' lost it. I was imagining laser gun sights on my face and feeding coins into grates, thinking I was going to get back to America 'cause it said `In God We Trust' on the dollar bill. I totally went out there, but I highly recommend it - as long as you come back." As long as you come back try telling that to Syd Barrett, the interstellar traveller who lost contact with Ground Control. At least Dando made it back to earth in one piece, though it took a spell in the psychiatric ward of Boston's Silver Hill Hospital to do it.

Several songs on Car Button Cloth - "Break Me", "Hospital", "Losing Your Mind", "Something's Missing" and "Tenderfoot" - confront Dando's problems in a way that he has always resisted (or at least disguised) in the past. The result is an album that will confound those who'd written him off as a lost cause. "The whole persona that people saw me in, where I was all optimistic and stuff, was always slightly ironic," he claims. "I was just trying to play it up to the hilt for the sheer perversity of it. The dark shit was always underneath there, but it definitely came out on this record."

"I'm too much with myself/ I wanna be someone else," Dando sang on 1992's "My Drug Buddy". Now he sings that "I ain't quiet deep inside/ I ain't even on my side" ("Something's Missing") and "can't decide if I should lie/ Or tell the truth and try to hide" ("Losing Your Mind").

Like so many musicians before him, Evan Dando is torn between his real self and the star that the media has projected on to the big screen of collective pop consciousness. Whether his talent - let alone his sanity - will survive that internal split remains to be seen.

The Lemonheads `Car Button Cloth' is released 30 Oct on East West