Gunnar Nelson is full of quips. "I wanted the title to be, The Blond Leading the Blond," he says of the new Nelson album, Lightning Strikes Twice, which he made with his twin brother Matthew. Of concerts by his side project band Scrap Metal, which features a revolving door of former hair metal stars like Kip Winger and Mark Slaughter: "It's as much fun as you can have with your clothes on." Then, turning more serious, he notes that his father, teen-idol-turned-country-rocker Ricky Nelson, used to tell him: "Keep your sense of humor, 'cause you're going to need it."
Prescient words, as a sense of humor is perhaps the foremost requirement for being Gunnar and Matthew Nelson at age 43. Nowadays Gunnar lives here in Nashville, Matthew is on his way (as soon as his divorce goes through), and they're 20 years removed from their double platinum 1990 debut After the Rain and No. 1 single, "(Can't Live Without Your) Love and Affection." Kurt Cobain quickly rendered their brand of pop metal obsolete, at which point they were fucked over by Geffen Records, they say.
The ensuing years haven't been kind to the hair metal generation — save for Bon Jovi, and perhaps Motley Crue and Poison, who stay in the news mainly for the train-wreck spectacle. But time has been particularly hard on Nelson. With their blow-dried yellow tresses, nubile faces and borderline-gay-teen-porn image, they were considered lightweights in an industry of lightweights, and have had a hard time staying relevant. In addition to Scrap Metal (who perform at a Connecticut casino, among other venues), Gunnar appeared on Celebrity Fit Club, and the guys play their dad's songs on cruise ships.
"That's been good for keeping his name out there to an international audience," Gunnar says optimistically. "It also helps us with not missing him as much."
He's also bullish about a Nelson revival on the heels of Lighting Strikes Twice. It's due Feb. 15 on an obscure Italian label called Frontiers, which is seemingly attempting to revive cock rock by signing everyone from Mr. Big to Whitesnake. Gunnar says they scored a "decent budget" and were challenged to make a sequel to After the Rain. "It's unapologetically '80s, and in my opinion, the best record we've ever done," Gunnar insists of the new work.
That's an overstatement. Where After the Rain had a charming naïveté and hooks for days, Lighting Strikes Twice is less warm and catchy, though it possesses its share of nostalgic sing-alongs. "How Can I Miss You" best epitomizes the work, with its soaring harmonies, light guitar squealing, and unintentionally goofy lyrics: "Now I've got me a shadow where my shadow used to be / When all I wanted was a memory."
The song's bottom line? This chick needs to back off. It's not really what you want to hear from Nelson, who do better playing the vanquished than the vanquisher. Not surprisingly, Gunnar notes that "Love and Affection" came from personal experience, the result of the twins' lonely upbringing in Southern California. Pops was never around, and became embroiled in a bitter divorce from their mother Kristin Nelson, an actor, painter and "alcoholic drug addict," in Gunnar's words. He and Matthew were dorks, but music was their refuge, and they recorded their first demo at age 11. They were allowed to perform at the cool-kid parties, he adds, "so long as we left immediately afterward."
They remained outsiders even during their fame, when contemporaries like Warrant refused to tour with them. "I don't know if they didn't think we were tough enough, but we got a lot of criticism from those guys," Gunnar says. "That is, until they saw our show." He takes pride in his and his brother's musicianship, and believes their touring band blew everyone else out of the water. Unfortunately, Geffen rejected their proposed After the Rain follow-up, called Imaginator. "It was Matthew's statement about the media and feeling betrayed," Gunnar says. "It was too dark and scary for them." (They were later dropped from the label, and released Imaginator independently.)
This seems difficult to believe, if only because, um, imagining Nelson being dark and scary about anything is a stretch. But, though still baby-faced, the duo have shorn their hair, and these days it's hard not to root for them, considering how well they play the roles of has-been pop stars. As the son of Ricky Nelson and the grandchildren of mid-century TV stars Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, they're show biz to their core, for better or worse.
Lighting Strikes Twice will most certainly not duplicate the band's previous success, and they will go down in history as cute twins who made some irresistible songs before grunge crashed the party. But for those of us for whom "Love and Affection" still stirs warm memories — and helped us get through some difficult school years of our own — that's more than enough.
I'm too sexy for my human, as I do my little turn on the manwalk.
Nope, still listed on his Ticketmaster page...
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