Jeff Tweedy, Billy Corgan, Kim Deal, Thurston Moore, Kurt Cobain, and Lance Diamond. Which one of those names doesn’t fit? Of course–Kurt Cobain. Everybody else had their name in the liner notes of the seminal early 1990s alt-rock benefit album “No Alternative.” Nirvana had to be coy and have their contribution be the unlisted hidden track.
Actually, that’s not even entirely accurate. Lance is technically billed as “The Incredible Lance Diamond” in the liner notes. While “billy corgan” couldn’t even get up the energy to have them capitalize his name, Lance had none of the typical 1990s alt-rocker ambivalence about taking credit. It takes some balls to bill yourself as “The Incredible” anybody, not to mention when you’re the least famous person on an album that features not one but TWO bands from Flying Nun records. But that’s how Lance rolled.
I’m a kid from the suburbs of a certain age, and in the 1990s I liked a certain kind of music, and that means that the “No Alternative” compilation looms large in my childhood musical memories. I had never been to a rock club, had only ever seen an independent record store on TV, and found out about “cool” music from the odd episode of 120 Minutes or Space Ghost Coast to Coast–but I sure as hell had the “No Alternative” compilation. The early ’90s were the golden age of the superstar benefit compilation, and “No Alternative” was the quintessential example. It featured the Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Soul Asylum back when they were all the biggest bands in the world, at their absolute commercial peaks. As a dork in middle school, it was the first time I ever heard the voice of Kim Deal, or Bob Mould, or Stephen Malkmus. (It was years before I thought of Pavement as anything other than “the band with the funny song about R.E.M. on the ‘No Alternative’ comp.”)
It also featured the Goo Goo Dolls, still years away from any of their big hits, blasting through a version of the Rolling Stones’ “Bitch” with a soul singer named The Incredible Lance Diamond guesting on vocals. Did that particular track become a seminal indie-rock touchstone? Not really (although it sure ages better than Soul Asylum’s atrocious cover of “Sexual Healing.”) But when Lance and the boys performed it on live on the accompanying MTV special, you’d better believe he acted like he was born to be there. In my mind, it’s the iconic image of Lance Diamond: Johnny Rzeznik in the shadows off to the side, while Lance is shredding the spotlight at center stage in his trademark white jacket and captain’s hat, jumping, posing, making love to the camera, and belting it out like the building is on fire.
At the time, I had no idea who the Goo Goo Dolls were, or that they were from Buffalo, or that The Incredible Lance Diamond wasn’t their actual lead singer. I was in middle school. I’m not even gonna pretend that it turned me into a Lance Diamond fan–that didn’t happen until years later the first time I saw him absolutely own the crowd at one of his epic Thursday at the Square performances. But the memory stuck with me, and over the years I came to fully appreciate what it meant. Just think about it: 21 years ago, when legions of kids who are now in their 30s and 40s might have been hearing Pavement for the first time, or the Breeders, or Jonathan Richman — they also heard Lance Diamond. Think about what a big deal that is. Lance Diamond was a big deal.
Over the years, I got to know Lance Diamond the same way a lot of other people got to know him, and my stories are probably pretty similar: seeing him perform at the Elmwood Lounge, seeing him at other shows around town, or sharing a beer with him at this or that bar. Once at Milkie’s a couple years ago, after I’d subjected the club to a half-thought-out attempt at comedy that involved wearing a mummy costume and telling bad cruise ship jokes, I remember seeing Lance in the back smiling. It clearly wasn’t the smile of someone who had busted a gut laughing at my dumb act, but it was a generous, “nice try” kind of a smile. He seemed to genuinely enjoy being around younger performers trying to figure out their thing, and that meant something to me.
That’s why, oddly enough, the fact that Lance plays a small part in a piece of seminal 1990s alt-rock nostalgia makes perfect sense to me. What the hell was he doing on the same record as Urge Overkill or Uncle Tupelo or the Beastie Boys? It didn’t matter–he sang that song like he owned it, and he acted like all these young rock star punks were stepping onto HIS turf, not the other way around. Two decades later, seeing him on a quiet Saturday night strolling down Utica in a sparkling yellow suit bright enough to be seen from space, it seemed to fit together into the same puzzle. It sounds funny, but what Lance Diamond represents to me is the same thing that DIY music heroes of mine like Jad Fair or Daniel Johnston represent to me: that the secret to being cool is realizing that it doesn’t matter who you are or what crazy thing you’re doing or who’s watching–whether you’re on MTV or in the back room of Milkie’s–as long as you believe what you’re doing is great. Anybody else that has a problem with it just isn’t cool enough to be on your level. Rest in glitter, Lance.
Pat Kewley is a Buffalo writer, comic, and artist.