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They Don’t Need a Legacy to Stand On : Gunnar and Matthew Nelson Striving for a Style, Identity Separate From Their Late Father’s

Hank Williams (died 1953) emerges on video in 1990, dueting with son Hank Jr. on “There’s a Tear in My Beer.”

Nat King Cole (died 1965), reappears in 1991, harmonizing “Unforgettable” with daughter Natalie.

The sampled voice of Bob Marley (died 1980) turns up on a track of a 1991 album by his offspring, Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers.

No doubt it’s a symbolic way of cheating death and entertaining a warm fantasy.

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No doubt it’s an expression of love.

But this sing-along with dear, departed dad phenomenon could be getting out of hand.

It’s a trend not likely to be followed by Matthew and Gunnar Nelson, identical-twin sons of Rock And Roll Hall of Famer Rick Nelson.

Nelson, the band led by the 23-year-old brothers (they play tonight at the Pacific Amphitheatre), doesn’t play any Rick Nelson hits on stage, much less invite his electronic ghost into its videos.

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It’s partly a matter of wanting to establish an independent identity, Gunnar Nelson said Tuesday in a phone interview from a tour stop in Sacramento. And, he said, it’s also a matter of recognizing stylistic differences.

“Nobody does Rick Nelson better than Rick Nelson,” Gunnar said. “The man is dead, and you let him lie. If (listeners) want heritage, they go out and buy my dad’s records.”

Gunnar, who plays rhythm guitar and shares lead vocals with his bass-playing brother, said that it makes sense for Williams, Cole and the Marleys to borrow from their fathers’ catalogue, because each of them is carrying on in the same genre. With Nelson, the pop metal from the band’s million-selling debut album, “After the Rain,” doesn’t have much in common with the rockabilly and country-rock of Rick Nelson, who died in a plane crash en route to a gig in Texas on Dec. 31, 1985.

Gunnar said the band has no desire to try to find a way to make the two styles connect.

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“I have to be able to say, ‘I did it my way,’ ” he said. “If I were to rely on any family crutch or gimmick, it would make the success cheaper. And it would be a little hokey, don’t you think?”

Instead, Gunnar said, he relies on his father as an example--in some ways to be emulated, in others, as a warning against career pitfalls he would rather avoid.

Early in his career, Rick Nelson used his family’s weekly television show, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” as a platform for his rock ‘n’ roll career. It helped him become a dominant figure on the pop charts from 1957 to 1964. Things got harder after that. Nelson remade himself musically, emerging as one of the early country-rockers in the late ‘60s, but he never again enjoyed sustained commercial success. He died while hopping from show to show in an old, balky airplane.

“I experienced my father’s career being a roller-coaster ride, and I know what I don’t want my career to be,” Gunnar said. “I don’t want to be 43 years old and playing because I have to. He loved to play, which is the basis for any musician. But he admitted he was horribly managed. (By the end) he was playing because he had to, not because he wanted to. It got ridiculous after a point. He was just out all the time, and he still wasn’t paying the bills.”

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The lesson learned, said Gunnar, is that “it’s really a business. You’ve got to think things through ahead of time. Just by learning from example, we’ve surrounded ourselves with really good (management) people. We’re on top of it business-wise, and music is fun.”

Rick Nelson grew up in a TV family that epitomized the ‘50s American dream of middle-class security, with mom, dad and two sons gathered safely and harmoniously under one roof. Matthew and Gunnar Nelson grew up with some of the harder realities of American family life. A current People magazine cover story on the twins quotes Matthew describing his childhood household as “the granddaddy of dysfunctional families.” The twins lived with their mother after their parents split. When they turned 18, Matthew and Gunnar chose to move in with Rick. He died a few months later, and they were on their own.

“My father was much more sheltered than I was. He had things done for him,” Gunnar said. “He couldn’t dial a phone until he was 17 years old--I’m serious. He knew how to act (in the TV show), he just didn’t know how to live” with the problems of everyday life.

“We were brought up the opposite. My mother brought us up to be independent. Sometimes she went too far that way. We were taking care of ourselves when we were 15 years old. I’ve got a lot of street smarts. I don’t say I know it all, but I know to stay away from the the cigar-chompers.”

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Business sense aside, Gunnar said, he wants to emulate his father: “My dad was a very gentle, very caring and very loving man. I know that’s the kind of father I want to be.”

When Rick Nelson died, Matthew and Gunnar already had been playing the Los Angeles club circuit for several years, trying to attract interest from the record industry.

“We went through all different phases, through new wave and punk. I had blue hair once. We went through the whole thing.”

Through one of their managers at the time, they landed an appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” The show, in early 1986, was booked before Rick Nelson died, Gunnar said. “The timing was awful, but we were raised in a show-business family, and you don’t cancel your bookings.”

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He said they were stung when one publication accused them of trying to make career capital out of tragedy. Rather than keep their band going, the twins decided to lie low, recover from the shock of their father’s death, and regroup musically.

“I think after his death, we really grew up,” Gunnar said. “Before that, we were blind men following blind men” in trying to forge a rock career. “We realized certain things needed to be done, and we needed to have a strategy.”

Gunnar, who had been playing drums, decided to learn guitar so he could join his brother as a front man. The twins also found some mentors. New managers were willing to confront them with their shortcomings, Gunnar said: “The first meeting, I didn’t like them very much. They said, ‘We think your songs suck.’ After we calmed down, we realized we weren’t getting much record-company attention, and that was the reason.”

Seeking to improve, the Nelsons looked for experienced songwriting partners. They found one in Marc Tanner, with whom they co-wrote most of the songs on “After the Rain.” Rather than go back to the Los Angeles club circuit, they concentrated on demo recordings intended to show labels that they were making progress as writers. The result was a 1988 signing with Geffen Records (now DGC).

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Gunnar cites Boston, Heart, Foreigner and Bad Company as main influences on the Nelson sound--each of them a ‘70s band that presented melodic hard rock in a polished package. Those same attributes--along with the twins’ handsomely chiseled, platinum-blond, video-ready looks--have helped Nelson draw fans from both the pop and hard-rock audiences. Consequently, “After the Rain” has been on the charts for more than a year, spawning four Top 40 singles, including a No. 1 hit, “Love and Affection.”

“I just feel validated,” Gunnar said. “We’ve got a core audience now. We’ve proved it’s for real, and we’re not going to go away. We’ve already got six songs written for the second album. It’ll be more in-depth, written from a more personal standpoint.” For example, Gunnar said, the second Nelson album will include a song dealing with the twins’ feelings for their father--a track they left off of “After the Rain” because of their wish to avoid making family connections the focus.

One of their closest connections is in Laguna Beach, where grandmother Harriet Nelson lives. Her home, Gunnar said, has always been a refuge where the twins could go during some of their difficult times.

“It’s the one place I can always collect my thoughts and feel safe,” he said.

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Harriet Nelson, 77, said she hasn’t seen her grandsons play in concert, and that health problems resulting from a fall last year will keep her away from their show at the Pacific.

“I can get around, but I can only be out so long,” she said. “I can’t get out in crowds. I certainly would if I could. I know the boys understand.”

If things continue to break well for Nelson, Harriet won’t have to venture far to see her grandsons.

“One of our ambitions is to own a house down there,” said Gunnar, who shares a rented house in the Hollywood hills with his brother when they aren’t touring. “But like any starting corporation, we’ve had to put the money back into the band. We might have to wait. California real estate--you know where that’s at.”

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* Nelson and Tyketto play tonight at 7:30 at the Pacific Amphitheatre, 100 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $19.80. Information: (714) 740-2000.


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