Mark Goodman
August 05, 1991 12:00 PM

IT ISN’T A “GARDEN PARTY,” BUT SINCE that party is long over, it’s the next best thing from the next generation. As the giant pink tour bus bearing the band Nelson pulls up in front of the Home Folks record store in Augusta, Ga., hundreds of teenage fans let out ear-rending screeches. The objects of their affection are a pair of baby-faced, blond-maned rockers, Matthew and Gunnar Nelson, 23, identical-twin sons of the late Rick Nelson, now cutting their own tracks through the music world and many a young heart.

In truth, as the Nelson band debarks on this, the 75th stop on its 145-city tour, more than a few of the fans in the crowd are well past puberty. Says one beleaguered police officer: “Because of Ricky and Ozzie and Harriet, we have a lot of older people here.” Sure enough, two of the enthusiasts are Susan Schroeder, 38, and her sister, Betty Moore, 42, who has brought her daughter Andrea, 13. Mother and sister grew up watching The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and, years ago, went to see Rick perform at the Bell Auditorium, where Matthew and Gunnar will play this night. “It’s really ironic that I’ve taken my child to see his children,” says Betty. Adds Susan: “We just want to watch Andrea’s expression. It’s like a mirror image of ours when we saw Ricky. Their pop would have been proud.”

Indeed. Clan matriarch Harriet Hilliard Nelson, 77, clearly is. “They’re my pride and joy,” says Harriet. “They’re wonderful boys. I went out to the studio where they shot their video and felt right at home again.”

And they’re so darn cute too—at least by the heartfelt estimate of the crying, sighing adolescents outside Home Folks—that it’s hard to realize they represent an extraordinary show-business legacy that stretches back four generations to Harriet’s theatrical parents. Yet their pop-rock debut album, After the Rain, has sold nearly 2 million copies, with two of its songs making Billboard’s Top 10 and “Love and Affection” soaring to No. 1. Says their actress sister, Tracy, 27, who has mother-henned Gunnar and Matthew since their father’s death in 1985 and even bankrolled them in lean times: “I’m constantly amazed at my brothers. These guys have every right to be so screwed up, and they’ve come through.”

Not, to be sure, without grief and pain. “We come from the grand-daddy of dysfunctional families,” says Matthew. It was because of their lamentable family history, Gunnar adds, that they titled their album After the Rain. “Right before our parents got separated in 1981,” he says, “my mom started drinking really heavily. She went to AA, but there were drunken battles that none of us will ever forget.” Their relationship with their mom, the former Kris Harmon (sister of actor Mark Harmon), became so difficult, and their admiration for their father so deep, that they moved in with him in the fall of 1985, on their 18th birthday.

That was just three months before Rick’s chartered DC-3 crashed on New Year’s Eve outside DeKalb, Texas, killing the 45-year-old singer and six others. It remains a point of extreme bitterness with his children that Rick was initially accused of causing the explosion by free basing cocaine during the flight because traces of the drug were found in his blood. Subsequent investigation by the FAA exonerated the singer, finding that the explosion was caused by a faulty heating system. Says Tracy, still angry over the ruin of her father’s reputation: The free basing rumor “was on the news every night, then retracted with one line on page 7 of the Los Angeles Times.”

Rick’s death hit the twins especially hard. They hadn’t seen much of their road-warrior father for most of their lives, so those last three months with him were profoundly important to them. “We spent all our time with him,” says Gunnar, “and we really got to be best friends.” Matthew was driving to join Gunnar at a friend’s house when he first got the news. He turned on the radio and heard “Garden Party,” Rick’s 1972 hit single. “I pulled over, and the deejay came on and said, ‘This has been a tribute to Ricky Nelson, who was killed earlier today in a plane crash.’

“I ran into the house. I thought sure there had to be a mistake. Then I heard Mrs. Woodland, our friend’s mother, say, ‘Oh, they’re just going to die when they find out.’ I looked at Mr. Woodland and I lost it.” Matthew, glances over at his brother. “I got weak-kneed,” he says. “Gunnar grabbed me just as I collapsed.”

But the brothers realized they had to make a new life for themselves. “When I came home that night, I was scared to death,” says Matthew. “I was so frightened that my dad wasn’t going to be there in his bathrobe anymore, that he wasn’t going to come off the road again. So Gunnar and I got an apartment the next day because we couldn’t stand to live there.”

They suffered another blow less than two years later, when a bitter custody battle erupted over Sam, then 13, the youngest of Rick’s four children. When it appeared that their mother, Kris, was coming apart, her brother, Mark, backed by his other sister, Kelly, the Tic-Tac pitch-woman, and his wife, actress Pam Dawber, petitioned for custody of Sam. The clash tore the families apart: Matthew, Gunnar and Tracy supported Kris, while Sam’s maternal grandparents, football star Tom Harmon (now deceased) and his wife, Elyse, backed Mark. The conflict ended abruptly when Kris’s attorney persistently questioned Pam Dawber about whether she had experimented with drugs. The next day, the Harmon contingent dropped the case.

Sam remains to this day with his mother, who claims she has been sober since 1985. She is remarried to Mark Tinker, son of TV producer Grant Tinker. Kris, 46, readily admits her problems now but offers an apologia for her deterioration. “There were four kids to be raised,” she says, “and Rick wasn’t home a whole lot.” Money was a problem too; Rick died heavily in debt (brother David is still settling his estate), and his four kids inherited just $25,000 apiece in insurance money.

Over time, the drinking and family strife created a rift between Kris and her twin sons that has been very slow to heal. “We’ve kind of grown apart over the years,” Gunnar says softly, “but I would like nothing more than to be friends.” He agrees that his father’s absences caused marital strain. “It was her experience with music that alienated them,” says Gunnar. “Pop was out on the road the whole time, and I think music took the form of another woman. It created a lot of hostility. I tried to explain to [my mother] that the music business has changed a lot. But that’s why she was so down on us.”

Whether the wild side of the music business has truly changed that much is arguable. What is not is the twins’ determination, founded in their botched upbringing, to avoid its obvious pitfalls; neither Nelson touches a drop or a drug. “We got to see the ravages firsthand,” says Matthew, who is 45 minutes older than Gunnar and usually the spokesman for the pair. “I’ve seen people all through my childhood—my friends, my dad and mom—doing it where they were so screwed up it just had no romance or mystery for me. And I vowed I would never do it.”

The twins admit freely, however, to the vice of lust. They’re pelted with bras and panties onstage, and constantly propositioned off. Still, the thrill is almost gone. “Groupies are great,” Matthew admits, “but if we kept screwing around now, we’d be like third-degree black belters beating the crap out of every kid in the neighborhood. It’s starting to get cheap.”

Whatever problems they’ve faced with their parents, the twins—and Tracy—retain a strong sense of family tradition. All three credit their grandmother, the redoubtable Harriet, with imbuing them with a sense of heritage. Harriet, their biggest fan, returns the compliment. “They work awfully hard,” she says, with obvious pride. “I’ve been on tour myself, and how the boys are doing it, I don’t know. They get such a kick out of playing the same places I played.”

She means, of course, in the auditoriums where she appeared in the ’30s and ’40s with her late husband Ozzie’s dance band. She met Ozzie in 1935 after he had seen her singing and dancing in a Paramount short. She and Ozzie married that year, and their dance band became so popular that they got their own family-style radio show in 1944. Five years later David and Rick joined the program, which lasted a total of eight years. Then the Nelson family arrived on television in 1952 and remained a staple in American homes for 14 more years. As David, who now produces TV commercials, wistfully remembers, “That was really the family grocery store. We didn’t think about whether we liked it or not; we just showed up for work.”

Ozzie died in 1975, his younger son 10 years later. When asked about Rick’s death, Harriet recalls that when he died “we did what families do—we all came together. It was such a terrible, terrible shock. I had the most wonderful mail when he was gone, from people who had grown up with him. And they told me something that I didn’t know—that he was writing songs about his time and what he was thinking when he was growing up. It was a revelation for me. You see, he was an idol and I didn’t know it, being his mother. I just saw him as a child.”

Which may be the reason Grandma is always ready to offer a veteran’s professional advice to Rick’s sons. “I tell them to try and pace themselves,” she says. “If you give it all one night, you don’t have anything left for the next night.”

The twins don’t seem to hold much back in the Bell Auditorium this night. They play only their own songs, flatly refusing to cover any of their father’s numbers. As Matthew puts it, “Nobody can do Ricky Nelson better than Ricky Nelson. Anything we could do would be a parody. It would be disrespectful.” They also kept one of the songs they wrote, “Love Me Today,” out of their album because it is about their dad. “Don’t be afraid to say I love you,” say the lyrics. “Take the moment and make it last, ’cause if you don’t tell them you love them, you might not get a second chance.”

And as the crowd, at first hushed, breaks into applause, Tracy wipes away tears backstage and whispers, “I feel our dad around a lot, and I think he would just be terribly proud of them.”


TOM CUNNEFF in Augusta and Los Angeles

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