Gin Blossoms: Broken Flowers

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In the early ’90s, the Gin Blossoms floated power-pop hits to a nation drowning in grunge. Sadly, the band couldn’t save the guitarist who wrote “Hey Jealousy” from alcoholism and suicide. By Hobart Rowland

She’d been looking for him all night, and there he was: drunk but safe on Mill Avenue, ground zero for Tempe, Ariz.’s state-school masses. Doug Hopkins just wanted to smoke and drink in peace, so they retreated to the bar at a nearby Italian restaurant. As was typically the case when they were together, the Gin Blossoms’ troubled guitarist talked, and she listened. Hopkins was becoming increasingly angry and distraught, lamenting the uselessness of his life, the sorry state of his liver and the injustices inflicted upon him by a local bar band that, at that moment, was poised for a national breakthrough thanks, in large part, to songs he wrote. Pretty soon, the anger gave way to sobs. Hopkins was despondent: He’d lost everything, he told his friend. Even worse, it was stolen from him.

“He just kept saying, ‘I want to die. I want to die. I want to die,’” recalls Laurie Notaro, now a novelist living in Oregon. “He never made a secret about it. He told me he was going to kill himself. He asked me to buy him a gun because I had a driver’s license and he didn’t.”

In the end, he didn’t need Notaro’s help. In early December 1993, the 32-year-old Hopkins was found dead in his apartment from a self-inflicted gunshot. In the months prior, Hopkins had publicly hammered the Gin Blossoms, complaining in interviews of unpaid royalties and lies about his condition during the recording of New Miserable Experience, the group’s multi-platinum 1992 debut. But those close to Hopkins knew that while he was devastated by being fired from the band he co-founded, it was the booze and depression that ultimately did him in.

“He had lost everything to drinking,” former bandmate Lawrence Zubia told a local newspaper in the days after Hopkins’ death.

Notaro was shaken but not exactly shocked by the news. As friends and Arizona State University classmates, we’d both seen Hopkins at his onstage best—with the Gin Blossoms and the Chimeras, the promising post-Blossoms outfit he formed with Zubia—and his offstage worst. After relocating to Virginia the year before, I was back to visit Notaro in October 1992, just prior to Hopkins’ death. We spent most nights at a Mill Avenue wing joint called Long Wong’s, home base for the Gin Blossoms’ early success and the scene they helped spawn.

By most accounts, it was a great scene: organic, uninhibited, nurtured by an odd mix of transplants, club owners, record-store misfits, pasty-white community-college nonconformists and suntanned, party-crazed ASU kids. From the beginning, it was obvious the Gin Blossoms—with their pretty-boy-gone-bad persona, pop hooks, Byrds/Cheap Trick twang and rock-star chemistry—were something special. Not that the band, whose “Hey Jealousy” was ubiquitous on modern-rock radio in 1993, has ever been given much credit for carrying the power-pop torch in the grunge era. When I left town, the Gin Blossoms were still slumming on Mill Avenue. A year later, they were out on the road with the likes of Toad The Wet Sprocket and Del Amitri, slowly gaining a footing on radio and MTV.

But if things were looking up, it sure didn’t feel that way when I was back at Long Wong’s, which within a matter of months had become an uneasy microcosm of a scene waiting for the other shoe to drop. One night, I spied Hopkins. Rumor was he’d been trying to clean up his act, and he seemed subdued, nursing a drink at the bar by himself. I thought about introducing myself, but then I got distracted. Looking back, I wish I’d made the effort.

Gin Blossoms singer/guitarist Robin Wilson has had this conversation countless times before, and he’s over it, really. “A lot of it’s personal, and I’m not going to get into the gory details,” he says when asked about the falling out with his late friend and bandmate. “Doug was like having this big anvil you had to drag around with you. It’s like, ‘Oh, we gotta go to the gig? Well, I gotta go pick up my big anvil.’ And then when the gig’s over, it’s like, ‘Oh shit, I can’t leave yet. I gotta go get my anvil.’ That’s what it was like working with Doug, one of those tragic geniuses unwilling to participate in the regular day-to-day logistics of being in a band. He made everything such a pain.”

Hopkins wrote or co-wrote half the songs on New Miserable Experience, and his Peter Buck-by-way-of-Steve Jones slash-and-jangle guitar runs are all over it. Even Wilson won’t deny that the album was Hopkins’ baby. “That’s him playing guitar,” he says. “Those are his songs.”

Not that the Gin Blossoms were a total washout without Hopkins. They went on to have hits with songs he had nothing to do with. Wilson and singer/guitarist Jesse Valenzuela are clever if inconsistent songwriters; the playing of Hopkins’ replacement, Scott Johnson, is technically solid; and the band’s post-Experience output—the new Major Lodge Victory included—is uniformly well-crafted, angst-averse jangle pop.

When you talk to the Gin Blossoms today, it’s clear the dark emotional corners and bruised beauty that defined much of the band’s early music was coming from a place none of them could ever hope to duplicate. Nor would they ever want to.

“Doug wouldn’t have made it this far,” says Wilson. “He would’ve always rebelled. He would’ve always shot himself when it came to the function of being in a band.”

Hopkins’ death had perhaps the most profound impact on bassist Bill Leen, who founded the Gin Blossoms with Hopkins in 1986. (The name was inspired by a photo of W.C. Fields’ veiny, booze-ravaged nose and cheeks in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon II.) Though they were classmates at Tempe’s McClintock High School, the two were hardly the best of friends. But at the sports-crazed McClintock, they had one thing in common: Both were ostracized. Hopkins found his escape in music, spending Friday nights at home playing guitar. He had large hands, so he was encouraged by an instructor to switch to bass. Hopkins briefly studied music at a local community college before abandoning such formalities to pursue a sociology degree at ASU. He had a dry wit and a Paul Westerberg-like aura about him. He was also an avid reader with an encyclopedic knowledge of music. Even so, he had to be rescued from a prog-rock cover band in the early days. “I turned him on to punk,” says Leen.

The two went on to form a series of bands in the first half of the ’80s, the most noteworthy being the Psalms, a new wavey guitars-and-keys outfit for which Hopkins began writing songs in earnest. “I like pop songs but without the typical arrangements,” Hopkins told a local journalist at the time. “I try to stay away from the obvious or what you might expect the song to do.”

After a spell in Portland, Ore., the pair returned to Tempe and hooked up with Valenzuela at the suggestion of a former bandmate. “Every six months, we’d get together and try it again,” says Valenzuela. “It was a couple of years experimenting before it worked.”

With Valenzuela in the fold as lead singer and rhythm guitarist, the group played its first show as the Gin Blossoms in December 1987. The early lineup went through a string of drummers, including one, Chris McGann, who convinced Valenzuela to quit his day job. “I remember him saying, ‘Another bad job is 15 feet away from you at all times. Just quit.’ So I did, and I haven’t had a job since.”

By 1988, the Gin Blossoms’ sweaty, alcohol-fueled, four-hour gigs at Long Wong’s became the stuff of ASU yearbook fodder, with Hopkins and Leen making a sport of punching holes in the club’s low ceiling with their guitars. At the time, Wilson was studying planetary science at a local community college and working at Zia Record Exchange. He’d been performing in various inconsequential local groups, and by his own account, he worshiped Hopkins. Late one night, Hopkins followed the party back to Wilson’s apartment; the guitar came out, and Wilson started singing along. Hopkins was impressed. After just one rehearsal, the new lineup did a three-night stand at Long Wong’s.

“We were quite popular from the time we came out,” says Valenzuela. “[Within a few months] we were working six days a week, sometimes seven.”

McGann eventually left the band and was replaced by 19-year-old Phillip Rhodes, a McClintock High alum fresh out of the Navy. By May 1988, the pieces were in place. The Gin Blossoms even cooked up an alter-ego cover band called the Del Montes to keep the gigs coming and the free booze flowing.

“It felt really special to be a part of a music scene that we were building all by ourselves,” says Wilson. “We weren’t associated with any of the other established Arizona bands. It was our own little scene, and the world was a much smaller place, so it felt like a really big deal.”

In the early days, there was no question who ran the show. “Doug was always the leader of the Gin Blossoms,” says Leen. Hopkins’ on-the-brink stage antics kept the guys in the audience riveted while their girlfriends panted over the diminutive, tambourine-wielding Wilson.

“That was religion to me, going to see those guys,” says Roger Clyne, whose late-’90s band the Refresh-ments has been the only Tempe act to make any sort of national impact post-Gin Blossoms. “I was infected by the pure rock ’n’ roll, the debauchery, the spontaneity.”

By 1989, the Blossoms were playing up to 17 local shows a month. That year, the group also spent a week in Tucson recording Dusted with Rich Hopkins (no relation to Doug), guitarist for Crazy Horse-influenced rockers the Sidewinders. Essentially a live-to-tape affair, the album contains early versions of hits “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You.”

“It was cut live with very little concern for the studio,” says Valenzuela, who fancies himself a bit of a studio wonk these days. “We used to play shows like that; it was like a punch in the face. I’m glad we don’t play that way anymore. There’s no producer worth his salt who would let a band record like that.”

Nonetheless, Dusted succeeds on the strength of its songs—and it’s the closest you’ll come to hearing what all the fuss was about.

“I pretty much wore out my vinyl copy of Dusted,” says Clyne, who now tours and records with a backup band called the Peacemakers.

Showcases at South By Southwest in Austin and CMJ’s New Music Marathon in New York City got the group more national exposure, with one magazine touting the Gin Blossoms as the best unsigned band in America. Soon, more labels came snooping around Tempe, among them A&M, which—after sufficient dining and (mostly) wining—signed the band in 1990.

A&M chose Saturday Night Fever soundtrack producer Albhy Galuten to helm the recording of the band’s debut. Galuten had his ideas; the Blossoms had theirs. After a month’s work, the project was scrapped. The Gin Blossoms convinced the label to green-light an EP produced by the band in Phoenix. Up And Crumbling was released in October 1991, more than a year after the group was signed. A&M began courting John Hampton to produce the Blossoms’ full-length debut.

“We met in Tempe,” says Hampton. “It was my treat, and I thought, ‘Boy these guys drink a lot.’”

The Blossoms headed to Big Star central, Memphis’ Ardent Studios, where Hampton is a staff producer. By all accounts, the first week in the studio was productive. Then things went downhill fast. Hopkins was drinking heavily, and he refused to cooperate.

“Most of Doug’s guitar on the album was recorded when we were tracking drums,” says Hampton. “He was unable to re-record his parts. Have you ever seen the movie Leaving Las Vegas? Try making a record with someone like that. Maybe it was just the pressure of living up to all the expectations, but this was the opportunity Doug had waited for his entire life, and instead of becoming like Noel Gallagher and assuming a leadership role, he went in completely the other direction.”

That direction was home. Hopkins ended up departing Memphis early, leaving the rest of the band to finish the album. The popular version of Hopkins’ exit has him passing out and missing his first flight. On the second try, an Ardent engineer doused the soused guitarist with mouthwash and cheap aftershave to hide the stink and escorted him onto the plane.

“When Doug left this giant void, Jesse stepped up and assumed that leadership role,” says Wilson. “He took it upon himself and worked his ass off. There are parts of that album where there are nine Jesses playing guitar and three Jesses singing.”

Hopkins admitted he went to a Tempe hospital the night he got back from Memphis, but he always disputed the band’s claims that he was too incapacitated to contribute much of anything. Regardless, it was clear to everyone but Hopkins that he had to go. But the decision was hardly an easy one.

“I remember talking about what we were going to do: ‘Should we change our name or what?’” says Leen. “We’ve got this guy’s songs; he’s probably going to be playing them back in Tempe. Then the record company tells us the first single is going to be ‘Hey Jealousy,’ which is Doug’s song.”

There was talk—apparently initiated by Wilson—of giving Hopkins another chance, but others in the band weren’t so sure. In the end, the label likely had the last word, in the form of a call from Bryan Huttenhower, the A&R rep who signed the band: Hopkins needed to go. While Huttenhower has denied it, Hampton claims it was the label’s decision, not the band’s. “A&M didn’t want a dysfunctional band supporting the record,” he says.

Adds former A&M publicist Rick Gershon, “They became a completely different band to be around once they were separated from Doug: much more upbeat.”

“Hey Jealousy” is nothing if not an effortless display of hit-single gamesmanship, especially given its much heavier early-’90s competition. With its vintage chord changes, aching vulnerability poorly disguised as bravado and a chorus so addictive it should come with a methadone chaser, the Hopkins-penned tune was always a live favorite. Even the flawed Dusted version sizzles like bacon frying on a Tempe crosswalk in August. The song may have saved New Miserable Experience from a sorrier commercial fate. Yet when “Hey Jealousy” was released as a single in July 1992, it fizzled.

Meanwhile, Hopkins was trying to get his post-Blossoms career on track. But moving on was difficult. At the time, it was reported in Rolling Stone that the band withheld about $15,000 he was owed until he signed away a portion of his publishing royalties, which were then transferred to his replacement, Tempe scene vet Scott Johnson. “I understand why they fired me,” Hopkins said in a 1992 interview. “But did they have to get so fucking cold and ruthless about it?”

“We never ripped him off,” says Leen, noticeably irritated. While Leen declines to go into detail, others close to Hopkins and the band say the contention that Hopkins—who’d retained an attorney—handed royalties over to anyone is ludicrous. Indeed, Hopkins’ estate is estimated to be well in the seven-figure range thanks to his writing on New Miserable Experience.

Nonetheless, Hopkins was livid over the band’s hardball tactics. At one point, he was ejected from a Tempe club for punching Wilson in the face, though he did try to keep things civil with his old pal Leen. “The last few times I saw him, it would inevitably have to be over a few beers,” says Leen. “The same shit would come up, and it was just so hard.”

Fueled, in part, by a thirst for revenge, Hopkins started getting it together with his new band, the Chimeras, a roots-pop outfit with a more soulful, Springsteenish bent. He was writing up a storm, and the group was earning raves locally. But his self-sabotaging ways soon won out. He quit the band in a huff after muffing a guitar solo at a show, setting off his final downward spiral.

Back on the road, the Blossoms were busy logging some 40,000 miles in their white Dodge van, the one depicted on the cover of New Miserable Experience. A rigorous four-month tour in 1993 had the band playing college campuses during the day and clubs at night.

“They were forced to become this touring machine, and they weren’t built to work that hard,” says Gershon. “It got to the point where they finally imploded.”

As the band was coming unhinged, “Hey Jealousy” suddenly caught on in Southern California. A&M began pushing the single while the group shot multiple videos for the song to satisfy the label. By the summer, the Gin Blossoms had a hit on their hands. A few months later, Hopkins would be dead.

“We thought about doing the Brian Wilson thing with Doug, where he would just stay home and be the creative genius,” says Leen. “Not to make money off his songs—just to keep him alive.”

After the funeral, the Blossoms had no choice but to take their grief on the road. By 1994, they’d opened for the Neville Brothers and UB40, headlined their own club tour and played stadiums with Cracker and the Spin Doctors. “Found Out About You,” “Until I Fall Away” and “Allison Road” were all released as singles before Experience was finally milked dry. The Gin Blossoms, however, were at each other’s throats.

A serious rift developed between Wilson and Valenzuela. “Robin really thought he was a rock star,” says Gershon. “Then you have Jesse, who really wasn’t built for this kind of life; he’s a homebody.”

When it came time to record the follow-up to New Miserable Experience, the tension between Wilson and Valenzuela carried over into the studio. “They hated each other,” says Hampton, who was rehired by A&M to produce the Blossoms. “That’s why a lot of the writing on the second album was so lacking.”

Wilson and Valenzuela still managed to squeeze out “Til I Hear It From You,” a collaboration with singer/songwriter Marshall Crenshaw that wound up on the soundtrack for the 1995 film Empire Records. The movie flopped, but the song became the Blossoms’ only number-one single. Not surprisingly, the group played it safe with Congratulations, I’m Sorry. Released in 1996, the band’s second album sounds an awful lot like Experience, minus the nervous energy and dead-on songwriting. Worried that any co-written songs would imply they couldn’t pen a hit on their own, the Gin Blossoms refused to include “Til I Hear It From You” on the album. There were two more hits (“Follow You Down” and the Grammy-nominated “As Long As It Matters”), yet it felt like a letdown. Some touring followed, but friction between band members brought things to a head. Soon after the release of Congratulations, the Gin Blossoms expired in a toxic puff of bad vibes.

Wilson quickly rebounded, grabbing Rhodes and forming the Gas Giants, a harder-rocking outfit with charm to spare but little in the way of hooks. The band was signed to A&M, but when a merger with Universal Records gutted the label in 1998, the Gas Giants were dropped. The band’s debut, From Beyond The Back Burner, languished for a year before it was released on the Atomic Pop imprint in 2000. Not many felt it was worth the wait, and Wilson remains bitter about the experience.

“I was trying to sell this other band, and nobody cared,” he says. “I thought I could be like Dave Lowery when he left Camper Van Beethoven and formed Cracker; he was allowed to establish his own identity. I wasn’t given that chance. People would see entire sets of ours and didn’t even realize it wasn’t the Gin Blossoms.”

Feeling cheated if not defeated, Wilson kept busy developing new bands at Mayberry Studios, a facility he opened in Tempe. After an aborted attempt at forming his own new band, the Low Watts, Valenzuela moved to Los Angeles and settled into a routine as a songwriter and session player, working with Judy Collins, the Rembrandts, Stevie Nicks and Tommy Keene, among others. Leen ducked out of music altogether, dealing rare books out of his home in Phoenix, while Johnson joined Roger Clyne’s Peacemakers. Struggling with drugs and related health problems, Rhodes was largely out of commission.

As with most reunions, the Gin Blossoms’ decision to reconvene for a special millennium show in Tempe likely had more to do with money than anything else. By then, all the band members had families, so the reported six-figure payday had to look good.

A year or so later, the one-off reunion turned roadworthy when it was determined there was money to be made playing casinos and outdoor fairs in places like De Pere, Wis., where the demand for “Hey Jealousy” never seemed to wane. All the while, Universal had been repackaging the band’s meager catalog with some success. When the Blossoms headed out on an 80-date U.S. tour in 2002, they had no fewer than five releases to plug: the Just South Of Nowhere DVD (featuring concert footage and all the group’s A&M videos), the CD reissue of 1989’s Dusted, an expanded two-CD New Miserable Experience, Wilson’s The Poppin’ Wheelies (based on a cartoon about a rock band in outer space) and Valenzuela’s Tunes Young People Will Enjoy.

Touring continued into 2004, and rumors of a new album began to surface as Wilson and Valenzuela started writing material. Though Rhodes was in on the early stages of the Gin Blossoms reunion, his personal problems eventually led to him being fired. He was replaced by Scott Kusmirek, from popular Tempe outfit Bit O Jane. Last year, with Kusmirek in tow, the band headed back to Ardent to record its third album—the first for Hybrid Recordings, a label co-founded by former A&M head Al Cafaro—with Hampton. The atmosphere wasn’t always convivial.

“There was a little politicking going on,” says Hampton. “Robin and Jesse were calling me up individually and stabbing each other in the back. Jesse has a way of tempering Robin into softening up a bit, and Robin has a tendency to toughen up Jesse a little bit. That becomes the tension that makes it work.”

Sounding somewhat frustrated, Hampton says he has yet to hear the finished product. Apparently, not everyone was completely happy with his production, so Valenzuela took the album back to Los Angeles for remixing.

“The Gin Blossoms can never really sound like anyone but the Gin Blossoms,” says Valenzuela. “We’ll never play to click tracks; the songs will always be a little faster at the end. We’ll never sound as beautiful as a Train song produced by Brendan O’Brien.”

Weird, then, how the burnished, middle-of-the-road pop/rock found on Major Lodge Victory comes damn close. Among the stronger tracks: first single “Learning The Hard Way” (think “Follow You Down” redux), “Come On Hard” (mid-’90s Goo Goo Dolls with more spring in its step and sand in its insoles) and “Heart Shaped Locket” (a broad-shouldered power-pop expression of May-December lust). These days, the Blossoms seem content to make music with a calculated flair for the undramatic. Yet, with all the struggles the band members have endured over the years, you’d think they’d have something to tell their fans beyond strained sentimentality (“Someday Soon”), remedial character sketches (“Super Girl”) and stale baseball references (“Let’s Play Two”).

Several years ago, award-winning documentarian Mark Stanoch secured the rights to Hopkins’ music and story for a biopic potentially starring Ethan Hawke, but plans have since stalled. There was also talk of the Gin Blossoms recording more of Hopkins’ work, of which there’s a considerable amount still unheard. But that seems impossible at this late juncture. The middle-aged Gin Blossoms working over a long-lost Hopkins gem for mass consumption might just be enough to make the late guitarist turn in his grave.

“Goddammit, I would be perfectly happy if I were never involved in any way with a major label again,” said Hopkins back in 1992.

Sadly, he got his wish.

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