Greg Olear on the Gin Blossoms’ troubled genius.
New Miserable Experience, the first full-length LP by the Gin Blossoms—and, of greater relevance to the band’s tragic history, its major-label debut—was released in August of 1992, when I was in college. At the time, Nirvana and Pearl Jam were all the rage, twin exemplars of a “Seattle Sound” that also included Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Mudhoney, and Temple of the Dog. Seattle was, and is, known for its gray skies, and I’d argue that this meteorological bleakness contributed in some way to the dark clouds hovering over “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Jeremy” and “Black Hole Sun.” Grunge, it seems, was nourished by rain.
Unlike many of the big alt-rock acts of the day, the Gin Blossoms were not from the Pacific Northwest but Tempe, Arizona—a dry land of sometimes oppressive sunshine and heat. This sunniness is evident in their music. At the time, I mistook it for lack of substance, a dishonesty even. Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder were real, man, they were sharing their pain, their worlds turned to black, hello hello hello how low. The Gin Blossoms, by contrast, were Grunge Lite, a watered-down version of the Seattle sound that was obviously manufactured for radio—what Foo Fighters would one day become. They were sell-outs—liked, certainly, but not beloved in the way Nirvana and Pearl Jam were. That, at least, was my impression of them in 1992.
The band’s moment in the sun would be short-lived. In December of 1993, I heard—in that vague, word-of-mouth way that casual listeners like me then acquired our musical knowledge—that “the guy from the Gin Blossoms who wrote all their songs just killed himself.” (Five months later, Cobain would follow suit.) At the time, I assumed that the suicide was the lead singer, but it was not Robin Wilson but the guitarist, Doug Hopkins, who took his own life. I also assumed that the Blossoms were done; a band without its hook-happy songwriter is basically a cover band. They did stick around for awhile, and indeed still play music, but they never again achieved that level of success.
Painted with broad strokes, the Gin Blossoms’ tale of woe echoes that of Joy Division, whose lead singer, the inimitable Ian Curtis, famously hung himself in his kitchen the day before the band was to leave for its first American tour—allegorically, Moses dying a few steps from the Promised Land. But Curtis was not kicked out of Joy Division, far from, and the remaining members went on to form the not-commercially-or-musically-insignificant New Order. No, the story of the Gin Blossoms is more layered, more nuanced. It reads like something from Euripides. Doug Hopkins is one of rock music’s great tragic figures, made more tragic by the fact that most people have never heard of him. I did not know his name until I started researching this piece.
This is what went down: During the recording of New Miserable Experience, Hopkins—the band’s co-founder, guitarist, and chief songwriter, as well as an alcoholic who struggled with depression—was reportedly drinking so heavily that he could not play. (He denied this, but his brother suggested that it was true1). As sessions for the album wound down, and a tour was planned, the band was given a choice: fire Hopkins, or lose their major-label record contract—and their one shot at making it big. They chose the former, and dispatched Laura Liewan, their friend and former manager who herself had been fired by the band, to give him the bad news.
Jettisoned from the Blossoms—and forced, for financial reasons, to sell low on his publishing rights—Hopkins could only watch a few months later as a song he wrote was released as the album’s first single, and went gold. “When it comes on the radio, I turn it off, because I don’t really want to hear that,” he told an interviewer in October of 1992. “It’s my song but I don’t enjoy it. I can’t listen to it because it just pisses me off.” Hopkins spent the next year writing what he called “Wilson-Phillips-type songs” for a corporate publishing concern, and he formed another band—starting from scratch at age 31—while his former bandmates were playing the song he wrote on Letterman. By the end of 1993, he couldn’t handle it any more. Clinical depression plus circumstantial depression is a toxic combination. Despite the efforts of his family and friends, Hopkins attempted suicide. When it didn’t take, he bought a gun and tried again, this time successfully. He died on December 5, 1993—20 years ago this week. He would not know that another song he wrote from the album, “Found Out About You,” would soar to number one on the Billboard “Modern Rock Tracks” list.
This is not to suggest that the other band members made the wrong choice, or that if they had stood behind him things would have turned out different; Hopkins reportedly attempted suicide nine times previously, and popular and commercial success did nothing to convince his fellow depressive rocker, Kurt Cobain, to stick around. Furthermore, they had their own careers to think about; whatever happened in the studio, Hopkins was clearly in no shape to join them for the tour. The surviving band members, according to no less an authority than People magazine, “struggle[d] with feelings of grief and guilt.” It’s hard not to feel bad for these guys:
“Without Doug and his songwriting, we never could have signed a record deal,” says [Robin] Wilson, who, along with the other band members, kicked Hopkins out of the group in April 1992 when his alcoholism made it impossible for him to record or tour. “Even Doug admitted we couldn’t have succeeded with him in the band.” Then Wilson adds, after a pensive pause, “He also felt we had betrayed him.”
Although there are clips of him in the videos, there is no mention of Hopkins on the “about” page of the Gin Blossoms’s official website. But should there be? He’s been dead for 20 years, two decades in which the band has been more or less active. And yet he haunts the group. As the Arizona Republic put it in an article about his suicide, “the band’s success is built on Hopkins’ songs.”
This story is a tragedy precisely because it sucks all around.
The song that was the first single from New Miserable Experience, the song Hopkins turned off when it came on the radio, the song that earned him a gold record that he destroyed in a fit of rage, the song for which the Gin Blossoms are best known, the song that peaked at #4 on the Billboard chart 20 years ago this summer, is called—and Oedipus himself would choke on the irony—“Hey Jealousy.”
When I first heard this song, in my college days, I more or less ignored it. I was more interested in Nirvana, a band I rarely play now. It was only years later that I actually listened to “Hey Jealousy”, and began to appreciate its subtle genius. Kurt Cobain made no attempt to conceal his general contempt. The scream-singing, the defiant posturing, the taunting rendition of “Get Together” at the beginning of “Territorial Pissing,” the cheerleaders of apathy in the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video—Cobain was like the proverbial cornered rat, gnashing his teeth, wounded, sure, but with plenty of fight left in him. This very much reflected the spirit of Generation X in the early 90s. But it hasn’t aged well, at least in my mind. That moment of generational fuck-you passed. Great as they are, Nevermind and In Utero are time capsules now. Once the first baby was outfitted with the first Nirvana onesie, the spell was broken.
What I mistook for slick packaging, the sunniness of the Gin Blossom’s sound, was really something else: a brilliant disguise. Hopkins was working with a different, and a more timeless, kind of irony. The Arizona Republic described it well: his songs “set dark lyrics about drinking and other obsessions to a sprightly beat.” Where Cobain channeled the angst of a generation, Hopkins communicated his own, smaller but no less miserable, form of pain, and it resonates just as powerfully today as it did 20 years ago. Behind the bright, jangly guitars is a musical cry for help, made more profound by an exquisitely plangent vocal performance by Robin Wilson. I mean, listen to him! He sounds so fucking sad. And make no mistake, “Hey Jealousy” is a sad, sad song.
The lyrics are essentially a monologue: a desperate man, drunk (“I’m in no shape for driving”), with nowhere else to turn, shows up at his ex-girlfriend’s house and begs her to let him stay the night. It is not an appeal for sex; he just wants to sleep it off on her couch. The alcohol has burned off the pride that might prevent him from making the same appeal sober: in vino veritas. He acknowledges that the forces that drove them apart—infidelity of some kind, suspected or actual—were his fault. He promises a better tomorrow: he will stay sober (the original line was “you can trust me not to drink”; it was later changed to the nonsensical “think”) and remain faithful (his admission of having “blown the whole thing years ago” combined with his promise “not to sleep around” suggests that he doesn’t have a strong track record on this point)—and the fact that he’s bombed while saying this underscores how impossible a pledge it is.
There is a touch of Springsteen here (a songwriter Hopkins considered an influence): although we desperately want Mary to get in the car, and Rosalita to come out tonight, we somehow know that both will close the door and remain home instead. But The Boss at least promises an escape from Losertown, NJ, a pretty little bar in California down San Diego way. All this guy has to offer is a cruise around Tempe while being chased by the police—not exactly the stuff of happily-ever-after fantasy. Even if this woman, disturbed late at night by her sloppy ex-boyfriend, allows him to sleep on her sofa—and I don’t think she does, although I want her to—all tomorrow will bring is more misery. The best line in the song is the chorus: “The past is gone but something might be found to take its place.” He wants that “something” to be love, connection, intimacy, forgiveness, happiness, hope, but more likely it’s a hangover, or worse.
Even though he wrote the song before his removal from the band, it’s hard not to read “Hey Jealousy” in that context: as Hopkins appealing for reinstatement. This layer of meaning, a foreshadowing, contributes to the tragedy of his story, and his song’s.
Originally posted at The Weeklings.
Greg Olear (@gregolear) is a founding editor of The Weeklings and the author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker, an L.A. Times bestseller. He lives in New Paltz, N.Y.