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Band on the Run

Robert Baird

Phoenix New Times, September 30, 1992

What's in a name? Plenty, when it's the Gin Blossoms.

Shot from a rooftop, one fo the first official band photos of the Gin Blossoms shows the Tempe band scattered around a backyard, cigarettes and drinks in hand, displaying that grim, "we bad" visage all serious white guitar bands feel obligated to effect. Only two of the people in the shot--Jesse Valenzuela and Bill Leen--are still Blossoms today.

The next notable band pic is from the heady days just after the band signed with A&M Records in 1990. This shot looks like the band that fans pack Tempe clubs to see: flannel shirts, jeans, Chuck Taylor high tops. This time, though, the Blossoms look a little scared, apprehensive perhaps about finally being "signed."

The latest photo, one without founder Doug Hopkins, shows the band in a forest. Even more recognizable details are visible: Phillip Rhodes' hat, Robin Wilson's Suns jersey, Bill Leen's Club Congress tee shirt. The most noticeable things about this print, shot with infrared film, are the eyes. While their bodies are overexposed and faded, the Blossoms' eyes are dark and spooky--you can't tell whether they're superhuman or just dead.

The same question persists about the band itself.

In August the band released its debut album, New Miserable Experience. Filled with great songs and inspired playing, it is the kind of album local fans always suspected the Gin Blossoms had in them. It's good enough to make them a genuine contender to become a national act.

The problem is that the band that made the record no longer exists. In March 1992, the Blossoms fired band founder and chief songwriter Doug Hopkins. The band's musical leader, Hopkins (no relation to the Sand Rubies' Rich Hopkins) was also the spiritual heart of the band, its biggest drawing card and its biggest "problem."

As the group's name implies, alcohol has played a significant role in the life of the Gin Blossoms. The name comes from the nasty skin condition associated with long-term drinking. Hopkins and bassist Bill Leen came up with the idea after seeing a photo of W.C. Fields' blooming nose and cheeks in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon II. When you listen to the Blossoms reminisce, many of their favorite war stories--using their guitars to poke holes in the ceiling above the stage at Long Wong's, for example--were fueled by power drinking. No secret among the Valley's music community, Hopkins' struggle with the bottle had a lot to do with his acrimonious exit from the band.

The remaining Blossoms--guitarist-vocalist Jesse Valenzuela, lead vocalist Robin Wilson, drummer Phillip Rhodes and bassist Bill Leen--must now find a way to replace Hopkins' trademark guitar sound, his living-dead stage presence and, most important, his songwriting. He penned most of the melodies that fans think of when they think "Gin Blossoms." The best tunes on the new disc--"Lost Horizons," "Hey, Jealousy" (the album's first single), "Pieces of the Night"--are all Hopkins originals. The Blossoms' side of the story is simple: survival.

"In the end, it was either fire Doug or break up," says Wilson. "That was very clear. Saving the recording contract wasn't so important, but we decided to go ahead and save the band."

Hopkins, full of bitterness, couldn't disagree more. "The great days of that band are gone. I've seen 'em since and frankly they're a yawn fest," he says. "I spent five years of my life trying to make the Gin Blossoms mean something cool, and now I have to see the shit version parading around."

Hopkins was replaced by Feedbags guitarist Scott Johnson. So far, Johnson's playing has been adequate, aimed more at duplicating Hopkins than creating his own style. Onstage the diminutive Johnson gives the Blossoms an entirely different look from the hangover-from-hell air Hopkins lent to the band.

But looks are the least of the band's worries. There are lots of scary-looking guitar players around. It's finding a new songwriter that's going to be a trick.

In the Blossoms' last Tempe shows before leaving town, the group was not playing "Hey, Jealousy," the first single and the subject of an $80,000 MTV-bound video. Obviously, you can't release a record, particularly a debut, and then refuse to play its best tunes. Different Blossoms have different explanations. Was it pride that prevented the Blossoms' new lineup from playing Hopkins' tunes in Tempe? Or was it just that Johnson was still learning the songs? When the Blossoms return to the Valley on October 11 as the opener for Del Amitri, it will be interesting to see how many Hopkins tunes are a part of the set.

Besides losing their songwriter just as they are about to reach for success, the Blossoms are also a band without a manager. They fired manager Laura Liewen in January and have yet to replace her with professional management. Although they say they have a "wish list" that includes Bill Graham and most of the other leading management firms, the band is being co-managed by its label and its lawyer--usually bands like to have independent managers who will keep those two parties at bay.

That rock 'n' roll bands lose members to alcohol is nothing new--although Hopkins denies that his drinking is as bad as others say it is. Today there's an entire sub-genre of bands that has cleaned up physically after cleaning up fiscally. The two biggest examples of that, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Guns n' Roses, have recently kicked out members with drug problems.

What makes the Blossoms' case unique, though, is the timing. Few successful bands have ever axed a founder and main songwriter just as they are about to break through. What would have happened, for example, if the Replacements had dumped Paul Westerberg while making Let It Be, or if Nirvana had booted Kurdt Kobain [sic] (speaking of addictive problems) after Bleach?

Musically, New Miserable Experience proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that the Gin Blossoms belong on a major label. As chimey-guitar-pop records go, it is as tuneful and likable as anything released in recent memory.

The album is basically a compilation of the best material the band has come up with over its five years together. "Allison Road" and "Mrs. Rita," both of which were on the band's previous EP, Up and Crumbling, were rerecorded for N.M.E. Beyond that there is a surprisingly wide range of material on this album--everything from beefy guitar rock in "Hold Me Down" to the twangy "Cheatin'," a tune whose melody and attitude are an obvious tribute to GP/Grievous Angel-era Gram Parsons. The band's playing is tight and full-blooded throughout and the sound on N.M.E. is clean and bright. Most striking of all, though, are Robin Wilson's knockout vocals.

New Miserable Experience also has a champion pedigree, having been recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis where Big Star and other forefathers of alternative music recorded seminal albums. The Blossoms' sessions were produced by John Hampton, and Ardent-based producer who had previously worked with the Replacements and Marshall Crenshaw, among others.

According to everyone involved, the first week of recording went well. The band worked hard and was pleased with the results. Soon, though, problems with Hopkins began to creep in. The remaining band members say he was drinking constantly. Thinking a break might help, Hopkins flew back to the Valley. Once back in Memphis, however, the band says his drinking resumed.

The surviving Blossoms aren't reluctant to talk about Hopkins. In fact, during a recent round of interviews at Restaurant Mexico, they talked plenty about him.

"I remember being there with Hampton and Doug actually in the studio," vocalist Robin Wilson says. "Hampton was talking to Doug about 'your parts are so crappy and we've got to redo them, and you're too drunk to redo them.' He said, 'So what I'm thinking, Doug, is we'll go and hire another guitar player to do your parts.' And Doug said, 'Well, I'd rather Jesse would do my parts.' That's when I knew there was something really, really

"Here we were, on our first record," bassist Bill Leen says between drags on a cigarette and sips of a margarita. "It was scary of us to see somebody really give up and be so afraid. And be thinking, 'I've got to drink more because I'm afraid 'cause I got drunk and can't play.'"

"It got to the point," guitarist Jesse Valenzuela says, "where Hampton would call Doug at the hotel and say, 'Don't bother coming down because all you ever do is bring the guys down and we're trying to make a record here.'"

Finally, say the other Blossoms, Hopkins agreed to fly back to the Valley for good. He missed his first flight because, according to the band, he passed out at the airport. (Hopkins calls this version of events "complete bullshit.")

The next day, according the band, Ardent engineer James Senter doused Hopkins with Lavoris and Hai Karate after-shave and got him on the plane. Senter called Ardent from the airport, and the entire band remembers listening over the studio's speaker phone to a blow-by-blow report of the plane taxiing and taking off.

Hopkins admits that he "went to the hospital the night I got back," but he denies that the Memphis sessions and the scene at the airport went down that bad.

"I'm sure Jesse presented it to A&M in such a way that it sounded like they were dragging me out of the gutter every morning to go to the studio," Hopkins says. "God knows what he told them. He's very manipulative and conniving. A very calculating person."

The way the Blossoms recall it, it was clear by then that Hopkins had to go. What would they say to him when they returned home? A call from Bryan Huttenhower, the A&R rep who had signed the band to A&M and remains its main contact with the label, helped make up the band members minds.

Valenzuela's version: "Bryan called us in Memphis and said, 'Look, I've been talking to you about Doug for a long time and you've got to do something about this or the record's not coming out.' And we're like, 'Well, what does he mean, Hampton?' Hampton said, 'I think what he's saying to you is he wants Doug out.'"

Valenzuela, Wilson and the rest of the band seem to remember this critical moment in the band's history in exquisite detail, but Huttenhower denies ever making such a threat about the record "not coming out."

"It never happened," Huttenhower says from his Los Angeles office. "If Doug was still in the band, the record would still have come out. The situation with Doug was hampering the existence and productivity of the band. I liked Doug when he was contributing. But that hasn't been flowing for a long time. It's unfortunate. Doug's a very talented guy, but he's got a problem. Read his lyrics. It's all over them."

Huttenhower is working both sides of the street with the point about Hopkins' lyrics, however. While it's true that verses like this from "Lost Horizons"--"I'll drink enough of anything/To make myself look new again/Drunk, drunk, drunk/In the gardens and the graves"--obviously reveal a preoccupation with alcohol, it's also true that those lyrics and that kind of song--what the Blossoms do best--led Huttenhower to sign the Blossoms to A&M.

That alcohol is such a scapegoat shows that there may have been more at work in the band's decision to boot Hopkins than just his drinking. After five years together, it's clear from the comments and attitude on both sides that relationships within the band had fractured. Once the best of friends, Wilson and Hopkins, for example, started feuding--and haven't stopped.

"Someone put it to me the other day that when Robin joined the band, the first band he'd ever been in, I was his hero," Hopkins says. "But when he found out I was human, I let him down and that's when things between us went sour."

The band never told Hopkins directly that he was out. He had to learn of it from ex-manager Laura Liewen, who told him, she recalls, "because I thought he should know."

When it came to replacing Hopkins, the band members say their better off without him. The only catch is his songs. But the band claims that's not a problem.

"If Doug had been a songwriting genius, maybe the band and the label could not have put up with it," Valenzuela says, ignoring the fact that, genius or not, Hopkins was the best that the Blossoms had.

"The only songs of Doug's we're doing now are 'Hey, Jealousy' and 'Hold Me Down,'" Wilson says. "And personally, I co-wrote 'Hold Me Down.' And on 'Hey, Jealousy,' Jesse wrote a lot of the music. I also wrote a lot of the melody and a couple of the lyrics there. That song is so much a part of us, it says 'Doug Hopkins' next to it but we really wrote it as a group.

"There are a couple of songs like 'Lost Horizons' that are Doug Hopkins songs, but he wasn't even there when we fucking recorded them. We did it without him."

Hopkins explodes when he hears what Wilson says about him and his songs.

"This shit about them wanting a piece of 'Hey, Jealousy' or something is just patently fucking ridiculous," Hopkins says during a separate interview at Restaurant Mexico. (The restaurant itself, being right across the street from Long Wong's in Tempe, is an integral part of the group's existence, even for ex-members.) He didn't write a note of that. Neither did Jesse. Robin's a coattail-jumping son of a bitch!

"When I write a song, I write a melody note for note. Anyone who knows my writing can pick out a Doug song. And as for me not being on the record, that's bullshit--my fuckin' guitar is all over it."

Hopkins has a point there--and other Blossoms besides Robin Wilson would acknowledge it. "When we got to Memphis, it became obvious that he just couldn't handle it and he didn't want to be there. So he didn't have much input," Valenzuela says. "He worked pretty hard the first four or five days. Then he went home. Once he came back, we couldn't get him to do much work. But most of the solos [on the record] are still Doug's."

The most succinct statement of the band's view of what happened to Doug Hopkins in Memphis came from Bill Leen, who had played in bands with Hopkins since they went to McClintock High School together in the late Seventies.

"He broke," says Leen.

The Blossoms will always have the distinction of being the first rock 'n' roll band from the Tempe scene to be signed by a major label. (The other national act from Tempe, the Meat Puppets, signed with indie SST before finally jumping to a major label last year.)

As the biggest band in Tempe for the past five years, the Blossoms gave new meaning to the term "working band." In 1989, the Long Wong's calendar confirms, the band played there 72 times. In one month, the Blossoms remember playing 17 shows at either the Sun Club or Long Wong's. They estimate their average back then to be 12 shows a month. Those figures include the band's alter ego, the Del Montes, a trashy cover band that was a big hit at Long Wong's. Back then the Blossoms were relatively prim.

"I remember going onstage with my shirt tucked in, for Christ's sake. With a belt!" says Hopkins, who always uses "we" as if he were still in the band.

Although they were much in demand on Mill Avenue, the Blossoms took a week off in 1989 to make an album for San Jacinto Records, the Tucson-based indie that's owned by Sidewinders (now Sand Rubies) guitarist Rich Hopkins. Recorded at Tucson's Westwood Studios in a blur of cheap beer and vodka, the sessions produced Dusted, which was released in November 1989.

Marred by overly fast tempos and the band's overall greenness, Dusted nevertheless contains four songs that later made it onto the band's 1991 EP Up and Crumbling ("Angels Tonight") or onto the new album ("Hey, Jealousy," "Lost Horizons" and "Found Out About You").

Dusted also gave the Blossoms a finished product to shop to record labels, which they did following successful showcases at Austin's South by Southwest and New York's College Music Journal conferences. At CMJ they were billed as "the best unsigned band in America."

This exposure soon convinced three major labels--MCA, PolyGram and A&M--to fly to the Valley to see the band. PolyGram and A&M made the band solid offers.

On May 26, 1990, drummer Phillip Rhodes' birthday, the Blossoms signed with A&M, after a show at Mudbuggs in Tucson.

To produce the band's first record, A&M chose Albhy Galuten, best known as the producer of the smash soundtrack Saturday Night Fever. From the beginning, in November 1990, there were problems. Galuten had very fixed ideas about the kind of record he wanted to make, and the Blossoms recall that he refused to listen to their ideas. After a month of work, none of the tapes were salvageable. Still, the band thinks the experience had some value.

"I think Albhy taught us a lot," Wilson says. "To me, the Albhy Galuten sessions were like when you're a little kid and you go to Lou Brock baseball camp. Maybe it's not the only way to play baseball, but you still learn a lot."

Afraid this false start was going to poison its relationship with A&M, the band appealed to the label to allow it to record its own EP in Phoenix. The label agreed, going so far as to allow the band to produce itself.

Up and Crumbling was recorded at AB Recorders on 32nd Street and Broadway in April 1991. Released on October 8, 1991, with what has to rank as some of the world's worst cover art--a dark, nearly indistinguishable blue boat on a dry lake bed--Up and Crumbling was a local hit. By A&M estimates, the EP sold 19,000 copies. Although it didn't break any sales records, Up and Crumbling did make it into the right hands. Several cuts began receiving steady airplay in large markets like Chicago, Denver and Washington, D.C.

Encouraged by this radio response, A&M agreed to give the Blossoms half the money they needed for a tour. The ensuing tour, nicknamed by the band "the please-God-don't-let-us-see-our-ex-girlfriends" tour--they all did--began in November 1991. The most vivid memory from that tour occurred on Thanksgiving Day somewhere in the wilds of Nebraska.

"It was a 24-hour drive from Denver to Minneapolis on Thanksgiving Day," Valenzuela says. "We ate our Thanksgiving dinner in a Denny's in Nebraska. Everybody's drunk, we're in the van and the conversation turns to religion. Doug and Bill think it's really important that we find out what everybody believes about their religion. I put my Walkman on. I'd come up for air every once in a while and hear things like 'Fuck Judaism' and 'You believe what?'"

While the band was on the road, A&M decided that John Hampton, the producer who mixed Up and Crumbling, would work on New Miserable Experience. Because Hampton's wife was pregnant and couldn't travel, the band journeyed to Memphis and Ardent Studios, where Hampton was a staff producer.

Before they left, however, the Blossoms decided (they say under pressure from their label to hire a big-time manager) to fire Laura Liewen, who had been handling the band's business affairs since the spring of 1988. Liewen had also taken over booking local and national dates and was instrumental in negotiating the band's record deal. Everyone in the band admits that she was a key element in its success.

"When Laura got fired, we called a meeting," Hopkins recalls. "We were all sitting in a room, Laura walked in, sat down and then there was this horrible, horrible, horrible silence for a couple of minutes where everybody just looked at their shorts or whatever. Finally, Laura said, 'Well, what's this meeting about?' Then there was another horrible silence before Robin, to his credit, mustered the guts to say, 'Well, I guess what we're trying to say is you're fired.' Laura picked up her stuff and got out."

However, two weeks after they fired her, she says, the Blossoms rehired her to handle their local booking. Then, last week, this band on the verge of national recognition called from the road to rehire her as business manager.

"I don't want to be put in the same category as Doug," says Liewen. "There aren't hard feelings between me and the band, the publisher and the label."

The band's dealings with Doug Hopkins are far from over. Hopkins claims that the band's lawyer, Geno Salomon, has informed him that the band is withholding $12,000 in songwriting royalties owed him until he agrees to sign a settlement that includes, among other things, a clause that he will receive less money from the sale of the album. Hopkins says he won't sign. He says the Blossoms are banking on the fact that he's too poor to sue them.

Reached in his L.A. office last week, Salomon would not deny much of what Hopkins says. But Salomon says the band has done nothing improper in respect to any monies "allegedly owed to Doug," adding, "We expect this matter to be settled shortly."

Hopkins, meanwhile, says he's busy forming a new band and writing what he calls "Top 40/VH-1 mercenary hits."

As is common with "baby bands," which is labelspeak for new national acts, the Blossoms currently are on tour opening for a better-known band. For the first three weeks, the Blossoms opened for Sony Music's most notorious they're-going-to-be-a-success-or-else project, Toad the Wet Sprocket. On September 23, they switched over to opening for label mates Del Amitri. In mid-October, after its show at Hayden Square, the group will rejoin the Toad tour in Salt Lake City and tour until early 1993.

To be fair, it's clear that there is still a lot of talent in the Blossoms' new lineup. Touring on a national level, playing in front of hostile crowds, will also force them to become a better band. If the tour goes poorly, their national future will be shaky.

Had they dealt with Hopkins differently, the Blossoms might have preserved a songwriting relationship with him. But that chance seems lost now. Replacing Hopkins' songs means creating a new identity, reinventing the band. Filling out sets with sloppy covers--a favorite Blossoms trick here at home--can't go on forever. The songwriting onus is on Robin Wilson and Jesse Valenzuela, and they say they've penned a few new tunes. They also say they'd like to go to L.A. to collaborate with singer-songwriter Tommy Keene once this tour is over.

Wilson allows that "we're going to miss Doug in the songwriting department," but he insists that the band will fare better with songs that don't revolve around alcoholism. Wilson vows the band's songs will be more "honest.'

It's surprising to hear Wilson use the word "honest." If anything, the honesty in Hopkins' work, particularly about booze, helped him get canned. On top of that, the rest of the band has not gone on the wagon since Hopkins' exit.

It's clear from talking to Wilson, Valenzuela and the rest of the band that Hopkins continues to cast a long shadow. The band knows that everything rides on the next record. If it's a success, Hopkins' ghost will be put to rest and this lineup will be taken seriously. And perhaps then it will be obvious what those dark eyes in the photo mean.