Gin Blossoms – Past is gone but something might be found

From the very first time I ever heard Hey Jealousy on the airwaves, I loved this song. It was by a band called the Gin Blossoms – on the surface,  one of dozens of alterna-lite bands that broke through thanks to grunge. But their story, and their songs, were much more than that.

The biggest part of the story revolves around the death of guitarist/songwriter Doug Hopkins. Hopkins wrote Hey Jealousy and Found Out About You – two stone cold pop rock classics, and both huge worldwide hits. Hopkins had formed the band, wrote some of their best songs, developed their jangly guitar sound – but had constant problems with drinking. As a teenager who had one ear stuck on the radio in suburban nowhere Sydney, I knew none of this at the time.

Hopkins‘ drinking and behavior had taken it’s toll on the others, and he was fired from the band he had formed just before the release of New Miserable Experience, the Gin Blossoms‘ proper debut album. The album that would spawn those two big hits and sell 2 million copies. Hopkins would watch from afar as his former friends rose to fame on the back of his songs. He could not beat his chronic depression, or the drinking.

New Miserable Experience came out in August ’92.

In December ’93, Doug Hopkins took his own life.

A fantastic article about Hopkins, written by a friend of his, can be found here – http://www.metrotimes.com/editorial/story.asp?id=12123. It’s a wonderful, wonderful article. We meet some lost suburban kids, one who could write songs, who loved girls but was awkward. Who drank too much, and knew it, but had nothing else to do to help the time pass. About horrible phone calls bearing bad news, and beautiful songs that you can’t believe were written by mortals. A must read.

Hopkins left us with barely a dozen songs, and only a handful are on that debut Gin Blossoms record. But he definitely had something. God knows the world of blogs don’t need anymore proclamations of genius – but he had all the elements. He had a natural sense of pop hooks – growing up on REM, Tom Petty and Big Star. But his lyrics were really special – one reviewer at the time remarked ‘misery never sounded so good’. It’s one thing to be a drunken suburban fuck up who fell in love too easily. It’s another to express that feeling so clearly in song.

The Gin Blossoms story is not just the Doug Hopkins story. As great as the songs were, the golden ticket for the Gin Blossoms was Robin Wilson‘s voice. That clear, high, longing voice – sitting above it all. Restraint yet passionate, young yet wise, sad yet hopeful. Jesse Venezuela and Scott Johnson (Hopkins‘ replacement) captured the bright, Byrds-y guitar playing right where Hopkin‘s left it, and all the time providing fantastic guitar solos and riffs that served the songs but were memorable in their own right.

New Miserable Experience is the masterwork -where it all came together. That amazing sound that still sounds completely modern was mixed in with hopeless-romantic Hopkin‘s great songs, then topped Wilson‘s great voice. The record captured a generation of disillusioned kids – of which I am one. Almost everyone I know who loved music during this time loves Hey Jealousy. Present tense – they still love it to this day.

Interestingly, one of the very best lines on that track is

You can trust me not to think
And not to sleep around
If you don’t expect too much from me
You might not be let down

Originally, the ‘think’ was ‘drink’.

Universal Music had the foresight to reissue New Miserable Experience in their Deluxe Edition range. Which means it joins hallowed company like Marvin Gaye‘s What’s Going On, Sonic Youth‘s Daydream Nation, the Velvet Underground & Nico and dozens of other acclaimed records.

The band continued on – but they were a wounded beast. But there were highlights as high as Hey Jealousy to come. Their biggest hit ended up being Til I Hear It From You, the lead track off the movie Empire Records. It was co-written by the legendary Marshall Crenshaw. And it was all still there – the melancholy, the voices, the jangle.

Check out Robin Wilson‘s much classier stubble and short hair look. The band looked a million bucks, and a long way from flannelette.

Their second album, Congratulations….I’m Sorry, would be their last. The lead single was Follow You Down – another great song. It sold half a million – but the band was in tatters. They all went their separate ways – new bands mostly. None recaptured the magic – or public imaginations – that the Gin Blossoms had. (The band did reunite for a new record in 2007. I’m still yet to hear it)

My brother had New Miserable Experience. I remembered thinking how mysterious the record looked, with all the squiggy artwork and stretched perspective photos. But God, did I love Hey Jealousy. I was too young to drink, to drive, to fuck – but the song just got me. I loved the hit songs, and it was all I knew until years later, in my 20s, earning money, and I finally bought the album for myself.

Of course, I caught up with the song. And all the others – that loser feeling, that desperation for that beautiful girl. Late nights, rock ‘n’ roll, jealousy, alcohol, cars and girls, girls, girls. It was all there in Hey Jealousy, and all the other songs too. As I approach 30, I still come back to this band, those songs, those records, those feelings.

In the end though, it all just makes me think of how fragile these things we call ‘bands’ can be. How magical, and how fleeting. How young, emotional boys fall in love with girls and music, and how they give up their lives – literally or figuratively – so the world can have a great song.

And how that may never, ever stop happening.

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