New Miserable Experience.
There's a style of music I really love, and it's put me in line for a lot of shit over the years. I realize that this sounds like the beginning to at least half of my pieces on modern emo bands, but that's not what I'm talking about this time. Instead, I'm talking about a style of music that I generally think of as "heartland rock", though I don't know if that characterization is in any way valid. The jumping-off point for all of this is Buffalo Tom, a band who started out combining Dinosaur Jr's hard-rock distortion with the pastoral, melodic songwriting sense of early R.E.M. and midperiod Replacements. I fucking love Buffalo Tom, even the records that are critically panned, like "Smitten" (typing this reminds me--they put out a reunion album this year, didn't they? I need to get off my ass and pick up a copy). Other bands in this style that I love, in order from most typically respected to least: Uncle Tupelo, Vigilantes Of Love, and The Goo Goo Dolls. Yes, I said The Goo Goo Dolls. When that song "Name" (an admittedly terrible track that is by far the worst song on the album from which it was taken) got really big, I'd had "A Boy Named Goo" for a year, and had to deal with a whole shitload of my friends suddenly realizing that THIS was the band whose album I'd been stoked about the previous summer. It only got worse with the release of "Dizzy Up The Girl", featuring "Iris" (which I also hate), "Slide", and "Black Balloon" (which I unreservedly love). Their best material was behind them at that point, but I bought that album anyway, and loved enough of it to keep it to this very day. I bought its follow up, "Gutter Flower", too, and I'm not going to apologize for that either (especially since it's actually slightly better than "Dizzy Up The Girl").
But I'm not here to discuss any of those bands. Instead I'm here to discuss another band in that style, one that, until recently, I was unwilling to give a real chance. I'm talking about the Gin Blossoms.
Maybe a lot of you know the tragic story of the Gin Blossoms and their doomed original guitarist and songwriter, Doug Hopkins. But somehow, despite the fact that I knew and liked the song "Hey Jealousy" for a good year or so before it even hit the pop charts, I never heard that story until last year. See, Doug Hopkins formed the Gin Blossoms, and he wrote a lot of the songs on their first album, "New Miserable Experience". That album came out in 1992, and "Hey Jealousy" was the single from it. But it stiffed at first. I saw the video on 120 Minutes--the original video, which is black-and-white throughout and alternates between shots of the original Gin Blossoms lineup playing the song in an empty room and shots out the window of a car driving around a small desert town--loved it, and taped it. But it only aired two or three times, then dropped out of sight. Until a year later, when "Hey Jealousy" somehow rose like a phoenix from the ashes and hit the Top 40 in a big way. The black and white video ran a few more times, but soon it was replaced by a full-color video that only featured the head of vocalist Robin Wilson, singing the song in front of shots of cars driving through alleys of yet another small desert town. "Hey Jealousy" was the feel-good hit of the summer of 1993, but what very few people knew at the time was that Doug Hopkins' drinking, which had always been somewhat of a problem for him, had gotten so bad that the Gin Blossoms had kicked him out. Now the band that he had started but was no longer in was climbing the charts with a song that he had written. Apparently this was too much for Hopkins to deal with, and he committed suicide in December of 1993.
I finally heard this story a couple months ago, and it really struck a chord with me. As someone who's struggled with depression for most of my life, stories like this always resonate, especially when they concern creative types. It's way too easy for me to imagine myself in their place. And it also stuck with me because it explained something that I'd noticed about The Gin Blossoms--while I have always loved "Hey Jealousy", nothing else I've heard by them has ever come close to that standard. Now I knew why--the band had stuck around for a few more albums, had a few more hits, but their main songwriter was dead. They'd had to learn how to write music all over again, and they'd lost their fire. Instead of driving heartland rock, they produced bland midwestern pop of the sort that adult contemporary radio laps up. These days, when I hear the Gin Blossoms on the radio, it's those stations who are playing them, and it's later hits like "Follow You Down" or "Til I Hear It From You" that they're playing. No wonder I thought they'd lost it after "Hey Jealousy". In an all-too-real way, they had.
A few days ago, I was sitting around bored at work, thinking about this, and it hit me--Doug Hopkins had written and played on not only "Hey Jealousy", but all of "New Miserable Experience." There might be some other really great Gin Blossoms songs out there that I'd never heard. So I downloaded the entire album--you know, just to check it out. Sure enough, there were a bunch of really great songs on it. It isn't a flawless album, by any means--each side (and this album is definitely from an era when albums still had sides, though that era probably ended less than 5 years after it was made) ends with rather goofy genre exercises, the self-explanatory "Cajun Song" and the country ballad "Cheatin'". Not all of the songs were written by Doug Hopkins, either, and while I do find merit in some of the ones he wasn't involved in, all of my favorites on the record were either written or co-written by Hopkins.
I want to start off my appraisal of these songs by talking about "Hey Jealousy." I'm sure you've heard it a million times, but I don't care--there's a lot of depth and emotion to this song, and if you've never considered it as anything more than just a mid-90s radio hit, you haven't caught everything that it has to offer up. First off, the lyrics. This song tells the story of a middle-aged alcoholic whose best days are admittedly behind him trying to gain some small measure of redemption from wooing back an old flame. Even if you only know one or two lines, I'm sure you've caught on to this much. [Side note: It was in considering the lyrics to this song that I finally came to a conscious realization that I somehow never seized upon before--I know what a gin blossom is. It's a red spot on a longtime alcoholic's face, usually found upon the nose, where a blood vessel has broken under the surface. The name of The Gin Blossoms has made me think of flowers for the past 14 years--which I'm sure was their intention in picking the name. Now that I've seen past the intentional misdirection of this connotation, the true meaning has revealed itself, like the bursting of an overripe fruit that's hidden beneath a leaf and avoided harvest until too late. Now that I've seen it, I'll never un-see it. "New Miserable Experience" seems a much more fitting album title in this context.] But a bald factual statement of the lyrical content misses the poetry inherent in this depressing tale. There's a reason that these lines stick in your head, come back to you even when alternative rock radio hasn't wafted them into your ears for nearly half a decade. "Do you think it'd be all right if I could just crash here tonight? You can see I'm in no shape for driving, and anyway, I've got no place to go." It's an admission born from despair. There's nothing really to lose, because whether he asks or not, he's probably gonna be sleeping on the back seat of his car. "If I hadn't blown the whole thing years ago, I might not be alone." But he did, and he is, and there's no real reason to parse this out any further, because you know these lines, and you know what they mean. But just humor me for one second longer, while we consider the chorus: "Tomorrow we can drive around this town, and let the cops chase us around. The past is gone but something might be found to take its place." Have you ever felt like all of your big dreams had been beaten out of you? Have you ever felt like even the best thing you could really imagine having wouldn't be that great? Have you ever found yourself romanticizing something that you know totally sucked while it was happening, and will totally suck if it happens again, just to try and give your life some little tiny bit of meaning? Just to try and believe that you can have a good time, even when you know that the times are pretty much always bad? I'm not a longtime alcoholic--other than the wine in church (back when I still believed in that sort of thing, which was a long time ago), I've never taken a drink in my life. But I know what Doug Hopkins is talking about here. You do too, even if you won't admit it.
"Hey Jealousy" is the first song I ever heard off "New Miserable Experience", but it's not the first song on the album, it's the second. The first, "Lost Horizons", is another Hopkins-penned tune, one I'd never heard before I downloaded the album. The second I put the copy I'd burned of "New Miserable Experience" into my stereo and it started to play, I knew I'd been right to obtain this album. "Lost Horizons" is more melodic and less driving than "Hey Jealousy", but it's similar, and it's a perfect beginning for the album. Its opening lines are brilliant, establishing the tone of the entire album by delineating its setting and its boundaries: "The last horizons I can see are filled with bars and factories, and in them all we fight to stay awake." By beginning in this way, "Lost Horizons" brings to mind another opening track to another debut album: "Graveyard Shift" by Uncle Tupelo. We're in Arizona now instead of Georgia, with the slight shifts in mood and feel that that change of setting brings, but the fundamental picture being painted here is the same. The song's chorus explains the desperation of its characters in the same terms as another first-LP Uncle Tupelo song, that being "Whiskey Bottle". "You drink enough of anything, you make this world new again," sings Robin Wilson, giving the words of Doug Hopkins voice in a beautiful downcast tone. "I'm drunk drunk drunk in the gardens and the graves." Something about that thrice-repeated "drunk" is important, even if I can't put my finger on exactly why. It's funny, how I, the longtime straight-edge kid, can always connect so deeply with drinking songs. That's something else I can't exactly explain. Ah, well.
The second verse of "Lost Horizon" is, if anything, even bleaker than the first. "She had nothing left to say, so she said she loved me," sings Wilson. "I smiled and was grateful for the lie." He barely even pronounces the final word, and I actually thought he was saying "love" the first few times I heard the song. When I realized what he was actually saying, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Not only does it change the meaning, it gives it gravity. "I smiled and was grateful for the love" is trite, a heartland rock Hallmark sentiment. But change it to "grateful for the lie" and it's poignant on multiple levels. Imagine knowing even as someone is pledging their love to you that it's not real, and not even having the strength to call it out, to refuse the phony sentiment; imagine needing to hear it so badly that you don't even care if its true or not. It shouldn't be hard to imagine, after all--we've all been there. There's something beautiful about Hopkins' ability to call up these kinds of images with such short, simple lines, lines that are if anything more prose than poetry, despite their being set to the line-breaks of the song form. That takes talent. Which, again, is a tough thing to consider, knowing the story--knowing that he was dead before I was even old enough to buy cigarettes.
"Found Out About You", another Hopkins tune, was the follow-up single to "Hey Jealousy," and was even a minor hit if I remember correctly. Unlike "Hey Jealousy", I'd never fixated on it enough to remember the song through the long years during which radio ignored it--maybe the fact that radio didn't stick with it once it fell off the charts is the reason why, because when I heard it again, the chorus jumped back into my head as if it had been there the whole time, 13 years of not even remembering that this song existed eliminated at a stroke. The lyrics to this one aren't as brilliant as the two songs discussed previously--they're a lost-love song of the type that's been written a million times before and since, and there's nothing really groundbreaking about any of it. But that chorus--"Whispers at the bus stop, well, I've heard about nights at the school yard. I found out about you"--it's catchy, and it's an undeniably clever turn of phrase. A few of those show up in "Hold Me Down" as well, which was co-written by Hopkins and Wilson. It's hard to know who was responsible for what with this song; it'd be easy to guess that vocalist Wilson wrote the words while guitarist Hopkins wrote the music, but Hopkins's name is first on the songwriting credit, and Wilson was originally the band's rhythm guitarist (before switching places with original vocalist Jesse Valenzuela, which happened before they'd ever recorded anything), so who knows. I prefer to think that Hopkins wrote at least some of these lyrics--after all, if Wilson was capable of producing lines like "So I guess I might have just been dreaming when I thought I heard myself say no, and anyway it looks like no one heard me, so here I go." Maybe I'm wrong about this, because as we've established, I don't drink and I don't do drugs, but I think this song is about doing cocaine, and specifically about not wanting to do it, but finding it hard to resist. The chorus is different every time, and here's the one that comes after the second verse: "So remember when the doors swing open, and the drinks are moved around; when half the party moves into the bathroom, hold me down. When we're at the tail end of the party, and Dr. Feelgood comes around; anytime the pickings look too easy, hold me down." Is this a textbook cry for help, or what? How terrible must the rest of the Gin Blossoms felt when Doug Hopkins killed himself? I almost want to write them a letter and bitch them out, but I know there's no point--as hard as I ever could be on any of them, they were surely ten times harder on themselves when it all went down. Maybe that's why their second album, which came out a year after Hopkins died, was entitled, "Congratulations... I'm Sorry". Their attempt to say what they felt they should have said when he was still around, perhaps? I'll give them one thing--they found a succinct way of putting it.
What about the rest of the album? Well, those four songs mentioned above are probably the best. In addition to all of them, Hopkins also wrote or co-wrote the album's final two songs, the near-ballad "Pieces of the Night", and the aforementioned country track "Cheatin" (which, no matter how generic and ultimately pointless the music is, has a really great lyric). I feel like he wrote a seventh song too, but I don't have the credits in front of me right now, so I can't be sure. Some of the songs he didn't write are decent, too, particularly "Mrs. Rita" and "Hands Are Tied". "Until I Fall Away" is the weakest serious track here, and it's a foreshadowing of what was to come once Hopkins was gone. This sort of soft-rock balladry is OK for a song or two per album--it's enough to bridge the gap between stronger Hopkins compositions here--but once Hopkins was gone and Wilson and Valenzuela were left to fill entire albums by themselves, they had to use songs like this as singles, and they were not strong enough to be worth it (the mid-90s American buying public's opinion to the contrary). At points on "New Miserable Experience", The Gin Blossoms not only reach for greatness but grasp it. It's unfortunate that Doug Hopkins couldn't have hung around a little longer and shown us a little more of his talent. One thing's for sure, though--without him, The Gin Blossoms were a pale shadow of their former selves.