Friday, July 17, 2009

The Tragedy of the Gin Blossoms

By Evan Rytlewski
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It's one of the saddest things I've ever seen on Myspace, and I've seen a lot of sad things on Myspace. "Please don't request 'Breakfast at Tiffany's,'" the Gin Blossoms write on their Myspace page. "It's not even a Gin Blossoms song (it's by Deep Blue Something.)"

So this is what it's come to. The Gin Blossoms were disciples of Big Star, R.E.M. and The Replacements, and for a time, they seemed capable of being nearly as significant as those acts. Now they're confused for Deep Blue Something. Nobody really hates the Gin Blossoms, but nobody really thinks much about them, either.

So what went wrong?

The band, it seems, was damned from the beginning. During the 1992 recording sessions for their debut album, New Miserable Experience, their depressed, alcoholic guitarist Doug Hopkins had become such a liability that the band fired him. He spent the next year and a half resenting the band's success, then killed himself.

The Gin Blossoms were a fine band without him, but Hopkins was their secret weapon. He had written New Miserable Experience's first two hits, "Hey Jealousy" and "Found Out About You." It was his barbed, downtrodden songwriting voice that made the Gin Blossoms' agreeable guitar-pop relevant in the age of gut-punching grunge.

In a beautiful 2007 article, Hopkins' friend (and current Detroit Metro Times features editor) Brian Smith reflects on Hopkins' songwriting:

Rarely was there a line of his that I didn't wish I'd written. He was the scholar. He brought everyday sadnesses to life. When I got better at writing in general, I wanted to show him what I did. I never could.

One day I visited him and he'd just finished writing "Found Out About You." The Blossoms were just coming together then.

His then-girlfriend had left him, left him with a black eye. She had cheated on him and suckerpunched his face in the lobby of a downtown venue after an REM show. Those lines I write your name/Drive past your house/Your boyfriend's over/I watch the lights go out ... he lived that. You could read his depression as clearly as his words. He was wrecked by drink and heartbreak. Big dark circles under his eyes. His parents had intervened; got him help. But it didn't help much.

He strummed carefully on a Gibson electric that wasn't plugged in because the pawn shop had his amp. Lyrics were neatly arranged chicken scratches on the back of a crumpled show flier.

He stopped. "This won't make any sense without the bassline." So he plucked out the bass part. "The droning fifth on the pre-chorus will make the singer sound like God," he said. He stopped again because he was so proud of the "AM radio" reference in the lyric. He repeated it.

When he finished I was stunned; jealous enough to want to give up. First thought: How can anyone inject these themes of deception, loneliness and loss into a song that's so fucking power pop?

"That's a hit," I said. I could barely contain the excitement, "That song could rule the world."

When Hopkins left the band, the Gin Blossoms lost not only their best songwriter, but also what little edge they could claim. Though the band continued to write on their own pleasant singles that struck a similarly sorrowful note, namely "Til I Hear It from You" and "Follow You Down," none cut as deep as Hopkins', and gradually the group succumbed to their play-it-safe adult-alternative tendencies.

Had Hopkins conquered his demons, at least enough to stay functional and remain with the band, the Gin Blossoms might have attained greatness. Instead, they're playing the Waukesha County Fair tomorrow night, splitting a bill with Tonic.

Theirs is the type of tragedy you could write a song about.

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