Not too long ago, I pulled up to a desolate gas station/convenience store somewhere outside Tahoe to get some drinks and snacks for my family on our way back to San Francisco. The sun was shining but patches of dirty snow blanketed the hills surrounding the parking lot. Once inside, I grabbed my stuff and put it on the counter. The middle-aged clerk was super-chatty and clearly quite lonely, with his radio playing in the background.
The way my brain works, if I hear music I like, it tends to override whatever other sounds are happening around me, even if the song is playing at a low volume. That’s what happened at that moment, when a great song caught my ear, even though the clerk was still peppering me with small talk about my destination, where we were coming from and such. It took me a second, but I quickly realized the song I was hearing was by the Gin Blossoms.
As I drove away from the gas station I made a mental note to re-listen to a few of their hits from their heyday—a testament to how tastes change as you get older. I recall seeing the band on Saturday Night Live years ago, when Phil Hartman was host. Honestly I don’t think I even watched their performance, I was still so into Nirvana at the time, and I remember thinking the Gin Blossoms were kinda lightweight.
22 years later, after fulfilling on that mental note to give their work another shot, I realize I’d been wrong at the time. The band’s best known work, New Miserable Experience (1993) is a classic pop-rock record, and “Hey, Jealousy” and “Found Out About You” are two of the best songs not just from their catalog, but from the ‘90s as a whole. The record was produced by the late John Hampton at Ardent Studios in Memphis, who had engineered albums by Big Star and the Replacements, two of the Gin’s idols.
As I did more research about the band, I learned those two songs shared something in common—they were both written by their co-founder and lead guitarist, Doug Hopkins. Sadly, Doug’s alcohol issues had become a liability during the recording of New Miserable Experience, and the band was left with no choice but to force him out. He took his own life just as the band’s singles that he wrote started to race up the charts.
In reassessing the band, I also realized that, musically, I probably had more in common with the Gin Blossoms then and now than I do with Nirvana, what with the former’s infectious brand of sun-baked jangle-pop soaked in darkness.
These were guys who were into R.E.M., Tom Petty, Cheap Trick, and the Replacements more than they were abrasive punk rock or metal acts like Flipper, the Pixies and Black Sabbath (although the Gin’s bassist Bill Leen apparently turned Doug onto punk, which definitely influences their sound on NME in particular.) I still love Nevermind, but the anger and brutal simplicity does sound like a bit of a time capsule when compared to the artfully written, beautifully produced, and soaring melodies and harmonies of New Miserable Experience.
Despite the overwhelming cultural impact of grunge at the time, The Gin Blossoms enjoyed a few good years and hits in their prime from ’93 to 1997, when they broke up for several years. Even so, they never really seemed to get the respect they deserved at that time, at one point asking on their myspace page to please not request “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”—a truly awful song by ‘90s one-hit wonders Deep Blue Something. Nor did the Gin’s make all those “best records of the ‘90s” lists that Beck made each and every time (inexplicably, in my humble opinion). They somehow got lumped in with lightweight party bands like Sugar Ray, Train, and the like.
I thought I might be alone in thinking it’s time to reassess the Gin Blossom’s legacy, but as I continued reading about them, I realized I wasn’t.
Free-download my covers of the Gin Blossoms' "Hey Jealousy" and “Found Out About You” from my new LP, 9 Covers:
Doug Hopkins, tragic genius
Tall, literate, charismatic, and by all accounts a stellar guitarist and songwriter, Doug Hopkins was born to be a rock star. He also suffered from depression, alcoholism, and possibly bipolar disorder, which probably wouldn’t have been known at the time. He had told friends he was born unhappy, and he tried to commit suicide six times in the ten years leading up to December 4, 1993—just a few months after his songs “Hey Jealousy” shot up the charts, soon followed by “Found Out About You.” He was 32.
Even though Hopkins wrote or co-wrote half of NME’s 12 tracks, and it would eventually sell over 4 million copies, the label essentially forced him out of his financial stake in the band. When Hopkins' body was found in his apartment, he had $498 in his pocket—all the money to his name.
The story of his ousting is sad and complicated, but the consensus seemed to be that he disliked the professional side of the music business, was too drunk to play his solos during tracking, and generally succumbed to his own demons amidst the related pressures that came with delivering a record to a major label. Hopkins had even said at the time that he’d be “perfectly happy if I were never involved in any way with a major label again.”
“Most of Doug’s guitar on the album was recorded when we were tracking drums,” says [NME producer John] Hampton. “He was unable to re-record his parts. Have you ever seen the movie Leaving Las Vegas? Try making a record with someone like that. Maybe it was just the pressure of living up to all the expectations, but this was the opportunity Doug had waited for his entire life, and instead of becoming like Noel Gallagher and assuming a leadership role, he went in completely the other direction.”
Gin Blossoms singer/guitarist Robin Wilson has had this conversation countless times before, and he’s over it, really. “A lot of it’s personal, and I’m not going to get into the gory details,” he says when asked about the falling out with his late friend and bandmate. “Doug was like having this big anvil you had to drag around with you. It’s like, ‘Oh, we gotta go to the gig? Well, I gotta go pick up my big anvil.’ And then when the gig’s over, it’s like, ‘Oh shit, I can’t leave yet. I gotta go get my anvil.’ That’s what it was like working with Doug, one of those tragic geniuses unwilling to participate in the regular day-to-day logistics of being in a band. He made everything such a pain.”
Hopkins wrote or co-wrote half the songs on New Miserable Experience, and his Peter Buck-by-way-of-Steve Jones slash-and-jangle guitar runs are all over it. Even Wilson won’t deny that the album was Hopkins’ baby. “That’s him playing guitar,” he says. “Those are his songs…”
“Doug wouldn’t have made it this far,” says Wilson. “He would’ve always rebelled. He would’ve always shot himself when it came to the function of being in a band.”
— MAGNET Magazine, 2006
“Without Doug and his songwriting, we never could have signed a record deal,” says 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.”
— People Magazine, 1994
When the demons take over
For whatever reason, I seem to have had more addicts and alcoholics pop up in my life than your average person—which is ironic considering I don’t drink very much and my strongest addictions are coffee and bagels with cream cheese. Maybe it’s part of being a writer and lifelong student of psychology, but as early as high school, I was able to spot people with alcohol issues.
Are people born or made addicts? Is it nature or nurture that makes people chronically depressed? We’ve given these diseases a lot more names over the years—bipolar disorder, manic depression, compulsive behavior—but these are questions that science has never really understood or wholly figured out. Along with why there’s such a high correlation between creative genius and unhappiness and suicide. Steve Clark (Def Leppard), Bill Hicks, Chris Farley, Mitch Hedberg, Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell, Doug Hopkins… the list is too long.
“There was nothing easy about it… You’re concerned and you want to help, but we didn’t have the knowledge we have today, so we were kind of guessing and trying to do our best. We didn’t have the understanding of bipolar disease and we were ill-equipped to deal with that.”
— Gin Blossom’s co-founder and guitarist Jesse Valenzuela to Rolling Stone in 2017
I grew up with a relative with schizophrenia and we always knew when he wasn’t on his meds, and when he was, he was often in a bit of a laconic, waking daze. That in itself is a hard life for him, but worrying what he might say or do next, and just taking care of him, put tremendous strain on my family—more so those directly responsible for his care over the course of decades. It’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone or those close to them, whether it’s a family member, a friend, or a band member. I can’t imagine what the Gin Blossoms went through in dealing with their friend and bandmate’s illness—and while I know Doug blamed them for his decline after his dismissal—I give the band a tremendous amount of credit and respect for what they did to try to keep him on, and making the hard decision to soldier on without him.
Where are they now?
One thing that’s clear about the Gin Blossoms is that, at least professionally, they’ve moved on from this awful chapter in their history, although when someone takes their own life, it stays with the living forever. From public accounts and interviews, they seem to have reconciled with the past. They have wives and kids. They still play music, together and apart. And just last month, they put out a solid new record, Mixed Reality, their first since 2010.
Several years ago, filmmaker Mark Stanoch secured the rights to Hopkins’ music and story for a biopic, with Ethan Hawke set to play Hopkins, but plans stalled. Even so, Hopkins’ undeniably timeless, hauntingly beautiful songs remain.
Even as the band looks to the future, memories of Hopkins persist. At his memorial service the Blossoms were approached by a woman bearing what she said was a message from Hopkins. Did they remember when someone poured sugar into the gas tank of their tour van back in 1992? Well, the woman said, Hopkins had instructed her to tell them that he was the culprit. “Hearing that at the funeral sorta made me feel good,” says Wilson. “Doug was always good at getting the last laugh, that’s for sure.”
- PEOPLE Magazine, 1994
My cover of “Found Out About You”
I typically record original material, but once in a great while I feel compelled to record a cover. It helps me learn more about arrangements, songwriting, and learning guitar parts especially to help improve my playing. I want to challenge myself by keeping the integrity of the original, but also put my own spin on it.
“Found Out About You” is only the fourth song I’ve recorded a cover of, and I’ve been recording songs since the early ‘90s. To do any cover then and now requires that I can listen to it pretty much infinitely—not just to break it down before the recording process, but still love it throughout the recording and mixing process.
“Found Out” is one of those songs. I’ve heard it a million times and I still love to listen to the original. I loved working on my cover version, too. It’s a testament to something the Gin Blossom’s Robin Wilson has said it always comes down to: the song needs to be great. Seems like obvious advice, but it’s true. You can’t record, perform, mix and master an OK song into greatness. It all starts with the song. And in my view, “Found Out” is right up with there with the best pop-rock songs of all time.
As I recorded my version, I thought a lot about the Gin Blossoms, Doug Hopkins’ talent and role in the band, and how only someone like him could’ve written it. It’s the darkness, wry anger and poetic despair that make it so great. It’s singalong and haunting at the same time. Loss and failure rarely sound so bleak and melodic at once.
Mostly I thought about just wanting to honor Doug’s memory and contributions to music by doing the best job I could, even though I always knew it wouldn’t touch the perfection of the original recording.
Free-download my covers of the Gin Blossoms' "Hey Jealousy" and “Found Out About You” from my new LP, 9 Covers:
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SOURCES AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
Daily Texan, “You Should Know About...Doug Hopkins,” Craig Whitney
MAGNET Magazine, “Gin Blossoms: Broken Flowers,” Hobart Rowland
Houston Chronicle, “The most underappreciated album of the ‘90s,” Andrew Dansby
People Magazine, “Haunted by Success,” Steve Dougherty
Rolling Stone, Gin Blossoms’ ‘New Miserable Experience’: The Dark History of a Nineties Classic, Joseph Hudak
Shepard Express, “The Gin Blossoms Reconnect with Their Roots,” Evan Rytlewski