It must have been in 1993, though it could have been 1992. Whatever! I don’t know for sure because times were crazy then. I had two young boys, was working full-time and going back to college to take education courses in order to take a HUGE pay cut as a medical technologist so I could become a public high school science teacher and coach. As I remember it, I was driving between work and school, listening to the lame Central Indiana radio stations, back when I was still listening to “Hits Radio,” when I heard this brilliant song begin with one of the greatest opening lyrics in all of rock history: “Tell me do you think it’d be alright/If I just crash here tonight/You can see I’m in no shape for driving/And anyway I’ve got no place to go…” And, I was hooked. And, to this very day, the song moves me to both euphoria and sadness. It just may be the most honest lyrics to a song ever.
That song was “Hey Jealousy” by the Arizona band Gin Blossoms. Their major label debut album, New Miserable Experience, in general, and this song specifically was released at the height of grunge, but sounded as if it had be place in a pneumatic tube and sent to us in the Nineties from someone in the late Sixties or early Seventies, though the guitar and drum sounds might tell us otherwise. This was something of the anti-grunge sound, based upon the jangle guitar sounds of early-R.E.M. and Eighties power pop, with a touch of country rock thanks to Gram Parsons. That sound was something of a rage in the underground back in that time frame, what with bands such as Toad the Wet Sprocket, Del Amitri, The Rembrandts, the influential band The Meat Puppets, the totally overlooked band The Jayhawks, the underappreciated Counting Crows and even the much-maligned, though unfairly in my opinion, Hootie and the Blowfish. These bands shared a strong pop sensibility, with a love of country rock and power pop. Think of mixing up Neil Young, The Beatles, Big Star and the Flying Burrito Brothers in a blender, and these bands came out.
But, today, I came to praise Gin Blossoms, not to bury them. For, they have been unfairly forgotten and relegated to passing play on Classic Nineties radio, when, if you give New Miserable Experience a re-evaluation, you will find a sound that has been all but forgotten with today’s mainstream artists, most of whom are focused more on the beat and over-produced vocals than getting to the heart of the matter.
Back when the Gin Blossoms released this album, which was actually their second album, the band was in the midst of a personnel storm. Their main songwriter and guitarist, Doug Hopkins, had been drinking heavily and suffering from mental health issues, both of which you can hear in his all-too-honest lyrics, such as those I quoted earlier. As one who has battles with his own darkness, I find a kinship with such artists as Hopkins. Unfortunately, his demons were keeping him from being the major creative force in the band that he had been since the band’s beginning in 1987. So, during the album’s production, Hopkins was forced out by the band’s label, A&M, and their management. The breakup was so bad, that the companies took cruel advantage of Hopkins state of mind and forced him to sign away a major portion of his writing credits to his songs, which included not only “Hey Jealousy,” but also another major hit song “Found Out About You,” in addition to other songs on that album. In another sad casualty of the rock star-making machine, Hopkins committed suicide as his band became more and more successful, without the fame and fortune due him because of the unscrupulous actions of the non-creative vampires sucking the life out of their cash cow.
Although, Gin Blossoms were signed because of the songwriting of Hopkins, vocalist Robin Wilson and guitarist Jesse Valenzuela began to hit their strides as songwriters themselves, giving the band what could have been a triple-threat of terrific songwriters. If only we could go back in time. Still, this band is totally underrated. Hopkins wrote the sad, dark lyrics set to jangly melodies that stuck in your head. Wilson mines the country-side of the band, giving Gin Blossoms a touch of Americana, while Valenzuela lands in the middle, with beautiful melodies and honest lyrics.
After Miserable New Experience finally ran out of steam in 1995 after selling four million copies, the band recorded a song for the Gen X actor-vehicle movie Empire Records which became the band’s biggest hit, “Til I Hear It from You,” a song co-written with one of my power pop favorites Marshall Crenshaw. The song, the biggest on the soundtrack, peaked at number 11, eclipsing all songs released from New Miserable Experience. The band was set for superstardom with their next album.
But, something happened in the intervening time between “Til I Hear It from You” and their 1996 follow-up, Congratulations…I’m Sorry. That something was Hootie & the Blowfish blowing up big time. Everywhere you turned in 1994 and 1995, it seemed like you heard Hootie. And, people got sick of it. Unfortunately, Hootie’s success meant a backlash to this whole jangle pop-thing was on the horizon, and Gin Blossoms, however unfairly, got swallowed up in the whole thing, along with Counting Crows and those other bands who had experience a modicum of success melding country, pop, rock and power pop. The rock tastes had shifted, and new sounds were in vogue, including the awful Nu-Metal rap-metal hybrid first made famous by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Faith No More, but popularized by bands like Korn, and lesser talents such as Limp Bizkit, Papa Roach and P.O.D. So, all of those brilliant mid-Nineties jangle pop bands were buried alive and forgotten.
On Congratulations, Gin Blossoms took on a harder edged sound, eschewing the subtle jangle pop they seemed to be perfecting on Experience. Plus, they were missing those heartbreaking songs that Hopkins was mastering. Now, the band’s lineup were all involved in the songwriting, so some of the songs seemed like paint-by-numbers Gin Blossom songs, especially the hit “Follow You Down.” Needless to say, Congratulations did not have the longevity that the previous album experienced, which can be explained away by both the backlash and the lack of focus of the songwriting. Still, the album is not the clunker that it is often made out to be. But, the damage was done, and Gin Blossoms were no longer the flavor of the moment. Still, as far as the long term was concerned, the merry-go-round was over, a break was needed, but artistry would eventually be attained after a hiatus.
Today, Gin Blossoms continue to tour and just released their first album in eight years a couple of weeks ago called Mixed Reality. Wilson and Valenzuela had broken up the band in 1997, but reformed in 2006, releasing two albums before this year’s album. I have not listened to Mixed Reality closely yet, but it does hearken back to their salad days of their big radio hits in ’93 through ’96. No, they will never have the success they once had, but at least they are still creating great music and bringing their fantastic songs to the public that needs them. Unfortunately, a majority of teens need these songs, and they don’t even realize it. And, critics need to re-evaluate these guys because they are a pretty darn good band.