BAND ON THE RUN

WHAT'S IN A NAME? PLENTY, WHEN IT'S THE GIN BLOSSOMS.

Shot from a rooftop, one of the first official band photos of the Gin Blossoms shows the Tempe band scattered around a backyard, cigarettes and drinks in hand, displaying that grim, "we bad" visage all serious white guitar bands feel obliged to affect. Only two of the people in the shot--Jesse Valenzuela and Bill Leen--are still Blossoms today.

The next notable band pic is from the heady days just after the band signed with A&M Records in 1990. This shot looks like the band that fans pack Tempe clubs to see: flannel shirts, jeans, Chuck Taylor high tops. This time, though, the Blossoms look a little scared, apprehensive perhaps about finally being "signed."

The latest photo, one without founder Doug Hopkins, shows the band in a forest. Even more recognizable details are visible: Phillip Rhodes' hat, Robin Wilson's Suns jersey, Bill Leen's Club Congress tee shirt. The most noticeable things about this print, shot with infrared film, are the eyes. While their bodies are overexposed and faded, the Blossoms' eyes are dark and spooky--you can't tell whether they're superhuman or just dead.

The same question persists about the band itself.
In August the band released its debut album, New Miserable Experience. Filled with great songs and inspired playing, it is the kind of album local fans always suspected the Gin Blossoms had in them. It's good enough to make them a genuine contender to become a national act.

The problem is that the band that made the record no longer exists. In March 1992, the Blossoms fired band founder and chief songwriter Doug Hopkins. The band's musical leader, Hopkins (no relation to the Sand Rubies' Rich Hopkins) was also the spiritual heart of the band, its biggest drawing card and its biggest "problem."

As the group's name implies, alcohol has played a significant role in the life of the Gin Blossoms. The name comes from the nasty skin condition associated with long-term drinking. Hopkins and bassist Bill Leen came up with the idea after seeing a photo of W.C. Fields' blooming nose and cheeks in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon II. When you listen to the Blossoms reminisce, many of their favorite war stories--using their guitars to poke holes in the ceiling above the stage at Long Wong's, for example--were fueled by power drinking. No secret among the Valley's music community, Hopkins' struggle with the bottle had a lot to do with his acrimonious exit from the band.

The remaining Blossoms--guitarist-vocalist Jesse Valenzuela, lead vocalist Robin Wilson, drummer Phillip Rhodes and bassist Bill Leen--must now find a way to replace Hopkins' trademark guitar sound, his living-dead stage presence and, most important, his songwriting. He penned most of the melodies that fans think of when they think "Gin Blossoms." The best tunes on the new disc--Lost Horizons," "Hey, Jealousy" (the album's first single), "Pieces of the Night--are all Hopkins originals. The Blossoms' side of the story is simple: survival. "In the end, it was either fire Doug or break up," says Wilson. "That was very clear. Saving the recording contract wasn't so important, but we decided to go ahead and save the band."

Hopkins, full of bitterness, couldn't disagree more. "The great days of that band are gone. I've seen em since and frankly they're a yawn fest," he says. "I spent five years of my life trying to make Gin Blossoms mean something cool, and now I have to see the shit version parading around."

Hopkins was replaced by Feedbags guitarist Scott Johnson. So far, Johnson's playing has been adequate, aimed more at duplicating Hopkins than creating his own style. Onstage the diminutive Johnson gives the Blossoms an entirely different look from the hangover-from-hell air Hopkins lent to the band.

But looks are the least of the band's worries. There are lots of scary-looking guitar players around. It's finding a new songwriter that's going to be a trick. In the Blossoms' last Tempe shows before leaving town, the group was not playing "Hey, Jealousy," the first single and the subject of an $80,000 MTV-bound video. Obviously, you can't release a record, particularly a debut, and then refuse to play its best tunes. Different Blossoms have different explanations. Was it pride that prevented the Blossoms' new lineup from playing Hopkins' tunes in Tempe? Or was it just that Johnson was still learning the songs? When the Blossoms return to the Valley on October 11 as the opener for del Amitri, it will be interesting to see how many Hopkins tunes are a part of the set. Besides losing their songwriter just as they are about to reach for success, the Blossoms are also a band without a manager. They fired manager Laura Liewen in January and have yet to replace her with professional management. Although they say they have a "wish list" that includes Bill Graham and most of the other leading management firms, the band is being co-managed by its label and its lawyer--usually bands like to have independent managers who will keep those two parties at bay.

That rock n' roll bands lose members to alcohol is nothing new--though Hopkins denies that his drinking is as bad as others say it is. Today there's an entire subgenre of bands that has cleaned up physically after cleaning up fiscally. The two biggest examples of that, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Guns n' Roses, have recently kicked out members with drug problems.

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