Life After Death

As we reach the fifth anniversary of Doug Hopkins' suicide, his best music remains unheard by all but a few friends

Not long after the death of former Gin Blossoms founder Doug Hopkins five years ago, his family began the task of assembling his musical legacy. With the help of one of Hopkins' closest friends, Robert Shipp, the process of tracking down and cataloguing more than a decade's worth of material began.

Going through dozens of tapes and notebooks, Shipp quickly realized that Hopkins had quietly created a vast and impressive body of work, only hinted at by his small discography. What the tapes and notes documented was the creative arc of a gifted and talented musical auteur. Hopkins started his career by writing loud punk anthems and finished with a body of lush and often stirring pop songs.

So much has been made of the dark turns that Hopkins' life took in his final years, his true legacy is often forgotten: that of an uncommonly insightful songwriter. While it's still uncertain how much of his unreleased work will ever see the light of day, as we reach the fifth anniversary of his suicide on December 5, it's instructive to recall the artist often lost in the shadow of the self-destructive myth.

Doug Hopkins was a paradox, both as a musician and as a human being. He fashioned himself as a brooding poet, yet he's remembered as a hilarious storyteller with a rich sense of humor. For some he represented the very embodiment of rock 'n' roll, carrying on the rough and tumble sensibilities of his hero Keith Richards--yet his songs were often gentle, heartfelt paeans to love and loss. He was a natural performer who dominated every stage he ever played on--yet he was painfully shy.

"He was kind of a loner guy, pretty unpopular, and I guess I was attracted to that," recalls Bill Leen, a neighbor and friend of Hopkins' during their days at McClintock High School in Tempe. "And we became friends and started hanging out."

Hopkins' career had an inauspicious beginning that hardly suggested the path his career would take. "He was playing bass in this cover band out in Fountain Hills," recalls Leen. "He had this black Rickenbacker 4001, and he was heavily into Rush at the time, and he looked just like Geddy Lee, so it was perfect."

Leen had also picked up the bass, and he and Hopkins would grow closer while working together delivering pizzas. After work the two would often engage in lengthy arguments about music. "We'd have these wars about Jethro Tull versus the Clash," says Leen with a laugh. "He just couldn't stand punk rock or anything like that. But he finally came around to it, and when he did, it was like a revelation. And one day he just said, 'Let's start a punk band. You can play bass--I can't play guitar, but I'll get one and learn.' And that's basically how it started."

Hopkins' awakening to the merits of punk was an inevitable transformation. Unlike the '70s dinosaur rock that had held his fancy until then, the lyrics and attitude of bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash were much closer to Hopkins' own deep sense of cynicism and irony. After adding neighbors and fellow McClintock alums Richard Flower and Doug Fry, the group began rehearsing covers of its favorite punk songs as well as Ramones-style renditions of oldies like "Be True to Your School" and "Do You Wanna Dance." After a few months of sporadic rehearsals and a couple of "concerts" in family dens, Flower bowed out. Stuck for a singer, Fry suggested a younger friend of his still attending school at McClintock, Jim Swafford. With the blond, spiky-haired Swafford on board, the Moral Majority was officially born. The band was named in mock tribute to televangelist Jerry Falwell's religious watchdog group that was already becoming a presence in Ronald Reagan's early '80s America.

By this time, Hopkins had penned several songs with acerbic lyrics taking aim at a whole tier of religious and moral paragons like Falwell and the Mormon population of Mesa. "We were just suburban kids living in Tempe, with no real problems. We were just infatuated with punk rock. It was like the Dead Kennedys or something--just the most distasteful, insensitive stuff. It was really a matter of trying to be as shocking and as obnoxious as you can while living with your parents."

While Hopkins originals like the "B.Y.U. Fight Song," "Eddie's Going Faggot" and "Jerry Doesn't Like It" may have been crude, they were also extremely clever. Essentially developed as pastiches of Pistols songs, they allowed Hopkins to use his already advanced verbal ability to skewer a multitude of despised "sacred cows."

With a handful of originals and an expanding list of covers, the band began playing out wherever it could, but opportunities were limited. Tempe in the early '80s was a far cry from what it is now. While Mill Avenue had a number of country and blues bars, the area didn't exist as far as venues that showcased bands playing original rock music. It was left to a number of smaller bars in various spots around town to fill the void. One such place was Merlin's, a charming dive located on Southern Avenue. The house band at Merlin's was a local rock outfit known as the Jetzons. The Jetzons, for all intents and purposes, were the Tempe music scene. The group was born out of the ashes of another successful Valley band, Billy Clone and the Same, who fell apart after the heroin-related death of front man Mike Corte. Billy Clone guitarist Bruce Connole and bassist Damon Doiron went on to form the Jetzons a short time later. Playing four sets every night from Thursday to Sunday, the Jetzons were a tight and experienced group of musicians who played a mix of New Wave-flavored originals as well as a variety of covers to keep the crowds dancing.

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