Life After Death

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

Hopkins, however, was unsatisfied with the record almost immediately after its release. In an article in the Arizona Republic profiling the band and the newly released EP, Hopkins voiced his dissatisfaction with the sound of the record and even questioned his decision to incorporate the keyboard into the band. No Great Cathedral had confirmed Hopkins' impressive progress as a lyricist. Yet his continual search and experimentation with various sounds showed that he hadn't been able to find a complementary musical style for his already well-defined thematic ideas.

Hopkins' qualms with direction of the group and personal strife within the band put the final nail in the Psalms' coffin by the end of 1984. By the early part of 1985, with the Psalms experience behind him, Hopkins was busy trying to decide what his next move would be. He had by this time already graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in sociology.

"Doug always said that 'I got a degree in sociology, which means I can work at Vickers'--which was this gas station over by our house," says Leen with a laugh.

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Hopkins once again started getting together to jam with a group of old friends including Swafford, Alan Willey, Rich Flower, and a new musical chum in the person of Harry McCaleb, a talented and stylish local guitarist. By this time, the Jetzons, the Valley musical icons who had such a prominent influence on the scene, were falling apart. Jetzons bassist and vocalist Damon Doiron was hooked up with Hopkins by the band's manager, Laird Davis. When Flower and Swafford opted out of the budding project, Doiron--who had been the consummate sideman until then--took over lead vocal and bass duties for the newly christened Algebra Ranch. McCaleb, Willey and Doiron were more seasoned than any of the musicians Hopkins had ever played with, and the band began two months of intense rehearsals to learn a new batch of Hopkins compositions--songs that would eventually help define the Tempe "sound" and later catapult the Gin Blossoms to multiplatinum success.

"The things he was writing for Algebra Ranch were amazing," Swafford recalls. "Stuff like 'Angels Tonight' and 'Dream With You,' those were all written for that band."

These were only two of more than a dozen new songs that Hopkins had written after the breakup of the Psalms. And while both of those songs were standards in the Gin Blossoms' early repertoire, other brilliant pieces from this period--including "Not a Word About It" and "Twelfth Night"--are lost classics that never saw the light of day after the demise of Algebra Ranch. More than simply writing well-crafted pop songs, this new material found Hopkins perfecting a signature lyrical style, but, more important, he was creating a definitive musical and melodic approach as well.

For Leen it was clear that something special was happening. "I sometimes wonder why or how he was coming with all this really great material. Looking back, he had a steady girlfriend for the first time--which provided a lot of inspiration for songs. He had also started reading a lot of poetry."

Hopkins had also been listening to Peter Buck and R.E.M. Much as the music of earnest Irish and British pop bands had influenced a whole generation of American guitar groups in the early '80s, the rise of the Athens, Georgia-based R.E.M. was an equally significant event of the mid-'80s.

Hopkins was immediately impressed with Buck's jangly, Byrds-influenced sound and the way he was able to incorporate it into the scheme of a modern rock band. Buck's guitar playing and musical approach fascinated Hopkins so much that he sought to find its antecedents, which included Zal Yanovsky, the often overlooked guitarist for 1960s folk-rockers the Lovin' Spoonful. "He really loved the guitar on a lot of those early Lovin' Spoonful records," Shipp says. "Especially on something like 'Do You Believe in Magic?' Doug always said that was exactly the kind of sound he wanted for his guitar."

Hopkins became so in tune with Buck's style that in some cases he actually began to anticipate R.E.M. songs. A 1992 review of the Gin Blossoms' New Miserable Experience derided the intro to the Blossoms' "Hey Jealousy" for sounding like a sped-up version of R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion." An accurate assessment--except that "Jealousy" had been written and recorded years before "Losing My Religion" was a hit.

Hopkins' creative output during this period was only equaled by his lack of focus and sloppiness onstage. For Doiron, Hopkins' often cavalier attitude was a source of consternation. "I could never understand it. He would write these very serious songs and present them in a totally unserious way. Whereas I had always looked at it the other way. You write songs that are supposed to be fun and then you present them in a professional and serious manner," Doiron says.

By late '85, the rest of the group had also begun to tire of Hopkins' antics. That and a relatively lukewarm public response signaled the end of what seemed to be Hopkins' most promising effort. Despite the brief tenure of the band, most of those who were there agree that Algebra Ranch was a major turning point in Hopkins' musical development.

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