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For years, he played to sold-out clubs and arenas, earning a wall full of gold and platinum records. He wrote or co-wrote four hit singles and was nominated for a Grammy. He became wealthy and well-known -- a bona fide rock star.
He also suffered through the suicide of friend and former bandmate Doug Hopkins. He endured years of grueling touring that eventually took a devastating toll on his closest friendships.
But he hit rock bottom on March 5, 1999.
That night, Wilson and his new band, the Gas Giants, went onstage as openers for Bad Medicine, a Bon Jovi cover band. Wilson couldn't help but laugh at the irony; the Gin Blossoms had opened for the real Bon Jovi in Belgium to 30,000 people.
Broke, the band had been forced to take the gig. They played an uninspired set at a third-rate Tempe sports bar, a converted Sizzler restaurant.
As Wilson climbed off the stage that night, he saw his best friend and guitarist Dan Henzerling eyeing him with disdain. "Are you into this? I need to know right now," demanded Henzerling.
The normally quiet, bespectacled Henzerling was twisted with frustration. "Every time I get up onstage, I only know how to do it one way, and that's to give it everything I got. I can't stand to look over and see you like this. Are you going to be able to snap out of this?"
Wilson didn't answer.
Instead, he watched his bassist, G. Brian Scott, packing gear. Wilson knew that in a matter of weeks he would have to fire the increasingly unreliable Scott, another close friend whom he'd known since his days as a teenage record-store clerk.
Wilson left the bar that night and thought about the billion-dollar deal that had destroyed the band's record label. About the corporation holding the group's album hostage. About the incessant legal wrangles that had forced the band to change its name twice. But mostly, he thought seriously, and for the first time, that his career was over.
"There was a point," recalls Wilson, "where I seriously wondered if it was. I knew that it was a real possibility. I knew that records better than ours had been lost, better bands than us forgotten."
To the amazement of almost everyone, Wilson had killed the golden goose -- walked away from the Gin Blossoms, a platinum-selling band -- because he wanted to make music with his friends. That's what the Gas Giants were supposed to be about. Corporate merger-mania mucked things up.
But Wilson wasn't ready to shed his rock-star mantle. He believed the Gas Giants, and his career, were worth the colossal hassles. He'll soon find out if he was correct.
The Gas Giants secured the rights to their record. The band has found a home on a much-talked-about upstart record label and released its debut, From Beyond the Backburner, to strong initial reviews.
The group has also sorted out its once-crippling personnel issues and is about to launch a national tour playing with the Goo Goo Dolls. Regardless of the Gas Giants' commercial fate, Wilson has undergone a profound attitude adjustment since that bleak March night with Bad Medicine.
Robin Wilson is hungry as he anxiously settles into a booth at a neighborhood deli. The restaurant is abuzz with the din and clatter of the lunch-hour rush.
A lithe and flinty-eyed man, the 34-year-old Wilson speaks in the professional tone of someone who's used to being quoted a lot. Between bites of a bagel and cell phone calls from his manager and record label, he waxes nostalgic about his youth growing up in Tempe.
The middle of three sons, Wilson was born in Detroit. His family moved to the Valley in the early '70s. Wilson's father, a math and statistics teacher, took a job at Mesa Community College and settled his family in a modest home in the shadow of Arizona State University.
Wilson spent much of his childhood immersing himself in comics, cartoons and the Saturday morning fare of the era. His love for rock 'n' roll was ignited in 1976 after watching a clip of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" on The Midnight Special. Seeing the campy British quartet perform its mini-rock operetta was a seminal moment for the young Wilson. "It just blew my mind. That [1975's A Night at the Opera] was the first album I went out and bought."
Though he wouldn't take up guitar until he was a senior at McClintock High School, Wilson became a voracious music fan, listening to everything from country to New Wave.
He graduated in 1983 and began studying physics at Mesa Community College. After a series of dead-end jobs, he got on as a clerk at the Tower Records store on Mill Avenue in Tempe. The University Tower during the 1980s was a breeding ground for aspiring artists, musicians and characters in general.
The environment had a tremendous impact both personally and musically on the young, impressionable Wilson.
"Tower changed everything for me. After a year of working there, I had been influenced by so many different forms of music and by the older people I was working with -- they were all 24 and 25, which is just the pinnacle of cool when you're 18 and 19 -- and suddenly I started to finally get into bands like the Replacements and the Pretenders. I drifted more out of the Top 40, New Wave stuff and towards that kind of music."