The lost horizons of Gin Blossoms songwriter Doug Hopkins

25 years ago, the man behind iconic '90s alt-rock hits 'Hey Jealousy' and 'Found Out About You' lost his battle to alcoholism

 
 

Is there a line that I could write;

That’s sad enough to make you cry?

No one knows exactly when Doug Hopkins ended his life; most accounts of his demise center on a few known facts: First, that on Friday, December 3, 1993, he bailed an intake consultation at a Phoenix, Arizona detox center; second, that he proceeded to purchase a .38 caliber pistol from a pawn shop later that afternoon; and third, that a few weeks prior, he had destroyed the framed gold record for “Hey Jealousy”, the hit single he had penned for Tempe’s favorite bar band Gin Blossoms.

At some point shortly after the 1992 recording sessions for what would become the band’s breakthrough hit album New Miserable Experience, Hopkins was kicked out of the band he co-founded. As they toured, did television appearances, and began to reap the fruits of six years of kicking around Tempe trying to get noticed, Hopkins returned home to figure out what to do next. On Sunday afternoon, December 5, 1993, twenty-five years ago today, a friend found his body in his apartment.

If one made a movie that involved a songwriter kicked out of his own band on the eve of one of his penned tunes becoming a hit, the producers of said film would probably say that “Hey Jealousy” is a little too on the nose; written as a sad and desperate plea to an ex who won’t take him back, the song that saturated the airwaves in the summer of 1993 must have been like nails on a chalkboard for Hopkins.

It wasn’t just that the song was a huge hit — it was the way that the song, propelled by the friction between the depressive feel of the lyrics and the sunshine lilt of the vocal delivery, courtesy of Robin Wilson, so successfully transmogrified Hopkins’s hooch-soaked pathos into AM gold, removing him in the process. One reviewer of New Miserable Experience expressed it thusly: “With music as exhilarating as this, misery has rarely sounded so good.”

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As it turned out, as the 1980s turned into the 1990s, misery packaged in an appealing package had become all the rage. As the variant strains of post-punk caterwauling coalesced into a frightening market force in the ultimate decade of the millenium, tastemakers throughout sought songs that could both prove emblematic of the anger and ennui of the times and still conform to the strictures of radio formatting. In a post-Nevermind blitz, then, a song like “Hey Jealousy” was a diamond in the rough. The problem was finding a way to get the song in front of a willing audience: By late 1992, the album had pretty much flopped, or at least stalled, with the post-Hopkins Gin Blossoms touring the nation in relative penury while the label flailed around trying to figure out what to do with this group of Arizona nobodies in shorts and floppy hair. Luckily for all involved, MTV decided at the last second to give the song a second chance; a new video was hastily slapped together with a bafflingly large budget, and soon Gin Blossoms were quickly becoming one of 1992’s certified buzz bands.

Hopkins, post-layoff, hadn’t spent much time nursing his wounds; even though he had been kicked out of the band for being an unreliable drunk, he was still one of the more sought-after talents in the Tempe rock underground. He became fast friends with Lawrence Zubia, then of Nudes Live, and they tossed together the Chimeras, a slightly bluesier outfit that quickly became the talk of Tempe. Their first gig in November 1992 sold out Edcels Attic; in March 1993 they played South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, and began work on an album. But as soon as Hopkins began to find his footing in his new project, he tanked it, walking offstage mid-song during a local festival set in April. He begged to rejoin after the debacle, but the rest of the Chimeras declined; they eventually changed their name to the Pistoleros and have continued, off and on, straight through to the present. Hopkins, however, continued 1993 marinating in his anguish.



“Hey Jealousy” is a song, ultimately, about a breakup, with the singer promising to change if he could just be let back into the fold. In the original version of the song, before it was cleaned up for major label prime time, Hopkins penned this desperate stanza:

And you can trust me not to drink
And to not sleep around
If you don’t expect too much from me
You might not be let down

Wilson changed “drink” to “think” because he had had enough of Hopkins’s alcohol-smeared nonsense, in a move that somewhat foreshadowed the band’s future actions. By the time the band entered Memphis, Tennessee’s famed Ardent Studios in February 1992, they had already blown several opportunities to put together their big major label coming out; everyone involved felt a lot of pressure to finally make the thing happen.

A Rashomon-esque experienced ensued wherein Hopkins underwhelmed his band and producer John Hampton, as precious time on the clock was whittled away either waiting for Hopkins to show or for him to be able to lay down a competent take of one of his guitar parts. After a week or so of drunken failure, Hopkins himself asked Hampton to find someone else to play his parts.

Hopkins and his guitar playing can actually be heard on the final recording, but the band did find an actual replacement for Hopkins soon after recording wrapped; Scott Johnson was a fresh-faced naif who got his name on the album’s credits without playing a note on the record. Within months, Johnson was waving his shiny blonde locks around on Jay Leno and David Letterman, ripping through Hopkins’s leads on multiple television appearances as the band began to gain momentum through 1993.

Meanwhile, the band and label played hardball with Hopkins, pressuring him to sign over half his publishing royalties to the band and all his mechanical royalties to Johnson in return for a $15,000 that Hopkins was owed; a broke Hopkins needed the money, so he relented, but his bitterness over the arrangement only grew as the band eventually began to succeed beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Broke and pissed, Hopkins eventually couldn’t escape hearing Wilson’s goopy voice pouring out of every audio orifice, singing that song that Hopkins had written all those years ago about his tumultuous and doomed relationship with Cathy Swafford (the sister of an old bandmate from bands he had been in years before forming the Gin Blossoms) who had had enough of his drinking and self-loathing.

Wilson and the band, however, had also had enough of Hopkins’s self-loathing; dragging a wasted checked-out zombie like Hopkins from gig to gig and studio to studio for six years had taken its toll on the band, with Wilson eventually likening Hopkins to an anvil around the band’s neck. Writing catchy songs about being an untrustworthy alcoholic had been one thing; being one in the band non-stop for years had reached a breaking point as the band watched Hopkins flail around in Memphis.



In November 1993, A&M released the follow-up single to “Hey Jealousy”, “Found Out About You”, a moody and menacing song about hurt and longing and envy and anger and grief and betrayal. It had twin arpeggio clean-tone verses leading to power chord bursts, it was propulsive and melodic and utterly creepy, whispers at the bus stop and nights out in the school yard. It wound up being a bigger hit than “Hey Jealousy”, eventually hitting Number 1 in 1994 on Billboard’s then-new “Alternative Songs” chart, forever putting the band in the pantheon of 1990s commercially successful modern rock bands.

By this point, the gold record for “Hey Jealousy” was already hanging in Hopkins’s apartment, and he had already recently attempted suicide for the fifth time in his life. Broke and without a band, again, he began to give up on his dreams of music success. In the immediate aftermath of his firing from the Gin Blossoms, Hopkins had been hopeful, even defiant about his odds; here he is, for example, in a September 1992 interview, discussing his scheme to become a songwriter-for-hire for major label publishing:

“I’m writing Wilson-Phillips-type songs for Warner/Chappell Publishing,” he said, adding, “You can actually make a lot of money that way — more than you can as a Blossom, and I always secretly liked that kind of music in a way. I used to have to write for Robin [Wilson]’s voice and he has some pretty profound limitations,” Hopkins said referring to the Gin Blossoms’ lead singer. “This way I can write for a real voice like Anita Baker, and that’s very liberating.”

But being sacked from the Chimeras clearly underlined the helplessness at the core of his muse; his misery fueled his art but his ability to succeed as an artist was stymied by his misery. The band, in their own way, found a way to continue without Hopkins, since they kind of already were doing so when he died. They followed up on the Marshall Crenshaw-y melodicism that Hopkins had gifted them by working with Crenshaw himself on their first post-Hopkins single, 1995’s “Til I Hear It From You”, a sizable smash from the Empire Records soundtrack; the following year, “Follow You Down” was the kind of catchy power-pop tune you would hear blaring from Gaps and movie trailers, as the scrappy desperation of late-’80s underground rock had seamlessly become the ubiquitous sound of Caucasian recreational retreat. The band continues to tour and release albums.

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If there is romance in pain, then it is a private romance, a sense one has that the torment that provokes and consumes the mind is pre-ordained, is part of a greater story, is a way to connect the life one lives to past and future selves, a chain of pain that is passed across the transom of time, space, infinity. Gulping down one’s unrest, or better still converting this torturous state into something useful, something poetic, something powerful — that is the dream of art and artist since time immemorial. We take our pain and we mould it into something that we can put our name on, and if we do it every day and make a ritual of this process, then maybe, maybe, we can make it through this thing called life with some sense of accomplishment, however small.

Doug Hopkins was a man who, in his brief life, knew of pain, and its romance, or lack thereof, and did what he could during the time that he was given, until he could not. Viewed one way, his pain was enveloped by the culture, fed into the machine, his misery doing its part to form the lattice of unhappiness that was 1990s pop sentiment; viewed another way, however, he played music until he could not anymore, and his unhappy life reaped eternal reward with the gift of the joy of popular song, with melodies that have long outlasted the man and his memory.

Jealousy, envy, hurt, betrayal, all turn into a particularly glorious kind of pain when put through the lens of a truly great song — and all we really want to do in that moment is be with them, feeling, ultimately, like we matter too.

Featured press image via azcentral.com; follow Daniel Brockman on Twitter @thebizhaslanded.