Life's No Bed of Roses for the Gin Blossoms
Phoenix New Times, August 17, 1988
It's a hot afternoon in July, and Club Bongo is nearly deserted. A few employees rattle glasses behind the bar, while others walk noisily across the hardwood floor. The show that night is to feature the Young Fresh Fellows, a band out of Seattle. The Gin Blossoms, a local act, is scheduled to open.
As headliners arrive and begin preparing for a sound check, Doug Hopkins of the Gin Blossoms meanders over and takes a seat at the rear of the club. The sun is just starting to cut through the window above Hopkins' table, but the lanky guitarist doesn't seem to mind. He's got a beer in his hand, and he didn't have to pay for it. Life, indeed, is grand.
Hopkins takes a swig and mentions that he had to bum a ride to the club because his car wouldn't start. He says he fell asleep in the car the previous night and left the radio on. "I don't really live anywhere," he says. "I just go out every night and see if I can stay at some friend's house."
Hopkins seems genuinely amused when relating such stories about himself. He almost sounds proud when he says he hasn't written a song in months because he had to hock his guitar and only recently collected enough money to buy another one.
Such a lifestyle has helped keep Hopkins strapped to the local music merry-go-round for years. He's headed such promising guitar-rock bands as the Psalms and Algebra Ranch. Indeed, over the years Hopkins has proven himself one of the few Valley musicians capable of stringing together notes and chords that come off as both original and attractive.
Hopkins has also proved difficult to work with. Both the Psalms and Algebra Ranch dissolved amid personality problems. The Blossoms have had some rocky times, too.
Consider the band's seven-month history: Original drummer Chris McCann, formerly of Hellfire, recently moved to Tahiti with his girlfriend. McCann said he'd play a farewell gig the night the Blossoms were supposed to open at the Mason Jar for Drivin' n' Cryin'. Instead, says Hopkins, "He didn't show up. I never saw him again." Despite the incident, Hopkins says he misses McCann. "He had that pirate spirit we're trying to foster."
Then there was singer-guitarist Richard Taylor, another original member. Hopkins says Taylor and the band did a lot of bickering, which led to a parting of the ways last spring. "We decided we'd have to get rid of him," says Hopkins. "When we told him, he raised holy hell. He said, 'Let me play one last gig, and I won't be an asshole.' So," says Hopkins, "we did. And he wasn't."
Another problem Hopkins had with Taylor is that Taylor's songs sounded markedly different from the band's other material, most of which is penned by Hopkins. Taylor was more willing to use sweeping hooks an slower tempos; Hopkins goes for more subtle melodies. Nonetheless, two of Taylor's songs, "Cigarette" and, especially, "Short Stories," were among the best the early Gin Blossoms performed. But with Taylor gone, the band doesn't play those tunes anymore. Hopkins now claims Taylor's tunes never fit.
At any rate, the two departed Blossoms have since been replaced by younger, less experienced Gin buds. Robin Wilson has taken Taylor's spot on guitar and vocals. Wilson's guitar work is not as accomplished as his predecessor's, but his high singing voice is a noted plus. Drummer Dan Henzerling, with whom Wilson had worked, also was plucked by the Blossoms once McCann took his "pirate spirit" and hightailed it to Tahiti.
Bill Leen shakes his head and takes a seat downstairs at Club Bongo. It's almost midnight, but the club is still very warm. The Gin Blossoms have finished their set, which went over well with the audience. Friends and acquaintances stop by and say hello to the thin, scraggly-haired bassist. Leen sighs. "There's only one thing I want to say," he moans. "This band has been through hell."
If the Gin Blossoms have indeed been through hell, then they've made their own travel plans. Leen, in particular, has no one to blame for his signs but himself. He's tagged alongside Hopkins in various bands since the early Eighties, when the two formed the sorta-punky Moral Majority. After a subsequent stint in the Psalms, Leen eventually accompanied Hopkins up to Portland, where the two spent the better part of 1986. While in the Northwest, Leen and Hopkins joined two other expatriate Phoenicians and managed to play out for a while until Hopkins decided he couldn't take the dreary Portland climate and moved back home. Leen soon followed. After a few months of reacquainting themselves with the sun, the duo decided to start yet another band. Thus, the Gin Blossoms.
The band's first show was last Christmas night at the Mason Jar. The place was crowded with stir-crazy music fans. It was a strong debut, and most of the songs the Gin Blossoms performed then are still played now. Originals by Hopkins include "Angels Tonight," a melodic, neo-country twanger, and the more energetic "Dream With You," both holdovers from Algebra Ranch days. Among the covers, the most convincing is a rowdy run-through of the Beatles' "Run for Your Life." The rest of the set list includes an increasing number of songs written by lead singer Jesse Valenzuela, but there are plans to get Wilson in on the songwriting duties soon. "I'll be doing some writing, to," says Leen, a slight hint of enthusiasm in his otherwise world-weary voice. It's on of the few times the low-keyed bassist shows any hint of emotion, and it doesn't last long, as he quietly picks up his beer and takes another drink.
It's later in the evening and the Young Fresh Fellows are bashing away. The club seems to be getting warmer, but the crowd's still there. Members of the Gin Blossoms are mingling with the audience. Valenzuela watches the headliners from the staircase that virtually dissects the club. He turns and makes his way downstairs. Taking a seat at one of the booths on the lower level, Valenzuela clears the bangs out of his eyes and remembers his first band, the Photos, a power-pop outfit from the Eighties. The Photos had a following, but never got beyond opening for the likes of Gentlemen Afterdark and the Jetzons.
Soon thereafter Valenzuela moved to L.A., where he found a job as a production assistant for New World Pictures. His duties included behind-the-scenes work on "a million break-dance movies" and a made-for-Japan flick based on the battle of the Midway. A year later Valenzuela was back in the Valley taking classes at ASU. In other words, he says, "I was basically goofing around."
Valenzuela got back into gear with the Lucky Dogs, a band that for a while was a Saturday-night fixture at Edcel's Attic in Tempe. "Those guys were probably the best musicians I've played with," Valenzuela says of the Dogs, who've since reformed as the Ignitors. Valenzuela says he left the Lucky Dogs when the other band members seemed increasingly reluctant to play out. "They all had other interests, like these great-paying jobs," says Valenzuela. "I didn't."
The Gin Blossoms entered the picture last fall when Valenzuela was performing around town as an acoustic act. (He was, for some reason, repeatedly billed as "Richie Valens" when he played at Edcel's Attic.) After running into Hopkins at various shows, he signed on as the Gin Blossoms' lead singer.
A month later came the Christmas-night debut, and soon after that the Blossoms wrangled themselves a gig at Long Wong's, a Tempe nightclub-eatery. There, the band dubbed themselves the "Del Montes." (McCann thought up the name as a spoof on all the "Del" bands making the rounds--the Del-lords, the Del Fuegos, et cetera.) The Del Montes quickly became one of Wong's most popular acts. Indeed, a few weeks prior to the Club Bongo show, a Del Montes performance at Wong's packed the tiny club, with some of the revelers spilling out of the door and dancing on the sidewalk. The show featured nearly four hours of Gin Blossoms originals and cover songs, including extended rave-ups of "Louie, Louie" and TV themes from The Munsters and The Jeffersons. Such songs, says Valenzuela, are the key to the party atmosphere at the Del Montes shows.
"As the Gin Blossoms we're usually headlining a show or opening for someone, so we only have time for so many songs," he says. "Those times are best spent concentrating on originals. But at Wong's we have to fill from nine o'clock to one."
As Valenzuela speaks of the Del Montes, Hopkins and Leen wander by with beers in their hands. They flop down on opposite sides of the booth, and the talk about the Del Montes soon dissolves into laughter. It seems the Blossoms have concocted an elaborate history for their alter egos. Leen, for example, goes by the name "Soup Bone Del Monte," Hopkins is "Otis Del Monte," Valenzuela's dubbed "Pablo Del Monte," Wilson goes by "Biff Del Monte," and you can call Henzerling "Ishmael Del Monte." The idea, says Hopkins, "is that we all have the same mother, Irma, but different fathers." ("Pablo's" father, for example, was a traveling flamenco dancer.) Even the band's roadie has a story. He's tagged "Francis Del Monte," the only Del Monte brother to attend the seminary. The band has told audiences that the Del Monte brothers were just passing town when they suffered four flat tires and ran out of gas. So they decided to stay.
Valenzuela laughs and says some people at Wong's actually believe the Del Monte legend. Adds Hopkins, "They're drinking. They don't have time to think too much."
And some in the Del Monte/Gin Blossoms audience have other ideas. Take "Elvis," a regular at Del Monte shows. Elvis is... different. On his tiptoes he's almost five feet tall. He wears fake sideburns. He walks all over downtown Tempe with a guitar slung over his shoulder. He likes to talk and dance with people who are trying desperately not to notice him.
The Del Montes, however, once invited "Elvis" to take the stage for a song. The little man immediately jumped up and banged out a rendition of Presley's "Little Sister." Hopkins says, "The crowd loved it. He couldn't sing, and he couldn't play his guitar. It was just like the real Elvis."
And like the real thing, this Elvis won't go away. "Now he thinks he's bigger than us," says Hopkins. "He came to a show we did at the Sun Club. We didn't let him come up and do his song, so he got really mad. He started yelling that he was going to start his own band."
Wilson strolls by in time to chuckle with the others over the trials of Elvis Del Monte. He takes a seat next to Leen, and the booth becomes crowded with Gin Blossoms. Everyone is either holding a beer or looking around for a waitress to order one. Upstairs, the Young Fresh Fellows are belting out a song called "Everything's Going to Turn Out Great." Hopkins fidgets with what is now an empty bottle.
"We're better than these guys," he says, gesturing upstairs. "What I mean is that we write better songs," he adds. "I think we can do what they're doing. We've just got to go out and do it."
Hopkins' attention quickly turns as a waitress stops at the table. He orders a beer. The waitress asks if he and the boys would like to run up a tab. The question is greeted with silence. "We're in the band," begins Hopkins, his voice rising slightly. He goes on to explain that they've been drinking for free all night.
The waitress closes her eyes briefly and shifts her weight. After a few seconds, she agrees to terms. Hopkins looks up and eagerly repeats his order.
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