Strains of Rock 'N' Roll
Phoenix Magazine, May 1, 1993
For Tempe's Gin Blossoms, the road to idol land is forty-thousand miles arguing in a cramped van, major-label headaches, a half-million dollars to recoup, and no time to be normal...but how many of us ever reach David Letterman's show? And get invited back?
The Gin Blossoms don't usually appear on the westside; they're irreverent Generation X slacker boys from Tempe and have been local heroes ever since they stormed the college music scene on Christmas Day 1987. Since then, they've generated the kind of fanatic following that high schoolers playing air guitar with pouting pelvises daydream about in front of hallway mirrors.
But tonight, January 17, 1993, they're here at Graham Central Station, the opening act for the Neville Brothers, and those who've come to listen to their suburban brand of rock 'n' roll--timeless melodies about booze, girls, more booze, ex-girlfriends--actually paid $17.50 to see them. It's a long chord from cover charges of five bucks or less.
Graham Central Station is packed with a recipe for multi-cultural, cross-generational stew. Urban cowhorns with Stetsoned heads and Ropered feet, middle-aged bleached women in polyester stretch, corporate kiddies in terminally hip Gap cloth drinking mineral water, and the twenty-something crowd, a gaggle of wrinkle-free faces in retro wear walking about in orthopedic tragedies like clogs.
The crowd inches like a tumor to the stage rim. Fade to black. On the stage, the Gin Blossoms, past the age of axle rod metabolisms, hold long-neck Budweisers, and strut the unaffected image that seems a mandatory rock 'n' roll affliction. Cigarettes with fat red tips burn everywhere, dangle from lips, breathe from guitar necks, flare across amps, a theatrical prop with its teasing toxic swipe at any message of health.
A girl in the audience moans "Robinnnnn."
The Gin Blossoms, eastside good boys playing at bad, include vocalist Robin Wilson, guitarist/vocalist Jesse Valenzuela, drummer Phillip Rhodes, bassist Bill Leen and guitarist Scott Johnson. They're the first rock group from Tempe's music scene to be signed directly to a major label, A&M.
Their music is high gear, grindingly sweet pop that can chainsaw through several generations. But the five guys on stage are still walking the plank of youth, faces etched silver-white in the dark; faces drained and stripped of any natural sunlight. Robin cradles the mike, tambourine in hand, dressed down in a Phoenix Suns shirt and Just-Do-It attitude Nikes, while the rest of the band wears unmemorable college casual wear, minus the gravy stains. Except for Scott. His head shouts shoulder-length blond tresses but his feet don't scoff at tradition--he's wearing penny loafers.
Their latest album, New Miserable Experience, has sold between sixty thousand to eighty thousand copies, depending on who you talk to. The band has been touted as "a cross between the Byrds and Husker Du." Or "sons of Petty and REM." Robin Wilson tossed off this cutesy quote about their sound in an A&M press release: "It's like a big slice of American cheese." They've made the "Best of 1992" lists of the L.A. Daily News (#1), Denver Post, Houston Post, Phoenix New Times, Utah Chronicle, San Diego Union-Tribune and a slew of other papers.
Tonight is their last show after a five-month stint touring with the band-of-the-moment, Toad the Wet Sprocket, interspersed with del Amitri, and the Neville Brothers. They're yearning for the respite.
Robin screams with a full throttle sarcastic lilt to whoever might respond. "We need shots...three SHOTS of Jagermeister." There is no room to dance because bodies seem to grow from each other; so the audience grooves to the music, shagging hips and shins in place. Next to the stage, girlfriends, friends and wives beam and fire territorial glances toward the crowd.
Robin seems as comfortable on stage as in his living room, right at home gushing non sequiturs; from showing Spiderman trading cards to yakking about a Suns game or food in Mexican restaurants to wailing "Where ARE those goddamn shots of Jagermeister? We're not in Mesa...Let's drink...." After another song, he launches into another soliloquy. "I saw the Romantics here in 1985, I saw the Church here in 1986 and threw up. Good, the shots are here, we're going to drink some shots. Here's to the Phoenix Suns!!! I've told people I'm from Phoenix and the only thing we've got to believe in is the Phoenix Suns."
Forty-five minutes later, the set over, Robin cautions the crowd to be nice to the Neville Brothers and, as a reminder of his own quirky loyalties, he even says goodbye to Dan Majerle, who must be somewhere else tonight.
Simple humor is a not-so-simple business. Rock 'n' roll. The language of hair-head garage bands, those hopelessly creative types who become idols to working stiffs. Everyone from fifteen to fifty listens to some form of it. But whatever you think it is, the driving principle is the same as running a plumbing business.
Morty Wiggins of Bill Graham Management in San Francisco, the Gin Blossoms' manager, says that BGM quarterbacks the band. But they also have an attorney, a record label, an A&R guy from the record company, a booking agent at William Morris, a business manager to handle their money (and their taxes). And they each have a publishing company for their songs. Everyone works through Wiggins. He says it's a form of checks and balances. And it's all very complicated.
It's a long way from the simple days of just showing up at Long Wong's or Club Rio or the Sun Club in Tempe to do their thing for local fans, drink, get paid, drink more, and go home.
"Any of the tunes on this release would stir a music lover with an affinity of the Byrds or simply solid songs."--Creem magazine.
Just try getting the Gin Blossoms together, in the same room, at the same time, for an interview. Well, maybe if we were Rolling Stone.... Home for three weeks, they can't muster the enthusiasm or energy to see each other after being crammed for forty thousand tour miles in their white chariot, a Dodge van christened Jack Ruby.
No, they just want to see their friends and girlfriends and wives. Go to Restaurant Mexico. Sleep late. Get health insurance. Go to concerts and Suns games. Organize their receipts for taxes. Pay their rent. Be normal. Be normal?
Robin has just moved across Tempe into a duplex. In many ways, he's acquired the status of adopted mouthpiece for this posse of cool with his infectious dare-me, dare-you, coy emoting. He opines on anything. ("If it wasn't for the Shaq, Richard Dumas would be rookie of the year.") And he doesn't mumble. The voice that is rich on stage is sturdy and patternless off. He has the anchorman's tone, the one that says you can be from anywhere.
e moves through his house gathering things for rehearsal. A machine to make tea. A plastic bottle of Crockett's honey, two boxes of Celestial Seasonings, some bottles of herbal remedies to heal his nasty sinus infection. And his new toy, a combo TV/VCR he bought for the road so he can watch Suns games. Today he'll bring it to practice so they won't miss the Simpsons.
Robin watches a lot of television. In his living room, the centerpiece is the big color TV and stereo beneath it, America's altar. It's flanked by low-rent shelves, plastic milk crates in red, green and black, filled with compact discs and albums. He gathers his gear up leaves for the studio, just on the edge of Mesa.
Their rehearsal space is a bleak, dank monstrous area filled with heavy black equipment to make music and make it loud. Wires everywhere snake into electrical outlets--it looks like a NASA launch pad ready to explode. No windows. Blankets tacked on the walls to muffle sound, carpet remnants on the floor with black butt stains. Every member of the band smokes--a lot. In one corner in Robin's lunch box collection. See that one. It's "Land of the Giants." I paid $150 for it.
In another corner are old velveteen chairs, a way-soft sofa and a table littered with junk, a half-full can of Budweiser that Robin removes so it won't be thrown out, and a couple copies of Hey Jealousy that you won't find here. It's a European release.
They were supposed to practice today but no one's moving real fast. Jesse sits on a stool and skims a pile of checks. He looks like he belongs on Beverly Hills 90210, with his crazy dark looks and haunting light eyes. Scott plays his guitar while a friend, dubbed the tone master, works on a piece of equipment. It all has to do with pitch. Phil walks around. Robin wants to know if anyone needs earplugs.
Just why does Robin consider their music cheesy?
"...Our music isn't about some big message. It's about having fun...and lyrically there's a lot of cheese in what we do...our lyrics are pretty unimportant," then adds a self-deprecating stab, "I think we've proven that." Deep grin. Is that a dimple showing? "What do we sing about? For years we've sung about ex-girlfriends and porn stars and that weird night on acid and that one road trip and things like that. Our songs are about pretty simple stuff. We're not trying to save the whales in our music...I'm a member of Greenpeace but I don't feel the need to sing about it, and I certainly don't think it's a way to promote the Gin Blossoms. As a band, as a whole, we don't stand for ANYTHING."
"Grungy chords, jangly picking, beefy rhythms and Byrds-like harmonies--the Gin Blossoms' appeal lies in their ability to march into often-covered terrain and somehow leave fresh footprints. Listeners will find themselves related to and reveling each new miserable experience in an environment that's remarkably cliche-free."--East Coast Rocker
For a band that doesn't stand for anything--just good ol' apple pie and cheese--it seems they're on the verge of something. New Miserable Experience has been on record shelves since August 1992 and they've spent months twanging before provincial white boys teetering between adolescence and manhood, between milk and beer--the post-pubescent crowd that fills Greek houses across the country's universities.
The Gin Blossoms' climb was steady, with the usual peaks and valleys, and regular doses of luck and timing. Talent, too. Robin explains it; Phil logs in gaps after looking at his old calendar. Bill has a hard time remembering dates. Jesse prefers the background, and Scott's the new kid on the block.
Original Gin Blossom Doug Hopkins is conspicuously absent. Many thought him the band's inspiration--he's known for his songwriting style, but they had a falling out. Plus, Robin says, Hopkins didn't much like what Robin calls "the major label dance. He didn't like all the hoop-jumping that we've got to do." Eventually, they parted.
Hopkins has since gone on to form the Chimeras, currently doing the Tempe music circuit. In the incestuous ASU music scene, there are whispers. Will the band crumble without Hopkins? But before the gossip mill exploded, the Gin Blossoms, including Hopkins were selected by New Times as the best rock band in Phoenix, which qualified them to play at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin in March 1989. Dave Margulies with the College Music Journal stayed in touch with Jesse, and then CMJ selected the Gin Blossoms as the best unsigned band in the country and invited them to play at the MTV New Music Awards.
Robin says they were the only unfamous people at the show. The audience was loaded with music industry heavies from ASCAP and major labels and they found themselves at the schmoozefest wandering among well-known acts like The Smithereens, The Ramones, Grammy-winning Red Hot Chili Peppers, George Clinton, Michael Hutchence from INXS, Lou Reed. Phil even partied with those Peppers.
It gave them the hyper-flash visibility they needed and the virus spread. Scouts from several labels flew to Tempe to watch them. On the way to New Orleans after playing Austin, they phoned their lawyer and got the news that Polygram was offering a $150,000 recording contract. Robin says, "A big cheer went up, like FINALLY after three years."
So they hopped a plane to New York, at Polygram's expense, and let themselves be wooed. Robin says they give you a nice seafood dinner, then they "take you down to the offices and they introduce you to the president of the company. That's a big one. It makes you feel important, it makes them LOOK good and important..."
The heady conversation that transpired in those lofty executive offices consisted mostly of nattering about the paintings or Doug and the president discussing cigars. Phil remembers being given a Polygram bag, then taking a trip to their CD library. He laughs. "We reamed 'em. We're totally poor broke and I left with, oh lord, probably thirty CDs and a bunch of tapes. And the stuff that we didn't like we took to a store and sold." He says that starving artists returning from record companies with gift packages are a common sight to resale merchants.
But they didn't sign with Polygram. Their lawyer advised them to hold out for something better. Then they were schmoozed on the West Coast by A&M. These bottomless pits of tony taste met for dinner at yet another seafood place, Bordner's in L.A., and Robin remembers the place was swarmed with people waiting, when magically, "this waitress comes over and takes us through this huge crowd, winds us through the restaurant and we have a private room right on the beach. And as soon as that door opened up, I thought, 'I'm home, I want to sign with A&M Records....' Everyone was so impressed, we had so much freakin' seafood. Huge platters of everything, every kind of seafood, seafood salad, seafood soups." By now you'd think they'd have grown gills. Instead, they had to wait another couple of weeks before A&M made them an offer in the form of a guaranteed two-record deal with an option for four more, where the company would front somewhere to the tune of $150,000 to $250,000. They were signed after a Tucson performance at Mudbuggs on May 26, 1990, the day Phillip turned twenty-one.
These days, Robin's timid reactions to the heavy brass are gone. "Now I storm into the offices at A&M, 'Go get me a cup of coffee.' " Is he becoming a brat? Downplaying his momentary lapse of bravado, he slows and says, no, no, it's to act like an equal.
But life on the inside track of rock 'n' roll is not about equality. It's about bucks and with some hip producer by their side, the band was in for a real new miserable experience. Basically, their deal with the label means A&M guarantees to produce and distribute two albums, buy them a touring van, and pay expenses and a salary while they're on tour. But the band doesn't make any real money unless profits from album sales go wild, they start drawing big, and surpass the record company's costs.
In November 1990, on A&M's tab, the Gin Blossoms were recording in L.A. and it was such a disaster they ditched and limped home to their safe haven in Tempe, having wasted $90,000, sure A&M would drop them. They didn't. Instead, the label let them record their own EP; the result was Up & Crumbling, released on October 8, 1991. It sold around twenty thousand copies, a local hit, and A&M agreed to pay for half a tour. They called it the Please-God-Don't-Let-Us-See-Our-Ex-Girlfriends Tour and naturally Robin did. Cheese indeed.
On their next effort they proved themselves, with producer John Hampton of Ardent Studios in Memphis. New Miserable Experience was released August 4, 1992. Phil remembers this, too, because he had a dentist appointment the day before.
This time A&M got behind them right away, though they argued over the cover art which turned out to be a blurry cactus with SOMETHING resembling blossoms on it. And the last thing the band wanted was any funky saguaros blistering their cover. What happened to all those conversations with the record execs about art? Essentially the label told them they didn't know anything about marketing.
Robin and the rest of the band are laughing now, righteously validated, ever since they learned that A&M wants to redo the cover because they think they're on the verge of selling a whole bunch of records. In a long, run-on verbal clobbering Robin exhales "...We TOLD them we didn't like the cover BEFORE the record came out. We protested, we screamed, we yelled, they FORCED us into using that cover. We voted yesterday on the phone that they deserved to be embarrassed, and if that record DOES sell 500,000 with that stupid cover that NOBODY likes, nobody in the band, nobody in our management, nobody at the record company, apparently...I think they deserve to be embarrassed by it." A different kind of artistic control.
Says Robin, "The business is like an insider's club.
"I used to feel that having a good scene is a bigger goal than any individual band or my band getting somewhere. I used to think the scene was so important. And now not only am I not a part of it--it's something I helped build--I don't understand it and there's NO WAY I can look back because I've got a manager named Morty and a lawyer named Geno...."
In February, the Gin Blossoms were into A&M for probably half a million, give or take some. The disaster in L.A. cost ninety grand, Up and Crumbling cost around $30,000 and New Miserable Experience $100,000. Then there's rental on the rehearsal space and getting paid while on tour.
So how much do the need to make some money? Robin says, "If we get to a point that we're making $2,000 a night on tour, the tour will pay for itself, there will be profit involved and Morty can get a chunk of that. Every time we go out on tour, we're setting up to take another $75,000 from the label, the tab keeps getting bigger and bigger.
"...When I was little and I would come home from school to lip sync to Kiss records, dreaming of being a rock star when I was nineteen and writing these ridiculous songs... Oh God, see when you're nineteen your mind is filled with these grandiose subjects, you think that you can change the world and stuff, and I was writing about nuclear war. I was trying to be like U2. I was nineteen, that was in 1984, my mind was filled with thoughts of uniting the world, and peace and love and all that. And now if I can write a good song about an ex-girlfriend, that's fine with me. That's how I've grown. It's just pop music. That's where my tastes have led me. To basically just become a popster..." And he smirks.
"There are better songs on the Gin Blossoms' album than there are, say, on most of Marshall Crenshaw's."--Musician magazine.
The audience misses the details. The fans revel in the mega-hype, they want a piece of what rockers have. It's an old game with changing faces and fashion and heroes depending on the week. But touring, unless you're Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, or now, Nirvana, is about logging thousands of miles in a van, it's about eating greasy McAnythings, it's about frayed nerves.
The Gin Blossoms did eighty-five shows with Toad the Wet Sprocket, a group whose album Fear went gold when they were touring together. Add to that touring with del Amitri and The Neville Brothers and they've been to more than one hundred cities, cruising the country in Jack Ruby with a ceiling full of funky pictures, tour schedules, personal notes, and some centerfolds of Nautilus narcissists.
Bassist Bill Leen, with his non-designer haircut--looks like he stuck a bowl over his head and trimmed it--has an irony-studded sense of humor. And he looks like a stickman. Well, that's what drummer Phil calls him.
He nonchalantly reels off what touring's like: "They're all typical. Usually it starts with a wake-up call, long before you have to get out of bed, so you lose any sleepy thought you might have been getting.... The majority of the time you get up pretty early, a lot of times we'd leave at eight or stuff, if you had to do a long drive and that's pretty typical...then we all congregate down near the van and if you're the first one down you've already lost out, you know somebody's going to be late; the days start off with a lot of aggravation. So everybody piles in the van and we eat terrible fast food. Sounds terrible already, huh? Normally everyone goes to sleep..." Robin says, "...it's not the same as real sleep, you're still tired after van sleep. Not as restful, I don't dream."
All the seats are nicknamed PHQ's, an acronym for Party Headquarters. Bill's is the front seat. Jesse's is all the way in the back, behind Robin, then Phil. Scott, the newest member and lowest on the hierarchy for seats, shares a PHQ.
Bill says, "The worst days can be quite, quite simply, soul-destroying. Because people will talk all day long and not have ANYTHING to say. Phillip has done this. You pick a word, like the word /guilty,' and what you do is say 'guilty' all day long in a stupid accent or voice and it's supposed to be funny. So here's Phillip screaming 'guilty'--usually after he wakes up and is refreshed--and his friend, Mike (a roadie who has since departed), his signature thing was his really idiotic laugh, so Phillip would scream 'guilty' and Mike will go into his laugh and everyone will say 'hello.' You're laughing....this is not funny. Or sometimes Mike would string together twenty obscenities that would make Phillip laugh. It's very simple humor and it's really hard when you're trying to read... (One of Bill's favorites is Flannery O'Connor, not exactly pop and stop reading) and you have this going on behind you.
"What I started doing was opening up the side vent, cause it makes a really loud noise, and they're like, 'Can you close that? It's really annoying. I can't hear a thing.' So they can't hear each other doing these stupid things and they say, 'You're drowning us out.' Exactly.
"I think the majority of the time I'm in a zombie-like state thinking about things over and over. A lot of the miles look exactly the same. In Missouri we drove up and down this one highway--it was a few hundred miles--for about a week, back and forth. They never set up these gigs in a straight line, you're always backtracking."
Mostly the crew takes turns driving. Bill says, "I sometimes would give up and resign myself that we are going off a cliff or something. Sometimes I'd say goodbye to all my friends and family in my head, write my memoirs quickly...."
The entourage stuffed in Jack Ruby includes the five band members, a tour manager, a drum/sound tech and a guitar tech, plus someone from the label usually joins them for a few days.
Robin says, "On our first tour last year I tried to keep count of how many Denny's we saw on the road. I counted seventy...." Plus he carries Dramamine because the way the van heaves can make even a seasoned traveler queasy.
Other times, Robin says, "We get into these periods where we sort of ignore each other, several times during the course of the tour I would go two, three days without Jesse actually speaking to me... And I've done experiments... I'm not going to say anything to Jesse, even if something comes up... and see if he says anything to me all day. And he doesn't...."
Then there's the hotel routine. They've moved up a step from the Motel 6s, and usually find themselves at a Best Western or Holiday Inn, where they've worked out their private living conditions. Bill can't stay with Phillip because they don't get along well, and no one wants to room with Robin because he sleeps with the television on, and Jesse quit drinking last year so he doesn't want to room with Bill, and Bill wonders how you can get through all this WITHOUT drinking. Plus Bill's an insomniac who likes the hum of something, like an air conditioner.
Robin's sitting on his couch holding a big box stuffed with fan mail, a box where clean Nikes once lived. Phil and Bill stroll in. What do you think of the fan mail? Bill, his long arms crossed, says, "Everybody wants something for nothing." Robin says he's the only person who returns the fan mail. Bill jokes, "He hordes it." Robin corrects, "I don't horde it, gimme a break." Bill concedes, "He LIKES to return it." Robin finishes: "It's just my project."
Bill says that fan mail is all typical, "and if it's a young girl, they always put a P.S. on it."
Robin adds, "And they often draw a peace sign next to their name."
Phil goofs on the girls: "They say, 'Tell Robinnnnn his hair is just the right length.' "
Bill says: "Then there's the woman that--show her the letter, you probably threw it out--[he did]. Jesse had a psycho, she'd come to shows on the road, to get backstage, she told the guy that Jesse is the father of her daughter. And she was telling me and Robin, tell Jesse I'm not a psycho."
Robin adds: "She is TOTALLY psycho. And so Phillip and I made the mistake of being nice to her. I tried to get away from her but I didn't just flat out say stay the hell away from me... I bothered to be nice to her and now she writes ME. I get a letter almost every other week. I won't even open them."
Bill laughs. "Remember in Florida, Robin when you got those cookies? I KNEW where they were from. He opened them up; 'Oh my god.' "
Phil deadpans. "Arsenic?"
But it's time for lunch at Riazzi's, an Italian staple in Tempe. The boys chow on pasta, except for Phil who still hankers for seafood. The gills haven't erupted--yet. He orders shrimp scampi. They talk and interrupt each other and disagree and finish each other's sentences the way couples do when they've been married to each other for eternity. The Bee Gees play their trademark high squealing disco in the background.
Do you have a watch on, Phil quizzes? Robin reels off, "Nine minutes after three." Phil says, "I've got to hit the bank by 4 or else my rent check goes..." and he makes a bouncing motion. Robin says, "I've got to get my tax stuff ready, you know, remember we're gonna have to turn in our tax stuff to the accountant."
Bill asks, "Are you going to send all your receipts into them? I'm not doing that, I'm going to do it myself and send them the figures."
Robin says, "I expect to not have to deal with it, that's why I'm sending my huge bag of receipts and they can sort through it."
Bill to Robin: "Do you label all your receipts?"
Robin mocks, "I used to, but no, I don't, no, Bill."
Bill's turn: "I can get away with more if I do it myself."
Robin insists, "Every single one of those receipts in those bags were from the tour, so..."
Bill says, "I just don't want all my receipts going out there and getting lost, I've had too many bad experiences."
Robin half wonders, "But these are pros aren't they? Professional accountants."
Bill is non-trusting. "I guess. I'll hang on to them and if I get audited, I'll have them."
Meanwhile Phil is ripping the shells off the shrimp. Then when he comes up for a breather, he says it's time to ask Morty for a raise to $250 a week. After taxes. Because that's what they're used to. He already talked to Jesse and Scott about it.
They aren't sure if their take-home pay is $181 or $191. Phil, who has a good recall for numbers, says, "It's $760 a month. Remember how Morty's always saying you guys are great, you tour so cheaply... okay, well we're going to tour moderately cheaply, you know? I don't think it's unreasonable... we should go in, united front, we want $250 a week after taxes."
Robin gives up the ghost. "Have you guys ever noticed how the united front has never held up? Remember the last time when we tried to unite on the cover?" Phil agrees. "NO cactus."
Robin picks up a new theme. "Oh God, Valentine's Day's coming up, man." This will be the first Valentine's Day that he's had a girlfriend. Bill shakes his head, like c'mon Robin. Robin ignores him. "So I can't drop the ball. Send my sweetie some lovin'." Bill deadpans, "Don't put that on tape." Robin suddenly looks like he's been charged by electricity, "Dammit I've got to remember to do this, and dammit I've got to scrape up the forty dollars to do this. I'm thinking either a dozen or a half dozen."
Bill judges without judging. He says last time he got every flower in the place, about twenty-five.
Phil teases, "Do you use the L-word with her?"
Robin's on automatic pilot. "No, not in regular conversation."
Phil eggs him on. "Well, have you said it to her?"
Robin's big eyes tweak and he concedes, "Yes, yes I've said it to her. Once. But I make a point NOT to say it every time I see her. She just got it the one time." He feels compelled to continue. "And the only reason I told her, was because I was sitting there looking at her thinking my goodness, I'm in love with this girl and she looked at me and she said, 'What the hell are you thinking?' and I was just busted and I started laughing and I had to get out of it."
Robin says he's been going out with his girlfriend for six months but that includes time on the road. In real time it's more like two months. He jokes, "My six months could last three years."
Phil says he uses the L-word with his girlfriend. Bill stays conspicuously out of the conversation.
It's 3:30 and during lunch they've run the gamut of taxes, pay raises, romance, and the hassles of their cover art. And they're not done. Billy Joel's "Leave A Tender Moment Alone" wafts through the restaurant and Phil rolls his eyes. When they leave, it's bright outside, the East Valley was blitzed by a sunshower and everyone's squinting. They look very ordinary in this light. How much did the van cost? Twenty grand. Robin woefully adds, "Which we have to recoup."
Just what is the question put to them the most? Bill says, bored, it's "Why are we named the Gin Blossoms?"
The answer: It comes from bloated red skin you get when you drink long and hard. After Doug and Bill saw pix of W.C. Field's blossoming nose and bubbling cheeks in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon II.
Then they're complaining about the upcoming tour. The label sent out press releases calling it "The Shut Up and Smoke Tour." (Why? Because they smoke a lot.) They've already argued with Morty about it. Robin's going on and on. "You can say Shut Up And Smoke on the posters, you can put that in the ads, that's fine, but the tour is called, "Let You Down Live."
Back in Robin's house, they put on their first album, Dusted, recorded years ago in Tucson, and it sounds like the band was being fed a pipeline of amphetamines. Robin plays some tunes on it, then switches to New Miserable Experience where the same songs don't sound like the helium express.
Robin decides. "All we're doing, New Miserable Experience and the 'Recoup My Ass' tour, and all this stuff is just leading up to what we're going to do to next. This is all... preparing for what the Gin Blossoms are going to do after this, and I remember talking about this with Morty one day. I told him that's what it seems like to me, it's not for now, and it's not for this record, it's for the next record.
"We're going to have to pad the tour budget so we get salaries when we get back, we might have to get the record company to advance us more money..." Then he stops for a heartbeat. "...That we'll have to RECOUP."
It's March 3, 1993 and the Gin Blossoms are in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Robin picks up the phone in his Best Western hotel room and tells the Phoenix reporter he's having a bad day, he has so much to do and about twenty minutes to do it in. They've already done interviews today, they've got to play an acoustic set in a record store, then do tonight's gig and then travel 750 miles to Miami where they have four shows and an interview with ABC's In Concert series.
"I'm exhausted..." Robin says, "There we were again last night in this tiny little broken-down nightclub with twenty-five people there, and we're looking at each other, like we worked really hard to get here, you know? It feels a little strange, a little ironic. Ah, I'm just having a crappy day...And I've got to talk to the label and the management about the album cover and redo the credits and go over the lyrics.... I sure wish I wasn't in Alabama."
They never did get their raise or a bus to replace the van (the next step up in the rock world) and there is no time to rest. And when they're off tour Robin's got to get his car registered, and he's wondering where he'll get the money. They can't play in Tempe anymore because management doesn't want too much exposure.
And Robin says, his voice larded with cynicism, "Wouldn't that be nice, we could actually MAKE some money if we were allowed to play in Tempe. Did you ever see that movie 'The Idolmaker' with Ray Sharkey? This guy, a songwriter, he produced these records and he made this kid into a star, and then he found this OTHER kid and he wanted to make him into this HUGE star and so he let him do one big show, made this big debut, and then he didn't let the kid out of the house for like a year. He wasn't allowed to go anywhere, he wasn't allowed to be seen in public, he wasn't allowed to perform or anything because it adds to the mystique." Robin lets loose with a strained laugh and sums it up, "That's what this feels like."
Right now Robin wants to just be able to stay in one place. Even the Valley heat in the summer looks good. But the Gin Blossoms won't be around to have any new miserable experience in 110 degrees. They'll be on tour.
But there are highs, too. Exhaustion, the is-this-worth-it? grind can suddenly be replaced by recognition far mightier than playing to a packed college cafeteria. It's late March and the Gin Blossoms are making their second appearance on Late Night With David Letterman.
"From New York, double-hulled to prevent leakage, it's Late Night with David Letterman. Tonight, Mary Tyler Moore, musical group Gin Blossoms, and comedian Jeff Altman, plus Paul Shaffer, The World's Most Dangerous Band, and now the guy mentioned on page 167 of Dianetics, Daaaa-viddddd Letterman!!!!"
Heavy audience applause. In his monologue Letterman prattles on and pokes fun at confused pro-lifers, celebrity birthdays, Koresh in Waco, Texas; Yeltsin and finishes with "...You know, ladies and gentlemen I think we, eh, have a solid, wonderful, very entertaining program for you tonight. Mary Tyler Moore is here this evening." Cough, cough. "A great rock 'n' roll band who made their television debut on this program." Paul Shaffer interrupts. "Is that right?" Letterman nods. "A while back, about a year ago and they're here tonight to do another wonderful song from their great album, and these guys are very entertaining and as I understand it, they are the only really, really successful rock 'n' roll band working today NOT from Seattle. I think." Big gap-toothed smile. Audience cracks up. "I think! I think! I think we're gonna have someone follow them home, but I think. Gin Blossoms are here tonight, kids." More applause.
What's a plug like this worth? The show continues with skits, a search for Swedes in New York City, and Letterman says some nice things about Mary Tyler Moore, and then goes on about the Gin Blossoms AGAIN and says, "Also on the show, Gin Blossoms, a great band, I'm not kidding around, a lot of times I'll say a band is great and I'm thinking to myself, ehhhh." He tilts his head. "THESE guys ARE great. Great album. Great song." He asks Shaffer, "The song, Mrs. Rita, is that the name of the song they're doing tonight?" Shaffer says, "Is that what they're doing tonight? Yes, yes, they are. Mrs. Rita." Letterman's turn. "Absolutely. Last time they were here you know the song they did last time?" Shaffer plays back. "Hey Jealousy." Letterman, brandishing his trademark sarcasm: "Hey, good for you."
More skits, more Moore and then they segue to a commercial with the beginning chords of Mrs.. Rita. But Letterman's not done. "The guests--we're happy to announce [they had] their television debut right here on this program, remember that, boys? Oh, what a night THAT was! They're back tonight to play another song from their new album which is called New Miserable Experience. Ladies and gentlemen, here they are, Gin Blossoms."
Yup. There are the boys from Tempe. Phil doesn't get to play drums but raps a tambourine off in the background as the World's Most Dangerous Band plays the rhythm section. Scott and Jesse are armed with their guitars. Is Bill there? Can't see him. And Robin--in a Suns jacket and turtleneck and expensive Nikes--is cradling the mike, singing Mrs. Rita, the latest single the label's decided to promote. The spotlight makes the rounds of the band but mostly settles in on Robin's face, blown up to nineteen colorful inches. His face betrays any nervousness, any excitement. Perhaps it's just concentration. Their last appearance he remembers calming himself by pretending he was just singing to the camera crew and the studio audience, not six million people. But to be back so soon? On Letterman? Who knows how many records will sell because of this?
At the end of Mrs. Rita, Letterman bounds over, just as Robin finishes leaping in the air, he's coming down on those soft sneakers to finish on the last note of the song, and Letterman's shaking everyone's hand and the band is beaming. "Gin Blossoms, good to see you again, nice to have you with us. Great job, sounded terrific, Gin Blossoms, ladies and gentlemen...."
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