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Monday, September 05, 2005
Weekly Artist Overview: Blind Melon
Blind Melon won't be remembered for being a great band, although for their brief existence, they were pretty good and sometimes inspired; in their day, words like "promising" were used about them with regularity. However, it's unlikely they'll even be remembered for those 'promising' records they made, beyond perhaps their lone hit, "No Rain". In fact, decades from now, they might not be remembered much at all, just as many 'promising' 70's bands who recorded only two albums are barely remembered today.
If they are remembered, beyond "No Rain", it'll be as a case study in what not to do if you are a rock star; their short history, for the most part, is a sad and messy affair, that ended when Shannon Hoon joined what Courtney Love had famously dubbed "the stupid club".
Their story begins in Los Angeles 1989, when they were formed by singer Shannon Hoon, guitarist Christopher Thorn, guitarist Rogers Stevens, bassist Brad Smith, and drummer Glen Graham. None of the band members were native Angelinos; Stevens, Smith, and Graham were from Mississippi, Thorn was a Pennsylvanian, and Hoon hailed from rural Indiana. Their rural roots showed in their music, which was reminiscent of classic Southern rock and roots rock (with some heavy metal/hard rock touches).
Sunset Strip in Los Angeles in 1989 was almost exclusively dominated by glam metal bands following in the wake of Guns 'n' Roses, Motley Crue, Poison, and other successful graduates of the Strip. Blind Melon (who went by several different names at first) was distinctly out of place among them with their rootsy qualities and unpretentious, unglamorous approach. But this gave them appeal to those in Los Angeles who wanted to see anything except a glam metal band, and over time they developed a strong local following.
Within two years, word of the band managed to make it crosstown to Capitol records, who began courting the band largely on their reputation on the Strip and also via a four-song demo, known as The Goodfoot Workshop, which captured them in their formative stages. but did indeed show promise. The band didn't really have much else to offer Capitol, but they talked a good game and implied that they had a substantial hoard of other songs already finished. This wasn't exactly the case; as the bands' setlists of the day suggest, they had a limited number of original compositions. Nontheless, Capitol took a chance and signed the band in 1991.
Sessions for an EP were scheduled, and Capitol came up with David Briggs, best known for his work with Neil Young, to produce. This seemed like a natural fit; Briggs' resume seemed to dovetail nicely with the band's rural and southern roots, at least on paper. Unfortunately, the session wasn't a success; the material wasn't strong, Briggs' production job sounded too intrusive and glossy, and the resulting material, dubbed The Sippin' Time Sessions, was consigned to the deep freeze.
This seemd like a dead end for the band, who were stuck with a contract but no release; a period of instability followed that saw Hoon exploring other avenues to success. His sister had been friends with none other than fellow Hoosier Axl Rose, then currently the biggest rock star on the planet, and famed wildman. Hoon managed to hook up with Rose, and the pair became fast buddies; Rose, impressed with Hoon's voice, used him as a back-up singer on Guns 'n' Roses' Use Your Illusion twin albums, with Hoon's most notable appearance being on the song "Don't Cry", the video to which also features Hoon.
This provided the shot of adrenaline Hoon's career needed, and he turned his attentions back to Blind Melon, as a groundswell of interest began to build in the band. In early 1992, Blind Melon gained a slot on a tour sponsored by MTV that featured Live, Big Audio Dynamite, and Public Image Limited, portions of which were broadcast on the network, giving the band some valuable exposure.
Newly emboldened, the band returned to the studio for a second stab at recording some music; up to this point there still was no Blind Melon material available in the shops. This time, Rick Parashar, who had produced alt-rock favorites Temple of the Dog and Pearl Jam, was chosen. This pairing clicked much better than the band's first try, and an album's worth of material was recorded. For reasons that are unclear, Capitol sat on the album all summer, releasing the album, Blind Melon, in September 1992, after the initial flurry of interest in the band was already starting to dim.
Blind Melon itself will stand as the band's main testament. On the surface, it's a good record but not an exceptional one; it boasts a modest, unfussy production, and remarkably simple and lyrical subject matter that bordered on obsessive. Hoon's odd high-register voice was unlike anyone else's in rock, which lends the album some unique character. The band itself manages to share the spotlight with Hoon on the basis of its straightforward, country-rock and Allmans tinged Southern rock, which was light on boogie, but did jam cohesively, there were hints of metal flash, but the music is fairly subdued; they weren't showboaters, but played with an eye to detail and had enough of a reportoire at this point to give the album a varied, interesting array of sounds and approaches. "No Rain" is the standout for its shaggy, shambling construction and playing and manic-depressive lyrics (actually written by Brad Smith), which Hoon delivered in an oddly giddy voice in places; its themes of encroaching insanity forshadowed the problems that were soon to beset him. "Change" is a gentle, mellow song that also bore hints of darkness in its otherwise fairly unelaborate lyric. "Tones Of Home" is a beefy rocker, also with a wistful edge, and most of the rest is wll played and well sung, culminating in an excellent closer, the intense "Time".
Upon its release, however, Blind Melon didn't move many copies, necessitating a return to the road in earnest. Guns 'n' Roses helped out again, having the band open for them at a number of shows, and the band launched an intensive tour of smaller venues nationally. The video for "No Rain", which featured a girl in a bumblebee costume modeled after the album cover which featured an old pic of Graham's sister, went into rotation, and little by little the album's sales picked up. By mid-1993 the tour and promotion were finally paying off; the album eventually sold 4 million copies, establishing Blind Melon as a major player and one of the big names in rock, scoring fans among alternative rock listeners (despite recording for a major label) but they also had a mainstream, Guns 'n' Roses audience, and a roots-rock audience. The band started opening for Lenny Kravitz and Neil Young and became headliners themselves by early 1994. Blind Melon earned them a pair of Grammy nominations, and ultimately peaked at #3.
It's hard to say where things first went seriously wrong for the band, but as early as their first headlining tour of 1994, Hoon was already getting out of control, embarking on a downward spiral from which he would not recover. He had become addicted to drugs and booze and became remarkably unpredictable; showing up at gigs unable to perform, pissing off audiences, raising hell, and clashing with his own band. Midway through the tour, Hoon was no longer in any condition to be relied upon to perform, and the remaining dates were cancelled as Hoon went to rehab.
This was a bad situation; with the band on the rise, Hoon was in danger of blowing the whole thing right out of the starting gate. However, he emerged from rehab claiming to be all right, and the band played at Woodstock '94, where they earned an ovation, and even opened for the Rolling Stones at a few shows in September 1994. By this point two years had passed since their debut album, and Capitol started getting impatient for new product.
Deciding to leave glammy Los Angeles for the sessions, the band set up shop in rootsy New Orleans where sessions commenced with Andy Wallace producing. A follow-up album to the debut was recorded, although the sessions were difficult. Hoon was already off the wagon again, and seemed to be making up for time lost while sober in his ingestion of drugs and alcohol. At one point during the sessions he was arrested after a drunken brawl with an off-duty police officer. Hoon himself claimed he could remember almost nothing from the sessions, which went on over the course of several months.
The resulting album, Soup, is one of those albums like In Utero that became fascinating after the fact as an insight into a tortured mind bent on self destruction. While Blind Melon took depression and turned it into something almost playful, Soup is depression in all its naked ugliness; nearly all of Hoon's songs deal obliqely or squarely with death. "Skinned" takes the viewpoint of serial killer Ed Gein; "The Duke" and "St. Andrews Fall" dealt with moratality on a more personal level. The hard rocking "2x4" was Hoon's nod to rehab, which should have worried his counselors, and much of the rest is equally dark and despairing. The album's few hopeful moments, such as "New Life", about the impending birth of Hoon's baby daughter, are even sadder in a way, given the ultimate outcome. Musically, the band plays better than it did on the debut; their sound had expanded into Led Zeppelin style crunge, and clanking hard rockers, giving them an added menace the debut lacked, and their firepower helps rescue Hoon's songs from being complete downers. However, the overall impression one gets from the album is of disingenuous necromance; while a compelling and even good album, it leaves a very disconcerting aftertaste.
The critics picked up on that right away, and for the most part the album received negative, and at times harsh reviews. The overwhelming negativity of the reviews went beyond what the album seemed to warrant; in some respects the reviews were more of Hoon the person than Blind Melon the band. But whatever their motivation, they did help cool sales considerably; the album never got higher than #28, a big tailoff from the debut. Hoon's girlfriend gave birth shortly after the album's completion, and Hoon wnet around to interviewers telling them that his daughter had given him new reason to clean up and inspired him to look to the future.
Such talk, unfortunately, proved to be cheap in Hoon's case. At the band's urging, Hoon was readmitted to rehab prior to their support tour for Soup. Hoon's counselors were of the opinion that the road was no place for Hoon; his addiction was a tough one to crack, and Hoon wasn't a very compliant patient. Disappointed, the band almost cancelled the tour, but Hoon, in traditional junkie mode, conned them into believing he was clean and ready, and would be fine as he'd have a personal counselor on the road with him.
The new, clean and sober Shannon Hoon didn't last long on the tour. Within weeks he fired his counselor and again he seemed hellbent on making up for lost time in drug and alcohol consumption. This time, Hoon's troubles didn't land him in rehab again. Instead, On October 21, 1995, Hoon was discovered dead on Blind Melon's tour bus, from a drug overdose. He was 28 years old.
An epitaph was constructed by Capitol records, who never got a full return on their investment, in the form of a posthumous collection od demos, leftovers from the two albums, and assorted odds and sods. Titled Nico, after the daughter Hoon swore he'd clean up for yet never even got to know, the album is a bumpy listen as most collections of this nature are. It's also a frustrating listen, because scattered throughout are glimpses of the promise Blind Melon once had; snapshots of a band once confident enough to hoodwink Capitol into thinking they had a stockpile of songs they didn't have. "Soul One" is a gorgeous song, rescued from their original 4-song demo. "Swallowed" another dark number from the Soup sessions, is possibly better than many of the songs that did make it onto Soup. There are plenty of Hoon's drug obsessions present, in both original numbers, and covers of Hoyt Axton's "The Pusher" and John Lennon's "John Sinclair". Alleviating the crassness factor was a decision to donate some of the proceeds to the Musicians Assistants Program, which helps performers with drug problems.
In the wake of Hoon's death, Blind Melon attempted to carry on without him, auditioning new singers, and even trying to fashion Brad Smith into the new frontman, but it didn't work. Brad Smith and Christopher Thorn eventually formed a new band, Unified Theory, which released an album in 2000 with Chris Shinn handling vocals. Rogers Stevens wound up in Extra Virgin. A DVD bio, featuring interviews and performances, Letters From a Porcupine was released as the final word on Blind Melon.
Weekly Artist Overview, on brief hiatus, returns as a weekly feature. Look for it on Mondays beginning next week.