Blind Melon’s self-titled debut LP turns 20 years old
By Peter Lindblad
The white dress Shannon Hoon borrowed from his girlfriend for the occasion might as well have been a religious tunic. Appearing either messianic or slightly deranged, depending on your point of view, the late Blind Melon singer, colorful barrettes dangling from his stringy hair and smeared mascara framing his striking eyes, captivated and bewildered the Woodstock ’94 crowd with a manic, unhinged performance that led many to believe he was as high as a kite at the time.
From his vantage point onstage, Blind Melon bassist Brad Smith saw something different in the troubled Hoon that day. “I think his Woodstock performance in ’94 was really, really special because I had seen Shannon grow as a front man,” remembers Smith. “He really had command of that stage and he was really great. Everybody wanted to watch him. And that’s when I kind of realized, ‘Oh, we’re Shannon’s back-up band. We’re not Blind Melon.’ That’s the one show where it felt like we were Shannon’s band, for me personally. I don’t know if everybody feels that way. I thought Shannon was really strong. He looked amazing. He was really expressive. He was sober. And he was rocking out in front of 300,000 people.”
In characteristically unpredictable fashion, Hoon even tossed the band’s conga drums into the audience while the band plowed through “Time.” That was how wild Woodstock II got for Hoon and company.
Two days which will live in infamy, Woodstock ’94 eventually devolved into muddy, fiery mayhem and knuckleheaded violence. Blind Melon did not escape unscathed. Some critics were brutal in their assessment of Blind Melon’s gig; others were more kind. Despite all that, Smith looks back on Woodstock II as a transcendent experience for Blind Melon and the crowning moment in a meteoric rise to fame that flamed out all too soon – almost entirely due to the drug overdose that left Hoon dead in the band’s tour bus on October 21, 1995.
‘I never do reps’
In 2012, Smith has again started up Abandon Jalopy the solo project he created in the aftermath of Hoon’s death and then Blind Melon’s 1999 breakup.
Smith’s new album, Death and Joy, has hit the streets, and though it’s a more carefully crafted record than anything in the Blind Melon catalog, in some ways, it’s a throwback to the shaggy-haired, jam-happy, hippie mélange of folk, classic rock, jazz and neo-psychedelia that made Blind Melon a phenomenon in the early 1990s. One song in particular contains a touch of Hoon’s DNA.
“It was kind of cool on ‘Love Has a Way’ that Shannon’s daughter sang background vocals,” said Smith, who emphasized that Nico Blue is not seeking a music career and that he would dissuade her from doing so if she did express an interest. “We see Shannon’s daughter at least once a year. She comes out during the summer and visits us from California. She’s 16 now. So, last summer, I had ‘Love Has a Way’ on the burner, had my session already to go. And I was writing lyrics to it, changing some stuff, and she was here. And I said, ‘You should sing background vocals on this. You’d sound amazing.’ So, we came in here one afternoon, and we went through some stuff, and she stepped up to the mic and sang this really sweet sounding background vocal for ‘Love Has a Way.’ The punch line to that is love has a way of filling your heart, and I think it was kind of poignant for her to help with that song and get that message across.”
An artfully sketched piece of folk-pop that takes its cues from Dylan and Donovan, the hopeful, starry-eyed “Love Has a Way” is built around weathered acoustic strumming and Smith’s heartfelt vocals, while the funky “Dragonfly” features tight drum beats, swirls of sweaty organ and a kaleidoscopic, summery bridge of light piano and gently warped guitar sounds. And then there’s “Black Cloud,” a torrential downpour of slightly distorted, stabbing guitar, handclaps, rolling congas and surging emotions that come flooding out of Smith. It reflects how Smith feels about Blind Melon and the sausage grinder of a music industry that played a role in destroying Hoon.
“Most of that stuff is directly about how I feel or something that’s happening or what I’m trying to stay,” said Smith. “‘Black Cloud’ is basically about getting to a point in your life where you don’t really have a choice anymore. Your parents, when you grow up … you can do anything you want to do. You have this blank canvas, but I’ve been in bands and writing songs for so long, I don’t really want to do anything else. And I kind of came to that realization that I didn’t want to do anything else, and that’s not necessarily good for you. Rock and roll killed one of my best friends in a strange way, through drug addiction and not giving him a break or a reprieve from just the craziness that is rock and roll. And when Blind Melon got back together, with Travis [Warren in 2006], that was just laced with heartache and hard times, and ‘Black Cloud’ is one of those things where you’ve got to take the good with the bad.”
The good, with Smith, is a restlessly creative spirit bent on exploring an amalgam of divergent musical styles in every songwriting venture he’s ever undertaken. Why he can’t seem to settle on just one genre is a mystery to the ever-eclectic Smith.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t know. I don’t know … it’s really weird,” said Smith. “Every song that I ever write I feel is going to be my last. It is like, ‘Well, I’m never going to write one that good.’ Or, ‘I’m never going to write another song again.’ I really, honestly, in a strange way feel that way. I’m scared that I’m not going to be able to write a song again after I finish one. It’s really, really strange.”
And it’s too late for Smith to change now.
“You know, I’ve been writing songs since I was 14,” continued Smith. “I wrote ‘No Rain’ and I wrote ‘Toes Across the Floor’ and ‘Tones of Home’ and ‘Holyman.’ I wrote a bunch of songs for Blind Melon and they’re all a little bit different from each other. I don’t know if I even have a style. And I’m always worried about that. I mean, what do I sound like? What’s in my wheelhouse? If I wanted to write a song today, where would I go? I really don’t know. I feel like one of these weightlifters who just walks up to the bench and maxes out every time. I never do reps. I don’t really do reps. It’s like when I sit down on the bench, I’m like, ‘Stack as much shit on there as you can and just go for it.’ I don’t really just work out. I go right for the heart and max out every time. That’s the long answer (laughs).”
That might explain why the long delay between Abandon Jalopy’s first album, 2003’s Mercy, and the much tighter and more immediate Death and Joy, two albums made under very different circumstances in Smith’s life.
“[Death and Joy is] probably a little tighter than [Mercy],” admits Smith. “I was one step away from the nuthouse with that record, because Shannon had died and I didn’t really play music or touch an instrument for eight months to a year. When I started writing for that record, I was all f**ked up. Yeah, [Mercy is] a good record. It turns out, I captured that moment for me personally. Yeah, I think there are about five good songs on that record.”
From the slaughterhouse to California
These days, Smith cherishes being an independent artist, and he takes his DIY ethos seriously. For Death and Joy, he actually ships orders out of his garage. A possible distribution deal is in the works, however, as sales have been more brisk than anticipated. If an agreement is reached, it could bring Death and Joy to record stores everywhere.
A modest success so far, Death and Joy may never move the kind of units that Blind Melon’s 1992 self-titled debut – which turns 20 years old this year – did, having rocketed up the charts thanks to “No Rain” and a ubiquitous MTV video with a gleefully geeky dancing girl in a bee costume that nearly everyone on the planet fell in love with.
“I’ve gotten a bigger response from this record than I thought I would, to tell you the truth,” said Smith. “So I have this friend who is kind of advising me; he’s not really managing me, but he’s a manager that I can bounce stuff off of. And we’re of the mind at this point that we should go for some physical distribution. It’s on iTunes. You can buy it from my web site.”
These options, of course, were not available to Blind Melon when the band formed in California in 1989. A record deal with a major label used to be the path to fame and fortune, and it wouldn’t be long before those labels began showing up in droves on Blind Melon’s doorstep. But, before they did, Smith paid his dues and then some.
“I was busting concrete – literally busting concrete,” said Smith. “I was learning how to like pave driveways and build houses and all the while, I was doing open mic nights. I was playing down on Venice Beach. When I was down on Venice Beach, I was playing songs like ‘No Rain,’ you know? It was like one of the songs I wrote when I moved out to California.”
No stranger to menial labor, Smith learned the value of hard work in a Mississippi slaughterhouse. He had dropped out of college and took a job there one summer with an eye toward moving to the Golden State as soon as possible.
“I was working part-time there, but I got 40 hours,” related Smith, “and I saved up like $900 over a six-week period. Then, me and Rogers, who I grew up with, drove out to California with $900 and a 1980 Honda Civic wagon. Didn’t know a soul and just drove out here, did manual labor jobs.”
What Smith and Rogers found in California was a music scene dominated by hair-metal bands. They wanted no part of it. “You could kind of tell it was on its way out, but I just thought, ‘This music blows,’” said Smith. “I’m just not into it, you know. It is like, ‘Whoa, this is just not for me.’ Frankly, that was why I started playing open-mic nights, so I could do my own thing. There was no chance I was going to get swept up in it, because I didn’t subscribe to it in anyway.”
On occasion, however, Smith did give it a shot with some of L.A.’s more oddball acts. “I actually played in a band called the Glass Grenades, which was a girl-fronted group,” said Smith. “The band was really confused as to what we were going to do, what it sounded like. And she wrote all the material with her husband Carl. It was just very, very strange. I think after two gigs I said, ‘This is stupid. I’m going to go.’ I was also in a band called Damn and Janet, and that was really weird.”
For anybody who has ever seen the cult punk-rock film “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains,” Smith likes to compare Damn and Janet to the satirical fictional band the Metal Corpses. “The reason why I’m referencing this is because I just saw it recently and that movie is f**king hilarious,” laughs Smith. “I love that. You’ve got to go back and watch it. It’s so good, so good. But there’s band in there called Metal Corpses, and they kind of reminded me of this band I was in that was called Damn and Janet. It was based on the ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show.’ It was very strange.”
Looking for something a little less ridiculous and more in line with the home-grown classic rock he grew up with, Smith partnered with Stevens to start up Blind Melon. A true geographical melting pot, Blind Melon’s ranks included musicians from Pennsylvania, Indiana and Smith’s home state of Mississippi. Hoon was from the Hoosier State, and his sister Anna knew Guns ‘N Roses’ Axl Rose – which led to Hoon hooking up with Rose in L.A. and singing background vocals on various tracks from Use Your Illusion I and II, including “Don’t Cry” and “The Garden” from. After meeting Smith and Stevens at a party, he auditioned for them, and the song he sang was a keeper.
“I’ll tell you what Rogers and I tried out 20 singers – maybe 15 to 20 singers,” said Smith. “And I knew in the first seconds of him singing that he was the guy. It wasn’t even close. It was like, ‘Oh my God.’ He was fresh off the boat, from Indiana, with a small-town disposition, like Rogers and I had. We didn’t want to be part of the hair-metal rock scene at all. We just wanted to go for something that was genuine, fresh and real. I hate the word ‘real’ but we weren’t trying to cop someone else’s sound. We weren’t trying to play like someone else, and we came in with these great songs within weeks after meeting Shannon. But Shannon blew me away. What he played for his audition was that song ‘Change’ that’s on the first album. So he started into ‘Change,’ [sings] ‘I don’t feel the sun’s coming out today …’ Holy sh*t! It was just a great, great song.”
The sun did eventually break through the clouds for Blind Melon, but it sure took its sweet time.
What’s in a name?
The pieces in place, with Hoon, Stevens and Smith joined by guitarist Christopher Thorn and drummer Glen Graham, the band needed a name, and before they settled on Blind Melon, none of the choices they had seemed promising.
“You know, naming your band is really hard and it’s really kind of funny, too,” explains Smith. “It’s kind of like a bunch of grown-up dudes naming their clubhouse. You know what I mean? ‘What should we call our clubhouse? I want to call it the ‘point of no return’ or something like that.’ It’s like one of those things, like ‘Oh, we’ve got to name it.’ It’s one of those things where you’re just not into it. So, there were a bunch of bad names floating around, and everybody saying, ‘That’s fine,’ like How Now Brown Cow, which was a terrible band name. Or, I think Head Train was one of them, which was really stupid.”
There were more, but none were appealing. Then, out of the clear blue sky, Smith hit upon the name by accident.
“I came in just telling a story, ‘You guys ever hear of that Cheech and Chong movie, like there’s a guy in there named Blind Melon Chitlin?’” said Smith. “They were like, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘My dad used to scream that at his buddies.’ It was like ‘Look out there Blind Melon.’ And they were like doing a spoof on the Cheech and Chong movie. And I think Rogers or Christopher said that would be a good band name, Blind Melon. And I said, ‘Yeah, that really is.’ It has the kind of blues connotation. It’s actually from a comic book. A lot of people don’t know that. But Cheech Marin was kind of doing a spoof of Blind Lemon Jefferson, and he was Blind Melon Chitlin. And my dad would quote lines from the movie and say, ‘What’s happenin’ Blind Melon?’ Like he was Cheech and Chong, but my dad would say that all the time. So, as a five-year-old, I was like, ‘What is he talking about?’ And it got stuck in my head. And I learned all this stuff years later. I didn’t know where the name came from.”
There were more pressing matters to attend to, though, including demoing some songs to attract label interest. Tight on money, Blind Melon made do with the decidedly lo-fi equipment they had. “When the band got together, up and running, we were recording all the music live to cassette – literally, a home stereo cassette,” said Smith. “And just running live … I would mic everything up and get everybody to the side of the cassette deck and tell everybody to shut up ‘cause I couldn’t hear, you know. So, we were, in a weird way, blindly, just testing things out, stopping, testing things out, you know. But, we got to the point where we just said, ‘Let’s do the whole thing on cassette’ – just the music, not the vocals. And then, at home, Shannon and I both had four-track recorders. So we’d take the cassette deck, put it in there and tracks three and four were open for vocals.”
It was the four-song demo The Goodfoot Workshop – some of Blind Melon’s highly sought-after initial demos have wound up in the hands of friends of the band, according to Smith – that had tongues wagging in the music industry. Though they only had a handful of songs at the ready, Blind Melon conned label representatives into thinking that they had more stashed away. Many A&R types attended Blind Melon rehearsals to see what all the fuss was about. Smartly, Smith and company would end the sets playing only five songs and then claiming they were too tired to go on. All the while, Blind Melon was being wined and dined without ever having to do any club shows.
“I think we had 100 percent approval rating among people who got the cassette,” said Smith. “They were like, ‘Yeah, I want to see this band.’ And they didn’t want us to play live. They basically said, ‘Don’t book a show.’ They were probably afraid other people would hear us. But, we did private showcases. We did 11, probably 14 private showcases. I remember Capitol, Epic, MCA … I mean everybody. And all these people wanted to do private showcases with us. So that’s basically how we got signed. We didn’t even play a live show. I think we played one or two live shows – somebody’s birthday party, something like that. We were recording artists first. We weren’t really a live band first.”
With a little bit of money in their pockets after signing with the label that won their hearts – Capitol that is – Blind Melon succumbed to the temptations of the Hollywood lifestyle, even though they knew they still had plenty of work to do. An EP titled Slippin’ Time Sessions was finished in 1991, but the members of Blind Melon found it too slick for their liking, so they tossed it aside. Realizing they needed a quieter place to work and develop some chemistry, they decided to leave Southern California for a spell, telling the label they needed a year to hone their sound. They ended up in Durham, North Carolina, where they rented a dwelling that would come to be known as the “sleepyhouse.”
“I think we got caught up in Hollywood after we got signed. We had money. Everybody had some money,” said Smith. “We didn’t realize it was like really nothing. We didn’t really have that much money to say, f**k all, you know. But, we ended up as a band making the decision to move across the country, and you know, I’ve been asked that question, ‘Why did you have to go to Durham?’ And I have no idea. I don’t know why we went to Durham, but we did. We all lived in a house together. Somebody thought it was a good idea, and we kind of went along with it.”
While there, Blind Melon made good use of the time. “We had recording equipment in the living room. There were five bedrooms. And we all stayed in our own bedrooms and wrote songs and came down every night when the sun went down and rehearsed, just played songs and recorded on our 8-track we bought,” said Smith. “And it was kind of a short-lived thing, but it was very productive. I think Glen pointed out to me a year ago, he said, ‘You know, we were only in Durham for four months.’ I’m like, ‘Really?’ It felt like a year. We were only there for four months, but we got great songs out of that. We wrote ‘Sleepyhouse,’ ‘Soak the Sin?’ and ‘Deserted’ – all these great songs that came out of the ‘sleepyhouse’ as we called it.”
There was nothing sleepy about Blind Melon’s eponymous first album. Loose and lovably shambolic, Blind Melon’s earthy jams and Southern-rock infused sound had a visceral energy and a sunny disposition that would, in time, win over the alternative-rock community. Initially, however, the release garnered little attention, and that had everyone concerned.
“For a moment, I think the company and maybe our management, at some point, and even us, thought it wasn’t going to happen,” said Smith. “We weren’t going to break out of the 100,000 to 200,000 units sold. We toured in a van for over a year and a half before ‘No Rain’ hit. And there were other songs that were out as singles. ‘Tones of Home’ was a single, ‘Dear Ol’ Dad’ was a single, ‘Paper Scratcher’ was a single, and it wasn’t until ‘No Rain’ … the irony is, [‘No Rain’] tested really badly on radio. They would have all these panels. They would test it at radio to see how it would go over or what the people would say. And oh, this ‘No Rain’ is not going to fly. But there were a couple of people at Capitol Records who really believed in that song and fought the odds.”
Originally released in 1992, “No Rain” was given another kick at the can a year later. The Samuel Beyer-directed video helped propel the single up the U.S. pop charts, and on the strength of “No Rain,” Blind Melon reached multi-platinum nirvana. Unfortunately, the band was across the pond when “No Rain” blew up and was unable to build on the song’s success, even with strong tracks like “Change” and “Tones of Home” ready to go.
“We didn’t have super great management at the time,” said Smith. “They didn’t really lay out this long-range plan for success for us. They just had us doing what everybody else was doing – just tour until we have a hit on radio. They didn’t set it up to have anything waiting in the wings. We also, while ‘No Rain’ was I think No. 3 on the charts in the United States, we were in Europe. It was like the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of. Now that I look back on it, I’m a bass player and I know not to do that.”
What Smith does know is that Blind Melon had a unique quality that set it apart from other albums of the era. “It was a very dry record,” said Smith. “There’s hardly any reverb on anything. It was very dry, close mic-ed. Very few room sound mics and things like that. It was really straight in your face. I thought it was good. I thought it very original sounding. I think grunge was king at the time, and I think people at Capitol didn’t know what to do with us. It was a very original and raw record. They kind of strong-armed us into the grunge category. I don’t know why, but they did. I mean, I don’t think they … I think they based part of their opinion because we used the same record producer as Pearl Jam, Rick Parashar [who produced Ten]. But we didn’t sound anything like Pearl Jam, which was funny. I don’t think we did. It was dry sounding, it was like rock, you know. It was a killer record; it was so good. But I didn’t think we really sounded like them. I think we sounded closer to like the Allman Brothers.”
Every cliché in the book
If Blind Melon confused the good people at Capitol, Soup, the follow-up, must have completely baffled them. Released in 1995, eight weeks before Hoon’s death, Soup was all over the map, with murder songs like the country-flavored “Skinned” and “Car Seat (God’s Presents)” bumping up against uplifting fare like “New Life.” A song of salvation for Hoon, the lyrics of “New Life” had everything to do with his new baby girl Nico Blue and his hope for a better future.
It wouldn’t come. Hoon continued his downward spiral, fighting his addiction with every breath he had. A confounding individual, Hoon’s drug-fueled, hair-trigger temper always seemed at odds with what was an otherwise caring and sweet nature. His increasing unreliability, however, caused headaches for the rest of the band. “When he was in rehab and things like that, it came down to things like scheduling,” said Smith. “Were we going to be a band or weren’t we going to be a band? That was frustrating.”
Hoon’s demons would get the best of him, and the savage beating Soup took in the music press added more stress to Blind Melon. Informed by the band’s wild time in New Orleans, Soup took on the disparate, dissolute character of the Big Easy. “I was a vampire back then for sure. I was getting up at 4 in the afternoon and writing songs and playing billiards,” said Smith. “It’s just action 24-7. You could go out anytime, whenever you were awake, there was something to do and some trouble to be found. It was crazy.”
Looking back, Smith is not at all surprised at the reaction Soup got. To him, it was a bizarre record, the product of feverish creativity. “I thought it was such a weird, crazy record I was amazed people got it at all,” said Smith. “You know what I mean? I was like, man, people really like this record. I was shocked, but I’m always shocked when people seem to like something crazy and weird. It was definitely not a hit-laden record. I think what some people don’t know about that record is how prolific the band was. We wrote, collectively, and tidied up 24 pieces of music within like a three-week period, and we went straight to the studio with Andy Wallace, so everybody was writing songs with a vengeance. And just the power and how prolific the band was at that stage of its career was kind of astounding.”
Much has been written of Hoon’s life, his death and what he left behind. In some ways, the memories of Hoon and his soul-baring lyrics tend to overshadow Blind Melon’s accomplishments. Left to pick up the pieces, the remaining members of Blind Melon tried to carry on without Hoon, but too much had happened, too many things had gone wrong. And replacing a force of nature like Hoon was almost impossible. Still, though, people haven’t forgotten about Blind Melon. There are myriad web sites devoted to all things related to the band, plus books and other types of tribute. Blind Melon has become an honest-to-goodness cult band, and Smith is humbled by the fact that they have not been relegated to dustbin of history.
“We made every mistake and cliché in the book that you can think of – everyone,” said Smith. “I mean, ‘Spinal Tap’ is not funny to me, right down to the singer ODing like right before the second record. Every bit of bad luck, or bad breaks, or bad choices – everything we did as a band to destroy ourselves did not deter people still from connecting with the music and the stories and Shannon’s spirit even today. And believe me I’m blown away by it. I think there are probably no better fans than Blind Melon fans.”
As for Abandon Jalopy, Smith doesn’t harbor any illusions. “I’m going to take it as it comes,” said Smith. “The response has been so positive that it makes me want to tour, get physical distribution, and I’m going to go out and play some songs. I’m going to play smaller places. I’ve got two records worth of material to choose from, plus I can throw in a Blind Melon song here and there, and play sets and go out in front of people who want to hear it. I know people want to hear it live, so I want to make that happen.”