As Tempe celebrates its musical legacy, friends remember the troubled life of late Gin Blossoms guitarist Doug Hopkins.
Local musician Lawrence Zubia tells a story about Doug Hopkins, in which Hopkins hops a slow-moving freight train at Mill Avenue, intending to jump off when it neared his Tempe apartment. But the train picked up speed and Hopkins ended up in Tucson, where he spent the night drinking at a bar in Hotel Congress before taking a bus back to Phoenix.
The image of the late, lanky Hopkins (he stood 6-foot-3 and wore a size 13 shoe) crouched and shivering atop a speeding train in the dark, his long hair whipping his eyes in the furious wind and desert dust caking his flannel shirt, seems a fitting metaphor for the musician’s life. He founded the Gin Blossoms, the biggest rock band to emerge from the thriving Tempe music scene of the early ‘90s, and penned their first two hit singles. But the band fired him while recording their breakthrough album, citing Hopkins’ heavy drinking. Struggling financially and plagued by depression and alcoholism, he committed suicide in December 1993.
The Gin Blossoms continued to enjoy some commercial success post-Hopkins, but never escaped the specter of his demise. December marks the 21st anniversary of Hopkins’ death, and as the Tempe History Museum celebrates the city’s musical legacy with an exhibition called The Tempe Sound that includes several Hopkins items, the troubled troubadour is center stage again. “It’s this sort of ghostly anvil that we carry around. There’s always this weight, always this knowledge,” Gin Blossoms singer Robin Wilson says. “I can’t ever sing those songs without thinking about him. I think about him constantly.”
More than two decades after his death, emotions run deep among Hopkins’ friends and former bandmates. There are those who believe, as Hopkins did, that the Gin Blossoms wronged him and only achieved success on the strength of his songs. But there are others who say the band did everything they reasonably could to help the guitarist, and in the end, he was solely responsible for his own collapse. There is sadness. There is guilt. There is anger. But there is also a melancholy celebration of Hopkins’ musical brilliance – the one thing everybody agrees on. “He had a distinct vision as a songwriter,” Wilson says. “He was the best songwriter in the band.”
Those close to Hopkins describe a man of many dimensions – a stellar songwriter who was perpetually inspired, tapping out keyboard sequences on car dashboards and scribbling lyrics on napkins; a shy boyfriend who read the poetry of Rimbaud to his girlfriend at bedtime; an angry ex-bandmate on a rampage; a snarky-humored guy with a quick comeback for any insult; a depressed alcoholic insomniac who had to be watched constantly. “He was a funny dude. Man, was he funny,” Hopkins’ high school friend and early bandmate Jim Swafford says. “But he was crude and he was rude... He was too intelligent to even exist on this planet. He was eternally bored.”
Hopkins was born in Seattle, Wash., on April 11, 1961, and grew up in Tempe with his parents and younger sister, Sara. He was a skilled skateboarder, and a gifted guitarist, ultimately devoting more time to the latter and forming numerous bands throughout high school and college. Hopkins graduated from McClintock High School in 1979, and from ASU (with a sociology degree) in 1985. “He himself joked pretty much that degree allowed him to work at the gas station down on the corner. He would always joke about his sociology degree, but he was really, really smart,” Swafford says. “He read a lot of books, a lot of different books... and I think because he was so well-read and had such a huge vocabulary, he could take his personal experiences – which were pretty sad, if you read the lyrics – but he’d mix them with pop tunes.”
In 1987, Hopkins formed the Gin Blossoms with bassist Bill Leen. The following year, after the pair had practiced their playing to a level of proficiency, Hopkins’ skateboarding buddy Jesse Valenzuela joined the band as singer, and Phil Rhodes became the drummer. After a few lineup changes, Robin Wilson joined as guitar player but switched roles with Valenzuela to be the vocalist. By 1990, the Gin Blossoms were one of the hottest bands in Tempe, playing three to four nights a week and packing places like the legendary Long Wong’s music venue on Mill Avenue. “They had a huge appeal,” says Sara Cina, who booked shows at Long Wong’s from 1990 until it closed in 2004. “They would play Friday and Saturday night, and they would play all night long... so you can imagine how many beers and whatnot made their way to the stage. So by the end of the night, there were all kinds of crazy things. Robin and Doug would do chicken fights, and Robin would jump on top of Doug, and people in the audience would do the same thing, and they’d have chicken fights while Doug’s playing guitar and Robin’s singing.”
Sandra Quijas, Hopkins’ girlfriend, says his brazen onstage demeanor contrasted with his off-stage personality. She met him in 1990 at Long Wong’s, where she’d started waitressing not long after moving from a small town in Nebraska. One night, a woman approached Quijas and told her, “My friend likes you,” and pointed to Hopkins.
“I said, ‘Are we in high school?’” Quijas recalls with a chuckle. “He was really shy. He always had his hair in his eyes. That was his shield. I remember he told me that when he first got glasses, he didn’t like them. He preferred to see the world through a blur.”
More often than not, Hopkins’ blurry vision was intensified by his drinking, which was as legendary as his playing. “He could go out any night of the week – broke – and come home drunk,” Quijas says. “But he was too smart and too funny for me to ever stay mad at him.”
New York Times best-selling author Laurie Notaro, a Phoenix native who was close friends with Hopkins, remembers trying to carry Hopkins through the streets of Flagstaff, and him falling into a parked car and breaking the rearview mirror. Once, Swafford says, he and another friend held Hopkins up in the bathroom while he peed all over their feet. “If it wasn’t for alcohol – certainly, I think he did suffer from a bit of depression, but it was the alcohol that really exacerbated that,” Notaro says. “He was an alcoholic. There’s no two ways to get around it. There were a lot of our friends who were alcoholics.”
The Gin Blossoms landed a deal with A&M Records in 1990, and went to Memphis to record what would become their multiplatinum 1992 album, New Miserable Experience. Wilson says Hopkins fell apart, drinking heavily, refusing to record guitar solos and unable to stand. At one point, Wilson says, Hopkins tried to skip out on the recording sessions, but was denied boarding and arrested at the airport in Memphis for public intoxication. “That night, the other four of us went out, and we sat there going, ‘What in the hell are we going to do?’ We decided then we were going to finish the record, but we didn’t even know if we would have a band when the record was done,” Wilson says. “We didn’t know if we were going to fire Doug, or if we were going to give him six months, or what... it was just awful. He just crumbled.”
The band dismissed Hopkins near the end of the recording sessions and replaced him with Scott Johnson, who’d been playing in Tempe power-pop bands since the ‘80s. Wilson says it was not an easy decision. “There isn’t a darker scenario to face than losing your leader in the middle of recording, and then having to move on without him and sort of reinvent the band,” he says. “There’s no heavier responsibility for a young group.”
Doused in aftershave to cover the smell of his drinking binge – and apparently unaware he’d been fired – Hopkins flew back to Phoenix. Quijas says she came home to find him, two days sober, listening to demos from the recording sessions and making notes on how to improve the songs. Then he found out he’d been fired, and started drinking heavily again. To make matters worse, the Gin Blossoms were demanding Hopkins sign over one of his royalty points for New Miserable Experience to Johnson before he would receive any money due to him. In a dire financial situation – Quijas says the couple were living off her tips – Hopkins reluctantly signed away half his album royalties. The Gin Blossoms went on tour. The album spawned five top 40 singles on the Billboard charts, but the only two to crack the top five were “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You” – both written by Hopkins.
Over the ensuing year, Hopkins told his friends he wanted to die. He’d long struggled with depression and had attempted suicide before. But now the Gin Blossoms were on tour without him, they were playing his songs on The Late Show with David Letterman, he couldn’t stay sober and he wasn’t receiving what he felt was his fair share of royalties. “Many things pushed him,” Quijas says. “But [them] taking half his money, I believe, was a shove.”
Friends and family staged an intervention. Quijas says Hopkins snuck out through the sliding door in the kitchen and jumped a 6-foot patio wall to escape. “No one wanted to let him go,” Notaro says. “And a lot of people did whatever they could to keep him around as long as we could before you burned out on it. Because he was really difficult. I called 911 on him and had him put in the hospital. And as he was being rolled out by the paramedics, he was just like, ‘You’re a [expletive] bitch.’ Oh god, he was mad! But like I said, we wanted to keep him around, in the hopes that he would get better.”
Hopkins did try to get sober several times, according to Quijas. The longest he managed to make it was two weeks. He formed another band, The Chimeras, with brothers Mark and Lawrence Zubia, and the band garnered interest from record labels and a spot at the 1993 South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. But Hopkins continually expressed anger over being fired from the Gin Blossoms. One night, Hopkins saw Wilson in a local club. “About the time ‘Found Out About You’ became a single, we were on tour and I stumbled into Long Wong’s in the middle of the tour, and I didn’t know he was there,” Wilson recalls. “And he came up and cold-cocked me... slugged me in the face, knocked me down. He said, ‘You coattail-riding son of a bitch!’ Right in front of the crowd at Long Wong’s.”
Hopkins received a gold record for “Hey Jealousy” in November of 1993. It hung on the wall of his apartment for two weeks before he took it down and destroyed it. “I don’t think he cared, at that point,” Quijas says. “[The Gin Blossoms] were driving away in his car, as he put it.”
Photos by Mirelle Inglefield, courtesy Tempe History Museum; Clockwise from top left: Show flier Doug Hopkins made for his first band’s inaugural show; Gin Blossoms poster created by Tempe street artist Elvis “The Cat” Del Monte; Hopkins’ ID from McClintock High School in Tempe; Hopkins’ Gibson Les Paul guitar – all on display at the Tempe History Museum beginning November 14.
Reportedly disappointed in the low audience turnout for their shows, Hopkins left The Chimeras, who became The Pistoleros. The last time Hopkins was on stage was about a week before he died, at Tony’s New Yorker Club in Tempe, where he played a set with local bluesman Hans Olson. “We jammed, but he seemed seriously depressed,” Olson recalls. After the first set, Olson told Hopkins to come back after the break and play the second set. Hopkins agreed and left his guitar and amp on stage. But he never came back. At the end of the night, Olson says, “I loaded all my equipment out, and the club owner was wanting to lock up, and I walked over to his amp and turned it off. And I thought, ‘This is very bizarre.’”
On December 5, 1993, Hopkins committed suicide with a .38 caliber pistol. He was 32. Everyone around him was devastated. But few were shocked. “We were all running around to see who could watch Doug, those sort of things, and it just got to a point where there was just no helping him,” Lawrence Zubia says. “He was going to do what he was going to do, and there was no stopping him from doing it.”
The Gin Blossoms’ follow-up record to New Miserable Experience was released in 1996. The title, Congratulations, I’m Sorry, was a reference to Hopkins. Wilson has fielded myriad angry accusations over the years, most notably that the band made Hopkins sign over half the publishing rights to his songs after they dismissed him. (Not true, Wilson says, though he confirms the band made him sign a contract relinquishing some of his album royalties for New Miserable Experience.) But what bothers Wilson the most, he says, is the unrealized potential of their partnership. “Doug and I were sort of co-frontmen in the band. He was sort of like the Angus Young of our group. In a lot of ways, he was the frontman. Having that lead singer/lead guitar player thing... the sort of thing that he and I did onstage was really special,” Wilson says. “And of course it was our intention that he and I become the [Steven] Tyler and [Joe] Perry of the ‘90s, of our generation, but... of all the many levels of loss, that’s the one that particularly sort of rankles me, that we could have been so much more than we already were together.”
Maybe Hopkins would get a kick out of seeing his stuff on display in The Tempe Sound exhibition, especially his orange sunburst Gibson six-string, its guitar head charred in the spot where he’d stick smoldering cigarettes between the tuner keys while playing onstage. “I think he was the center of all things good that happened for the Gin Blossoms, and for Tempe,” Notaro says. “Some people really hero-worshipped him, and I think he inspired a lot of people. And I think that helped create the scene that was in the ‘90s. You had somebody who was so good, doing such awesome things, and it really spurred a lot of people to get up and try it. So I think he was the match of that scene. Or the spark. Or both.”
Those who were part of the Tempe music scene in the early ‘90s have come to accept they will never fully escape the ghost of Hopkins. “All of us from that time are still friends, and that’s kind of unusual,” Cina says. “It’s strange because we’re bonded by tragedy and greatness. It’s this weird bond, because people want to talk about the history and all the great things, but then there’s also this great tragedy connected to it. And we were young. It was tough. I think that’s why everyone still gets emotional.”
In the end, Hopkins’ life was like the runaway train he’d taken to Tucson. “He felt things a little bit more than other people feel them. And not to be cliché, but I think it was a blessing and a curse for him,” Notaro says. “And I think he tried to smother those things, especially after he got thrown out of the band with drinking. Like I said, it certainly didn’t make things better. It sped things up, like he was on a speeding train to complete annihilation, and no one could stop that train. Nobody.”
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