Haunted by Success

updated 04/04/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/04/1994 01:00AM

IT WAS A ROCK-AND-ROLL FANTASY COME true. The Gin Blossoms, a smalltime Tempe, Ariz., bar band, emerged from obscurity last fall when two of their infectious, guitar-and-harmony-rich tunes became hits. But just as "Hey Jealousy" and "Found Out About You" were pushing sales of the group's debut album, New Miserable Experience, past the million mark, the Gin Blossoms' dream turned to ashes. On the weekend of Dec. 4, Doug Hopkins, 32, the group's founding guitarist and chief songwriter, who had been fired from the band 19 months earlier, walked into his Tempe apartment, lay down on his bed and shot himself in the head with a .38-cal. special.

The bullet brought a sad, violent end to the gifted lyricist's troubled life and cast a pall over his former bandmates. Even with their album selling 40,000 copies a week and a spring tour as concert headliners underway, lead singer Robin Wilson, 28, bassist Bill Leen, 32, drummer Phillip Rhodes, 25, and guitarists Jesse Valenzuela, 31, and Scott Johnson, 31, struggle with feelings of grief and guilt. "Without Doug and his songwriting, we never could have signed a record deal," says Wilson, who, along with the other band members, kicked Hopkins out of the group in April 1992 when his alcoholism made it impossible for him to record or tour. "Even Doug admitted we couldn't have succeeded with him in the band." Then Wilson adds, after a pensive pause, "He also felt we had betrayed him."

Brooding and precocious as a youth, Hopkins seemed to have found the perfect outlet for his teenage iconoclasm in 1981 when, two years after graduating from Tempe's McClintock High School, he and Leen formed their first rock group. "I bought a bass and didn't know how to play it," says Leen. "Doug had a guitar that he couldn't play. So we started a band the next week." Six years later the pair had mastered their instruments well enough to become the Gin Blossoms—Hopkins, an increasingly heavy drinker, and Leen took the name from a phrase used to describe capillary damage caused by excessive imbibing—with Tempe-based guitarist Valenzuela. Wilson, a skateboarding chum of Hopkins's, signed on in 1988, and drummer Rhodes, a Scottsdale native fresh from a two-year hitch in the Navy, joined later that year.

By 1990 the Gin Blossoms were Tempe's hottest bar band, and early that year they were signed to a recording contract with A&M Records. But by the time they began to record their debut album in February 1992, Hopkins's drinking made it impossible for him to function in the studio. After a week or so he staggered out, asking the producer to find someone else to play his guitar parts.

Friends say Hopkins became increasingly despondent as the Gin Blossoms began to score hits, making appearances on NBC's Late Night with David Letterman and winning raves from critics intrigued by Hopkins's depressive lyrics, which the band delivered in such bright pop wrappings. "With music as exhilarating as this," wrote one critic, "misery has rarely sounded so good."

For Hopkins, unfortunately, misery was far more than a creative affectation. After his death his ex-bandmates remained grounded in Tempe while Leen healed from a broken hand suffered two days before Hopkins's Dec. 8 memorial service. While awaiting royalties from sales of their album, each band member was living on a $760-a-month salary from A&M. Before setting off on their current tour, Leen stayed home with his wife, Gwynne, and their 6-month-old daughter, Miranda, while Johnson says he and his wife, Laura, who is pregnant with their second child, struggled to meet the mortgage payments on their small home. Wilson, who shares a cluttered three-bedroom apartment with two roommates, spent the downtime writing songs with Valenzuela, the group's only teetotaler. "Sure I'm nervous about making a second record," says Wilson. "But I'm going to do the best I can."

Even as the band looks to the future, memories of Hopkins persist. At his memorial service the Blossoms were approached by a woman bearing what she said was a message from Hopkins. Did they remember when someone poured sugar into the gas tank of their tour van back in 1992? Well, the woman said, Hopkins had instructed her to tell them that he was the culprit. "Hearing that at the funeral sorta made me feel good," says Wilson. "Doug was always good at getting the last laugh, that's for sure."

STEVE DOUGHERTY
MICHAEL SMALL in Tempe

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