The Night the Music Died
07/29/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
THE STORY WAS DEPRESSINGLY familiar. Jonathan Melvoin, a promising young musician touring with Smashing Pumpkins, one of pop music's most acclaimed bands, had returned to a Manhattan hotel room with Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin on the night of July 11 after scoring a quantity of high-grade heroin on a seedy street corner in the East Village. By 4 a.m. the next morning, Chamberlin was calling police after waking from a drug-induced stupor and finding Melvoin, 34, who had been playing keyboards for the band since they began their world tour in January, dead of a drug overdose. Melvoin "was no Mr. Goody Two-shoes," one friend concedes, yet the manner of his death "just didn't seem like him." So what might have happened? "When you're out on the road," notes one of the band's intimates, "you're in this little cocoon. You're in this sort of alternate reality." Adds Melvoin's friend: "Every night you've got people bringing you drugs. All that could have contributed to it. That's just the way it goes."
With his death, Melvoin joins Jerry Garcia, Kurt Cobain and a long roll call of musicians seduced by heroin, including fellow alternative rockers Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon and Kristen Pfaff of Hole. Ironically, Smashing Pumpkins—which had been enjoying the greatest success of their nine-year existence with their tour and recent Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness album, selling over three million copies in the U.S.—has a reputation, despite Chamberlin's past struggles with substance abuse, as a drug-free group. "Heroin hasn't been a problem for the other members," says a source close to the band. They did, though, know about Chamberlin's addiction. In a strongly worded statement issued Wednesday, Billy Corgan, 29, James Iha, 28, and D'Arcy, 28, said they had decided to sever ties with Chamberlin, 32, because his long-term problems with alcohol and drugs, coupled with his arrest on possession charges, "has nearly destroyed everything we are and stand for."
The manner of Melvoin's death is also out of keeping with everything he was expected to stand for. The brother of former Prince protégé Wendy Melvoin and the son of Mike Melvoin, a jazz pianist who is a former chairman of the National Academy of Recording Artists and Sciences and a crusader against drugs in the music industry, Jonathan began playing drums at the age of 5. His parents divorced when he was 14, and he moved with his mother from California to New York City and eventually to Conway, N.H. In 1994, Melvoin, who worked between gigs as an emergency medical technician, and his wife, Laura, bought a home in Kearsarge, N.H., and prepared for the birth of their son Jacob August last spring. When the call came from the Pumpkins, Melvoin "said he was proud that the Pumpkins was a drug-free band," recalls Meghan Simone, who interviewed him for a Conway high school paper last December.
After Melvoin's death, the group suspended their tour, but only temporarily. They would take time to mourn, then get back on the road.