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Back For Seconds
Tragedy Knocked Blind Melon Off the Rock Radar 12 Years Ago. But With a New Lead Singer, the Time May Be Ripe for a Comeback. 
All pictures by Jim Graham

 
By David Segal for the Washington Post (March 3, 2008)

The idea seemed so crazy and potentially embarrassing that initially nobody would say it out loud. Guitarist Christopher Thorn thought of it first but kept it to himself for weeks, tossing it around in his head. Revive the band ? It seemed insane and at the same time, kind of thrilling. But insane. But kind of thrilling.

It had been 12 years since the remaining four members of Blind Melon had played Blind Melon songs, 12 years since the band's lead singer -- the charismatic, hard-partying and doomed Shannon Hoon -- overdosed on Oct. 21, 1995. The group was supposed to perform in New Orleans that night, but moments after Hoon's body was discovered on the tour bus, it was over. Everything but the royalty checks just disappeared.

 picture by Jim Graham

Picture it: One day, you're big enough to move nearly 4 million units of a self-titled debut album, big enough to open for the Rolling Stones, big enough to merit the ultimate compliment that rock has to offer, a cover story in Rolling Stone magazine. (The photographer persuades you to pose in the buff, which you're still pretty peeved about. Still. The cover.) Your band's twangy, forlorn, hippie-rock single, "No Rain," is so huge that it splinters alternative radio listeners into two camps: those who love "No Rain" and those who want to murder the DJs who keep playing "No Rain." Even the pudgy little girl who appears in the video, dressed in this too-cute bee costume, becomes famous.

That's life before the morning of Oct. 21, 1995. By that afternoon, done.

"I moved to New York City like five days after Shannon's funeral," says the group's other guitarist, Rogers Stevens. "It was psychologically damaging. I didn't have the skills to know what to do with myself after something like that. I had put all my chips on the table and lost them all. I felt lost for years."

There was some talk about forming a new band, with a new lead singer, and starting from scratch, with new songs, but within a few months that kind of fizzled. Thorn set up a recording studio in Los Angeles with the bass player, Brad Smith, and became a workaholic. ("I went into survival mode," Thorn says, "and just worked nonstop.") Drummer Glen Graham moved to North Carolina and into seclusion with his wife. Stevens tried his hand at painting and started a few bands, which didn't go anywhere.

That might have been the last anyone heard from Blind Melon, except that a guy at Atlantic Records sent a scruffy and promising young singer and songwriter to the studio that Thorn and Smith own. Originally, the goal was to record the kid and get him signed. But there was something about Travis Warren, something very Hoonlike in both his voice and manner. And he turned out to be a compulsively dedicated Blind Melon fan. He hadn't just memorized all of the band's albums. He had dozens of bootlegs.

And he didn't just admire Shannon Hoon. To Thorn and Smith's astonishment, he had a 10-inch portrait of the guy tattooed on his back. He showed it off during a smoke break on the patio soon after he first walked into the studio, a six-pack and a bag of weed in hand.

"Check this out," he said, pulling up his T-shirt.

It's been a year and a half since Warren was asked to write songs and sing with the reconstituted band, a proposal that Thorn and Smith made rather nervously at a backyard barbecue, like a sophomore asking for a date. And this is actually the group's second jaunt across the country. (The first, booked in small venues and bypassing D.C., was a successful toe-in-the water experiment to determine if anyone cared.) But performing again as Blind Melon -- the veterans here are still getting their noggins around it.

"It's like the dog you loved when you were a kid came back from the dead and just showed up back at your door, wagging his tail like nothing had ever happened," Smith says. "That's what this feels like to me."


"Twelve years of feeling like you weren't where you were supposed to be," says Stevens, "and all of a sudden, you're there."
 
And he didn't just admire Shannon Hoon. To Thorn and Smith's astonishment, he had a 10-inch portrait of the guy tattooed on his back. He showed it off during a smoke break on the patio soon after he first walked into the studio, a six-pack and a bag of weed in hand.

"Check this out," he said, pulling up his T-shirt.

It's been a year and a half since Warren was asked to write songs and sing with the reconstituted band, a proposal that Thorn and Smith made rather nervously at a backyard barbecue, like a sophomore asking for a date. And this is actually the group's second jaunt across the country. (The first, booked in small venues and bypassing D.C., was a successful toe-in-the water experiment to determine if anyone cared.) But performing again as Blind Melon -- the veterans here are still getting their noggins around it.
 

picture by Jim Graham

Now in their late 30s, these guys look like only marginally weathered versions of the longhairs who pretended to play in that green field for the "No Rain" video, except for Stevens, who looks pretty different because he shaves his head. Warren, who just turned 28, speaks with a drawl from his native Texas and wears a T-shirt with Woody Allen's face on it. He steps outside to smoke every few minutes and lets the rest of the band do most of the talking, in part because a lot of what they want to talk about is him -- his talent, his pipes, how they couldn't have found a dude better suited for this gig if they'd been looking.

It's the last Sunday in February and the second incarnation of Blind Melon is sitting on the floor in a room surrounded by carpet samples in York, Pa. Thorn grew up here and his sister owns this place, part of a ServiceMaster franchise.

The band will spend five days here fine-tuning for a six-month tour, which arrives at the 9:30 club tonight. The original members of the group plus Warren are just back from dinner at a nearby Irish pub. Now they're in a little circle, taking turns explaining how Blind Melon redux is blowing their minds.

If it's possible for a guy to be too much like Shannon Hoon, Warren is that guy. He had enough difficulty with drugs and drink that he swore off both a year ago, and for a while toured with a "sober coach." But he fell off the wagon a few months back, in Ohio, and when this tour is over he'll have to do a little time for a DUI charge. He retains, though, the slightly reckless, up-for-anything air that rock seemed to invent. It comes through when he says he's a little bummed about that Hoon tattoo on his back because the artist just didn't have the chops for a convincing portrait. Asked why he didn't stop her, Warren says, "I didn't see it until it was too late. It's on my back."

All five of these guys understand that they are now attempting what is arguably the most ill-advised stunt in rock: resuscitating a band with a deceased lead singer. Not just any lead singer, either. Hoon was the only member of Blind Melon whose name anybody knew. And the goal here isn't a nostalgia act, but new songs, starting with an album called "For My Friends" to be released in April.

Does this ever work? Well, AC/DC achieved heavy metal world domination with a new singer after its first one expired, but that was after a relatively brief hiatus. After 12 years? If there is a precedent, no one here can think of it.

"It sounds like a terrible idea, doesn't it?" says Thorn.

"Yeah," says Graham. "Reform band with dead singer? Bad idea."

Everyone agrees: If they weren't in Blind Melon and they read about the reunion of Blind Melon, they'd smell fiasco.

"You always hear bands say, 'This new stuff holds up well against our old stuff,' and everybody knows it doesn't," says Stevens, a sentiment that provokes laughs. "I've been hearing guys in bands say that my whole life. And now I'm one of those guys!"

When the band decided to get back together, Stevens was on the verge of returning to college so he could finish his undergraduate degree, so he could eventually apply to law school. Graham was just hanging out in North Carolina in a house he'd built with Blind Melon money and his funds were just starting to dry up. Thorn and Smith were running their studio. All four had tried their hands with other groups, but they never jelled. Not like Blind Melon. In hindsight, that seemed effortless.

The band coalesced in Los Angeles in 1990, when Stevens and Smith -- childhood pals from the same small town in Mississippi -- met Hoon while practicing in a garage. He strolled in with a mutual friend, after an AA meeting.

"He was basically just off the bus from Indiana," Stevens recalls, "but I'd already heard about him. He was that kind of guy. He just filled a room."

He arrived with a passel of songs and an exceptional personal connection: Guns N' Roses singer Axl Rose had gone to high school with Hoon's older sister. In the early '90s, this was like knowing the emperor during the Ming Dynasty, and when Hoon showed up on the GN'R video "Don't Cry," the labels were panting.

Thorn was recruited by Smith, whom he'd met at an audition. Graham was another hometown friend; Stevens called him after scouring Los Angeles for a drummer with some finesse. Blind Melon was signed on the strength a five-song demo, before ever playing in public.

At a time when metal and bombast were the rage in L.A., Blind Melon came across as vaguely retro, finding the basics of its sound in classic Southern rock bands, like the Allman Brothers and assorted folkies. Sales of the album were disappointingly weak for about a year after its 1992 release, until the video for "No Rain" hit MTV. The change was instantaneous. Stevens remembers getting ready to play a show in St. Louis and looking out of his window at a crowd standing on the sidewalk, lined up for blocks.
 

picture by Jim Graham

"My room was right across the street from the club, and I thought, 'Oh, there's a parade in town or something.' "

"I thought the president was visiting," says Thorn.

"Then, at some point," Stevens goes on, "we realized that was the line to see us."

Typically, this part of the story is told against a montage of flashbulbs, limos and giggling groupies. There are some montage-worthy moments, but success for Blind Melon made its members anxious. Thorn remembers this peculiar feeling of dread while standing at the corner of Melrose and Martel in L.A., looking at himself on the cover of Rolling Stone and realizing, to his horror, that every one of his dreams had come true. A million in sales, a tour with the Stones, publicity you can't buy.

"And I hadn't lived long enough to develop any new dreams," he says, in a tone that suggests he knows how crazy that sounds. "I just remember feeling like something bad was going to happen, like a piano was going to drop on my head. There was nowhere to go but down."


"Impending doom," Smith adds with a nod.

The problem wasn't just success. Hoon had stunning mood swings, from chilled out one moment to violent the next. He punched people who hassled him, especially if they were cops, which led to lockups and lawsuits. His appetite for drugs seemed bottomless and two trips to rehab didn't help. There were binges, reconciliations, fights, more binges. There were plenty of times when all four watched him overindulge and thought, "He's going to die tonight." But he survived, which made him seem indestructible. 

"You started to think, well, he didn't die those other nights we thought he was going to die," says Thorn, "so he'll be okay tonight."

"It's crazy we didn't address it more, talk about it more," says Smith, "but it just became part of our everyday life."

The crowd at the Blind Melon show this past Saturday night in the Hiro Ballroom in Manhattan is mostly in the 26-to-38-year-old range. They'd fallen for Hoon and the Bee Girl as teenagers and the group's first album gets now-and-then play on their iPods. A woman with a ponytail and a red bandana wears a T-shirt that says "Shannon Hoon, 1967 to 1995, gone but not forgotten," but nobody has come here to heckle.

That happened last time the band played New York, when a guy just planted himself in front of Warren and raised a middle finger, high and mad. This audience either likes or doesn't mind the newcomer, who's dressed like a street urchin in fingerless gloves and, truth be told, moves and sings a lot like Shannon Hoon.

"Thank you for coming out and supporting this band," Warren says, midway through the show. Then he launches into a short speech he always gives onstage. About how he's not trying to take Shannon's place, about how he'd much prefer to be out there, with you guys, watching Shannon sing. But that's not possible. He knows it's difficult. So thank you.

It's a heartfelt semi-apology that nobody here asked for. The insane, potentially embarrassing idea seems neither insane nor embarrassing in a room that's chanting and swaying together, and not just to "No Rain."

One of the paradoxes of Blind Melon, Take Two, is the sense you get that the original members are enjoying themselves more than ever, even though a return to the Big Time is hard to fathom. There's nothing like relative obscurity to make you appreciate moderate success, and once again these guys have something to dream about.

 

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