Heavy Pedal
by David Cavanaugh

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They wrote the saddest songs on earth and turned them into a "New Miserable Experience." For the Gin Blossoms, life's hard and then you go platinum.

 If you really want to get to the core of the Gin Blossoms, listen to the jangle-rock of "Follow You Down," from their new album Congratulations I'm Sorry. As singer Robin Wilson relates the tale, a lump in his throat alerts us to a mood of despair. The song's two protagonists have been making a real mess of their lives and one of them is considering "jumping off a bridge."

 But here come the big guitars and here's the chorus, and no way is it Wilson who's thinking of jumping. "Anywhere you go, I'll follow you down," he assures his unfortunate confederate, "but not that far." No. Wilson and the Gin Blossoms play a much safer game called post-Cobain levelheadedness, and it's proving very, very infectious. Sing along now: "Let's not do the wrong thing/And I'll swear it might be fun." It could almost be the Gin Blossoms' motto. If you didn't already know, you'd never guess that a tragic death had occurred between the making of this new record and its predecessor, 1992's New Miserable Experience. That same year, Doug Hopkins, their guitarist and writer of their first big hit, "Hey Jealousy," was fired because of his alcoholism. Hopkins shot himself in December 1993.

 But New Miserable Experience went on to sell 2.3 million copies worldwide and played a major role in the huge swing back toward hardworking, innocuous, I-can't-believe-it's-not-rock bar bands. Now, in 1996, all the Gin Blossoms need is another record just like it, which is exactly what Congratulations I'm Sorry is: two guitars, decent tunes, another self-deprecating gag for an album title.

 I meet Jesse Valenzuela and Scott Johnson, the Gin Blossoms' two guitarists, at the MTV Europe studios in London. They are here to do an interview. With VH-1. Bassist Bill Leen and drummer Phil Rhodes are elsewhere, wandering around museums, and singer Robin Wilson is ill today, consigned to his bed, but Jesse and Scott accept their promotional duties like troupers. Both thirty-three years old, Jesse and Scott are affable, businesslike people, as courteous and deferential toward one another as two recently introduced in-laws. When the VH-1 interviewer touches the raw nerve of "Hey Jealousy," Jesse simply replies, "You know what? That song was written by Doug Hopkins. He was in the band a long time ago."

 They don't talk about Doug, or each other, or themselves. They don't bad-mouth women or bitch about other bands. Where their contemporaries promote drug use, the Gin Blossoms constantly refer to their sole vice: cigarettes. Don't even mention potential groupie encounters. Embarrassed, Jesse admits that he once autographed a female fan's breasts. "It was a lark and I was with friends, and I just signed her . . . chest," he says with a grimace. And they're one of the few bands who talk of Stevie Nicks politely, perhaps because she -- like Alice Cooper and Rob Halford from Judas Priest -- now lives near their hometown: Tempe, Arizona.

 Tempe was both the making of the Gin Blossoms and their personal doom. They grew up in the place where rock n' roll goes to die -- or to detox or just get a tan. It's a college town in the middle of a blue-collar/retirement western Arizona landscape, a patchwork of golf courses and pools in the middle of the desert, and you can hear the stultifying comfort of Tempe in every Gin Blossoms record as surely as you can hear New York in Lou Reed's. In place of urban psychosis or suburban frustration, the Gin Blossoms are cry-in-your-microbrew American miserablists with (until recently, anyway) not much to be miserable about. They call their music "power-pop," rather wishfully tracing a straight line back through Marshall Crenshaw (who cowrote their single "Till I Hear It From You") to the Beatles circa 1965. It's a noble genre: twelve-string guitars pealing like bells, harmonies pointing skyward, a young man's melancholy.

 It is their forlorn quality that sets them apart from their contemporaries in good-guy rock. A Gin Blossoms song is usually about distance. "Day Job" -- the first and best track on Congratulations I'm Sorry -- casts its mind back eleven years, to a time of choices in a young man's life: college or a day job. The mood of the song is wistful, yet the words do little to illuminate the situation. No people are named, nor places, nor actual events. You can almost see how 2.3 million people might imagine it was written about them.

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