“When I look into the eyes of our own baby Will it bring new life into me?” from “New Life”
For Blind Melon, it ends just the way it began … with the music. For guitarist Rogers Stevens and bassist Brad Smith, who moved from their native West Point, Mississippi to L.A. in early 1989, where they hooked up with Indiana-born Shannon Hoon, Pennsylvania native Christopher Thorn and fellow southerner Glen Graham to form the band, their new and final album, Nico, is a way of closing the chapter and looking to the future.
In between, there was a dream. And there was spontaneity. There were great songs and creativity in all aspects of their musicality that led to them becoming a household name. Bound together by their music and thirst for adventure, Blind Melon had that refreshing vitality that allowed them to grow their fan base the old fashioned way with incessant grass roots touring. Then came the smash hit “No Rain,” and many more chart-topping singles like “Tones of Home,” “Change,” and “Galaxie,” massive MTV exposure, a triple-platinum debut album, the cover of Rolling Stone, Grammy and American Music Award nominations, appearances on Letterman and Saturday Night Live, a prime slot at Woodstock ’94, around the world stints with the likes of The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Soundgarden, Lenny Kravitz and Pearl Jam, a much-anticipated follow-up record in Soup, more touring and suddenly, Hoon’s tragic death in New Orleans (October “95) from an accidental cocaine overdose.
Nico is a gift to Shannon Hoon’s daughter Nico Blue, who was all of 13 and a half weeks old when he passed away. It is the band’s best, most consistent work, capturing their many varied sides, unified by the dark-laced, forbidding lyrics and plaintive, yearning vocals of their departed mate. The record will be released as an enhanced-CD, a fitting memorial to the group and its late lead singer, complete with lyrics, previously unreleased photos, interviews, concert footage and several full-length videos. It will be accompanied by the aptly named, full-length documentary home video, Letters From A Porcupine, a historical perspective of the band’s personal and musical progression, with footage of early club shows from 1992 through Woodstock ’94 and beyond, glimpses of the group behind-the-scenes in New Orleans during the Soup sessions, as well as glimpses of life offstage and on the road.
In all respects, Nico is a labor of love. A collection of material that ranges from the first song Smith and Stevens ever composed for the group (“Soul One”) to some of the last pieces ever put on tape by Hoon (the harrowing, prescient “Hell” and the ethereal Middle Eastern drone of “Glitch”), it is the group’s way of paying tribute to the mercurial musicality of their friend and colleague. Some of the music is filled with foreboding lyrics and ironies too bitter to ignore, such as the eerily prophetic “Swallowed” and “Pull” or as in “Hell,” when Shannon mugs tongue-in-cheek, “I’ll disintegrate over time/If I expect my body to keep up with my mind.” Yet in Shannon, there was radiance and life.
Produced by Mike Napolitano and the Melons, with the exception of “Pull,” “Swallowed,” and “Soup,” which produced by Andy Wallace never made it onto the album of the same name, Nico features collected mementos recorded in different situations and locations, from the slowed-down, painful version of “No Rain” cut for a Dutch television show, to the homespun take on Steppenwolf”s version of Hoyt Axton’s “The Pusher,” whose tracks were laid down during a skiing vacation in Mammoth, CA. There’s also a bluesy cover of John Lennon’s “John Sinclair,” originally recorded for a tribute album, and the pop-folk acoustic number, “All that I need,” which Hoon wrote after reading Albert Goldman’s The Lives of John Lennon.
The group added overdubs on several of the tracks, including the percussive overlays on “Glitch,” but mostly the songs remain as they were recorded, including “Life Ain’t So Shitty,” where you can hear car horns honking outside the tour bus and the finale, “Letters From A Porcupine,” which comes straight from a message left by Shannon on Christopher’s telephone answering machine. In a final irony, Nico represents Blind Melon at their best, casually jamming away from the pressures of the recording studio, just creating music that felt good. For the surviving members, getting back together again to work on the album served a therapeutic function.
“We were able to laugh and talk about every nutty thing Shannon used to do,” says Brad. “I definitely thought about him a lot. In a way, it was like easing out, getting used to him not being around. I’m just thankful I had Rogers, Glen and Christopher to help me get through it. Not having Shannon in your life is a good thing and a bad thing. He was a tyrant and an angel.” “Doing this record was a healing process for all of us,” adds Glen. “As soon as we got into the studio, it just felt right. Playing again with these guys was the same as it always was, because we always wrote the music, went in and recorded and then Shannon would come in afterwards to lay down his vocals. So, instead of coming in later, he was already there on tape.” “Now that Shannon’s dead, you sort of realize he was basically telling us what was going to happen to him,” says Rogers. “Everybody knew he was putting himself in danger living his life the way he did. To hear those songs now can be real emotional. When we first started working on the album, I still couldn’t believe he wasn’t around. I went into complete denial. I kept expecting the phone to ring and him to be on the line screaming at me. It took awhile to realize he wouldn’t be. I talked to Shannon every day for five years.”
After Shannon’s death, the group split up physically, with Rogers moving to New York, Brad and Christopher to Seattle and Glen Staying in New Orleans, where the band had recorded Soup. After two or three months, they began contemplating organizing the remaining tapes they had of Shannon and the band into an album. Luckily, thanks to Thorn’s portable ADAT eight-track digital recording unit and the 16-17 songs they finished for Soup which didn’t make the record, there was quite a bit of material to choose from.
“It was really frustrating for me to read the press after Shannon died,” says Christopher. “Everything focused on his troubles, his addiction. And I just kept thinking to myself, ‘Jesus Christ, man, listen to the songs.” The guy wrote some amazing songs. And that was one of the reasons to complete this third record.
“I hope people can just listen to the record and say, ‘Hey, they were a band that wrote some great songs together.’ I don’t care about selling records. Part of the reason was for Nico. You realize this child will never get the chance to know her father. This is some music for her to sit down when she’s ready, listen to and get a feel for what her father did, get some insight into him. Shannon’s greatest creation was Nico, so it seems like a perfect title.” “I thought Shannon got overlooked,” agrees Rogers. “He had a true talent that his personality sometimes overwhelmed. Or the hype around the band overwhelmed. Or the media exposure overwhelmed. If people give the album a fair chance, they’ll understand more of what Shannon was about. He had a real gift for words, a real simple way of saying things a lot of people can relate to. It’s hard to be simple, direct, honest and powerful at the same time. “These songs deserve to be heard by the people who were into the band. I want people who appreciated Shannon to get this last batch of songs. I think some of our best stuff is on this record. We had a good time working on this record. It wasn’t all somber.” It’s not our motivation that’s important. We want to make music. We want to be heard. We want Shannon to be heard. Sure, we’d love for it to sell a million copies and make money. Who wouldn’t? But that’s not our reason for putting it out. It’s our responsibility to Blind Melon’s fans. “There are a lot more chapters that should have been written as Blind Melon, but that’s not going to be. This is it. This is all the music we have to put out with Shannon. We’re moving forward because this is all we know how to do. None of us has gone to college. It’s not like we can go out and get jobs. Being a musician is something you can’t kick. We have a few good years left in us in terms of songs and inspiration, but as far as Blind Melon goes, I wish there would’ve been more. I think Shannon would have gone on to write more amazing things.”
The band has announced they will donate a percentage of the sales from Nico to the Musician’s Assistance Program (MAP), which offers drug treatment for musicians who can’t afford it. They are hoping Shannon’s death will be a wake-up call for others as it has been for them. “When your best friend ODs, it’s a real eye-opener,” admits Rogers. “Especially someone like Shannon, who had 50 times the energy I’ll ever have. If it got him, it can get me … or just about anybody I know. It was a senseless thing. We learned some hard lessons. You begin to realize the impact his death had on everybody around him. I spent a lot of time getting mad at Shannon; in the end, I know he was really trying … but his demons got the best of him.” “Everybody did a lot of soul-searching after Shannon’s death,” adds Brad. “I’m still learning from it. I just have to remember the positive things about him and move on.” “Shannon’s death made me realize what’s important in my life.” states Glen matter-of-factly. “My wife, my family. It also made me aware I’m in this for the work. It’s not about fame or money. I got into this because I liked playing music.”
And in the end, the music remains, a loving memorial to its quixotic creator. Says Rogers: “Shannon could be so many different things on any given day. He was the demon offspring of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde crossed with Sybil…”
“And life ain’t so shitty/There’s a lot you can be/And Ain’t it a pity/But it’s alright to smile back at me.” from Life Ain’t So Shitty
With Nico, Blind Melon’s story comes to an end, but for the four remaining members, the future remains an open book. Last winter, Rogers put an ad in the Village Voice advertising for a lead singer for “the band formerly known as Blind Melon.” After the item was picked up on MTV News and CNN, the group’s manager Chris Jones received over 2,000 tapes in the mail. They have started working with several individuals with an eye toward launching a new band. “I’m just looking for someone who’s good,” says Rogers. “If somebody tried to be like Shannon, it would be to their detriment. You don’t want to try to fill his shoes. It would be unfair to ask somebody to do that. The only way to do it is to move forward and not look back. It’s a cliché that time heals all wounds … I don’t know if I’ll ever totally heal, but I can at least move forward. Still, nobody can or will ever replace Shannon Hoon, as Nico reminds its listeners. “This is something we’re laying to rest as a positive memory. Dwell on the good rather than the way it ended or even the bad times. If it wasn’t about the music, you wouldn’t do this anymore. You have to do it for yourself.”
“Another life’s falling down onto its knees But I’ll never smile the way like I did that day Everything will be okay, everything will be okay …” from All That I Need