Indie

Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon Is The Great Unsung ’90s Rock Star

One of the earliest looks we get of Shannon Hoon in All I Can Say — a new documentary composed entirely of video footage self-recorded by the late Blind Melon singer from 1990 to ’95 — is on a hotel room bed in New Orleans. The date is October 21, 1995, and Hoon is in the midst of his final tour. We see him make a phone call. He doesn’t know what time it is. He says he needs some sleep.

Later, at the end of the film, this scene is revisited. More information is revealed. It appears that he’s talking to the band’s road manager. He wants to book a flight back home. He’s anxious about missing his baby daughter’s first word.

“I, like, really need to get off that fucking bus,” he pleads.

A few hours later, Hoon will climb back onto that bus and curl up by himself. A soundman will eventually attempt to wake him for a pre-show soundcheck at the famed club Tipitina’s. But Hoon, only 28 years old, will already be dead.

Anyone who comes to All I Can Say will know how it ends. In the film, Hoon’s demise is foregrounded. The point is to show the person that Hoon was beyond the broad strokes of his Wikipedia entry — a former jock from Lafayette, Indiana who fell into drugs and petty crime, and then escaped his dead-end hometown for relatively rapid stardom in Los Angeles, only to see that status disintegrate with similar quickness as the music industry moved on to another generation of bands. Just over three years after the release of Blind Melon’s platinum-selling debut, buoyed by one of the decade’s most famous one-hit alterna-wonders, “No Rain,” Hoon was a rock casualty. It’s a story as old as time. Or at least Tom Petty’s “Into The Great Wide Open.”

With its grainy VHS visual aesthetic, forged by the hours of videotape that Hoon recorded as a kind of diary charting Blind Melon’s fateful journey up and down the alt-rock mountain of success, All I Can Say might be described as an act of de-mythology. Only Hoon is the rare ’90s rock tragedy who was never really mythologized in the first place. The enduring image of the “No Rain” video isn’t of Hoon blissfully tripping on a sun-drenched hilltop, but that of the Bee Girl, portrayed by then-10-year-old actor Heather DeLoach, as a symbol of the song’s utopian idealization of lovable outsiders.

The Bee Girl was a meme for the pre-internet era, and like all memes, it had a brief shelf-life. When Blind Melon played Saturday Night Live, they were introduced in part by Chris Farley donning the yellow and black stripes. The band then proceeded to play a radically altered version of “No Rain,” rendering the once-effervescent hit into surly, slowed-down sludge. It was not a subtle display of resentment.

In retrospect, “No Rain” is a cautionary tale about the power of a single music video to completely and utterly define a band forever in the public consciousness. By the time Hoon died, his band was already being treated as an afterthought. His death was given passing notice by Rolling Stone and Spin, which just two months earlier had given withering reviews to Blind Melon’s second album, Soup. Less than two years prior to that drubbing, however, Blind Melon had been on the cover of Rolling Stone, for a profile in which Hoon’s mother confesses that when her son boarded a Greyhound bus for LA she expected “he would either come back in a body bag, or he would come back signed.” In a way, both prophecies came true.

While Rolling Stone called Blind Melon’s first album “remarkable,” it derided Soup in a stunningly mean one-and-a-half-star review as an irrelevant hippie curio. MTV similarly turned its back on the band, declining to put the video for Soup’s second single, “Toes Across The Floor,” in regular rotation even in the wake of Hoon’s death.

It’s a familiar story with the fickle music press: One day you’re the next big thing, and the next they act as if they never liked you at all. But this cruel reality also extended to Capitol, the very record label that had once, in the very near past, greatly profited off of the “No Rain” phenomenon. “After Shannon died, not one person from that record company ever called me to offer their sympathies,” Blind Melon guitarist Christopher Thorn told the A.V. Club in 2015. “They didn’t even contribute to the fund we set up for Shannon’s baby daughter, Nico. It was like we disappeared.”

All I Can Say feels like an overdue corrective to this memory-holing of Hoon and Blind Melon, who were always better, smarter, and more interesting than they were given credit for. In the film, Hoon comes across as sensitive, goofy, troubled, deeply talented, and a bit too unfocused by drugs and alcohol to fully harness his ability. Though, honestly, the same can also be said of virtually every talented musician in their mid-20s. The sadness of Hoon’s story, among other tragic consequences, is that Blind Melon seemed like they were on the verge of becoming truly great when he died. They just needed more time and, perhaps, a little more moral support. In the process of condescending to Blind Melon as an expired Buzz Bin throwaway, the rock world thoughtlessly disposed of one of the era’s most unsung and ill-fated talents.

I enjoyed All I Can Say for what it is — a low-key and often affecting inside look at the man at the head of that band. But the film’s weakness is that it never makes a case for why Hoon is actually an important artist. Blind Melon is remembered, if at all, for their hit debut LP. But Soup was the one that portended something really special, exploding the feel-good stoner rock of the first album for an alluring splatter of demented, Meat Puppets-style guitar excursions and pitch-black, end-of-the-night lyrical mojo. It’s a record that seems like it could have been made 20 years earlier (imagine if the Allman Brothers Band had made their own strung-out, post-’60s Goats Head Soup) while also feeling 20 years ahead of its time (it’s the surly, “anti-commercial” provocation that My Morning Jacket or Kings Of Leon should have made after they headlined Bonnaroo).

In the movie, you see how Hoon arrived at the cusp of artistic brilliance… as well as inside that lonely bus in New Orleans. Born on September 26, 1967, he was the youngest of three kids, and described by his mother as hyperactive. Instead of medicating him, she enrolled him in karate classes. As Hoon entered his teen years, his parents kept pushing him into sports, and he was active in wrestling, football, and pole vaulting. When Hoon’s camera in All I Can Say catches a glimpse of his senior photo, still proudly displayed in his parents’ home years later, he looks like one of the lunkheads who beat up Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid.

By the time he was 17, Hoon inevitably rebelled. He started smoking pot, growing out his hair, and writing songs. He was also getting into fights and burglarizing homes. He was arrested several times. The following year, he lit out for LA, supposedly with the law at his heels, and soon hooked up with another Lafayette bad boy done good: Axl Rose. This was around the time that Rose skyrocketed to fame with Appetite For Destruction, an album sold partly on the strength of a music video in which he plays a country bumpkin who arrives in the big, bad City Of Angels on a Greyhound bus. “Welcome To The Jungle” was Rose’s autobiography, but he could have very well also been talking about Hoon. (In the end, only one of them was “gonna die.”)

Axl is spotted briefly in All I Can Say, during a 1990 recording session for the Use Your Illusion albums in a Christmastime video that Hoon is shooting for his mother. But Rose famously had a major impact on Hoon’s career — he included Hoon on GNR’s hit power ballad “Don’t Cry” as a backing singer, and also put him in the extremely popular (and extremely pretentious) music video.

By then, Hoon had already hooked up with the other members of Blind Melon. While the film never explicitly makes the connection, it seems obvious that Hoon’s proximity to the biggest rock band in America expedited Blind Melon’s career trajectory, which hit a new peak in early 1991 when they were signed by Capitol on the strength of just a four-song demo. For the self-titled album, they linked up with producer Rick Parashar, who had just worked with Pearl Jam on their soon-to-be massively successful debut, Ten.

The first Blind Melon album feels like a jammier, more southern version of Pearl Jam, with its obvious AOR musical influences and focus on the tender and elliptical lyrical expressions of a good-looking lead singer. But whereas Ten is a collection of angsty, hard-rock brow-beaters, Blind Melon is warmer and more amiable, with an emphasis on good-time choogle that occasionally veers into slightly woolier psychedelia.

Early ’90s rock radio would soon become crowded with retreads trying to out-huff Eddie Vedder. But “No Rain” endures today as one of the most enjoyable rock hits of the era precisely because its pleasant escapism ran counter to so many of the trends of the time. At a time when grunge bands were sneering at the Grateful Dead, “No Rain” peaks with a delightfully trippy country-rock solo that tears unexpectedly out of the song’s gently glistening guitar hook.

“No Rain” put Blind Melon ahead of the curve on what would become a bumper crop of popular hippie-leaning rock bands. By the mid-’90s, Dave Matthews Band and Phish were becoming arena-rock attractions. Even Blues Traveler had multiple hit singles. Looking back, it does seem like Blind Melon were onto something as they decamped to New Orleans to start work on Soup in late 1994. The idea was to reject the sunshine pop of “No Rain” in favor of an aggressive and heady mix of smacked-out rock, lysergic folk, deadbeat funk, and New Orleans funeral marches. The kind of record that doesn’t produce hits, but does inspire an audience to become lifelong fans.

Blind Melon was among the bands who benefitted from that brief window of time when record labels and the media fetishized any music that seemed vaguely alternative. By 1995, that window had already closed, and the seeds of the music that would come to dominate the latter half of the decade – nu-metal and teen pop — were already in the process of sprouting fruit. Instead of pretending that this wasn’t the case, as many alt-rock bands did, Blind Melon made a record about it. Soup unfolds as an elegy for a scene haunted by drug addiction and lost potential. Whenever I put it on, I’m always struck by the part in “Galaxie” when Hoon sings about “the Cadillac that’s sittin’ in the back,” a line that evokes the old country music standard “Long Black Limousine,” in which the big dark car doubles as a symbol of fame and death. “It isn’t me,” Hoon hollers at unseen demons. “Oh, no, no, no it isn’t me.” No other song for me better captures the downer vibes of the mid-’90s post-alt hangover. I can only compare it to how Neil Young’s “ditch” records encapsulate the “dream is over” malaise of the mid-’70s.

Another parallel I keep coming back to for Blind Melon at this juncture is Radiohead, who released their “aggressive and heady” second album, The Bends, just five months before Soup. Radiohead’s debut album, Pablo Honey, came out four months after Blind Melon’s first album, and was similarly sold on the strength of a breakout hit, “Creep,” that for a time was more famous than the band who recorded it. With The Bends, Radiohead was trying to escape the specter of one-hit-wonderdom, and at least initially it didn’t seem wholly successful. Writing in Spin, venerable rock critic Chuck Eddy mocked Radiohead’s fear of being “pigeonholed into the only style it’s very good at.” Coincidentally, Eddy also chided Blind Melon on similar grounds for Spin‘s review of Soup.

Where Radiohead and Blind Melon diverge is that Capitol Records, who put out both The Bends and Soup, supported Radiohead and ultimately knew how to market The Bends as a forward-thinking move by an evolving band. It doesn’t appear that Soup was ever given similar consideration, nor was Blind Melon ever really positioned as a peer of up-and-comers like DMB and Phish, a shift that might have played down their early-’90s also-ran status and positioned them as a bellwether of a thriving scene.

Another crucial difference, of course, is that Thom Yorke didn’t have a drug problem. Though, in the case of Soup, drugs didn’t hurt Blind Melon’s creative process in the short term anymore than it did for the Stones or the Dead. Hoon writes about addiction with unsettling clarity in one of Soup‘s best and most frantic songs, “2×4,” in which he likens the drug buzz to someone “pouring warm gravy all over me.” This, again, both grounds Soup in the period and makes it feel like timeless classic rock. As Thorn put it to the A.V. Club, “It starts off and it’s like, ‘We’re in New Orleans. We’re out of our minds. Welcome to our record—strap your shit in.’”

Hoon’s death didn’t cause critics to revisit Soup with fresh ears. Rather, his passing was chalked up to the self-indulgence that Blind Melon’s detractors claimed had already derailed the band. When I put on Soup, it doesn’t strike me as an especially prescient album, in terms of what happened to Hoon. Instead, it seems like the work of a band in the process of figuring out who they really are and where they want to go. It’s an album brimming with ideas and possibilities, pointing toward a future in which Blind Melon might have made the ’90s psych-tinged southern-rock version of OK Computer.

The melancholy of watching All That I Can Say is how it shows that the world lost a kind and decent soul long before his time. The melancholy of listening to Soup is how it spotlights a band that never had the chance to fully live up to its promise.

You can stream ‘All I Can Say’ here.

×