Friday, August 14, 2009

‘A Devil on One Shoulder and an Angel on the Other: The Story of Shannon Hoon and Blind Melon’ Book Review

When I finished the last page of Greg Prato’s ‘A Devil on One Shoulder and an Angel on the Other: The Story of Shannon Hoon and Blind Melon’, the only thing I could think of was this; it wasn’t a question of “if” Blind Melon vocalist Shannon Hoon would die, but “when?”

One of my guilty musical pleasures is Blind Melon. They’re a band that found a way through all the Death Metal and Black Sabbath I was consuming at the time and no matter how “left field” they might seem for me, something clicked. The same way with all the music that’s even been a part of my life, I have no control on the ones that touch my soul. I’ve always been a believer in the following; you don’t choose music, the music chooses you. If something makes its way into your heart and makes your world spin, don’t ever let anyone tell you it’s wrong.

So yeah, Blind Melon is a band that was both the luckiest sons of bitches you’ve ever heard yet at the same time doomed for all eternity. Doomed, as they had a hit song on a debut record that sold over 4 million copies and to a record company there was no way to top that kind of “instant success.” They were an unlikely band that succeeded far beyond their wildest dreams during a time of musical climate change. A group of five that defied all by bonding together, taking on all outsiders and obstacles yet when the smoke cleared was destroyed from the inside.

‘A Devil…’ traces the individual stories of how five transplants from all over the United States ended up meeting in Los Angeles in the late 80’s/early 90’s and the roads they traveled to get there. Like the band itself, a lot of the focus, time and energy of this book is spent on their vocalist, the Lafayette, Indiana born and raised Richard Shannon Hoon.

The book is composed of interviews with surviving band members, road crew, managers, band members BM toured with such as Duff McKagan, Jerry Cantrell, Mike Inez, members of Alice Donut, Meat Puppets as well as wives, girlfriends, record company people etc. and in Hoon’s case a parent. Which for a fan (casual or not) is pretty interesting to “catch up” with Hoon’s Mother, Nel as the last time the general public “saw her” was on the VH1 Blind MelonBehind The Music’ where, and justifiably so, she took the death of her youngest extremely hard. Her interviews in the book show a certain amount of growth since then, where time has (hopefully) helped heal just a little bit of the pain.

In these interviews everyone has a chance to reflect on the bright side of the Blind Melon story, the humble beginnings, the Axl Rose/Guns N Roses connection, the major label bidding war which led them to Capitol Records, all the touring they did in support of their debut album and the massive and life changing success surrounding the single/video for “No Rain”, support slots with the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, GnR etc. an infamous Rolling Stone cover story etc. etc.

As with every up, there must be a down so about half way through the book, similar to the bands music itself, the dark side eventually rears its head and ultimately takes over. It’s during the latter part of the book where you really get a “fly on the wall” view to BM and I’ve got to admit it’s a lot more fucked up than one would think.

Well, he’s a lot more fucked up is more like it. I’m not saying (and they, in no way claim to be innocent angels) the other band members were innocent bystanders, they had their fun/got their fill no matter how you like to put it, they got theirs! But because the one out front was out of control on any given day on any given number of substances made things complicated to say the least.

Like the band themselves admit, it wasn’t all bad; there were way more good times than not, but when it got bad, it got really, really bad.

Hoon was a manic depressive, there’s no doubt about it. When you take into account things like the way he was raised…a self confessed “spoiled brat” even his girlfriend admitted there was never a way to tell him “no” about anything, ever! So you have that mentality paired with an outgoing personality, a risk taker/thrill seeker, a red neck-like fighter (when boozed up) , an alcoholic, a cocaine/heroin/LSD/crack/methamphetamine/marijuana abuser with the world as his playground. There’s only two ways this story ends, right?

Thing is, Hoon was this crazy before he ever left for Los Angeles, once there things escalated, but it wasn’t until the touring began that he went off the deep end. The part that makes it that much harder to deal with must have been Hoon’s personality. He was the life of the party and always ready to party, always down for whatever and wherever the day took him. He wasn’t say, Layne Staley a reclusive addict, Hoon was the opposite and in the book you learn that was probably the reason those around him didn’t react sooner.

But the good of the book is it actually takes you back to all these times, the excitement of a young band learning its craft. I think a lot of people who aren’t as old as some of us really don’t remember the music climate changes that happened from the late 80’s into the early 90’s, the years where Guns N Roses reigned and every single band seemingly wanted to follow in their footsteps, bands that were once glam or whatever changed to a “street” image over night.

It was very similar to the way all the Glam bands adopted the Seattle look of flannel shirts and Doc Martens in 1992.

If a band wanted to get “signed” they had to look a certain way, no matter what. Well, that was the Los Angeles way of thought and while I didn’t subscribe to it, the individuals of Blind Melon sure did.

Hoon and Co. were basically former “Metal heads” that along the way found their true calling in a hodgepodge combination of Hard Rock/Grunge/Jam/Classic Rock with some subtle Metal-like arrangements. While it wouldn’t be until a few years later and the release of their second album ‘Soup’ the band would settle down with a style that truly fit them. The formative years were definitely a stylistically blended affair.

The only member that I know has a somewhat pedigree in actual Metal would be guitarist Christopher Thorn who played in a Speed/Thrash band called R.O.T. from PA. Hoon was a member of a Motley/Guns type band called Styff Kitten! But I don’t hold any of that against them; they ended up being a phenomenal live band with more than a handful of, IMO timeless songs and memorable performances.

Somewhere along the way the drugs got harder and the band’s management got Hoon into rehab (his first of few) and that just never worked. It’s funny, during the story they do things like send him to drug rehab and then he’s released to begin a European tour…that starts in Amsterdam!!! Worse yet was the sessions for their sophomore LP ‘Soup’ were done in New Orleans! We’re talking about a band that knows their singer is in trouble yet takes him to the devil’s playground and lets him roam free. These are decisions that in hindsight are deeply regretted, but at the time I’m sure they each had hoped for the best.

So once the album is complete the band does some European dates however when ‘Soup’ is released it’s panned by fans and critics, it fails to ignite right out of the box and that doom I spoke about earlier was right around the corner. The band and their manic depressive singer, already feeling the pressures of a record getting the cold shoulder from the world and in Hoon’s case, new fatherhood returned from Europe and began a US tour and while he remained fairly sober, Hoon succumbed to temptation after a show in Los Angeles and this proved to be his point of no return. Less than two weeks later Hoon would be found dead of a cocaine overdose/heart-attack on the bands tour bus, two blocks away from where they recorded ‘Soup’.

‘Soup’ is a very dark and introspective album sprinkled with short bursts of light and hope, and like the story itself these hopeful moments don’t last very long, but they’re powerful enough to make you want to believe. This book made me not only re-listen to it with fresh ears but it also re-think what I had once (thought I) interpreted over the years.

This, to me is why ‘A Devil on One Shoulder and an Angel on the Other: The Story of Shannon Hoon and Blind Melon’ succeeds on many, many levels. It’s a very entertaining read; the interviewees are, from what I can tell pretty open and honest in their experiences and it makes the world of difference in getting the real story. I think ‘A Devil…’ is the definitive book on the band and recommended for those into Blind Melon as well as good books about the highs and lows of Rock N Roll.