Hey Legacy: Robin Wilson Talks the Gin Blossoms’ Complicated Journey and Why the Band’s ‘Stock Is Up’ After 30 Years
Hiking in Long Island with the singer for one of the best – and with their recent catalog sale, one of the most lucrative – '90s power-pop bands, as he passes it on to the next generation.
Last Valentine’s Day, Robin Wilson’s house burned down.
The Gin Blossoms frontman had just returned from traveling the day before to his place in the Valley Stream village of New York’s Long Island, and was taking a shower following his daily afternoon nap. While in the shower, he started to hear a conspicuous amount of noise coming from outside the bathroom.
“I thought it was snow coming off the roof onto the porch,” he recalls. “And when I finally shut the shower off – there’s a window in the shower out to the back porch, like a frosted window. And I could see it was completely black, except at the bottom, it was glowing bright orange. I’m like, ‘What the f–k?’”
Upon exiting the bathroom, Wilson found that his porch was on fire: “I’m naked and wet, and I couldn’t get close. There was just so much f–king smoke, I couldn’t f–king breathe. I grabbed my robe and my phone, and the next thing I know I’m barefoot in the snow, watching my house burn down.”
In addition to his home, Wilson lost a half-dozen antique lamps that he had collected – part of a furniture restoration hobby he’d picked up in recent years (“mid-century stuff, like the really sleek Knoll and Herman Miller shell chairs”) – and much of his basement studio, which mostly escaped the electrical fire but got flooded by the firemen’s hoses. “Nothing in the studio got burnt, but a lot of things got wet and ruined,” he laments.
The incident pushed Wilson to a temporary replacement home in the unfortunately named hamlet of Hicksville, taking him about 12 miles deeper into the heart of the Island. Though he grew up in Tempe, Arizona, and still owns a boat there, Wilson has now lived on Long Island for over 20 years – originally moving out for his now-ex-wife, a longtime stage manager at Saturday Night Live, and their son Grey. Meeting Robin out on Long Island in September, I ask him how he likes living there after two decades. “I’m getting used to it,” he responds, with no obvious trace of irony.
Wilson cuts a gently imposing figure at age 56, with horn-rimmed glasses intensifying a fairly penetrating glare, with a fashion sense that’s about halfway between aging metalhead and Minivan Rock Dad. He speaks matter-of-factly in dry but sonorous narration, like a great voice-over artist, with a seen-it-all weariness and a calm of knowing that the worst seems to be behind him. Occasionally, he says more than he should – it’s gotten him into trouble with promoters and audiences on stage before – but with the career and life he’s had, he’s also got more to say than most.
Wilson joined the Gin Blossoms in 1988, two months after their first show when they were already the pride of Tempe; a half-decade later, the alt-era jangle-pop of their brilliant major-label debut New Miserable Experience was on its way to going quadruple platinum and making the group ‘90s stars. But drama and ultimately tragedy hung over the group’s original run, and after a three-year period of radio dominance, they temporarily split for side projects. But the past decade has seen the band recapturing their relevance and their legacy, while Wilson has also begun lending his piercing tenor to a second long-beloved group of veteran pop-rock hitmakers.
The fire at his Valley Stream home also interrupted what had been a rare relaxing period of time for the singer/songwriter. Like everyone else, Wilson’s life was upended by the pandemic – but in his case, that meant a lot of chilling while being off the road for easily the longest extended period of his career.
“In my entire adult life, I’ve never been home for more than a couple of weeks at a time,” he says. “The weirdest thing about the pandemic, was just looking down the pipe of months and months of nothing else to do but be home. So I started gardening. And I could be like, ‘You know what, I’m gonna play this video game for six hours a day until I complete the whole f–king thing.’” (Wilson, who served as a monthly columnist for Official U.S. Playstation Magazine for a few years in the mid-’00s until he ran out of things to write about, says he really enjoyed playing through the Last of Us series and Horizon: Zero Dawn.)
Not to say that Wilson wasn’t also productive. He had his usual duties as frontman and de facto caretaker for the Gin Blossoms, who have since resumed playing shows, and are about to head out on tour honoring the 30th anniversary of New Miserable Experience, now rightly considered a classic of its era. But he’s now also working on new songs with their power-pop predecessors, The Smithereens, which Wilson has co-fronted (along with former collaborator Marshall Crenshaw) following the death of longtime leader Pat DiNizio in 2017. He also resurrected a musical television concept of his from the turn of the millennium, about an animated fictional band called the Poppin’ Wheelies – which he describes as “Scooby Doo in outer space. Or Spinal Tap in outer space, even,” and is currently pitching to platforms like Netflix and Amazon.
Perhaps most importantly, his days off the road allowed him to make up for lost quality time with son Grey, now an undergrad studying music at nearby Nassau Community College. (“He’s taking a class called ‘The History of Rock & Roll’ – like, how f–king easy is your life?” Dad quips.) Grey is also a burgeoning frontman with his own throwback rock outfit The Mercurys, and during the pandemic, he filled in on guitar with Robin for live streams – often performed from Wilson’s front yard in Valley Stream – consisting mostly of Gin Blossoms material. “I was pretty much the only musician he had to jam with for a year,” Robin says.
While marooned on Long Island, he continued to rep for AZ with a state flag on his front porch (“Arizona’s got the best flag in the country – one of the top three, anyway”). But spending a near-unprecedented amount of time in his neighborhood and with his son made Valley Stream – which he’s planning on returning to once his house is rebuilt – finally start to feel like home to him.
“I didn’t much ever care for Long Island until the pandemic, really,” he explains. “All of a sudden I met all my neighbors and it [began] to grow on me… May of 2020, I was like, ‘All right, I live on Long Island.’ A real f–king New Yorker.”
“I don’t know where the f–k I am now. I gotta pull over.”
Wilson pauses conversation about the Gin Blossoms’ early days to try to locate the turn we must have missed. It’s a beautiful, cloudless early-autumn day out in Wilson’s new town of Hicksville, and we’re in his car looking for Cold Spring Harbor State Park in Huntington (“Billy Joel country”), where he’s suggested we take one of the trails. But while Google Maps tells us we’ve arrived, Wilson and common sense disagree, inspiring a lot of frustrated comments that sound like they could be lyrics from the Blossoms’ 1994 hit “Allison Road.”
“I’m always telling my son to try to imagine what it was like being on tour in the van, without any GPS, y’know?” he says, as we listen to The Smithereens’ “Only a Memory,” part of his homework reacquainting himself with their songs for an upcoming gig. “The first time you pull into Pittsburgh and you’ve got the map out and trying to find the club. And you’ve gotta get from the hotel to the club.”
Wilson has certainly done his fair share of pulling into unfamiliar cities over the past 35 years – though the Gin Blossoms began as a local sensation in Tempe, with Wilson starting out as a fan of the band before joining as an additional guitarist in 1988. At the time, the band was steered by founder, lead guitarist and primary songwriter Doug Hopkins and singer/guitarist Jesse Valenzuela. “We needed somebody to come in and sing and play guitar, and [Wilson] and I harmonized really well together right away,” Valenzuela says. “So it was just a perfect fit.”
Despite the band’s early hometown success, and Wilson considering Valenzuela to be a formidable frontman, the two soon ended up swapping roles. “I think it was [mostly] a matter of that I couldn’t really play guitar really well,” Wilson says of the switch – which sounds like a sarcastic (or at least self-deprecating) explanation for why the instantly recognizable singer was given frontman duties. But Valenzuela also recalls the lineup shuffle largely being to get Wilson off his six-string: “The guys definitely didn’t want to have three guitars going,” he says. “[The idea] was to get [Wilson] on vocals as soon as possible, so he didn’t have to play guitar.”
Valenzuela also acknowledges that Wilson’s voice, powerful but vulnerable, set him – and by extension, the Gin Blossoms – apart. “It just has a real sweet quality,” he says. “At that time, I think a lot of voices were more yellers, shouters and stuff like that. And it wasn’t that sort of voice. I think that was a real distinction [for us at the time].”
The band’s buzz grew as a result of their rowdy local gigs and Hopkins’ immediately prodigious songcraft – a combination of studious pop-rock melodicism and open-wound lyricism, a perfect match for Wilson’s striking and fragile vocals. In 1989, before the band headed to South by Southwest in Austin to capitalize on their building hype, Wilson dropped out of junior college, where he’d been studying science. (“You’re a f–king idiot,” was the reaction of Wilson’s father, an accounting professor with no taste for rock.)
It would be a couple years and several false starts before Wilson’s choice was decisively validated, as the band relocated to Memphis with producer John Hampton to record what would become their debut album. By then, though, the group was having serious problems with their writer/guitarist.
Even as the lead singer, Wilson describes Doug Hopkins as “the frontman” and “biggest star” in the Gin Blossoms during the band’s early days. “He was tall, really handsome – he just had this presence and charisma to him,” Wilson recalls. “Onstage, he was like Angus Young in AC/DC… a lot of jumping and a lot of kicks, and grabbing the mic stand and doing the Pete Townsend thing. And just incredible showmanship. The way he moved was so sexy. It was undeniable, y’know?”
The chemistry on stage translated to the pair’s personal relationship, as Wilson describes him and Hopkins as having been “inseparable buddies” back then. “We were always sharing hotel rooms, always driving to the gigs together, always hanging out, skateboarding, going to the movies,” he recalls. “But as soon as we got signed… the worm turned.”
Hopkins had long struggled with alcoholism, and his issues were exacerbated by the pressures of the band’s early success. His behavior when recording the band’s debut album – eventually released in 1992 as New Miserable Experience – was becoming increasingly erratic and unprofessional, and their A&M label was starting to take notice, pushing the band to cut ties with the guitarist.
According to Wilson, Hopkins was also fiercely territorial with the singer when he attempted to write songs to be recorded for the band. “He didn’t want to do my songs,” Wilson says. “And because it was my first band, he had this attitude that I didn’t deserve all the accolades and s–t, all the attention that I was getting.” (Valenzuela recalls the conflict more diplomatically, saying simply, “There’s a competitive nature inherent to bands.”)
Due to some combination of label pressure and the rest of the band not knowing what to do with him, the Gin Blossoms kicked Hopkins out of the Gin Blossoms in 1992, before the release of New Miserable Experience. “Making the decision to fire Doug was the most difficult thing we’ve ever done,” Wilson says — offering, as someone close to Hopkins had more recently suggested, that the guitarist may have also suffered from bipolar disorder. “We didn’t know that was a thing. We just thought he was an alcoholic wreck. And we just didn’t know how to handle the situation.”
The split was extremely messy, and though Wilson says he made attempts to drum up support to find a way for Hopkins to return to the band, the two never properly reconciled. In December 1993, Hopkins died by suicide. The loss still haunts Wilson nearly 30 years later. “I’m never gonna be over Doug’s death,” he says. “Just the most painful thing I’ve ever been through.”
Further complicating the moment: After a slow start, New Miserable Experience had really started to take off in the months leading up to Hopkins’ suicide – as the grunge boom of ‘91 and ‘92 led to heightened interest in all things alt, the Gin Blossoms offered a more melodic fuzzy-guitared option for eager programmers. Though Hopkins only wrote on six of the album’s 12 tracks, those included several of what would ultimately become its biggest hits – including the band’s breakout single, the last-chance power drive masterpiece “Hey Jealousy.”
Originally released in more jagged, rushed form on the group’s 1989 independent debut LP Dusted, “Jealousy” was re-recorded for Experience with the perfect mix of raw-nerve desperation and radio-ready gloss to sell the song’s breathless array of hooks and cinematic lyrical urgency. It eventually peaked at No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 in late 1993 and became one of the decade’s defining rock songs, cementing the Gin Blossoms’ Next Big Thing status.
Soon enough even Wilson’s dad was convinced. “I called him once, backstage from [Los Angeles venue] the Greek Theater — “Dad, our record just went gold,”” he says. “And there’s this long pause, and he goes, ‘Well, Robin — I feel like a f–king idiot.’” He chuckles. “It was priceless. But at the time, it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. It didn’t feel good.”
The success of “Jealousy” (and the bitterly heartbroken “Found Out About You,” which also hit No. 25 in early 1994) also meant the band – who’d replaced Hopkins with guitarist Scotty Johnson in late 1992 – were tethered to songs penned by their late guitarist, often about the conditions that would lead to his being expelled from the band. (So many of the songs on New Miserable Experience deal with Hopkins’ drinking problems that Wilson changed the “Jealousy” line from “You can trust me not to drink” to “You can trust me not to think,” to not have to sing one more such lyric.)
Even as the band scored subsequent hits with New Miserable Experience’s mournful “Until I Fall Away” and irresistible “Allison Road” – both gems penned by Wilson – they struggled to escape Hopkins’ shadow. “We wanted to prove ourselves,” Wilson says. “But if there was ever a time where we thought we weren’t going to [continue to] play his songs, it was pretty short-lived… it was just always understood — we’re gonna be playing ‘Jealousy’ and ‘Found Out About You’ for the rest of our lives.”
The band did ultimately prove themselves after Hopkins’ passing – first with the chiming top 10 Hot 100 hit “Till I Hear It From You,” released on 1995’s Empire Records soundtrack, and then with their sparkling-if-uneven second A&M LP Congratulations I’m Sorry. (The inspired title was taken from the mixed greetings the band would get in response to their multi-platinum success and to the gut-punch of Hopkins’ death.) The album didn’t sell as well as New Miserable Experience, but it notched another enduring top 10 smash in the dizzying, harmonica-led “Follow You Down,” and also earned the group their lone Grammy nod, with third single “As Long as It Matters” being nominated for best pop performance by a duo or group with vocals in 1997. (They lost to The Beatles, something Wilson takes great pride in.)
“Even after [Hopkins’ death], there was still songwriting talent in the band,” says Max Collins, frontman for fellow alt-’90s alums Eve 6 and a long-vocal fan of the Gin Blossoms. “And Robin’s voice is really, really important. Because you just believe him. I believe him. There is a natural pathos to the tone of his voice, and the way he delivers words.”
By the time of the ‘97 Grammys, the band was already on the verge of collapse, with Wilson turning his attention to his harder-rocking new outfit the Gas Giants, formed with two of his oldest friends from Arizona. Wilson describes the band as “my big shot,” but due to a combination of poor promotion and bad timing, it ended up missing, with 1999’s From Beyond the Back Burner debut drawing little attention from critics or audiences. While nursing his wounds from that project’s failure to launch, Wilson also opened up his Arizona recording studio to artists, at first trying his hand at producing them himself, then – after further heartbreak with a band who turned their back on him – finding other local producers to hook them up with.
The Gin Blossoms were separated for about a half-decade, with the members all pursuing other projects, before reconvening in late 2001 – but when they returned, it was to an industry that had no real place left in the mainstream for their brand of pop-accessible alt-rock. It would take till 2006 for the group to release their comeback album, Major Lodge Victory, which peaked at No. 159 on the Billboard 200 albums chart and didn’t launch a major single, effectively ending their time as contemporary hitmakers.
Even with the considerable amount of success that the Gin Blossoms had with and without Hopkins, the band remains what of the great What Ifs of ‘90s rock, in large part because they were never able (and perhaps smartly, didn’t really even try) to totally replace what Hopkins brought to the band. They released plenty of great songs after his departure, several of which became enormously and deservedly popular. But the thing that made New Miserable Experience truly transcendent, the combination of Wilson’s gorgeously yearning vocals with Hopkins’ brutally revealing yet efficient songwriting – capturing entire lifetimes of emotion with lyrics like “I’ll drink enough of anything to make this world feel new again” (from “Lost Horizons”) or “The past is gone but something might be found to take its place” (“Hey Jealousy”) – had disappeared.
While Wilson takes solace in the belief that any other path his career might’ve taken likely wouldn’t have led to his son Grey and their current life together, he still wonders how things might’ve been different if Hopkins had lived and they’d been able to work things out. “When we were on it — him and I together on stage, it was really awesome,” he raves. ”To have Doug and I fronting the band? We would’ve been like the Perry and Tyler of the ‘90s! It would’ve been something on that level, y’know? And that’s my biggest regret, is that we’ll never know what we could’ve done.”
Having finally located the park, Wilson and I begin on our hike, armed with two adjustable hiking poles and a couple bottles of Muscle Milk, all provided by the singer. Wilson’s sense of direction on the trail isn’t that much more intuitive than it is on the road, but with occasional breaks for reorientation, we eventually get to the top, turning around and heading back down. He’s certainly a much more natural outdoorsman than I am, and at one point he asks me with gentle concern if I need an extra towel he’s brought – politely drawing my attention to the fact that, yes, I am in visible need of one.
Considering the friendliness of his demeanor and most of his songs, Wilson’s look is a little harder than you might expect, as is his own taste in music. Underneath his half-zip sweater, he’s donning a mostly sleeveless Iron Maiden tee, while the tattoos covering his arms are mostly tributes to favorite arena rock bands like Queen, The Cult and AC/DC, with some more personal messages and a couple Game of Thrones references thrown in. The AC/DC one is his most recent addition – in part a tribute to Grey, who picked out the Aussie legends’ If You Want Blood, You Got It as his first-ever album purchase on his maiden record store voyage with Robin. “I was just so proud to be able to share that with him,” Dad beams.
There was a time when it might’ve seemed unlikely the Gin Blossoms would be ticketed for the same classic rock canon as those bands. Despite – perhaps partly because of – their enormous popularity in the ‘90s, the band never drew significant critical acclaim, and were often dismissed by members of tougher-edged rock scenes. (Wilson remembers habitants of the ‘90s grunge epicenter as being particularly vicious: “There was this whole attitude coming from Seattle that we just sucked.”)
Max Collins has called the Gin Blossoms “the best radio rock band of the ‘90s,” and can still remember the exact Burger King he was driving past the first time he heard “Hey Jealousy” as a teen, calling it a transportive experience. But even he admits that, as a then-punk skater, loving that song “wasn’t going to be something I was telling my friends, you know?”
On the way back down the trail, I ask Wilson if he feels like the Gin Blossoms are hipper than they used to be. “Apparently,” he answers. “I know there seems to be…” He stops to consider his phrasing. “Our stock is up right now, or whatever.”
It certainly seems that way. The recent bump for the Gin Blossoms can be seen in pop culture moments like a joke in the hit comedy series Ted Lasso in July, based on the title character being a fan of the band (where the joke isn’t simply him being a fan of the band), or the band playing halftime at the Phoenix Suns-hosted Game Two of the NBA’s Western Conference Finals in June. That performance also led to a hilarious back-and-forth – led by the band’s social media guy, Adam – between their Twitter account and that of a Nuggets fan, which went viral enough to be covered in both sports and music publications (and even in the New York Post). Wilson is particularly pleased by the beef winning Best Twitter War of 2021 in the New Phoenix Times, and hopes they get a plaque or certificate for it: “I would really like to hang that in my studio.”
The generally positive social media response to the beef was also a sign of the turning tides for the Gin Blossoms, who have been largely championed by a new generation of writers and young artists that grew up with the band’s hits and never cared about its perceived coolness. “To me, they did the best job of writing the most cohesive, catchy songs out of most of their contemporaries,” says Matt Scottoline, frontman of the Philadelphia-based power-pop outfit Hurry. “I never really figured out why it resonates with me so much, but I find myself now creating music that is written the same way, and it feels the same way. I just love it.”
It also helps the group’s longevity that, despite being one of the most popular ‘90s bands – and certainly profiting from the growing wave of ‘90s nostalgia over the past decade – the classic pop/rock feel of the group dates back to earlier generations, and in effect becomes timeless. “They were really just working within a tradition, of songwriting and sound and jangly guitar, that does not go out of style,” Collins says. “They weren’t doing fashion. They were doing real, honest rock and roll.”
The surest sign of the band’s stock rising is that outside investors are quite literally buying in. Last August, it was announced that Primary Wave, one of the main players in the music industry’s recent rights-acquisition race, had purchased the Gin Blossoms’ song catalog, through a string of deals with members past and present, adding up to a “multi-millions” payout. Wilson won’t say exactly how much the band’s catalog went for, demurring, “Let’s say that Stevie Nicks – I read that she got $80 million for her catalog? We got a lot less.” He does allow, however, that it’s the largest deal in the band’s career.
“This [came about] during the pandemic, so it was at a time we knew we weren’t about to earn any money for about a year,” he says. “So it was something we had to take seriously. And once we researched the company, saw that they were quite legit, and y’know, we had to go through the negotiations. And it worked out great. So… I suppose that’s a nod of credibility, right there.” (The band’s streaming activity has also swelled noticeably in the past year, with their catalog seeing a 20% year-over-year increase from 2020 to 2021, according to MRC Data.)
It’s all a major improvement for the group from their low ebb of the ‘00s, which Wilson calls a “grim time” for the band. “We weren’t making a lot of money. We were playing s–tloads of crappy gigs, and half the people we would meet were like, ‘Oh, you guys are still together?’ Nobody knew that we were out there, unless we were on stage in front of them.”
Wilson says that things started to improve for the band around the turn of the ‘10s, and then really took off following their appearance on the Summerland package tour in 2015, playing alongside fellow ‘90s alt radio fixtures Everclear, Sugar Ray, Lit and Marcy Playground. “We really shined on that tour,” he says. “And what was surprising to me was that — y’know, five bands – we were the least-dysfunctional band on that tour. And all the other bands kinda looked to us — or at least some of them seemed to — to indicate that we kinda had our s–t together.”
More successful treks followed, including one for the New Miserable Experience 25th anniversary in 2017, and gradually, the band established credibility in the industry as a legitimate live draw. In recent years, they’ve toured consistently, while also playing festivals and private gigs whenever and wherever the opportunities present themselves – with the singer citing his band’s unofficial motto as “Gin Blossoms: We won’t do anything for less than X amount of dollars, but we will do anything for X amount of dollars.” (Wilson also met his current, long-term girlfriend at one of their shows — but he adds, jokingly, “Normally I don’t really hit on our fans. I always prefer to hit on Sugar Ray’s fans.”)
The Gin Blossoms probably aren’t headlining Madison Square Garden on their own anytime soon – “We’re a mid-level band,” Wilson acknowledges matter-of-factly – and they might still be a ways off from being considered for a Coachella or Lollapalooza-type festival lineup. “I can get jealous,” Wilson admits. “There’s times that I see the Goo Goo Dolls’ wardrobe cases and I go, ‘S–t! We were so close!’”
Regardless, they tour well enough to live comfortably, they’re still recording strong new albums – Wilson calls 2018’s Mixed Reality the band’s strongest album since New Miserable Experience, and he’s probably right – as relations within the band are as stable and committed as they’ve ever been. “All of us in the band are responsible to each other,” Wilson says. “So yeah, I’ve missed a lot of birthdays and holidays and family reunions and s–t like that over the years… But I go where the band goes.”
Meanwhile, Wilson is also living out a dream gig from his pre-Blossoms days as The Smithereens’ co-frontman. The partnership developed naturally in 2018, albeit through unfortunate circumstances: after Pat DiNizio’s death, the band decided to turn a home state gig they had the next month into an all-star tribute to DiNizio. Dozens of special guests either sent video messages or showed up to perform with the band – one of whom was Wilson, a fan since the mid-’80s, who ultimately sang on four songs (including perhaps the signature Smithereens song, 1986’s “Blood and Roses”).
Jim Babjak, the band’s guitarist, said Wilson immediately clicked with the rest of the group. “It was uncanny – him and Marshall,” he recalls, referring to the band’s other current singer, longtime critics’ darling and “Till I Hear It From You” co-writer Marshall Crenshaw. “And they both, after the show, said, ‘You know, if you want to do more shows in the future, I’m there.’ And a lightbulb went over my head, and I said, ‘Hey wait a minute, man, the band’s not over yet…’”
The fit between singer and band has proven as good in practice as in theory, with Wilson being embraced by both the band and their fans. “Back in the day, we were more competitive,” Babjak says of his band’s former attitude towards their general power-pop peers. “But now, it’s more like family. There’s definitely a bond there. And we do consider ourselves [all] survivors.” For Wilson, singing with The Smithereens is a particular joy due to his lack of shared history with the band. “There’s no baggage whatsoever,” he says. “I wasn’t there for any of the s–t that went down. And it’s just such a unique situation to be in for me… I mean, I can see [their own baggage] in their weary eyes – and I’m just backstage playing a Cars song. Just, ‘Wheee!’”
It hasn’t always been that easy in the Gin Blossoms, but they’re proud of the way they’ve stuck it out together. While the band has cycled through several drummers over the decades – Scott Hessell has manned the position since 2012 – they’ve maintained a consistent core of Wilson, Valenzuela, Johnson and bassist Bill Leen since 1992 “A lot of our buddies, they’ve all quit… or y’know, just not doing it much anymore,” says Johnson. “The fact that we’ve been doing it for 30 years, it means something.”
The legacy of the Gin Blossoms invariably ends up being a complicated one, half a still-raw rock tragedy and half a CVS-soundtracking success story – which makes the band resistant to the kind of easily understood narratives that usually define rock mythology, and means neither the group nor Hopkins belongs to the genre’s over-romanticized canon of gone-too-soon icons. But the songs live on, as immaculate and visceral now as they were decades ago, and the band is still going, with the Celebrating 30 Miserable Years Tour – perfect name – due to start Feb 18.
“That’s all you could really hope for, is like, a legacy,” Wilson says. “To retain your credibility, and your ability to sell tickets. And it’s just cool to be a part of the big rock story. And that’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do, is be in a band. So it still just amazes me that I’m still doing it.”
Wilson pauses, before remembering: “And I’m also in The Smithereens!” He chuckles. “It’s just awesome. If you could go back and tell your 20-year-old self what life has in store for you… there’d just be no way to predict it.”
Two months after our hike, I catch up with Wilson on a smoke break outside the Paramount concert venue in Huntington, Long Island, where the Gin Blossoms are playing a weeknight show on what is now essentially his home turf.
“This is like our eighth or ninth show here,” the singer boasts. “We played here on the Summerland tour, and we did Under the Sun here – those were great gigs – but then we came back and headlined this joint, and we sold more tickets just headlining than we did on Under the Sun or Summerland. And I remember [Sugar Ray frontman Mark] McGrath called me – ‘coz he reads the trades – and he was like, “I can’t believe how many f–king tickets you sold at the Paramount!’”
This show is particularly special for Wilson, because it’s the first time he’s going to be sharing a bill here with his son Grey, whose band The Mercurys is the first of three acts on the evening. “They’re so excited,” Wilson raves of his young openers. “When they saw the stage, they were all like, “WHOA!!!”… When they saw they had their own dressing room, they’re like, “WHOOOAAA!!!” and they’re jumping around. It’s really cool.”
That energy certainly translates to The Mercurys’ opening set, an impressively tight and well-performed mix of rocking originals and classic covers, played with the vigor (but not the sloppiness) of a bunch of over-caffeinated college kids. Grey, who plays guitar (including a sparkled Stratocaster of Robin’s rescued from the fire) and takes lead vocals on most songs, bounds around the stage in a plaid long-sleeve with the top couple buttons undone, pumping his fist and throwing up devil horns and directing audience singalongs. When Dad gets invited onstage to sing on a performance of his Gas Giants not-quite-hit “Quitter,” Grey looks overjoyed to be playing alongside his old man, and the two strike typical singer/guitarist duo poses together as the song closes. It’s an emotional moment, with the echoes of the on-stage partnership that Robin lost 30 years earlier likely not lost on either Wilson. (Robin says his son has long been infatuated with Hopkins’ memory, “constantly peppering me with little questions about ‘What was Doug like, and how did he play, and how did he move?’”)
Grey finishes with Pete Townsend guitar windmills, and he and Robin exchange an endearingly awkward high-five and hug before the latter exits stage left. “Thanks, Dad – you still owe me three weeks’ allowance,” Grey jokes, which the Mercurys’ drummer responds to with a rim shot.
Earlier that night, I’d asked Robin what he had actually wanted his dad to say all those years ago over the phone at the Greek Theater, rather than telling his son that he felt like “a f–king idiot” for doubting he’d be successful in music.
“I don’t know – I don’t know what I was expecting,” he answered. “I mean, I didn’t want this accomplishment to make my dad feel bad, y’know? But at the same time, y’know, with the perspective of time, it’s an incredible validation. Because when I left college to go on tour with the band, he told me, ‘You’re a f–king idiot.’ And then five years later, he said, ‘I feel like a f–king idiot.’ And so in a way, it was a pretty major victory for a contentious relationship between a kid and his dad.”
I asked if he tries to be more explicitly encouraging with Grey. “I am,” he responded. “But I understand my son way better than my dad understood me.”
The Gin Blossoms’ headlining performance is the kind of satisfyingly professional job fans have come to expect from the band, who keep few surprises in store at this point in their touring career — outside of an occasionally rotating cover slot in the encore, which tonight lands on The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.” But they sound phenomenal, and they don’t leave any hits on the table – with Wilson taking it as a personal challenge to get even the folks in the balcony seating on their feet, getting most of the way there by the time the setlist hits “Found Out About You.”
And this time, it’s Grey’s turn to join the party — which he does on the final song of the evening, an encore performance of “Till I Hear It From You.” Emerging on stage with an acoustic guitar, he even has more of a bounce in his step than he did during his own band’s gig, playfully connecting not only with his dad but with most of the other members of the quintet. As the song ends, Robin comes up behind his son to embrace him one more time, and the two walk off with their arms around one another. The past is gone, but something might be found to take its place.
If you’re thinking about suicide, or are worried about a friend or loved one, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, available 24 hours, at 1-800-273-8255.