Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon performing at Woodstock '94
Photo by Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Image
How Blind Melon Lost Their Minds & Made A Masterpiece: 'Soup' Turns 25
The opening lines of "Hello, Goodbye," which kicks off Soup, Blind Melon's ill-fated second album, serve as Shannon Hoon's warning to listeners of what's to come as the record unfolds.
"I'm entering a frame bombarded by indecision, where a man like me can easily let the day get out of control, down this far in the Quarter," he sings in mock-vaudevillian against boozy New Orleans brass. The revelry is gone as soon as the last horn fades, though, when the pummeling one-two punch of "Galaxie" and "2x4" hit. It's clear this is not the Blind Melon of the lithe, carefree smash hit "No Rain."
The story of Soup, which turns 25 this week, begins and ends in New Orleans, a city that attracts wayward artists like a beacon to its endless menu of distractions. Trent Reznor, Johnny Thunders, Alex Chilton and Marilyn Manson are just a few who lived there in the 1990s alone. And in '94, Blind Melon came, too.
"We didn't really think to ourselves, 'Hey man, New Orleans is probably the worst place for us to be,'" says guitarist Christopher Thorn. "You can party 24/7—the bars never close. You can get anything you want at any f**king time. In the moment, it felt romantic and it felt like exactly what we should be doing."
A few months removed from the debauched final leg of a two-year tour, Blind Melon regrouped in the city's Garden District, where bassist Brad Smith, drummer Glen Graham and guitarist Rogers Stevens had all recently moved. They set up in the "low-rent luxurious" guest house behind Stevens' New Orleans home to jam before moving into Kingsway, a mansion-turned-recording studio owned by producer Daniel Lanois on the edge of the French Quarter.
"We were on fire, because we had just toured our asses off for a couple years," says Thorn. "I would say the band was really at a high level, as far as our playing goes and how we were working together."
The process of writing Soup was different from the collective experience of writing their quadruple-Platinum self-titled debut in North Carolina. Now they were all writing and demoing songs on their own and brought in solid ideas ready to work. Rehearsals usually started late at night, and they tracked demos to an ADAT recorder until morning, collaborating on songs like "The Duke" and "Galaxie." Some tunes, like "St. Andrew's Fall" and "2x4," which was their opener during summer 1994 shows like Woodstock, were already fully formed.
Likewise, the transition to Kingsway with producer Andy Wallace in late 1994 started as a productive time. Hoon and Thorn moved into the house, and the band tracked together in a large dining room while Wallace mixed downstairs. New songs like the Hoon-penned "Vernie," a tribute to his grandmother, and "New Life," written when he learned his girlfriend, Lisa Sinha, was pregnant, contain some of his warmest melodies and lyrics.
Before long, though, the city's party atmosphere began to take over the sessions. Drug dealers became common fixtures, and Hoon sightings became rare. "You only got Shannon for so much time," recalls Thorn. "I don't know how Andy even just finished that record for us. You got Shannon for a few hours a day, if you're lucky." And even then, what they got wasn't always pretty.
One afternoon, Thorn came downstairs to eat a bowl of cereal and found Hoon cooking cocaine on the stove. Another time, he cut himself up with a razor blade for fun. Hoon wasn't the only one in the band overdoing it, though, as accounts in Greg Prato's oral history, "A Devil on One Shoulder and an Angel on the Other: The Story of Shannon Hoon and Blind Melon," attest. The collective madness that had become commonplace at Kingsway found its way onto the record.
Thorn and co-guitarist Rogers Stevens were at their Jekyll and Hyde best, playing opposite sides of the coin and never the same parts. Smith and Graham led the whole circus of accordions, mandolins and assorted instruments through dense arrangements. On the serial killer goof "Skinned," banjo is dominant and a kazoo takes the solo. The band explored Eastern sounds and a bossanova beat on the album's most adventurous song, "Car Seat (God’s Presents)." No matter what the band threw at him, Hoon was up to the job. Musically, it all worked.
"There was definitely a feeling of all of us maybe becoming a bit unhinged," says Thorn. "All that added into a great record, and all that drama and all that craziness, it definitely gets on the tracks."
The album's darkest moment is the Hoon-authored "Mouthful of Cavities,” a chilling confessional of drug abuse and paranoia, sung as a duet with singer Jena Kraus. It's unclear whether Hoon is singing about himself or to himself. But perhaps tellingly, the opening lines, "Mouthful of cavities, and your soul's a bowl of jokes," originally read, "Head full of cavities, and my soul's a bowl of jokes."
"I think we all got used to talking to Shannon off the edge," Thorn says. "He would do too much cocaine and start talking about his childhood and things like that. He told me he had a black heart one night, and I was like, 'Dude, what is going on with you? You don't. What do you mean?’ He got really out there and started to really slip. I just didn't have the tools [to help], other than trying to be a friend."
The lyrics to the upbeat closing track, "Lemonade," read like a play-by-play of Hoon’s time in the city. He admits that "this far down South I have no self control," and seems to nod to his arrest for punching a police officer as well as his razor-blade episode in other lines. In a morbid twist, locals Kermit Ruffins and the Rebirth Brass Band bring the album to a close with a second-line funeral march.
The original 'Soup' packaging
Photo courtesy of Christopher Thorn
On August 15, 1995, Soup dropped on an alt-rock scene that had already welcomed hit records from contemporaries like The Smashing Pumpkins, Primus and Red Hot Chili Peppers. But even in the anything-goes realm of mid-'90s rock, Soup sunk on delivery.
MTV buried the videos for "Galaxie" and "Toes Across the Floor." Radio was unimpressed, too. "Galaxie" briefly reached No. 8 on the same Billboard Modern Rock chart "No Rain" topped two years earlier during its Billboard Hot 100 run, when it peaked at No. 20. "Toes Across the Floor" didn’t chart at all.
Then came the biggest blow—a scathing review by Rolling Stone and a paltry one-and-a-half-star rating. Writer Ted Drozdowski decried Soup’s lack of riffs or "hippie positivity," derided Hoon’s vocals as out of his range and predicted their impending irrelevance.
"It f**king devastated us," says Thorn. "We thought we made this amazing record, and we thought everyone was going to be super proud of us for not trying to repeat 'No Rain' again. We thought we had made Exile on Main Street. Then the review comes out and someone says, 'Hey, what you made, that you were so proud of, is absolute shit.'"
Photographer Danny Clinch was on tour with them when they found out about the review. "You couldn't respond like you could today through Twitter or Instagram or your own voice," he says. "You had Rolling Stone magazine. People looked at it to see if it was a good record or not."
Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter wrote a letter to Hoon three days after the "obscene little review" came out to encourage him to stay the course and follow his instincts. He pointed out that in the '90s, "Rolling Stone reviews don’t sell records. Videos do."
But unfortunately for Blind Melon, lightning didn’t strike twice in that department, either. Instead of giving MTV the happy-go-lucky bee girl dancing in a lush meadow, they produced two remarkably bad videos—the first, for "Galaxie," was dark and simply 180 degrees from "No Rain," while the clip for "Toes Across the Floor" was awkward and sterile. Both tried to be conceptual but were literal to a fault. In the latter, the actor actually scrapes his toes across the floor at one point.
"They both sucked," says Stevens. "We had a couple of terrible experiences with directors, but with the 'Galaxie' video, that experience came from an uninterested, outside third party—namely [LSD advocate] Timothy Leary, who showed up looking for crack, basically. We were there with a huge warehouse rented and a crew of like 50 people. It's costing, I don't know, 50 grand a day or something ridiculous." Hoon ended up punching a guy on the set and then disappeared until the next day.
To make matters worse, their record label, Capitol Records, had undergone a shakeup and the new leadership wasn’t invested in supporting Blind Melon through their difficult-second-record phase. Once the deck began to stack against the band, they pulled support.
In a clip from the 2020 documentary All I Can Say, compiled from Hoon's own home videotapes, he doesn’t mince words. "A lot of people are offended 'cause they believed in what MTV portrayed us to be all about. No one’s gonna know what I’m about from one video and a bee girl and a cute little story."
Photo courtesy of Christopher Thorn
By all accounts, Blind Melon was focused when they began their U.S. tour behind Soup. The September 27, 1995 performance at The Metro in Chicago, captured on the Live At The Metro (2005) DVD, is especially strong. Hoon was sober and connecting with audiences, and the band was tight. Spirits were even higher by the time they reached the West Coast, when Sinha and their newborn daughter, Nico Blue, joined them for a week.
Then, after their show in Los Angeles (heard on the 2005 live album Live at the Palace), Hoon fell off the wagon. The band hooked up with old friends at their hotel, and kept the party going on the bus the next day as his girlfriend and daughter flew back home and Blind Melon rolled to the next stop. When they reached Houston a week later, he was high when he took the stage. Thorn and his bandmates were livid.
"I went to bed early, as in, I didn't stay up all night doing blow with him," says Thorn. "I was just disgusted with him, and he could tell I was mad. He would do little things to try to make it up to you without really saying anything. I remember he gave me this [Andy] Warhol book, because he knew I loved art. He's like, 'Hey man, you want to check out my Andy Warhol book?' I was like, 'Yeah, thanks man.' I was pissed."
The bus arrived in New Orleans the morning on October 21 just like any other day. Thorn remembers seeing Hoon in the hotel elevator as they went to their rooms. Nothing seemed off to him. When Hoon got to his room, he began recording on his video camera, a scene shown in All I Can Say. Alternately pacing the floor and stretching out on the bed, Hoon arranges a plane ticket to go home to his new family. His last words in documentary, from the same conversation, are simply tragic: "I, like, really need to get off that f**king bus."
Just a few hours later, Hoon was found dead from a cocaine overdose on the band's tour bus. The surviving members of Blind Melon were left to sort out his life and death, as well as his legacy.
"I regret not really looking at those lyrics at that time and going, 'Hey man, are you okay?'" says Thorn. "We were all caught up in it. I wasn't in a position to go, 'Hey man, are you okay? You seem like you're drifting.' He could say the same thing about me or somebody else in the band. We should have said, 'Shannon's f**ked up and we're coming home right now. Everyone's going to deal with it. All you managers and record companies are not going to make any money.'"
Stevens has similar recollections about the period. "The shows that did get played just before Soup came out and after it came out, most of them were really good. There was some nonsense going on here and there. It wasn't like a rager. We had been through many periods that were way worse. It certainly didn't feel like we were approaching some sort of impending doom, at least to me. I thought that many other times. Maybe when it didn't happen, I just became desensitized, and I shouldn't have."
Soup went on to earn a GRAMMY nomination for Best Recording Packaging – Boxed at the 38th annual GRAMMY Awards in 1995. The album, which pictured Wallace eating soup in a New York City diner on the cover, was packaged to look like a greasy-spoon menu. The album's songs were the "specials," and the foldout included the CD and bonuses such as an "After Show Only" backstage pass.
The full 'Soup' packaging, styled to look like a greasy-spoon menu.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Thorn
"I think it was the first time, and maybe even one of the few times, that I worked with a food stylist," says Clinch, who was hired to shoot the cover. "We propped it out. They didn't have exactly everything we wanted, so we got our own coffee mugs, silverware, stuff to make it look as authentic as we wanted it to."
Meanwhile, Soup has quietly become a dark-horse favorite of the alt-rock era among fans and critics.
"You listen to that record, it was so adventurous and so timeless," says Clinch. "In my opinion, it doesn't feel like a '90s grunge record at all."
Stevens agrees. "We had a different reference point than our peers. We just approached it from, I feel like, a purer point, where there wasn't a litmus test of things that you were okay with or not that got you in this club. There was a lot of that going on that I felt was ridiculous.
"I did feel at the time that Soup was special," Stevens adds. "I also felt it was unfinished business. That will haunt me until the end of my days. I'll never get over that because aside from my family, the thing that really matters to me, really, is making great records."