Salon: Sharps and Flats

Published December 5, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

When Shannon Hoon died of an accidental heroin overdose a year ago, there was the usual cabal of tongue-clickers and tut-tutters. Fans no doubt mourned the premature demise of Blind Melon, but they must have done so quietly and privately; there were no candlelight vigils or tribute concerts. The few rock critics who were stirred from their indifference only looked up long enough to dismiss the tragedy as Exhibit B in the great rock 'n' roll drug scandal. Anyone with an ounce of compassion will be thankful, then, that the band finally produced a fitting memorial with "Nico."

Scorned for having succeeded without much of a track record, the Melons were blind in one important way: They ignored what critics said (and didn't say), and took their brand of unabashed and eclectic '70s rock to multiplatinum status. To many casual observers, the Melons may have seemed a strange one-hit wonder, sprung from the balding head of some record company executive. But that's uncharitable and unfair. On much of this CD, the band is stripped down to their acoustic underpinnings, and they impress. Whatever else they may have been, Blind Melon had some pretty good instincts -- whether by accident or by design, it hardly matters -- for meat-and-potatoes rock in the style of Jefferson Airplane, the Allman Brothers and a few other long-gone forerunners.

Named for Hoon's daughter, who was just 13 weeks old when her father died, "Nico" is a fine collection for all those fans who were able to listen beyond the supremely annoying and virulent single "No Rain." The record includes some rough-and-ready outtakes, like a powerful cover of Steppenwolf's "The Pusher" and a prescient tour-bus tape of "Hell," a song that comes as close as any to explaining Hoon's pathological talent. The album closes with "Letters From a Porcupine," a haunting song Shannon left on guitarist Christopher Thorn's answering machine, but not before rocking out with electrified versions of "Swallowed," "Pull" and John Lennon's "John Sinclair." "Nico" may seem like a disparate collection, but with its breadth and unpolished passion, it's a purging that seems intended to finally offer fans some closure.

But it's about more than music. "Nico" is an enhanced CD, and one of the best to come out in recent memory. Photographs, footage from the band's home video, excerpts from interviews, and three full music videos are all presented in an easy and interesting format. Of course, everything's freighted with the emotional impact of an unhappy ending. But it's not heavy-handed, and the multimedia portion of "Nico" even shills for the Musicians Assistants Program, an organization helping artists recover from drug and alcohol addiction. The band is donating a portion of proceeds to MAP as well.

In many ways, Blind Melon's defining moment came not on any CD, but when they performed at Woodstock '94. Hoon dressed up like a "Harold & Maude" understudy for Ruth Gordon, and emoted like a transgendered Janis Joplin. Flying in the face of widespread charges that they were retro-ripoff artists, Blind Melon seemed to revel in the ironies of Woodstock Revisited. It was a definitive moment, a Polaroid of the weird nostalgia driving so much pop culture this decade. In some of the most widely published footage of the event -- included here -- Hoon sang "I'll close my eyes and make you all go away." Sadly, it turned out to be a promise he made good on far too soon.

By Hans Eisenbeis

Hans Eisenbeis is the editor of Request Line magazine.

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