When Sorry’s Not Enough: On Gin Blossoms’ Congratulations I’m Sorry 20 Years Later

Pete Tosiello on the tragic story of Doug Hopkins and the demise of his band, Gin Blossoms.
By    January 29, 2016

gin blossoms

Pete Tosiello stopped caring about Arizona when Steve Nash left. 

When Doug Hopkins finally killed himself, he was already the veteran of five failed suicide attempts. In the wake of an unsuccessful suicide attempt, the shame is often greater and questions more abundant than after an actual suicide. Was the person too weak or scared to pull it off? Pushed to the brink, did he see the light and decide against it? Was it nothing more than a cry for help? Was he just being an attention whore or a drama queen, or was he even that serious in the first place?

From 1987 to 1992 Hopkins was the founding guitarist and primary songwriter of the Arizona pop-rock outfit Gin Blossoms, who just concluded another year spent touring small American cities on the ‘90s nostalgia circuit. This year they celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Congratulations I’m Sorry, their second and final platinum-selling album and the first they recorded after firing Hopkins a year before he killed himself.

An incorrigible drunk, Hopkins was booted from the band immediately prior to the release of their breakthrough New Miserable Experience. Although he wrote and recorded the bulk of the album’s songs, during final studio sessions he would become too drunk to play and exhorted his bandmates to find someone to cover his parts.

“I understand why they fired me,” Hopkins admitted in 1992. “But did they have to get so fucking cold and ruthless about it?”

He watched Gin Blossoms sell a million records playing his songs, received a gold plaque in the mail, and was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in December 1993. Congratulations I’m Sorry sounds like a kitschy ‘90s title, but it’s in fact rather self-aware: Congratulations, you’re a worldwide pop sensation. I’m sorry, you expelled the key to your success. And then he shot himself in the head.

Gin Blossoms’ early success was somewhat misbegotten. New Miserable Experience is a poignantly catchy album about being too old to be this drunk and self-pitying, but the jangly guitars led many listeners to cast them as a southwestern Counting Crows. Even the hits on New Miserable Experience are truly miserable despite their jangly sheen: “Hey Jealousy” is about an irredeemable alcoholic in need of a friend; “Found Out About You” is about parking your car outside your ex-girlfriend’s house and watching her have sex through the window. Its crown jewel, “Pieces of the Night,” is classic Hopkins, a devastating finale and “Closing Time” progenitor chronicling a search for connection—in drink or in company—before the lights turn back on:

But you wanted to be where you are

But it looked much better from afar

A hillside in shadow

Between the people and the stars

The six songs Hopkins wrote are far and away the best on New Miserable Experience—the other half show flashes of the lyrical ambiguity that would plague Gin Blossoms’ subsequent work. If New Miserable Experience was jangle pop’s Born to Run (a stretch? An oxymoron? I don’t know), everything they did afterward was Lucky Town, some one-size-fits-all emulation with none of the scars or desperation. Hopkins’s songs are immediately identifiable—they’re the ones about alcoholism and despondency that always hit a little too close to home—whereas lead singer Robin Wilson and guitarist Jesse Valenzuela’s aren’t about anything in particular. “Mrs. Rita” is about a storefront psychic, “Allison Road” is about a road.

New Miserable Experience was initially released in the summer of 1992, but none of the singles charted until late 1993; its five singles continued to appear on the Billboard charts through 1995. The first glimpse of the post-Hopkins Gin Blossoms came in 1995 with “Til I Hear It From You,” a sparkly ballad from the Empire Records soundtrack. An early indicator of Wilson and Valenzuela’s vision for Congratulations I’m Sorry, it was co-written by motherfucking Marshall Crenshaw when he met the band at South By Southwest.

Wilson and Valenzuela initially refused to include “Til I Hear It From You” on the album because they didn’t want listeners to think that they needed co-writers in Hopkins’ absence, but it was eventually tacked onto Congratulations I’m Sorry as a bonus track. Still, the album’s most enduring song is “Follow You Down,” an upbeat ballad which has graced barbecues and road trips ever since. It’s the only song I’m aware of on which Wilson plays harmonica, and in light of everything the song’s construction as an extended love-as-suicide metaphor (“Jumping off a bridge is just the farthest that I’ve ever been”) seemed his cruelest stroke yet.

After Hopkins died Gin Blossoms kept jangling, but they just weren’t that sad anymore. “As Long As It Matters” is the worst single in Gin Blossoms’ catalog, a lethargic retread of the Wilson-and-Valenzuela-penned “Until I Fall Away,” the worst single from New Miserable Experience. The fifth and final single from Congratulations I’m Sorry, “Not Only Numb,” is melodically as good as the best tunes from New Miserable Experience but is lyrically bereft, Nirvana’s “Lithium” on lithium.

Congratulations I’m Sorry was initially received as a sunny follow-up to the band’s breakthrough, and its best moments are earnestly good-natured. Its finest song, “Perfectly Still,” is an uptempo rocker with a winding bassline evidencing Gin Blossoms’ desert-rock roots. But too much of the writing devolves into sappy nonsense, such as the color-by-numbers ballad “Virginia,” and “My Car,” a woeful collage of faceless Americana. There’s a fourteen-second ballpark organ interlude actually called “7th Inning Stretch”—even the band had to acknowledge what a bore the record had become.

Congratulations I’m Sorry should have been Gin Blossoms’ apex, but they had already been neutered. It sold a quarter as many copies as New Miserable Experience and the band broke up soon after its release, never reuniting until 2006. They were surpassed by Toad the Wet Sprocket and Better Than Ezra, bands who were never as sad but grew more ponderous as Gin Blossoms temporarily settled somewhere in Sister Hazel’s area code.

Sympathy inevitably favors the voiceless, and few have learned this harder than Robin Wilson, the voice of all the hits Doug Hopkins wrote for Gin Blossoms. “29,” a song Valenzuela penned for New Miserable Experience, contains the following prescient lyric:

Some rides don’t have much of a finish

That’s the ride I took

Through good and bad and straight through indifference

Without a second look

With Doug Hopkins went the remorseful hangovers, the drunken pleads for commiseration, and the misty grappling for meaning and transcendence. The handful of sad songs on Congratulations I’m Sorry are ridiculously hollow, and looking back, the record’s forced smiles are the sorriest thing about it. On “Perfectly Still,” Wilson sings:

Outdated maps, missed pull-out ramps

I won’t contribute to our own demise

Pass up the consolation prize

It starts from here from now

Nothing like a bad decision

Says who you are

Doug Hopkins was found perfectly still on December 5, 1993, his brains splattered upon the wall behind his head. In light of this decision, one influenced by countless seemingly smaller and inconsequential decisions in the years prior, his survivors in Gin Blossoms were left to ponder exactly who they were: heartless bastards who’d shunted a friend in need—the architect of their greatest triumphs, no less—or artists who refused to let a massive human obstacle ruin the opportunity of a lifetime?

Robin Wilson has sang the words hundreds of times at county fairs and happy hours over the last twenty years. Some rides don’t have much of a finish, but nothing like a bad decision says who you are.

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