Why We Fight

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love -- or at least respect -- Third Eye Blind

This band will surprise you.

--From press materials for Third Eye Blind's Blue

On Thursday, Nov. 25 -- Thanksgiving Day -- the members of Third Eye Blind will donate their time to perform at the half-time show of the Chicago Bears-Detroit Lions football game in Pontiac, Mich. This, as National Football League spokesperson Brian McCarthy points out, is a big deal. Over 40 million people will be watching, and this is the first time an NFL half-time show other than the Super Bowl's will be televised nationally. "This is a national way of saying thanks to people who have contributed time and contributed money to the United Way," says Patricia Ellis of United Way Community Services, which has worked with the NFL for 26 years. The 9 1/2-minute "half-time spectacular" will include about 1,000 dancers, singers, and performers, including a choir, followed by Third Eye Blind. The band will play "Never Let You Go," a song from Blue, the follow-up to its 1997 self-titled debut album, which has sold 4 million copies.

Third Eye Blind: San Francisco's most improved rock band.
Third Eye Blind: San Francisco's most improved rock band.
The lyrics to "Slow Motion" as they appeared in the band's 1996 press materials.
The lyrics to "Slow Motion" as they appeared in the band's 1996 press materials.



Third Eye Blind
"Never Let You Go"

Third Eye Blind
"The Background"

Third Eye Blind

Third Eye Blind
"10 Days Late"

Third Eye Blind
"Slow Motion"

"Weird Al" Yankovic
"Polka Power!" [semi-charmed life]

(Files require RealPlayer)


E-mail correspondence
An e-mail exchange between Mark Athitakis and the proprietor of the Third Eye Blind fan site, www.stephanjenkins.com


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History, As Written by the Winners
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August 18, 1999

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It's a Contest
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July 28, 1999

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Riff Raff Is Not [Expletive Deleted] Balding
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"The NFL was looking for ways to better serve its fans, and one of those ways was entertainment," says McCarthy, who notes that while Clint Black will be performing at the Dallas Cowboys-Miami Dolphins game the same day, Third Eye Blind appeals to "obviously, a younger demographic."

"They came highly recommended by the NFL," says Detroit Lions publicist Tim Pendell.

"We're very happy to have them, of course," says Ellis.

None of the members of Third Eye Blind were available to comment to SF Weeklyabout the Thanksgiving performance, the release of Blue, or anything else related to the band.

The band, it would seem, is in no hurry to talk to me. "There isn't a good reason to do this," the band's manager, Eric Gotland, told me last week. "You guys have never meshed."

To help explain why that's so, a brief recap is in order. On May 6, Third Eye Blind played a sold-out show at the Paradise Lounge under the pseudonym Titty; having reviewed that show negatively, I received a number of strongly worded pieces of hate mail, which made their way into my e-mail in-box for several weeks. Some observers found the whole thing amusing, including me, since I'd never expected such outrage. After all, a critic expressing dislike of a band, even in that band's native San Francisco, isn't a novel concept.

But, figuring some of the stronger opinions about Third Eye Blind -- both positive and negative -- were at least getting expressed, I decided it might be fun to hold a contest in which readers could suggest titles for the band's then-untitled second album. The grand prize winner would get a copy of the band's 1995 demo tape (and accompanying letter from lead singer Stephan Jenkins), and the second place winner would get a bottle of Sammy Hagar's Cabo Wabo tequila.

Snotty? Oh, sure. But I'm fully cognizant of the amount of power I possess to influence public opinion about Third Eye Blind, which is to say: precisely none. At Third Eye Blind's stratospheric levels of sales and airplay, snottiness changes nothing. And really, I don't begrudge the band's members their success. All of this was, frankly, an off-the-cuff and not-terribly-serious way of writing about the most famous rock band to come out of the Bay Area in the past five years.

In late September, Stephan Jenkins, off-the-cuff and not-terribly-serious, implied to a Rollingstone.comreporter that I had an ax to grind regarding the band. Then, in early October, an Elektra publicist based in Los Angeles, presumably oblivious to all this, called to talk to me about Third Eye Blind: The band was available for interviews. So I submitted my request. Would it be possible to get the band on the cover of the Weekly? he asked. Well, we'd have to look into that.

A few days later Third Eye Blind manager Gotland got in touch. He was polite, but also expressed a bit of confusion. Gotland pointed out that had the band been asked to name the one publication that has been uniformly negative toward it, the only one it would be able to think of is SF Weekly. And, he asked, if I don't like the band, why would I be interested in talking with its members? I explained that while, yes, I've been critical -- snotty, even -- toward the band in the past, that didn't mean I wouldn't handle an interview professionally, or that I couldn't make room for the members' opinions just because they might differ from mine. And while that difference in opinion might be tackled in an interview, it's not like I'd jump over a table and attack Stephan Jenkins.

Gotland said he'd run my interview request by the band. Last week, he told me that he hadn't actively pursued the matter with the members. His feeling is that my efforts might be better geared toward more unknown local groups, such as the five other bands he represents.

Now, Gotland is just doing his job, which is to look after the best interests of his clients. And, make no mistake, this is a nervous time for Third Eye Blind. Maybe not as human beings, but certainly as a commercial entity, as a limited partnership organized to generate income for itself, and for the company under which it has been contracted. Sophomore albums rarely perform better than their predecessors, sales-wise or critically. Also, Third Eye Blind has always presented itself as a pretender to the big-time rock star throne, and if pop music in the '90s is going to be remembered for anything, it will be the death of the big-time rock star. So the release of Blue comes with risks attached. While the influence of print media -- and music journalism in general -- is in this case limited (radio airplay is the make-it-or-break-it venue), from a PR standpoint, however silly PR standpoints often are, you can't take any unnecessary risks.

However, since Blue is a vast improvement over its predecessor, perhaps there's no need for such concern.

Yup, an improvement. And good? Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Blue is, for the most part, a fuller realization of what the band aspired -- and failed -- to do on its first album, which was to produce a coherent brand of U2-styled arena rock. Of all the problems with Third Eye Blind, its chief trouble was its utter lack of focus. The CD was, for the most part, the sound of a group that couldn't figure out what it wanted to be, and which had decided, therefore, to be everything -- a bass solo from Arion Salazar here, a fancy guitar effect from Kevin Cadogan there (actually a lot of fancy guitar effects), Brad Hargreaves keeping verybusy at the drum kit, and Stephan Jenkins going everywhere, rapping and screaming and singing falsetto, almost randomly.

The intention was obviously to showcase the band's virtuosity, but that made for some clumsy -- and worse, unmemorable -- songwriting. With the exception of one ballad ("The Background") and one smartly engineered pop single ("Semi-Charmed Life"), the result came off as an advertisement for the Berklee School of Music or some other highfalutin music-tech school. Which means that all of Jenkins' stories about his hard-knock life, as reported by the lyric sheet, got subsumed in the show-offy, outsized musical mess, and sounded passionless.

That approach, however, is part of the band's appeal to its fans. "It's like the band challenges themselves to make each riff, drum tap, and bass line matchless," says Jennifer Griffin, who from Montgomery, Ala., runs a Third Eye Blind fan site, stephanjenkins.com. "My prediction," she adds, "is that Blue will catapult Third Eye Blind to the top of the Billboard charts as the year's big rock album, silencing critics who harp on 'sophomore slumps.' It's too bad that most critics can't see past the doot-doot-doots and experience the deep symbolism and dark imagery that's found in each and every song, even in that 'I want something else' ditty."

On Blue, the band sounds like it at least knows what it's doing. The opening "Anything" is a brash, brilliant overture of melodic post-punk that -- this is important -- is over in two minutes. The band still believes that shoehorning genres together makes for a good song -- Jenkins will still channel Robert Plant at random moments, and the poppy "The Red Summer Sun" bursts into a Thin Lizzy-like bit of glam rock halfway through -- but this time around the stuff it's pulling out of its trick bag was chosen with some discrimination. Having the Golden Gate Boys Choir sing on the break of "Ten Days Late," a song about pregnancy, is a witty touch, and "Camouflage" punctuates its under- water vocal effects with string figures from locals Carla Kihlstedt and Marika Hughes. Still, wise production choices aren't the hallmark of a great record, and there's a lack of depth here, from the songs the band knocked off to make "Never Let You Go" ("Sweet Jane") and "1000 Julys" ("Back in Black") to Jenkins' lyrics. UC Berkeley English degree or no, they're still just love songs, and he still can't make them meaningful.

Call the album a half-success, then; capable arena rock with enough going on to suggest that maybe, if the band is allowed to develop, it will have something more engaging to express. Whether it will be allowed to develop is something that was recently called into question. Earlier this month, Rollingstone.com reported, Elektra asked the band to remove the song "Slow Motion" from Blue. Elektra chairperson and CEO Sylvia Rhone told the Web site that the song "didn't work in the context of the rest of the album, and it didn't work in the context of the current social climate, and in the overall vision of this band." Management said the bone of contention was the opening verse: "Miss Jones taught me English/ But I think I just shot her son/ 'Cause he owed me money/ With a bullet in the chest you cannot run/ Now he bleeds in a vacant lot." The implication is that a song that mentions teachers and guns is inappropriate for major-label release in a post-Columbine world.

But "Slow Motion" predates Columbine. It was written before the band got famous, and is one of the songs included on its 1995 demo tape. If those opening lines don't "work in the context of the current social climate," consider these from the closing verse, as they're written in the group's 1996 press materials:

And at home
My sister's eating paint chips again
Maybe that's why she's insane
I shut the door to her moaning
And I shoot smack in my veins
Wouldn't you?
See my neighbor beating his wife
Because he hates his life
There's an arc to his fist as he swings
Oh man, what a beautiful thing

Maybe that doesn't work in the current social climate either, and maybe the lines aren't up there with Bob Dylan's lyrics for social verisimilitude. But nobody can deny that they are, at least, vivid. The edginess, the anger, the depth of feeling -- all the stuff Third Eye Blind's lyrics have been credited with having but never quite do -- is right there. On Blue, the only lyrics intact on the delicate piano-driven ballad are those of the chorus: "Slow motion see me let go/ We tend to die young/ Slow motion see me let go/ What a brother knows."

According to Gotland, a complete version of the song will be released sometime early next year as part of an eight-song EP on the band's as-yet-unnamed label. "The song is very controversial," he says, "and the danger was that the album Blue could have been all about this song." He adds: "What's actually good about this is that Time Warner [Elektra's parent company] didn't run from the issue. They could've not let us release it at all. Now we can release it ourselves, make our own album that's vibey and cool."

"The tumult that that song has caused is a sign that we're on the right track," Jenkins told Rollingstone.com. Uh, no. Compromising a statement you believe in (the band submitted the song with full lyrics to the label, so presumably its members believed in it) because the higher-ups say you have to is a lot of things, but not "the right track," not ever. The new version isn't an "edit." It's a hack job. And either Jenkins is comfortable with having his art manhandled and eviscerated in order to better serve the interests of the company to which he has contracted, or he's just spinning to the media.

I don't know which is true. All I can say is I'd like to ask.

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