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20 Years Ago: Blind Melon Singer Shannon Hoon Dies of a Drug Overdose

Ebet Roberts, Getty Images
Ebet Roberts, Getty Images

Dayton, Ind., isn’t the sort of town that’s crawling with rock stars. Back in 1990, there weren’t 1,000 people in the whole town, one of whom was Richard Shannon Hoon, better known as Shannon. He was a pretty typical member of the high school graduating class of ’85 – an athlete with a love of jam bands like the Grateful Dead.

Dayton is adjacent to the significantly bigger but still small Lafayette, Ind. (population 43,000 or so in 1990). But, for a town so small, Lafayette has turned out an impressive list of famous names. Among those are a friend of Shannon’s sister, William Bailey, and his buddy Jeff Isbell, both of whom left Indiana for Los Angeles, where they reinvented themselves as Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin. By the end of the ’80s, they pretty much ruled the rock world as Guns N’ Roses.

Shannon Hoon was a musician, too. He gigged around the Lafayette area as lead singer of Styff Kytten, a band name that would have been much improved with a couple of umlauts. It was during these years that he wrote the song “Change,” which later appeared on Blind Melon‘s eponymous debut. One can’t help but wonder if while playing the song in some rinky dink Indiana nightclub, Hoon could have conceived of playing it in front of a sea of people at Woodstock ’94.

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In 1989, Hoon picked up and moved to Los Angeles. His sister called Axl Rose and asked the superstar to help her little brother out, and Shannon soon found himself working at the Cathouse, the notorious nightclub frequented by the Gunners.

The next couple of years sound like some kind of rock ‘n’ roll fairy tale. Hoon busted out “Change” at a party where guests included Rogers Stevens and Brad Smith – his soon to be bandmates in Blind Melon. Also in 1990, Guns N’ Roses started work on Use Your Illusion, the twin record follow-up to Appetite For Destruction. Rose asked Hoon to sing backup on “Don’t Cry” and “The Garden,” a track that also included Alice Cooper. The kid must have felt like he’d stepped through the looking glass. (Check out rare video below of Hoon performing with GNR after Blind Melon had already made the mainstream.)

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In 1991, Blind Melon found themselves signed to Capitol Records and working on an EP called Sippin’ Time. Unhappy with the results, however, they sat on the material until 2013 when the Sippin’ Time sessions were included with a Record Store Day reissue of their debut album. That same year, Blind Melon also opened for Soundgarden and moved to North Carolina (before eventually relocating to Seattle) to work on their album.

But Hoon’s big breakthrough came that year – not with Blind Melon but rather when GNR’s “Don’t Cry” went into heaviest of heavy rotation on radio and MTV. With Hoon even featured in the video, fans became intrigued. “Who’s the new singer in Guns N’ Roses? Is he a permanent member?” Hoon was a star before most people had even heard of his band.

On September 22, 1992, their self-titled debut hit record store racks. That same month, their second single dropped. Although the song was written by bassist Brad Smith rather than Hoon, “No Rain” was an ideal showcase for the singer’s jam band roots. Fans expecting a Guns N’ Roses knockoff were surprised but delighted. The cute little bee girl in the suddenly ubiquitous video didn’t hurt, either.

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“No Rain” turned Blind Melon into something of a cultural phenomenon. They toured relentlessly, remaining on the road until the end of ’93, but the hard work paid off: Blind Melon sold four million copies and the band found themselves on the cover of Rolling Stone.

The thing about Hoon, though, was that he was a free spirit, both a “tyrant and an angel” according to his bandmates. Drugs and alcohol were a part of that equation. At a Halloween show in ’93, the singer drunkenly urinated on an audience member. He also made no secret of his pot use and showed up at Woodstock ’94 tripping on acid. In an obituary for the singer, the New York Times noted that at one point, Hoon’s mother was carrying four bail bonds for her son.

Still, the band managed to continue working. In April ’94 they started work on their sophomore effort, Soup. They recorded a cover of “Out on the Tiles” for a Led Zeppelin tribute album and a brilliant cover of “Three Is a Magic Number” for a Schoolhouse Rocks tribute. Somewhere in there, Hoon also went to rehab. Blind Melon guitarist Stevens told him, “You’re going to kill yourself and you’re going to ruin everyone’s life around you.”

Soup was not greeted with much enthusiasm. Without a single like “No Rain,” neither critics nor record buyers gravitated toward the album. Blind Melon went on the road to support the record, hiring a counselor/handler to keep Hoon away from temptations. But the singer hated having a babysitter, which led to band tension. The counselor was let go.

Although he was trying to stay clean for his new baby, Nico Blue, Hoon went on a binge that started October 20, 1995 and ended the following day when he was found unresponsive on his tour bus. The cause of death was a cocaine overdose. Hoon was 28.

What’s difficult about these kinds of stories is that they always focus on the tragedy. Filmmaker Danny Clinch hopes to change that with a crowdfunded documentary on the late singer. Clinch told Rolling Stone: “He was really an endearing character. He could just become your best friend straight away. His energy was great. He was really creative and super friendly. He definitely liked to have a good time and he enjoyed the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle for sure.”

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