Welcome, one and all, to #3ebThursdays, a hostile takeover of 1%J’s now-apparently-defunct #TBT series. Each Thursday of July, we will travel down memory lane together to look back at one album by ’90s alt-rock giants Third Eye Blind. We will hopefully come away with what ends up being perhaps the most in-depth, critically serious look at the oeuvre of an oft-maligned band, and perhaps a thesis on the nature of community as put forth by 3eb mastermind Stephan Jenkins. We begin this week with the band’s self-titled debut, followed by “Blue” on the 10th, “Out Of The Vein” on the 17th, and “Ursa Major” on the 24th. I’ve only just now realized as I type this that there are five Thursdays in July this year, so the 31st will be occupied either by some sort of cumulative analysis or a first look at the fifth and supposedly final Third Eye Blind album, which is apparently set to come out any day now.
Some may see #3ebThursdays as a futile effort. It may prove to be one. But when has that ever stopped us before?
1000 Julys, motherfuckers.
– noodlebb & 1%J
I. “THIRD EYE BLIND”
Whoever bought ten-year-old me a copy of Third Eye Blind’s 1997 self-titled debut clearly didn’t do their research. While the album didn’t come with a Parental Advisory sticker, it wouldn’t have been hard to find out that their big single endorsed both methamphetamines and oral sex. Most of the lyrics on the album were incomprehensible to me for at least another seven years, and it took me even longer to realize that the music on that disc was pretty wack, as well – totally anachronistic when looked at in context. (Side note: Is the cover font fucking Papyrus?)
The Third Eye Blind of 1997 were a crew of four San Franciscans, helmed by singer/guitarist Stephan Jenkins and guitarist Kevin Cadogan, rounded out by bassist Arion Salazar and drummer Brad Hargreaves. Most of the songs on their debut were co-written by Jenkins and Cadogan, a fact which will become important when Cadogan acrimoniously leaves the band in 2000.
But in 1997, Kevin Cadogan was the primary reason Third Eye Blind were such an ultimately bizarre band. While they got consistently lumped with the likes of Vertical Horizon, Collective Soul, and Gin Blossoms into that dumb, dumb genre that was “post-grunge,” it’s pretty clear from listening to “Third Eye Blind” that if these guys had ever heard Nirvana, they didn’t give much of a shit. Cadogan was an avowed Joe Satriani acolyte, and the riffs on this record sometimes sound as if they were handed down by Slash himself. Couple this with Jenkins’ pushy, anodyne vocal stylings and it becomes clear that this band had never even listened to much punk, let alone grunge. Even the Goo Goo Dolls had enough cred (and sense) to rip off the Replacements; 3eb had zero interest in the underground (if a comparison has to be made to any band making music in the ‘90s, it would be Weezer, whose blatant worship of KISS was somehow sublimated by their horn-rimmed glasses, thus allowing them to sidestep the crippling effect of an open hair-metal influence in 1994 and become critical darlings. 3eb had no such luck. And, unlike Rivers Cuomo, Stephan Jenkins has never, ever been tired of sex.) If grunge was the widely-publicized take-down of hair metal (dubious, if you take a look at Chris Cornell c. 1992), then Third Eye Blind simply decided to pretend no such thing had ever happened (1.) and instead followed in the grand and glammy lineage of Guns ’n Roses, Bon Jovi, Poison: the frontman has sex appeal, the guitar solo melts underwear, and the emotional range is strictly confined to lust and loss. The chorus pedal is God. Cadogan wielded the tools of his heroes without shame, modesty, or any attempt at innovation. And he was really good at it.
As central as Cadogan was to 3eb’s sonic identity, he wasn’t Stephan Jenkins. The Wayne to Cadogan’s Garth, Jenkins came at this band armed with a Berkeley Lit degree, an impossibly thin chinstrap, and the sex-drive of a 17-year-old boy crossed with a rabbit. Who the fuck knows what he was doing between ages 21 and 33 (his astounding age when this record came out), but one can assume it involved a good deal of self-serving sexual exploits and blow. His outsized persona provided the lyrical fodder for an entire career of outsized albums, and his willingness to sound like an idiot if it resulted in maximum impact provided the innovative spirit Cadogan’s riffage needed to thrive. Though it’s Cadogan’s oddly poignant chiming that opens the record, it’s Jenkins whose falsetto rips through and claims the throne in the first few seconds of “Losing A Whole Year.”
“Losing A Whole Year” sets up all of “Third Eye Blind”’s basic themes in its first few lines. The song tells the story of one of Stephan’s many exes, with whom he “used to spend the whole goddamned day in bed.” But Jenkins’ girl had some serious issues, which evidently led to the loss of the song’s title. Jenkins’ diagnosis is a bit trite, but we’ll take it at face value: “Rich daddy left you with a parachute / Your voice sounds like money and your face is cute / But your daddy left you with no love / And you touch everything with a velvet glove.” If only being Daisy Buchanan were the end of the story. But no, instead, we learn that this girl is also trying to cop his cool-dude status, that she “[wants to] be down with the down and in.” So she’s less Daisy Buchanan and more the girl from “Common People.”
Stephan and this girl used to have hot sex all the time, like everywhere (the car and the kitchen are the first of many coital locations Jenkins will namedrop on this album), but things have gotten shitty and they’re stuck with “a sink full of dishes and some Aqua Lube” (this part confuses me, as I’m just really not sure what a couple does with Aqua Lube outside of sexual activity, but oh, well). Given Stephan’s single-mindedness on the topic of fucking, this is a real bummer. So when he complains that all she wants to do is hang out with “the pierced queer teens in cyberspace” instead of being her old self (the one who was always “good to go”), we kind of have to wonder if maybe this lady is just finding her tribe instead of remaining in this codependent relationship built on sex and drugs and that beautiful rock ‘n roll image of the ringing phone that goes unanswered cause we’re just too damn in love.
In any case, Stephan decides he’s done with this bullshit and the song ends with him peace-ing out. Don’t worry, we’re not going to take each of the album’s fourteen tracks and break them down like this, because “Losing A Whole Year” provides such a serviceable template: sex was great, now it’s not, and while drugs are pretty ch1ll, too, Stephan’s got no time for this nonsense. On the way we also get hints at the populist mentality that will ultimately become Jenkins’ primary lyrical fixation, but for now, he’s a narcissistic horndog with the ability to spin a pretty good rhyme (anyone who denies the pure aural pleasure of “pierced queer teens” is denying themselves).
This is the same Stephan we find on track three, “Semi-Charmed Life” (yes, we’ve skipped over the kind of fascinating extended anxiety metaphor “Narcolepsy,” on which Jenkins cops to reading “dead Russian authors volumes at a time” just to get out of his own head – but it’s only because we very much want to stay right inside his head for the moment. Plus, the real stars of that song are Cadogan’s two absolutely gnarly solos.) Their first single ever, “Semi-Charmed Life” is the one song by this band that everyone and their dog knows. It is the Third Eye Blind song. Its “doo-doo-doos” are 3eb’s calling card, it’s chord progression their most disgustingly infectious, Jenkins’ ear-piercing “good-BYYYYYYEEEEEEEEEEE” one of his most Axl moments. It’s also probably the only time rap-rock has ever actually worked this side of Rage Against The Machine.
All that said, “Semi-Charmed Life” doesn’t really merit a whole lot of analysis. The main thing to note is the amazing fact that, in a song with the lines “she comes ’round and she goes down on me,” “those little red panties, they pass the test,” and “how do I get back there, to the place where I fell asleep inside you,” the words the FCC chose to censor are “crystal meth.” MPAA, take note. The other important thing going on in this song is a continued interest on Stephan’s part in finding something greater than himself. If anything, “Losing A Whole Year” and “Semi-Charmed Life” are here to show us that sex and meth just aren’t getting him through this life – he still wants “something else.”
“Jumper” follows as Stephen’s first exhibit of real maturity on this record. “Jumper” is probably 3eb’s second biggest song, and it goes to show just how strong the first act of this album is that we can go from “Semi-Charmed Life” to this anti-suicide ballad and still be pretty fucking into it. There’s really only one line to latch onto here, but it’s a major one: in telling his friend not to kill himself, Stephan repeats, “And if you do not want to see me again, I would understand.” This seems impossibly big of a dude who only minutes ago was going on about all the bumps he was doing and how sick he was of his girl’s new crew. It also points us towards what it is that Jenkins ultimately values: his “friend.” (2)
“Graduate” finds Stephan on some anti-establishment tip, while Cadogan continues to flex his massive riffs (if there is one song to prove the absurdity of the tag “post-grunge” in regards to 3eb, it’s “Graduate.”) Then comes “How’s It Going To Be,” the third single from “Third Eye Blind” to go Top Ten (3), and the only one Jenkins performed on Leno wearing a leather straightjacket. This track has Stephan at the end of his rope again, but this time he actually sounds pretty broken up about his break up. The verses are some of his most poetic – “Where we used to laugh, there’s a shouting match / Sharp as a thumbnail scratch” – but the chorus concludes with him deciding that he just straight doesn’t care how it’s going to be after he and this girl split. The irony here is laid on thick, though. Jenkins spends the whole song reminiscing and “wondering” how it’s going to be, and the explosive bridge finds him wanting nothing but to “get [himself] back in again.” So while the fuck-off of “Losing A Whole Year” was pretty believable, here we find ourselves wondering if maybe he doth protest too much.
I’ll be honest, as much as I love it, “Third Eye Blind”‘s middle chunk drags a bit. For all its chugging guitars, “Thanks A Lot” just doesn’t have any good hooks, despite this amazing quatrain: “I’m the one for you / ’cause I know all the dirty things you like to do / I’m the fear in your eyes / I’m the fire in your flies.” “Good For You” is an oddly self-serious and scary-sounding love song, though maybe the first point on the record when Stephan’s interest in a woman feels born out of something other than a coke high. “London” sounds like the point at which Elektra was like, “Dudes, it’s 1997. We need something that sounds remotely like Nirvana, or this shit won’t sell.” Naturally, 3eb couldn’t really pull it off, though Cadogan does a pretty solid Cobain-esque chug-‘n-squeal. If only Jenkins didn’t bother with that ridiculous “Iwannagetmyhandsonhim!” Then there’s “I Want You,” which marries shlocky ’70’s soft-rock vibes (those maracas! that organ lick!) with R. Kelly rejects like “No apology because my urge is genuine / And the mystery of your rhythm is so feminine” and the most awkwardly sincere Ragnarok reference in pop music (it also features “3EB”‘s most interesting sex spot: “. . . by the window sill . . . in the quilt that your mother made.” Damn, dude). I could understand listeners checking out at this point. “I Want You” is pretty fucking lame, and, tellingly, the only song on the album performed entirely by Jenkins and producer Eric Valentine.
But there is one song in this midsection that’s really worth paying attention to, and that’s “Burning Man.” Not only does it gona completely new direction musically, with a weirdly interlocking rhythm and a fun quiet/loud shift that presages some of the experimentation to come on “Blue” -it’s also Jenkins’ first serious foray into the first person plural, which will soon become his obsession. While the lyrics are largely incomprehensible (“The rise and fall of my sloppy love / The smatterings and splatterings / They’ll get you”. . . I’ll leave you with your imaginations), Jenkins exhibits a team mentality here that belies his narcissism and points towards his growing interest in the community. “First we caffeinate, then incinerate / WE’LL GET YOU!” he sings, implying a sort of mob mentality that will crop up again and again throughout his discography. “Burning Man” is also possibly the most purely affirmative song on this record, with the line, “And I won’t get enough until my legs are broken” serving as both its and the album’s lynchpins. It’s an important turning point, and as “3EB”‘s shortest song, it’s easy to miss.
The “Sound and lyrics” section of the Wikipedia page for “Third Eye Blind” consists exclusively of this: “Many of the feelings explored in the album’s lyrics are predominantly melancholic, especially in the final three tracks: “The Background,” “Motorcycle Drive By,” and “God of Wine.” And though we’ve demonstrated that most of the record is more pre-come-down euphoric than melancholic, the description definitely holds true for those three songs.
When it comes down to it, I think “The Background” is my favorite Third Eye Blind song. The pealing of the verse riff has a melancholy to it that’s hard to pin down. This song is the low point of Stephan’s emotional arc (0r, it would be if “God Of Wine” weren’t coming up), and the flat-out sadness of it is pretty remarkable given the callous asshole Stephan of the album’s first third. “The Background” is straight heartbreak: “Everything is quiet / Since you’re not around / I live in the numbness now / In the background.” He then spends his time doing the things he used to do with this girl, before “the hospital,” a mysterious allusion to whatever horrible thing (probably an overdose, if we’re being honest) precipitated this breakup. (4)
The most heartrending moment of “The Background,” though, is the pre-chorus, which actually embodies the line from “Semi-Charmed Life” about how “the four right chords could make me cry,” except here it’s just one chord and the line “The plans I make still have you in them.” All snark aside, this is a brilliant fucking line. It’s probably the one subtle moment on a record with no intention to be subtle, and as such, it hits like a ton of bricks. Anyone who doesn’t relate to that line is a heartless hack. Stephan is very much not over this girl, and there’s no way to express that other than the explosion into the bridge, Jenkins’ passionate “Cause I felt you long after we were through!” and yet another sky-destroying solo from Cadogan. I have no real meta-commentary about this song. It’s just pure goodness, and it’s the moment when Stephan demonstrates that he actually does have a soul.
It may have been hasty of me to call “The Background” my favorite 3eb song, because then there’s “Motorcycle Drive-By.” This song is fucking incredible. A massive fan favorite, “Drive-By” achieves its power through it’s sectionate nature. The first minute is some acoustic balladeering, then things start to ramp up a bit as Cadogan’s jazzy, ever-chiming guitar and some light cymbals break in. Another thirty seconds pass, and the drums start building. Jenkins’ singing gets more impassioned. We get a perfect descending bass riff from Salazar, and then at 2:06 the whole thing rips wide open into a chugging anthem. And then at 3:27 it all drops out again and we move back into the acoustic tenderness of the intro. The song has no real verse/chorus dichotomy, though it repeats one line pretty frequently: “I’ve never been so alone / And I’ve never been so alive.”
This line really throws a wrench in things as far as building a Jenkins-as-communitarian-hero goes. He’s spent this whole album slowly redeeming his solipsistic tendencies, but now we seem to be back to square one, Stephan as an island. I mean, what happened to the triumphant “we” of “Burning Man”? Or the more specific, tragic “we” of “The Background”?
Pay more attention to the lyrics, though, and we find that “Motorcycle Drive-By” is just the moment at which Stephen has to hit the bottom to realize the vulnerability in aloneness. I could probably write an entire paper on this song, but let’s just hit a few key lines.
The song opens with Stephan waking up in Chelsea visiting an old flame, hoping to rekindle it. “I’m sleeping on the couch / When I came to visit you / that’s when I knew that I could never have you / I knew that before you did / Still I’m the one who’s stupid.” Here, Stephan simultaneously realizes that his love is fundamentally unavailable to him, but his defenses are still up as he snarkily calls her out for taking longer to realize this fact than he did. Of course, he’s still the stupid one for flying all the way out to visit her. It’s petty and dumb, and harkens back to the Stephan we know well. Then, as the song ramps up towards its midsection, Jenkins jumps to his higher register for this gem: “And there’s things I’d like to do /that you don’t believe in / I would like to build something / but you’d never see it happen.” This line is almost as powerful for me as the “plans” line in “The Background.” Stephan is realizing that this girl, despite all her serenity and guiltlessness, isn’t the answer. Maybe even that women in general aren’t the answer, for him. This is a first: he finds himself wanting to “build something” that isn’t just a nastily codependent relationship or a drug habit. He doesn’t yet have a name for it, but that can come later. For now, we should just be happy that he’s finally making this realization.
The midsection finds Stephan, filled with a “burning” he keeps referring to, asking “Where’s the soul, I want to know? / New York City is evil: / the surface is everything / but I could never do that / someone would see through that.” Stephan is realizing that he can’t hide his depth, that he can’t be the douchelord of “Losing A Whole Year” anymore.
As we dip back into the quiet, Jenkins realizes this relationship is never going to pan out, so he goes home and “paddle[s] out on the water / alone.” He forces himself to stop thinking about this girl, and watches a “rolling wave / darkly coming to take me / home.” His total aloneness is symbolized by his smallness in relation to this dark wave, and we realize that his sense of being “so alive” is one of having been stripped of all defenses, and open to the world, to the wave. He’s alone for now, but he doesn’t have to be.
Then “God of Wine” rolls in. This is where Jenkins starts really brandishing his lit degree. The titular God is none other than Dionysus, who is not only the Greek god of wine, but the god of thresholds, of sudden change, of moving from one plane into another (he’s also the god of orgasm, a fact Jenkins probably loves). This song, then, is both a stark discussion of an alcohol-fueled relationship and an acknowledgement of the constant state of flux we operate in. Jenkins claims he wrote this song in ninety minutes, but he also seems somewhat unaware of what he’s actually getting at. In his own interpretation of the song, “Everything that we have, everything that we live in is pointless and crumbling. And some people are born with an innate understanding of that. . . And this is the melancholy that they find themselves in.” He then claims that “God Of Wine” is about “those people,” who turn to drink and find that even “the Bacchanalian, even that lets you down.” But come on, Stephan. We’ve just listened to the album. You’re one of “those people.” And Dionysus isn’t letting you down, he’s just proving your point.
Jenkins opens the song describing yet another disintegrating relationship: “Every thought that I repent / There’s another chip you haven’t spent / And you’re cashing them all in / Where do we begin to get clean again?” He tries to make up for his faults, but she holds them against him and is ready to blow it all up. All he wants is for them to get sober and figure things out, but this seems impossible. “I walk home alone with you / and the mood you’re born into / sometimes you let me in / and I take it on the chin.” We could go all Heidegger on the “mood” comment, but we’ll save that for a rainy day. The salient point here is that this is a relationship of abuse, and for once, Stephan actually seems to be the victim.
This is where Dionysus shows up. Stephan jumps up an octave as “The god of wine comes crashing through the headlights of a car / that took you farther than you thought you’d ever want to go / we can’t get back again.” Once Dionysus shows up, there’s no going back. They’ve crossed the threshold, crashing through the headlights, and end up somewhere they never intended to be (perhaps the hospital of “The Background”?) Then, of course, his girl turns to drinking to forget.
The song’s chorus is essentially Stephan repeating, “I can’t keep it all together.” There is no fighting the flux, it will not be held together. And it’s inescapable: “The god of wine is crouched down in my room,” Jenkins sings, realizing now that he can’t get away from the madness that is a Dionysian world. By the end of the album, Stephan acknowledges that this person needs something, or someone, ultimately better than him, and that there’s nothing he can do about her sadness. So maybe the issue is more that this woman, and not Jenkins, is actually o ne of “those people” with an innate “life rage,” but now that she’s exposed him to it, there’s no going back for him. Which, of course, is the only way Dionysus would have it.
While Jenkins seems upset by his inability to “keep it all together,” he’s also joined by a choir for the last iteration of that line. This is the first instance of a choir showing up on this album, though they’ll be a pretty constant presence on “Blue.” By the end of “Third Eye Blind,” Stephan has bottomed out, but in the process he’s realized that, even though he can’t necessarily “keep it all together” by himself, together with others, maybe it’ll be a bit easier. The most tragic, dirgey song on the record concludes with a strange upwards modulation and the chime of one of Hargreaves’ cymbal bells, some sort of gesture at a hope not quite yet in our reach.
* * *
I realize I’ve kind of reneged on that promise to keep things short and sweet and based on “Losing A Whole Year,” but as you can hopefully see, there wasn’t really a choice. Stephan Jenkins is a man of depth, and the difficulty of proving this lies somewhere in his general refusal to acknowledge it himself. So we end up having to push a little harder than we might if he were more open about his genius.
I’ve had my copy of “Third Eye Blind” for thirteen years, it’s actually the first CD I ever owned. I’ve probably played it more than any other disc in my collection, but it still never skips. I don’t know if this is a testament to the superior CD manufacturing of the 90s, or if it actually has something to do with the magic of this album. I’d like to think it’s some combination of the two.
* * *
Come back next week for “Blue,” the album that found Jenkins building the army he needed, but breaking Third Eye Blind.
(1.) Though Jenkins claims to have hated his 80s childhood.
(2). Also worth noting about “Jumper”: the horribly ill-advised Caribbean bass solo in the middle, and the video, which is probably the only 3eb video worth watching. While the rest are only notable for Cadogan’s rapidly shifting hairstyles, “Jumper” is on some next-level time-warp shit. Also featuring Cadogan’s very best hairdo. [Video side note: Why are they always in that fucking car?]
(3.) Speaking of sales, Wikipedia says this album has gone Platinum six times. Food for thought.
(4). A pause here to recognize Jenkins’ fascinatingly hip-hop flow: listen to the line “And they say ‘Where’s that crazy girl’ and ‘You don’t get drunk on red wine or fight no more.’” This dude is a rhythmic genius.