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Blind Ambition

Just a couple of years ago, Stephan Jenkins was living the low-rent lifestyle in San Francisco, cutting lumber on his dad's land in the nearby forests of Inverness for a few dollars. He wasn't dreaming about becoming a rock star then. He was planning on it.

His band, Third Eye Blind, had already been together for two years, sending out demo tapes and taping its fliers (which featured a shirtless young girl sporting an eyeball in her forehead) to every telephone pole along Haight Street. The band was playing in small, local clubs, usually on weekday evenings. Jenkins, the group's singer and chief songwriter, understood that image and exposure are important factors in any band's success. He pestered the local press for coverage. As he was beginning to realize, the press wanted nothing to do with him.

Jenkins made the acquaintance of one San Francisco music writer -- this one, in fact -- through a mutual friend in the summer of 1995. Seeing an opportunity to get his band's name in print, Jenkins arranged an afternoon interview at the Mad Dog in the Fog, a pub in the shabby Lower Haight area.

Upon arriving Jenkins ordered a can of Boddington's Ale, charmed a passerby out of several cigarettes, then sat on a couch and talked for almost an hour about his singing, his songs, and his ambition.

He was earnest: "I think there's something life-affirming in our music, and there's not much of that out there these days. Cobain wanted to die -- I don't. I want to live." He was flippant: "I was looking at the eye of my penis," he said, explaining the band's name, "and I thought, 'If only you could see.'" He was arrogant: "We'll make the same record whether we're on a big label or a small one, so why not go for the bucks? We'd rather get in a bus than a van." He was dedicated: "Anyone doing live music knows it is so, so hard. And there's something beautiful in that."

But the best word to describe him was passionate. He leaned in close to make his points, and his bright blue eyes never wavered from their target. At the time Third Eye Blind's tough-yet-tuneful pop songs got drowned out by other San Francisco bands' sounds -- the acid-jazz of the Broun Fellinis, the glam-rock of Heavy Into Jeff -- but Jenkins believed that his band was on the verge of becoming something huge.

The interview became an article, and the article was proposed to a handful of San Francisco papers. The reaction was, to say the least, unfavorable. One editor made no secret about his distaste for Jenkins' music, saying he had already vowed never to print a word about the band. The SF Weekly -- a New Times-owned paper -- didn't respond at all. None of the editors who were approached would even look at the story, despite the fact that Third Eye Blind's career was heating up. The band had opened for both London Suede and Oasis, and major labels were expressing interest. Nevertheless the San Francisco media had made up its mind about Third Eye Blind. This author eventually gave up trying to sell the story, and eventually lost touch with Jenkins.

As of this writing, two years later, Stephan Jenkins and his band have not only landed on the radio but practically taken it over. Third Eye Blind's sunny, up-tempo single "Semi-Charmed Life" has been one of the most ubiquitous songs of this summer, spending 22 weeks on the Billboard singles chart and peaking at No. 4. It's culled from the band's self-titled debut, on Elektra Records, which has already spawned a second single, "Graduate." At the moment the band is touring as an opening act for none other than the Rolling Stones.

"Hello," Jenkins says cordially, speaking by phone from Birmingham, Alabama, a stop on the tour. His voice sounds cool, restrained. But he can't help adding, with a self-satisfied laugh, "How things change."

Indeed. Jenkins used to act like a rock star -- now he is one.
But some things are still the same, and those are the important things to Jenkins. Aside from a new drummer, Brad Hargreaves, Third Eye Blind still includes original members Kevin Cadogan (guitar) and Arion Salazar (bass). The band has stayed with its first manager, Eric Godtland, while Eric Valentine, who helped the band with some of its early demos, coproduced the new album. Its fourteen tracks were recorded in Bay Area studios such as Toast and Skywalker Ranch.

Third Eye Blind sounds much the same as on its demos: solid but raw, with Cadogan's no-nonsense guitar underscoring Jenkins' thorny love songs. Jenkins, however, shows marked growth as a lyricist. "Scattered," an early Third Eye Blind song, featured the dubious couplet, "That's when I go out looking for the right one/A nice fat girl with a tight one." The new album features rather more eloquent expressions of youthful restlessness. On "How's It Going to Be," Jenkins sings, "Where we used to laugh/There's a shouting match/Sharp as a thumbnail scratch/A silence I can't ignore." That song is the third of seven intended singles from the album.

Despite his recent triumphs -- such as the video for "Semi-Charmed Life," which shows Jenkins running gleefully through San Francisco -- the singer remains bitter about the cold shoulder he got from his local media. Accordingly, Jenkins used our conversation to deliver a few long-awaited and satisfying punches.

"We talked with the guys in Smashing Pumpkins, and they had the same situation," Jenkins relates. "They had the whole desire to go out and be a big rock band. And the hometown press absolutely reviles that. Look at your colleagues! They are a bummer. The whole vibe of the music press is to go and trash things, and there's nothing more hateful to them than a local band that's gotten together and wants to do something. Green Day got roundly dissed, Rancid got shit on, and now Third Eye Blind. And then people eventually came around.

"We're going to be platinum in a week, and we haven't had any help from the SF Weekly. And I'd like to thank them for their nonsupport."

Though Jenkins insists that Third Eye Blind's fame didn't come quickly, he speaks like a man who is not yet acclimated to stardom. He finds some of the attention gratifying: "Birmingham, Alabama -- never been there. Sold out. Fifteen hundred kids who wanted to go the show. They bought the tickets in advance at a time when bands are not selling any tickets." But some of the attention is, of course, unwelcome.

Any band with a smash single will be suspected of selling out. To all those altrock bands who turn up their noses at commercial success, Jenkins would like to ask, "Don't you wish this was paying your rent? You don't want to take this around the world? You don't want to tour Australia? You want to stay right here? We get to tour Malaysia: 'Let's go there, that sounds fun.'"

Accusations of being a one-hit wonder or a quick-buck industry creation wound Jenkins even more deeply. "This is something about Third Eye Blind that's not understood," Jenkins says, keeping his anger in check. "We've paid every due. We've sat in the bus in the rain many a time. There's a presumption that when you have a hit and you haven't been picked by the press first -- unless you're Sleater-Kinney -- that somehow it's all been handed to you. And that's not true at all. Nothing has been handed to us."

Jenkins hasn't changed much since we sat and talked in that Lower Haight Street bar two summers ago. If passion alone could sustain a career, Jenkins would have no cause to worry. Yet he knows as well as anyone that bands can fall as quickly as they rise and that many observers predict a short life for Third Eye Blind. "Just listen to the record," he insists. "Don't listen to all the things that go on around it. Does it hit you on an emotional level? Does it hit you in that certain place?"

Third Eye Blind opens for the Rolling Stones, Smashing Pumpkins, and Dave Matthews Band at 4 p.m. on Friday, December 5 at the Orange Bowl, 1501 NW 3rd St., Miami, 305-643-7100. Tickets cost $81.

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Rafer Guzman

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