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Book Review: A Devil on One Shoulder and an Angel on the Other – The Story of Shannon Hoon and Blind Melon by Greg Prato

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The best thing that ever happened to the alt-rock band Blind Melon was that its single "No Rain," powered by one of the decade's most memorable videos, became a smash hit. It was probably the worst thing that ever happened to the group, too.

"No Rain" was so successful that it overshadowed everything else Blind Melon did — at the peak of the group's popularity, it wasn't uncommon for fans to leave the group's concerts after the "bee girl song" was played — and with its career tragically cut short by lead singer Shannon Hoon's death in 1995, many people have written off Blind Melon as a one-hit wonder.

The band maintains a devoted following, however.  Music journalist Greg Prato, who maintains that Blind Melon was the best live act he ever saw, was devoted enough to self-publish A Devil on One Shoulder and an Angel on the Other, a comprehensive and compulsively readable biography of Hoon and his group, adding another chapter to the history of the early-nineties alt-rock phenomenon.

One particularly interesting aspect of Blind Melon's career was that, compared with many other groups who struggled for years before making it big, they landed a major record deal in remarkably little time.  The group's other members came from Mississippi, but Shannon Hoon — who joined the group shortly after his arrival in Los Angeles — grew up in Indiana, not far from a fellow named Axl Rose. In 1991-92, a Guns N' Roses connection certainly didn't hurt, and Hoon and his bandmates signed with Capitol Records.

Blind Melon's self-titled debut was only a modest success, and the group was about to record a follow-up when "No Rain" rocketed to the top of the charts.  Just like that, Hoon and company were full-fledged rock stars, with appearances on Letterman and Saturday Night Live, and tours with Guns N' Roses, Soundgarden and Lenny Kravitz.

With great success comes easy access to every drug imaginable, unfortunately, and Hoon's struggles with addiction escalated with alarming speed.  Meanwhile, a change of management at Capitol left Blind Melon at the mercy of executives who had no interest in developing the band's career, and a follow-up hit proved elusive.  (In retrospect, it's hard to believe the Southern Rock-tinged ballad "Change," written by Hoon as a teenager, didn't become a massive hit.)

Hoon spent 1994 and 1995 in and out of rehab, and the birth of his daughter Nico motivated him to get clean once and for all.  But the recording and release of Blind Melon's sophomore album, Soup — and a grueling tour schedule — threw him off the wagon.  On October 21, 1995, Hoon was found dead on the group's tour bus. The group put together an album of unreleased material, Nico, and disbanded in 1999.  (Blind Melon re-formed with a new singer in 2007.  Nico Hoon, who was cruelly denied the chance to know her father, has occasionally joined the group in concert.)

Devil on One Shoulder is presented as an oral history, with Hoon's bandmates, friends, girlfriend, and mother sharing their memories of the late singer.  (Prato compiled the book from over fifty interviews.) As with any great music biography, there are plenty of stories from the road – most memorably, after one show in Detroit, the members of Blind Melon witnessed a depressed young woman throw herself from the top floor of a nearby hotel.  Aside from an introduction (in which Prato describes meeting Hoon while waiting in line for one of his shows) the author steps back and lets the people who knew Hoon best tell his story.

I'm not sure I liked that format better than a standard biography, but I was moved by the interviewees' recollections of this musical era and this promising, memorable talent.  After finishing the book I felt compelled to check out some of Blind Melon's lesser-known music, and my impressions so far have been mixed.  But if Prato's goal was to give the reader a new appreciation for this overlooked group, he has succeeded.

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