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No Doubt: Inside the Tragic Kingdom

No Doubt thought they were ready for anything. Then they got famous and suddenly their singer was no longer just a girl

May 1, 1997
no doubt 759 cover
No Doubt on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Norbert Schroerner

Gwen Stefani tilts her head down, and her eyes look up, her lips purse, and sometimes an unwatched hand fingers her bare midriff. Her expression is somewhere between that of a coy teenage "shall we?" and cartoon bird looking up, up and away above the wall, wondering if maybe – just maybe – it could fly that high, wondering if this time it'll escape its garden prison and flutter to freedom. Pop music history is made up of complicated combination of dates and troubles and events and dreams and miseries and ambitions (and we will discover plenty of these in the tangled tale of No Doubt), but it's also made up of single, momentary glances that we never forget, of the occasional flicker in some singer's eye.

Most of the time Gwen Stefani seems exactly as she says she is: the girl from the Orange County, the one who grew up liking makeup and The Sound of Music and pretty clothes and girlie hairstyles. The girl who still lives at home and who readily admits that consequently she hasn't grown up in all the ways that harsh adult independence requires. The girl who never really realized she wanted to be a singer until long after her brother Eric had persuaded her to stand on the stage and had imagined "Gwen Stefani, pop star" into existence. The girl who still is so nervous about her spelling that she carries a little computer spell-check machine in her bag. The girl who was in a pop group for six years before she realized she might have a few firm feelings of her own that she wanted to sing about. The girl who worries about her weight and says mean things about herself. The girl who is devoted to the idea of No Doubt, the band, and who is nervous – especially in these new days of "Hey, there's the blond girl over there!" fame – of sticking her head alone above the parapet. The girl who treats her success as a happy mystery and forever reminds people that two years ago the band was on the verge of quitting "because we were afraid we were going to become losers if we kept on." The girl who the callow cultural commentators call (and it's meant to be mean) "the anti-Courtney Love." The girl who announces in just about every interview that if this all ended tomorrow, she'd think, "Wow, that was great!"

But there is another Gwen Stefani – less modest, less reticent and a thousand times more a pop star. It seems to me that this is a Gwen Stefani that she herself may only vaguely be aware of, and that is part of the charm. This other Gwen Stefani is the one who turns up now and then under the gaze of the video camera or in a crisp moment of control at the front of the concert stage, and who rules all of this by instinct. The one who is a master of naive manipulation. You never actually meet her, but you see her. The one with the head down, eyes up, world watching.

A Quick Trip to the Holyland, Part 1
No doubt know little of Israel, but Israel knows something of No Doubt. Following the slow American triumph of their Tragic Kingdom LP (released in October 1995, it finally reached No. 1 in December 1996 and has sold 6 million copies), it has been warmly greeted worldwide as a record that speaks the international language of pop. And in all of these countries, No Doubt's third American hit, "Don't Speak," is the sad sing-along ballad of now. When No Doubt wheel their luggage through Tel Aviv customs, it may well be the sight of Gwen Stefani that sets off the uniformed official, but by the time he finds the words, it is to No Doubt's bass player, Tony Kanal, that he delivers his offering.

"Hush, hush, darling," the beefy Israeli croons.

Tony smiles – Wow! We're in Israel, and they know the words to our song! – but it is not like him to linger over the full irony of this moment. He and Gwen Stefani were a couple for seven years, and "Don't Speak" is one of several No Doubt songs that articulate the heartbreak at the relationship's end. When they were written, back in Orange County when No Doubt were known by only a few thousand fans of the California ska scene, those words – hush, hush, darling – were addressed by Gwen to Tony. Better not dwell on it. (Yet.)

Let's Meet the Band, Why Don't We?
Gwen stefani is the singer. her hair is dyed blond (it's naturally light brown). Sometimes people mistake her for Madonna, and sometimes this annoys her because when she thinks of Madonna, she thinks of sex. And – this is the point – when she thinks of herself, she does not. Internet gossip asserts that she is (1) pregnant, (2) engaged to her boyfriend, Bush's Gavin Rossdale, and (3) a transsexual. She insists that none of these is true. (A short Gwen Stefani anecdote: When she was 5, she was in ballet class and needed to pee really bad. She was too embarrassed to say it. So she peed on the floor. She was in tears when her mother arrived. "Isn't that so sad?" Gwen says.)

Tony Kanal is the bass player. His hair used to be blond, but now it's dark. He is Indian and has a British passport. Each time he re-enters the U.S., they pull him over and quiz him. They can't figure out what he is. (These days it ends differently. "Then they say, 'What band are you in? No Doubt? Are you the one with the horns?' ") For a while he was the band's manager. He is famous within the band for being excessively anal. (A short Tony Kanal anecdote: One day, Tony, who was sending out band mail, complained to band mate Tom Dumont that the stamps wouldn't stick. "Show me what you're doing," Tom said. Tony picked up a stamp, licked it, and licked it again, and licked it again. "That was the perfect description of his personality," says Tom. "He wanted to make it stick so bad, all the glue came off.")

Tom Dumont is the guitar player. He fiddles with his nose incessantly (Gwen sometimes complains about this to No Doubt audiences). "It's not boogers I'm going for; it just itches," he explains. He doesn't look much like a pop star until he puts on his sleek yellow-tinted glasses just before he steps up onstage. He plays a flying-V guitar. One day he will pull me aside to lovingly show off his guitar in detail. "I just like the sharp angles, and they're not cool," he will say, and his pride is peculiarly eloquent. (A short Tom Dumont anecdote: In the old days, he used to tell Adrian Young that if they sold, you know, 3 million records, he'd get a tattoo. A few months ago he realized that he was going to have to break his word.)

Adrian Young is the drummer. His hair used to be dark, but now it's blond. He once dreamed that vampires were killing him and that Starsky and Hutch were trying to save him, but they couldn't. He claims never to have masturbated to orgasm. He has the old No Doubt logo tattooed on his upper right thigh. He used to be the most party-friendly member of No Doubt, but he has been trying to curtail his drinking since his girlfriend told him he was starting to smell like an old man. (A short Adrian Young anecdote: He used to have red devil horns sculpted from his own hair, an idea he took from an extra on the "Just a Girl" video shoot. One day he got an abusive letter from the original Horn Boy, accusing him of being a fraud: You claim to be part of the dark side, when you're just a big fake, you're just a big rock star. If you have any integrity left, you would write me back, even if you think I'm an asshole. So Adrian wrote back: "First of all, you are an asshole" – pointing out that he'd always given the kid credit. But awhile later, in Amsterdam, he asked for Tony's clippers. His horn days were over.)

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