A Little History: Secret Kisses, Suicide, Baby Seals
Stefani is an Italian name, though the most Italian thing they ever did was make gnocchi. Eric, Gwen's older brother, was the musician. Even then, Gwen was obsessed with getting married and having children. Eric would get her to sing along while he played the piano. Their first original song was called "Stick It in the Hole." (They were young. It was about a pencil sharpener, she says. And it sort of was, but Eric knew it was naughty, too.) "My brother made me do it," she says, and that was how it was to be for many years to come. "Growing up, my brother was the one with all the talent and all the focus. I had him, so I didn't have to do anything, you know?"
After they both got into the British ska explosion (Madness, the Specials, the English Beat, the Selecter), he persuaded her to take the stage for the school talent show and sing the Selecter's "On My Radio." She wore the tweed dress her mother had made her, copied from the dress Maria wears in The Sound of Music when she leaves the abbey and sings "I Have Confidence in Me." (The Sound of Music was, and is, Gwen's greatest obsession.) Eric roped her in again when they formed a real band, at the end of 1986. She sang alongside a black punk called John Spence, who could do these amazing backflips and who modeled himself on Bad Brains' H.R. "No doubt" was something he often said, and that became their name.
Tony joined that spring. The first time she saw him, stepping out of his silver car, carrying his bass, wearing Mexican sandals and baggy pants, his hair sticking out over his forehead, she immediately knew. Still, it took a few months. One night that summer, No Doubt played at a party. There was a keg, and everyone got drunk. She took Tony for a walk and tried to kiss him. "He was," she recalls, "'No! The band! The band!'" Eventually he acquiesced. "He thought it was a one-night kiss," she says, "but I was, like, in love." It was after that when she realized she didn't even know what nationality her new boyfriend was. "What are you?" she asked. "Chinese," he told her.
They couldn't share their joy with anyone. "Oh, boy," says Tony. "It was a secret of immense proportions." But, naturally, there were suspicions. That Halloween, Tony dressed as a girl – dress, makeup, the whole caboodle – and arrived at the party before Gwen. Some of the band took the opportunity to deliver a warning: "If we find out you're going out with Gwen, you're dead." He denied it, of course, but minutes later, Tony could be found sitting on the curb in front of the house, crying, his makeup running down his face.
That December, four days before Christmas, something so terrible happened that adolescent secrets about who was kissing whom no longer seemed to matter. John Spence went to an Anaheim, Calif., park and shot himself. A few days later, No Doubt played at the Roxy in Los Angeles. It was meant to be their big break. Instead a friend went onstage and announced it was to be their final show. Nonetheless, the next month, they decided to continue. They convinced themselves it was what Spence would have wanted.
The current No Doubt cast assembled gradually. Tom Dumont was an adopted middle child whose life was changed when a relative gave him Kiss' Destroyer for Christmas and his Aunt Ruth, an ex-nun, gave him her old 12-string. He ended up playing Rush instrumental at school and heavy metal in his older sister's group, Rising. (He wore spandex only once, and his hair was more moussed than teased.) When he went to meet No Doubt, he put his long hair into a ponytail "to try and hide my metal thing."
Adrian Young had been a No Doubt fan. Way before he joined in 1989 (he told them he'd been drumming for years, but it was a lie), he had phoned the number on the back of the cassette they sold at concerts and had spoken to Gwen. He even went by her workplace – he'd heard that she and Tony had broken up, and he was wondering – but he never got to the point, and soon she and Tony were back together again.
In 1991 the band finally signed a record deal with Interscope. Its first album, "No Doubt," was not what the world had been waiting for. No Doubt hoped that at the very least, they would get played on the radio station of their youth, Los Angeles' KROQ. They hoped in vain. "The program director," says Adrian, "said it would take an act of God for this band to get on the radio." And God was otherwise occupied. No Doubt were trying to launch an album of quirky, bouncy girl-sung pop as Nirvana and their compadres were exploding. At No Doubt's album-release party, during the height of grunge, they gave away No Doubt kazoos. The album sold about 30,000 copies.
In those days, Eric was the band's creative center. Their 1992 tour was not a success, but the others had fun. Eric would stay in the back of the van or just disappear. "You could tell he didn't like hanging out with us," says Tom. Things got worse when Interscope encouraged them to work with producers on their new songs. Eric didn't want people telling him how his songs should be, i.e., simpler, less quirky and with more structure. When the band met with Matthew Wilder, best known for his breezy, rinky-dink early '80s hit, "Break My Stride," their first impressions were not favorable. "His hair is almost like Sammy Hagar," says Tom, still vaguely incredulous to this day. "Really tight curled locks. Tight pants." Wilder wanted them to work on a song of his, eventually called "Walking on a Fine Line," which they hated (and which would quietly be dumped), "It was such an invasion, at first," says Gwen.
An invasion, but a successful one. It hurt, but it worked. "This is a very weird thing to talk about," says Tony, "because I don't want it to come across that we changed our songs and we were just beat down like baby seals. One of the reasons this record took so long to come out is that we withstood a lot of pressures and we were unwilling to compromise on a lot of things. Tragic Kingdom is a battleground. It was the outcome of three years of struggle." And there were casualties.
There always had been conflict between Eric and Tony. The carefree artist and the careful businessman. The singer's brother and the singer's lover. And though Eric encouraged the other band members to write more songs, he sometimes felt threatened when they did. In 1994, Tom and Gwen came up with "Just a Girl," and Eric couldn't understand why everyone was going crazy about it. Gwen used to say that Eric, always a talented cartoonist, invented her – Gwen Stefani, pop star – as a cartoon. Now she was taking control of his creation and becoming something much more aggressive and forthright than he'd imagined. And people seemed to like this new Gwen. Part of him was happy for her, but part of him was jealous.
He got more and more depressed. In September 1994, he stopped turning up at rehearsals, even though they were held in the house where he lived, and then he quit. He'd previously done animation on the first two seasons of The Simpsons, and he eventually took a job there. Afterward, Gwen and Eric went through therapy together, at their parents' suggestion, to patch up their relationship. "I didn't want to lose my brother, you know," she says, "because everything that I am is because of him." When Tragic Kingdom was finally ready for release, there was a school of thought, principally pressed by Gwen, that although Eric had not been around for months, the album was as much his as anybody else's and that he should appear with them on the sleeve. So the five of them spent an uncomfortable day being photographed on streets and in orange groves. If you look at the sleeve booklet, Eric is always standing at the back or the side, and usually he is looking away. "It was very weird," Gwen remembers. "It was horrible."
One of the last songs Eric wrote for the band was called "Bye Bye Birdie." A sad farewell song about a newborn bird who needed to fly off into the sky. It worked either way: the band away from Eric, Eric away from the band. It was never recorded.
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