The Man Who Left
Eric Stefani calls me on a Mobile phone from Central Park, in New York. He's standing by the Alice in Wonderland mushroom statue. "I hear you've gotten everybody but me," he says. He talks about the older days sweetly but a little forlornly. He suggests that he went off track for a while. "I was trying too hard to put my personality, or my being, on this planet through the music," he says. "And I didn't know how to express myself any other way. So when that was compromised, I was lost. But I think I found myself more by losing that and having to act as a human." He tells me, "Art should imitate life, not the other way 'round," as though this is a relatively recent, and rather surprising, discovery.
Until recently he had been working on his own cartoons on the side and doing The Simpsons as a day job. His favorite Simpson to draw: "Bart. Bart was the whole reason I got involved. I relate to him." But now he has quit again, because all these music-publishing companies are offering him songwriting deals, particularly since the success of "Don't Speak," whose music and melody he wrote. He explains that he'll try to write some of those kind of pop songs, but his true passion is elsewhere. He's formed a ragtime band. They do the Little Rascals theme, Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" and some new songs of his own. "The humorous side of me, I think, that's where I'd like to see myself," he says earnestly. "I should be seen as more of a 'Weird Al' Yankovic." He tells me about a song called "Kangaroo": "It's like something on the Muppets. If I could be doing songs for The Muppet Show, that would be the ultimate gig."
Yesterday, in fact, he bought himself a Kermit puppet. Today he's off to see the Statue of Liberty for the first time. And a David Lynch retrospective in Queens.
More History: Heartbreak, Parasites, Publicity Stunts
In the Tragic Kingdom years, there was another force tearing the group apart: Gwen and Tony. "I think he started feeling really claustrophobic," she says. "And he'd never had any kind of experience, as far as seeing other girls, since he was 16 years old. Of course" – she adds with a half–laughing, feigned chutzpah – "he was going out with the raddest girl in the world." It took ages to break up. Those were the days when Gwen used to listen, over and over, to Elvis Costello's Almost Blue. That was them. Almost everything. For a long time, even after it was supposed to be over, she would make him kiss her. Or he would just do it, anyway.
"I don't expect anyone to understand exactly what happened," Tony says gently, "and I really have no desire to justify or clarify. It's in the past, and that's it."
Their biggest worry was how to fall apart but still keep the band together. "'If we break up,'" Gwen remembers, "'how can we be in a band together?' I was, 'If you even see a girl in front of me, I will kill myself. How can we hang out each day, and I can't touch you?' And that's why we stayed together for such a long time: because he was such a good friend to me that he could never hurt me. Even though he was already killing me, just by me knowing he didn't want to be with me."
If Gwen Stefani lost the love of her life, she also gained her subject matter. One of the many ironies surrounding No Doubt is that this music, which is frequently dismissed as meaningless, superficial pop, is fully in the tradition of the heartfelt, intimate, pop-poetic confessional. If you want to know what happened between Gwen and Tony, read the lyric sheet. "I was, 'Fuck, I can't keep writing about the same thing,'" she remembers. "'But I gotta write about what's in my head, and that's the only thing on my mind.'" The day she wrote the lyrics to one of the most direct and pointed songs, "Happy Now?" (its real-life Gwen 'n' Tony story line: Boy dumps girl, girl announces that she likes her newfound liberation and taunts him, "Are you happy now?"), she was really proud. So she phoned up the person with whom she usually shared both her triumphs and disasters. Tony. "I was, 'Dude, I totally wrote the raddest song – I have to read it to you. Promise you won't get mad at me.'"
Tony says he accepted it. It wasn't easy, but he wasn't about to stop her from doing something that she wanted to do. Tony's favorite No Doubt song, ironically, is one of the meanest, "Sunday Morning." (Its real-life Gwen 'n' Tony story line: Girl used to go out with boy and act pathetic and over-dependent, but now the tables are turned – "Now you're the parasite.")
"It's not mean toward him, really," says Gwen, when I mention how strange this is.
Well, I point out, it does call him a parasite.
"Oh, yeah," she says giggling. "I forgot about the bridge."
Of course, everyone expects Tony to be mortified now that the barbed hymns of their relationship are sung by millions. But at worst he is bemused, and at best, amused. One night he jumps offstage and tells the band that a boy in the audience asked him, "Are you still jealous?" Sometimes it feels like everyone's looking at him during "Don't Speak." "'Will he break down this time?'" Tony says, laughing. "Am I going to storm off the stage?"
"That would be so rad!" hoots Gwen. "You should shake me and then walk off. We should do that as a publicity stunt."
More Gushy Stuff About the Singer
Around her neck, Gwen wears two chains. One carries a silver-colored, ornate GWEN in what is apparently the lettering style favored by Orange County gangs. The other carries a cube that simply says G. She was given the W, E and N, but she removed them so that the G could stand for something else. It's easier when you share an initial with your boyfriend.
Gavin. Like being the star in the spotlight, her boyfriend is another issue that tears Gwen in two directions: her obvious joy on one hand, her awareness of how little the band likes the attention her relationship draws on the other. (No Doubt opened for Bush last year. When, at random, I ask Tom if he likes them, he says, "No. They have some catchy songs, but to me, it's just milking what somebody else created. I don't know. Maybe Bush was doing that shit before Nirvana came out.")
One night in the dressing room, the band finds a magazine in which Gwen is supposed to have made kissy-kissy comments about her boyfriend – horrible, heinous misquotes, she says. "Fuck them, dude," she explodes, meaning the magazine. She points out that some of the phrases she is supposed to have said are Anglicisms that she barely even understands. "They're fucking assholes. I hate everybody right now. They put words in my mouth. Liar. Fucks."
"Stop trying to deny it in front of Chris," teases Tony.
"I'm embarrassed in front of you guys. I would fire me if I was you."
That night, before the encores, the band waits in the venue bar. Tony nudges me and points above Gwen's head. A poster for Bush's Razorblade Suitcase. "How appropriate," he says.
One night in London, Gwen and I talk. I sit on her bed; she lies down. She is surrounded by pre-Valentine's Day debris: tape, wrapping paper covered in hearts, a chocolate heart-shape cake, chocolate bars, a small teddy bear, an I LOVE YOU heart-shaped balloon. On the inside of her makeup case are Polaroids of Gavin and her. Earlier she has shown me her main gift: a silver fountain pen engraved G LOVES G. She's annoyed that she made a mess of the card. "I made the ugliest Valentine," she says. "I got too excited. Too many hearts. Like I just had so much love that I wanted to send that it got out of control." (Tomorrow Gavin will send her a Prada dress and gray mittens: "He has good taste, that boy.")
She sighs. "It's really hard for me now. My best friend for eight years was my boyfriend and was in my band that was my life. And now I have this band, which is my life, with my friends, and I have this fantasy boy that's away that I dream about." She smiles. "I like him a lot, you know?" she says. "So why should I hide it? And I hope it works out. But I'm a hopeful girl. How do you think I stayed in the band for 10 years?"
We talk about those 10 years. "Normally you don't have these conversations unless you're having therapy, right?" she says. She begins to get sad when John Spence is mentioned, and when we reach the breakup with Tony, the floodgates open. "I'll just start crying, and I can't stop," she sobs. "I'm a baby. Sorry. I'm so embarrassed. I'm going to cry forever now. I'm totally a baby."
I change the subject and ask some dumb things to cheer her up, which at least stems the flow. Then the phone rings. It's Gavin. I ask if I should leave, but she doesn't answer. She tells him that I made her cry. "You are so fucking cute," she tells him. She's so sweet on the phone to him – so sweet and so sad.
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