Semi-Charmed Second Life


For most of this decade, I put out a Top 40 fanzine called Radio On. (Yes, you’re right: named in honor of Wall of Voodoo.) Each spring I’d compile a list of 50 or 60 current Billboard hits, and contributors would rate whatever they’d heard and write comments. There was always a few weeks after sending out the list where I had a good time trying to match some of the newer names to songs I figured I’d been hearing on the radio but hadn’t yet identified (today’s DJs aren’t always big on back-announcing), a gap that bestowed strangeness and mystery onto the unlikeliest of candidates. “Sister Hazel”?—must be a rapper on the order of Sista Souljah or Queen Latifah, but more old school, like Shirley Booth. “Sponge”?—one of the eight main classes of invertebrates, kind of squishy-looking, no appendages, probably heirs to the Moulty/Def Leppard tradition.

Third Eye Blind looked equally intriguing on 1997’s Radio On list, like maybe the arcane psychedelia of the 13th Floor Elevators was making a commercial breakthrough 30 years later. It wasn’t too long before I matched name to song and discovered that there wasn’t anything trippy about Third Eye Blind at all: Their “Semi-Charmed Life” was the slap-happy doot-doot-doot Spin Doctors soundalike that had been all over the radio the past few weeks and had already reeled me in. It was one of those great junky hits of recent times that began life on either Billboard‘s “Modern Rock” or “Not Modern Rock” chart (often both) and then started climbing the Top 100. Some of my other favorites included singles by the above-mentioned Sister Hazel (“All for You”), Blues Traveler (“Run-Around”), the Gin Blossoms (“Found Out About You”), and Better Than Ezra (“Good”).

These songs almost never fared well in Radio On—their anonymous mixture of sprightly melodicism and musical ordinariness guaranteed that one or two enthusiasts would be surrounded on all sides by jokes, dismissals, threats, and puzzled annoyance. A line from Ted Friedman’s 1997 comment on kindred spirits Dog’s Eye View summed up the prevailing queasiness well: “Will anyone look back and wonder, ‘Whatever happened to Dog’s Eye View, Dishwalla, and Jars of Clay?’ I’m already wondering.” Ted was right—outside of band members themselves, no one’s wondering.

“Semi-Charmed Life” was an exception in that it placed really high in Radio On, and also because Third Eye Blind quickly followed up with a bunch of other hits, two of which I liked even more than “Semi-Charmed Life.” “Graduate” (which if it had been a movie would have been titled Graduate: The Verb) was a bracing school’s-out-forever romp, or at least it seemed so until I realized that its chorus was a question (“Will I graduate?”). “How’s It Going to Be” ‘s soppiness landed it as the worst single of the year on one Radio On contributor’s year-end, but to me it was plaintive and beautiful and spoke specifically to a situation in my own life I was sorting out at the time. I didn’t even mind their folkish suicide song, “Jumper,” even though by then a year had passed and I’d heard enough Third Eye Blind for several lifetimes. To its credit, “Jumper” had what I’d come to think of as the “Third Eye Blind shift”: a moment in every single where there’d be a pause in the proceedings and they’d suddenly start yelping in overdrive, never for any real reason that I could figure out.

I hear the T.E.B. shift only once full-force on Third Eye Blind’s second album, Blue, about a minute into an excellent song called “Wounded.” I think it might be about a groupie: an authorial voice that’s often a “we” instead of an “I,” a line about the back of the bus, a directive to “rock on, rock on.” I said “rock on” once in the spring of 1978; I didn’t like the sound of it and never said it again. But it’s exciting on “Wounded,” and so are all the woh-woh-wohs right after the shift.

There may be something else on Blue that surprises me on the radio one day, but I’ve played it in its entirety four or five times now and it mostly just sounds like a couple more well-meaning lifetimes of Third Eye Blind. The doot-doot-doot songs (“Never Let You Go,” “An Ode to Maybe”) are a little too chirpy, a little too Tal Bachman-esque, while the slower ones are longer, not prettier. I’m not sure what to make of the Bon Scott flourishes on “The Red Summer Sun,” but as I’m sure even Third Eye Blind would agree, it’s not the kind of thing that needs to be pursued any further. (Bon Scott, by the way, would often answer queries of “How are you feeling?” with “A little third-eye-blind today.” Hence the connection.)