clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: In Praise of the Rock ’n’ Roll Asshole and ‘Semi-Charmed Life’

Max Collins from Eve 6 joins the show to talk about one of the most infamous jerks in alt-rock—and one of its catchiest songs

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 32, which asks the question: Why does everyone hate Stephan Jenkins?

“Stephan Jenkins is a total megalomaniac freak. He’s so narcissistic that he’s not really capable of rational thought.” —Kevin Cadogan, former lead guitarist and Stephan Jenkins bandmate, Third Eye Blind

“There’s a few bands that we just don’t like touring with. Your Third Eye Blinds of the world. I wouldn’t go near Stephan Jenkins and that band. The guy’s a douchebag. You know? You can put that on camera. ’Cause I really don’t care. But he is. He’s not a good person. That’s all I’ll say about that.” —Steve Harwell, frontman, Smash Mouth

“Stephan Jenkins is such a fucking creepy douchebag. (I feel so much better now.)” —Zach Lind, drummer, Jimmy Eat World

“He made fun of me. Called me a fat guy. Screw you! He has no soul whatsoever. He and his band got into a fight once because he wanted to put just his picture on their T-shirt. I just think, ‘You are walking, breathing, living cheese!’” —Rob Thomas, frontman, Matchbox Twenty. Rob had gained 40 pounds on the first major Matchbox Twenty tour. This was pre-“Smooth.” He was still mortal then.

“I don’t hate him, I just don’t like him. He has no soul. He’s really just a cock.” —Rob Thomas, immortal singer of Santana’s “Smooth,” 10 years after the Walking Cheese thing

“I was hip to Stephan’s bullshit a long time ago. I wanted to have a career in music for the rest of my life, and I knew if I was associated with that guy, I would not be allowed to do so. He was the inspiration for a lot of the songs on this record. The song ‘Somebody Hates You’ is entirely about him.” —Jason Slater, former bassist and Stephan Jenkins bandmate, Third Eye Blind, talking up his new band, Snake River Conspiracy

“Stephan Jenkins has caused a lot of misery in his lifetime. He’s a net negative as a person.” —John Vanderslice, San Francisco singer-songwriter and producer

“After the Third Eye Blind guy told me he fucked my girlfriend he told me I was ‘a wordsmith like Jim Morrison.’” —Max Collins, frontman, Eve 6

What’s the deal here? Why do so many people hate Stephan Jenkins, frontman, Third Eye Blind? Stephan with an a not an e at the end. Maybe that’s it. But really: To what do we owe the world’s displeasure? Lotsa megalomaniac walking-cheese douchebag rock stars in the world. What makes this guy special? What makes this guy the great unifier? Well, I suppose you’d have to start what makes him great.

This is 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s. Today it’s “Semi-Charmed Life” from the 1997 self-titled debut album from San Francisco pop-rock band Third Eye Blind. I should clarify immediately that this song is awesome. It’s catchy, it’s gritty, it’s subversive, it’s ridiculous, it’s incandescent. The world has spent nearly a quarter-century now grudgingly acknowledging the awesomeness of “Semi-Charmed Life.” Later in this show today I will discuss the awesomeness of “Semi-Charmed Life” with none other than Max Collins from Eve 6.

Stephan Jenkins, explaining “Semi-Charmed Life” to Billboard in April 1997: “It’s a dirty, filthy song about snorting speed and getting blow jobs. It really is funny that people play it on the radio.” Stephan was often cagey about precisely how, uh, autobiographical “Semi-Charmed Life” was. Not always, though. He did tell Rolling Stone, “It’s about a time when my friends and I were at a Primus concert and somebody brought speed. No one had done it before, and, like, three weeks later all of my friends were addicted.” Sidebar: Don’t ever take speed at a Primus concert. No offense to Primus but that sounds awful. If you simply must bring speed to a rock concert I implore you to go see literally any other rock band that has ever existed.

Stephan Jenkins grew up in Palo Alto, California, and doesn’t talk about it much. His parents divorced when he was 7; he struggled with dyslexia as a kid. His sixth grade teacher told him he wouldn’t graduate from high school and was headed straight for juvenile hall. His high school yearbook quote was “Success: All it takes is all you’ve got.” He studied English literature at UC Berkeley, graduated as the valedictorian of his class, and went back to his elementary school afterward to remind his sixth grade teacher about the you won’t graduate high school thing. He’s a handsome fella, Stephan. If Quentin Tarantino were playing a Grand Theft Auto–style video game where you could custom-build your own avatar, and Quentin wanted this avatar to look like him but the idealized, much more handsome, one-inch-taller, smaller-foreheaded, rock-star version of himself: Stephan Jenkins.

In 1990 Stephan was a starving artist living off Top Ramen and sleeping in a closet on lower Haight Street in SF. He later called it “my 1967, my Summer of Love.” Early on he was half of a short-lived rap duo called Puck and Natty who somehow snuck a song called “Just Wanna Be Your Friend” onto a Beverly Hills 90210 soundtrack. Stephan later clarified that he’d never watched Beverly Hills 90210. He got paid $7,800. He bought groceries. Possibly he was supposed to get a flat $8,000, but they docked him 200 bucks for using the word horny in the song.

Or maybe he was only supposed to get $800 and they gave him an extra 7,000 for using the word horny in the song. Anyway Stephan dreamed of starting a rock band. He already had a name: Third Eye Blind. It’s ironic. He had a handful of songs inspired by his Summer of Love, including one called “Semi-Charmed Life” that he’d started futzing with, using guitar riffs from a Detroit rapper named Herman Anthony Chunn, a.k.a. Zen, a.k.a. the other guy in his old horny rap duo. Stephan eventually paid Zen $10,000 and has sole authorship of the song.

Stephan meets a guitar player named Kevin Cadogan. Yeah. That guy. They start writing songs together and doing two-man acoustic gigs at Bay Area bars and whatnot. Buncha new songs. Buncha demos. Buncha potential record deals. Buncha drummers. And a couple major gigs opening for big-shot alt-rock bands at the Fillmore in San Francisco—world-historically fantastic venue, the Fillmore. Love the curtains. Love the balconies. Love the apples. Third Eye Blind opened for Counting Crows there. Third Eye Blind opened for Oasis there, and got called back for an encore. Kevin Cadogan reportedly threw a can of Coke at Liam Gallagher and lived to talk about it in 20th-anniversary pieces. Third Eye Blind signed with Elektra Records. Their debut album, Third Eye Blind, came out in March 1997. Stephan Jenkins on vocals and guitar. Kevin Cadogan on lead guitar. Arion Salazar on bass. Brad Hargreaves on drums. This album kicks ass. The whole thing. I don’t mind telling you. Top 10 record of 1997. It’s legitimately shocking. Thirteen songs spanning from pretty good to fuckin’ stupendous, and then also this song.

To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.