This story originally featuring in the May, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone.
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 realised 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 realised 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 realised 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.)
A Quick to the Holyland, Part 2
The night before their Tel Aviv concert, Gwen Stefani stays in her room, writing in her journal about how she doesn’t have any self-control. And then she turns on the Holy Land TV and discovers the seer and saviour of our vicious, uncertain times talking about the very same thing. “It inspired me,” she says later. Oprah, that is.
The day after their Tel Aviv concert, No Doubt visit the Dead Sea, guarded by a man carrying a small Uzi. The men of the band float on top of the sea; Gwen refuses, blaming “one of those real premenstrual headaches.” At the Dead Sea gift shop, she buys a present for her boyfriend. Some glycerine soap. Afterward we drive into Jerusalem and visit the holiest sites of Judaism and Christianity. Leaving the Wailing Wall, Gwen is asked for her autograph. On the Mount of Olives, they all, except for Tom, ride a camel. Gwen is wearing a strange outfit for a day off around one of the world’s principal military hot spots and religious hubs: a camouflage-pattern jacket and, beneath it, a light-blue top that repeats two motifs over and over – a brown cartoon teddy bear and the red-ink phrase FUCK OFF! (These are gifts from her boyfriend: “He’s like my stylist now. He hates the way I dress. Well, he didn’t like it when I had my yellow vinyl bondage pants.”) When she is on the camel, three middle-aged men chat with her, their banter a lazy mixture of flirtation and condescension, then one of them hollers: “Where did you get that stupid outfit?” When she dismounts, she spots something on the Mount of Olives sidewalk. She points it out to Tony. A used condom. He videos it.
The night of their Tel Aviv concert, there is no stage set, just a few microphone stands festooned with flowers. They play most of Tragic Kingdom, a couple of older songs, a snatch of the Specials’ “Ghost Town.” No Doubt’s next single, “Sunday Morning,” which erupts delightfully from its opening harmonies into a thumping combination of Motown and pop cheese, is especially spirited. (Anyone who can stand onstage in 1997 proudly performing a song with woah-oah backing vocals – keen aficionados of this harshly neglected form will already be thinking of Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” – deserves your careful consideration.) The greatest moment of both pop bazoom and Stefani-star theater comes during “Just a Girl.” These are the words Gwen wrote in 1994 about being surrounded by boys. The phrase “just a girl” made her laugh, and she asked her friends and her sister for everyday examples of the way girls were patronised.The recorded version works through simple, sustained sarcasm – I’m just a girl, all pretty and petite/So don’t let me have any rights – but onstage the song explodes. Halfway through, she asks for the boys – just the boys – to sing along with her. Then she gives them their line: I’m just a girl! And they sing it. Funny. Cute. Next she asks for the girls. Or as she puts it, scrunching up her body and voice in an imitation of insecure femininity, “What about all the sweet, cute, little girls? Sweet, little, tiny, sweet girls. You want to sing?” And she gives them their line: Fuck you, I’m a girl!
As she leads them back into the song’s center with the lines “I’m just a girl in the world ’cause that’s all that …” – her voice begins to erupt – ” …you’ll let me be,” the theater explodes. This is not sophisticated, gender-liberating art, but as pop music it is rousing and potent.
When “Just a Girl” was becoming No Doubt’s first hit, they played a show at the Costa Mesa, Calif., Virgin Megastore. Gwen drove there with her mother. “Are you going to say those curse words onstage?” her mother asked. She’d invited some relatives down.
Gwen had been thinking about it already. “I wasn’t planning on it,” she said, “but you never know what’s going to happen.” But when she was onstage, the whole thing welled up inside her – her mother not wanting her to do it because she’s a girl and it would be inappropriate …and as if anyone could have stopped her then …Oh, my God.
“Fuck you, I’m a girl! Fuck you, I’m a girl!”
And it felt so great.
Gwen’s mom was so mad. She didn’t speak to her daughter for a week, not even when Gwen left to go on tour, in tears at the airport.
But Gwen Stefani still sings the song, and she still sings it the way she wants.
The Unfairness of Life, etc.
The problems that failure brings at least have the advantage of familiarity; most of us have a lifetime in their company. The problems of success are less expected, especially as they trip you at a time when you expect to be floating on the cushion of your own achievement and happiness.
The principal problem in the land of No Doubt is simple to state and nearly impossible to resolve: Four people have fought together to make all this happen; most of the time it is only one of them who is feted and fawned over and praised. In Tel Aviv I watch the other members seethe as they line up together and a photographer comes closer and closer until, quite obviously, only Gwen is within his viewfinder. In London, after Gwen has lost her voice, I hear them explode as it is explained that if Gwen doesn’t attend their press and radio interviews, nobody will be happy. (“Has it got to the point,” Tom rages, “where we mean nothing? Yes or no? If Gwen doesn’t speak, we mean nothing?”)
The reasons for this are simple and complicated, good and bad. She is the singer. She writes many of the lyrics. She is a girl. She is blond. She is …head down, eyes up. And so people photograph the four of them and crop three of them out. People talk to the four of them and print only what she says. (Me, too, to a degree. I talk to each band member at great length, but as soon as I start writing, it is her voice that shouts the loudest.) “I understand it intellectually,” says Tom, who seems the most entertained by all this but who also is fairly unashamed of the discomfort it causes him. “But I just feel like I’m second-class, I’m shit compared to her. I feel I’m just a lesser person, I don’t look as good, and I’m not as bitchin’ as she is in everyone else’s eyes. I think a certain part of me – the reason I wanted to be a rock star when I was a kid, I thought that would be a way for people to like me. And now that I get here, I’m not getting the payoff that I was always expecting.”
“Nobody understands what it’s like, and I do understand,” says Gwen. “And they probably think I don’t understand.” It makes her feel guilty. She’s got a lot of what she wanted, but because of all this, she can’t always enjoy it. And every time someone singles her out or snubs them, or wants to put her and only her on a magazine cover, it causes a little more damage.
Faced with this, No Doubt did something rather interesting and brave. They made a video about it. It was Tom’s suggestion. He said to the video’s director, Sophie Muller, that although he knew “Don’t Speak” was about Gwen and Tony’s split, he’d always felt it could also be about the band’s breakup. Maybe that should be the video. “I said, ‘Are you sure?'” says Muller, who loved the idea. “They were, ‘We need a bit of therapy at the moment – let’s do it.'” The result highlights situations in which Gwen gets all the attention and the others get increasingly pissed. “We weren’t in a situation where we really had to act,” says Tony. Acting out the problem didn’t solve it, of course, but maybe it united them against it and made them laugh. No Doubt’s personal tour-pass laminates in Israel are moody photos of each band member from the “Don’t Speak” video. “I tried to get the ones,” says Gwen smiling, “where we hate each other.”
Ironically, the night before the video shoot, two members – Tom and Gwen – came close to walking out of the group. They had a late-night band meeting by the pool at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
This is Tom’s version: They had just canceled shows because Gwen’s voice had given out. “I said, ‘I think we should cancel everything; you should stay home, you should heal and get better.’ It ticked her off, and finally she said, ‘Well, I’m gonna do whatever I want, and if you don’t like it, you can just quit the band.'” It hurt him a lot. He nearly said, “Yeah, and I do quit.” So nearly. But then he thought, “I’m never gonna quit. Especially if someone tells me to.” He remembers it well.
This is Gwen’s version: She had been in Los Angeles all day, preparing for the video. She’d driven back to Orange County and then – much too tired – had driven back to Los Angeles for the band meeting. She had nearly fallen asleep time and time again on the freeway. And all they wanted to talk about was whether it was her face or the band’s on the cover of a magazine. Didn’t they get it? She’d nearly died on that freeway. She was so angry. She remembers it well.
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 realised 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.
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-coloured, ornate GWEN in what is apparently the lettering style favoured 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.
Some Investigative Journalism
Onstage, Gwen Stefani sweats, and she sweats until she is drenched, but it is a clean, odourless wash of perspiration. I learn this in the back of a Glasgow, Scotland, taxicab. The recently encored Gwen is carrying her stage clothes. “Smell my top,” she instructs, holding forward the wet, flimsy white top she was wearing minutes ago. “It doesn’t smell,” she says. Out of obedience and a keen desire for the truth, I lean forward and sniff. No smell.
But she is not satisfied. There are harsher tests. She holds up a black undergarment that has been subjected to an even more stringent dousing in Eau de Stefani. “The bra probably doesn’t smell, either,” she announces, and checks it herself. “It doesn’t!” she exclaims with pride. “Smell it!”
That is why, driving along through Scottish suburbia, Gwen Stefani pushes her self-soaked bra toward my nostrils, and I inhale as I must.
And everything she says is true.
A Longer Trip Around Britain
As they travel the country, these are some of the things I see and hear No Doubt do. They worry about their laundry, Gwen’s voice, my article. They reminisce about the concert in Japan where a man screamed – Adrian does a fine Japanese man hollering in English – “I want to fuck you, Gwen!” They meet Kato Kaelin in a London hotel. (Kato tells me about his 12-year-old daughter, Tiffany, and her favorite pop group. Sometimes Tiffany phones Kato up and plays pretend. “Hello,” she says. “I’m Gwen Stefani.”)
They read out loud a review of “Don’t Speak” (which will enter the British charts at No. 1 the following week) from Kerrang!, a British rock magazine: “Mere words cannot describe how abysmally gutless and sugar smothered it is… Much like an anteater with a punctured snout, No Doubt suck badly.” (Tony wants to make it into a T-shirt.)
Slowly, they must think about the future. There is an American tour to plan, and I sit in on production meetings where they try to realize their moody, lavish, theatrical vision, earnestly debating whether to go with the $9,000 fly or the $6,000 rain, and the exact nature of the onscreen trees. (“If we go to wood, I don’t think we’ll be able to achieve the trees that we all want,” the production designers advise. There is something enjoyably surreal in hearing people discuss making trees out of wood and then deciding against it.)
They have a few new songs, but one issue remains undecided. Eric. Gwen is particularly adamant that he should be involved in the next record. “Because Eric is No Doubt,” she says. “I think that what we are is that” – she points to some steamed vegetables on a dinner tray in front of her. “And they’re really good, but if I can put a little butter and salt and pepper on that, it would be fucking great. And that’s what Eric is.”
So you become famous, and some of you get too much attention, and some of you are too ignored, and it feels marvellous, and sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes people make you cry, and sometimes you forget why you do all this, and sometimes you think you never really knew. And sometimes you realize that you don’t really need a reason.
When Gwen and Tony were splitting up, Tony offered to leave the band. “Because he loved me so much,” she explains. “I would never let him.”
Did you offer to leave, too?
She laughs. “Fuck, no.”