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Cover Story: The Black Crowes

| November 1, 2013
Black Crowes_WEb_ ROSS HALFIN

The Black Crowes 2013 – Photo: Ross Halfin


We look back because we want to. But in 1984, a breezy Top 10 hit by Don Henley, of all people, set in motion the sentiment that rock ‘n’ roll nostalgia is as contemptible as greed and pride. “The Boys Of Summer” chided a middle-aged man for daring to put a Grateful Dead bumper sticker on his Cadillac Seville. A successful baby boomer acknowledging countercultural roots on Henley’s Southern California highway was enough for the singer to put a little voice inside our heads, saying, “Don’t look back/You can never look back.” It would be a cool decade before his Eagles decided Hell Freezes Over.

1984 was also the year brothers Chris and Rich Robinson formed the decidedly nostalgic, fuse-breaking Mr. Crowe’s Garden, their teenage version of The Black Crowes. Throughout the 1980s, Southern bar hoppers perhaps hoping to stumble across the next R.E.M. would catch a foppishly dressed, Muddy Waters-weaned group of lanky misfits, barely able to contain their inner Stones, their outre Aerosmith. All the while, the kids were still learning how to play, says Steve Gorman, who agreed to check out his new housemates’ band the night after moving to Atlanta in February, 1987. (Chris was nice enough to pick him up at the Greyhound station, after all.)

“It was fast and it was furious,” recalls the drummer of The Black Crowes by telephone from Nashville, in a reflective mood at home during a week off tour, “and they were playing like Byrds covers, trying to do like a country rock sort of thing, which was cool and different at the time. They were really into The Long Ryders, The Dream Syndicate, The Byrds, Rain Parade, and the whole L.A. Paisley Underground thing. What they weren’t doing was trying to sound like every other Southern band at the time . . . I definitely noticed Chris. He had a tremendous presence. I mean, I stood there that night, and I was like, ‘That goofy fucking guy I just went to a party with is really good?’ I mean, I couldn’t believe it.”

Gorman migrated to Atlanta to start 120 Minutes (MTV) blip band Mary My Hope with current Crowes bassist Sven Pipien (also one of the 1987 housemates). He lent his services to Chris and Rich’s project later that year, after drummer Jeff Sullivan bailed for Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ (“Fly Me Courageous”), bringing the brothers something integral to our day’s de facto Grateful Dead: “Basically, I just had an ID, so I could buy beer,” quips Gorman with a laugh. (Not skills, he acknowledges; the college dropout who says he was a “jock” in the mid-’80s had talked his way into Mary My Hope by telling them he had been playing for three years. In reality, he bought his first kit after settling into the Atlanta house.) Gorman was legal and living it up in the big city for the first time in his life, having spent most of his youth in rural Kentucky. Chris Robinson was his wingman and his frontman. Mr. Crowe’s Garden were on the verge of rock ‘n’ roll stardom, and that’s exactly what they told themselves.

The drummer explains: “I used say back then, ‘We’re the worst band in Atlanta, and the best band in the world.’ Because if you came to see us, you wouldn’t go away going, ‘Those guys were amazing.’ But we knew what we had . . . When I first met Chris, he was serious about it, I could tell right away. He was not going to do anything else. He had no Plan B, and that’s how I saw it. I left everything behind. I saw it as, ‘I’m starting my life now.’ And I think more than anything, the three of us just shared that – just, ‘There’s nothing else we’re going to do, so by God, we gotta figure this out.'”

They split rent down to the penny, $112.50 per person, and accepted one-off gigs as far away as New York City, sometimes for no money. “It was pretty sparse,” continues the moonlighting podcaster. “We had four of us living in this house who were actually playing rent . . . and then an untold number of people just crashing. It was a complete flophouse. There were any number of local musicians on our floor every night of the week, and it was the most fun time ever, looking back, of course. But now, 26 years later, it’s shocking how much fun we had. We should have all been arrested or dead, I’m sure, several times over.”

Their efforts piqued the interest of George Drakoulias, an A&R rep for A&M, who saw the band at a poorly attended Manhattan gig in 1988, according to Rolling Stone magazine. That year, label honcho Rick Rubin left Def Jam and started Def American (now simply American), recruiting Drakoulias in the process. Drakoulias signed Mr. Crowe’s Garden (The Black Crowes from then on out) and recorded the massive Shake Your Money Maker, which dropped quietly in February 1990 but gained traction over the next two years, selling 108,000 copies in one day in 1991, (according to Rolling Stone). It was Def American’s first smash hit, a quadruple-platinum CD whose cardboard longbox adorned the bedroom walls of teenagers discovering big, earthy riffs in an era marked by thin pop glitz. To hear Gorman tell it, Def American had little to do with the album’s success. If it weren’t for the rock radio department of the label’s then-distributor, Geffen, hearing “Jealous Again,” their first single, would have been twice as hard.

“They were the ones who were like, ‘We can get this played on the radio,’ and that was a surprise to Def American,” says Gorman, who discloses that the band didn’t actually meet Rubin until after the record was finished (despite some editions claiming Rubin the executive producer). “And it was a huge surprise to us . . . I mean, when we were making our record [in 1989], Skid Row was the brand-new huge band. And that was everywhere, so the last thing we thought was that rock radio or MTV would have anything to do with us. I thought we were making a little indie rock ‘n’ roll record, and I used to say, ‘God, I just hope we can sell 50,000 copies,’ because then they’ll let us make another one.”

David Byrne writes in his bestselling How Music Works that the music business has forced alien expectations upon musicians in native environments since the advent of portable recording technology. Twelve-string guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Lead Belly, who popularized traditional African-American music in the ’30s and ’40s, was reportedly told by musicologist John Lomax to wear overalls and eschew pop songs when he performed. Lomax thought that big-city audiences wouldn’t otherwise appreciate “authentic” Southern music, writes Byrne in an ironical sense. “Inevitably, recorded music was a branch of proto-globalization – a process that could uncover hidden gems while at the same time flattening them out,” concludes the ex-Talking Heads frontman. Perhaps Rubin had Lomax in mind while attempting to groom The Black Crowes at the dawn of their commercial years.

“We met him in the fall of ’89; the record was finished; he came to Atlanta,” Gorman explains. “He came to see the band, and he goes: ‘You are nothing like what I was hoping. I thought you’d be wearing like overalls and you’d look like country guys.’ And we’re all like, What the fuck are you talking about?’ And he handed me a metronome and said: ‘Obviously, you’ve never worked with one of these. Practice with this.’ And then said, ‘I think you should be the Kobb Kounty Krows and spell it [like] the KKK.’ And we all laughed, and he goes, ‘No, I’m serious.’ And when we said, ‘You’re actually serious?’ He goes: ‘I’m dead serious. I think that’d be marketable.’ We told him to go fuck himself. I mean, it was completely insulting on every level.”

In the bygone days of saleable plastic music formats and record stores in practically every city, few opportunities gave a label more of a chance to define itself than the sampler. It’s what launched the career of Metallica (Metal Blade’s first Metal Massacre) and introduced the masses to 1,000 Ministry side-projects (Wax Trax!/TVT’s Black Box). For the cover of his new label’s first sampler, Til Def Us Do Part, Rubin chose himself as the artwork, flaunting his curly beard and a superimposed reflection of Def American’s nationwide logo in his enormous shades. The sound? Metal, lots of metal: “Lucifer’s face in the mirror when you look,” croons Danzig amid John Christ’s bench-press fretwork at the start of the compilation’s muscular romp. Slayer, Wolfsbane, The Four Horsemen, Masters Of Reality. Chicago’s Trouble, even, made simple after the upwardly spiralling  Run To The Light: “All the people they stop and stare/But there’s nobody there,” sings Eric Wagner in a fake British accent. Cue Ron Holzner’s walking bass line. And in the thick of it all, The Black Crowes, a welcome reprieve. When “Twice As Hard” comes on like a lasso toward the sampler’s end, it’s as blast-worthy as Slayer’s arena-thrashing “War Ensemble.” But don’t call The Black Crowes a metal band. Once upon a time, those were fighting words.

“We were in Chapel Hill [North Carolina] playing a gig in ’89, and a good friend of ours who we’re still all close with up there took us to a party . . . Everybody’s drunk, and somebody pissed someone off, and so this guy said, ‘You guys need to leave our party.’ And we literally turned, and we’re like: ‘Well, cool. We’re not going to hang if you don’t want us here.’ We thought it was kind of funny. I don’t even remember what the problem was, but we were being thrown out of a party, very calmly, and nobody was even upset. We didn’t care. And we were literally at the door, and I heard a guy say, ‘I can’t believe someone invited this metal band.’ And that was equivalent to telling us to go fuck our own mothers. I mean, there couldn’t have been a greater insult. Not that they even knew [us], but to call us a metal band? We spun around, and – looking back, it’s embarrassing, it’s just stupid — I was literally like: ‘Who said that? Who the fuck said that?’ And we all tore back in there to kill the person who called us a metal band.”

The Black Crowes didn’t serve to reinvent the wheel for a generation determined to purchase alternatives, but they shook up the charts with an anachronistic stomp, which paved the way for another band also benefiting from Geffen. The slate-cleaner came in the form of Nirvana’s diamond Nevermind, a ragged radio-friendly unit shifter on Geffen subsidiary DGC that followed Shake Your Money Maker‘s 108,000-copy day in 1991. Alternative rock was born, a trend that in time seemed to turn its nose up at The Black Crowes, who in 1992 gave Def American its first No. 1 album, The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion.

“In the mid-’90s, when there was such a turn into such a specific scene, when rock radio switched so overnight to alternative, we had done enough radio promo for one lifetime, so we didn’t really care to go deal with a whole new bunch of program directors trying to tell us why we’re not right for their format,” Gorman says, maintaining that had Geffen not been purchased by MCA in 1990, Southern Harmony would have been a bigger hit than Money Maker. “We just said: ‘Fine, don’t play us. We don’t give a shit.’ We never expected the first record to be huge, so the fact that the third one [1994’s Amorica] wasn’t, wasn’t really a giant letdown for us. We put out records that we loved and that we believed in, and let the chips fall where they may. I mean, our first record literally sold 10 times more than we ever thought it could have. At least. So we never bought into the fact that we were going to be the next Rolling Stones. We knew pretty early on we’re not willing to do what it takes to be that kind of band.”

As the year winds down, there are no plans for The Black Crowes after December. According to a statement from the band, the upcoming shows are the last in the foreseeable future, and 2014 is reserved for solo projects. Might this be the end?

“I don’t feel like it is, actually, but I can’t tell you how long it’s going to be before we’re back,” the drummer says, adding, “I wouldn’t bet against us, but I couldn’t tell you what the odds are.” For now, they’re plugged in (unless they’re playing one of the few acoustic songs on the set list), and they’ve added new covers (The Incredible String Band, Pink Floyd) and old outtakes to their repertoire.

Looking back has never been a problem for The Black Crowes.

-Mike Meyer

Appearing: 11/1 and 11/2 at Riviera Theatre (4746 N. Racine) Chicago.

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  1. JP says:

    Looking forward to the show tomorrow night!

  2. Big Al Heart Attack says:

    If you have a chance to see any shows remaining on this tour, and you are even remotely interested in this band, do ANYTHING and EVERYTHING you can do to go see them.

    I’ve seen them at least 50 times, and the show we saw a few weeks ago in Austin right after Mr. Robinson passed away was beyond awe-inspiring.

    Do not EVER miss a Crowes show. These are the types of events you will tell your grandchildren about.

    And with Jackie Greene on guitar? Are you kidding me?

    Beyond words.