Steve Gorman, drummer for the Black Crowes, remembers the first time he realized his band was no longer the new kid on the block.
"Two years ago," he recalls, "I was sitting at my brother's house in Baltimore and he puts on MTV. The veejay goes, 'After the break, we'll have the Crows for ya.' And it comes on and it's Counting Crows! I'd never even heard of this band, and all of the sudden they're the Crows. But I think Darwinism always wins out. Give it time."
But as long as there have been rock 'n' roll records, there has been one band of Crows or another. In 1953, a set of doo-woppers called the Crows scored its penultimate hit with a giddy little song called "Gee." In 1969, a hard-rock/blues quintet called Crow scored its lone hit with a bloated Blood Sweat & Tears swipe called "Evil Woman Don't Play Your Games With Me." In the Seventies, there was an English hard-rock band called Stone the Crows that had no hits to speak of, but gained considerable notoriety for having a lead guitarist die of electrocution onstage in 1972.
The Black Crowes distinguished themselves immediately from all Crows past and present by remaining grounded and scoring four hits right out of the box. The band's 1990 debut, Shake Your Money Maker, contained "Jealous Again," "She Talks to Angels," "Hard to Handle" and "Twice As Hard"--all popular favorites to everyone who'd never owned a Faces record. And though the band's detractors would never admit it, those who pined for that bygone sound surely had to admire the way the group captured it so effortlessly. The band's second album, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, sidestepped the dreaded sophomore jinx with three more sizable hits, "Remedy," "Sometimes Salvation" and "Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye." But that was in 1992, practically an eternity ago in MTV memory banks. And we haven't even mentioned Sheryl Crow yet!
In case you haven't noticed, in the past two years, MTV has abandoned every hair-farmer band from Warrant to Skid Row to Poison that it once championed. Once the channel shifted its focus toward alternative acts, a band like the Black Crowes--that is neither glam metal nor alternative--somehow got lost in the shuffle. When asked a question about the band's current video for "High Head Blues," Gorman seemed genuinely amazed that somebody had actually seen it.
Gorman, who's been with the group since its earliest incarnation as Mr. Crow's Garden, has graciously agreed to this phone interview, substituting at the last minute for an "indisposed" Rich Robinson. Although lead singer Chris Robinson would be anyone's natural first choice, Chris isn't doing any interviews this late into the tour. Possibly, it's because he's been misquoted one too many times, or maybe it's on account of Chris' being quoted all too accurately. Pissing someone off with an arrogant comment has long been the elder Robinson's stock in trade.
Gorman has less emotional baggage to contend with than the two Robinson brothers, so the Crowes couldn't ask for a better spokesperson than the articulate and accommodating skins pounder. After all, he's had a back-seat vantage point to the band at every stage of its career.
"They do have a lot of problems just being brothers," essays Gorman of what may be the only known brother songwriting team in rock. "I have five brothers and we get along great, but there's not a chance in hell I'd be in a band with any of 'em. Writing together is such a powder keg when you're dealing with someone you've known your whole life. You tell him, 'Why don't you go to a C chord here' and he suddenly remembers when you took his lunch money in the fifth grade."
On this day in rock, the men of the Crowes are in Los Angeles midway through their "Amorica or Bust" World Tour. The satisfaction that the band must feel touring behind its best and most critically acclaimed album to date is tempered with the sobering reality that amorica, released late last year, is currently nowhere to be found in Billboard's Top 200 Album Chart.
Are the Crowes suffering from an acute case of bell-bottom blues? Gorman is philosophical about this particular growing-pain stage of the band's career. "We definitely are getting less airplay on MTV. Everyone wants the new thing. I can look back now and realize that's what happened with us. We were new and hot and young and we weren't spoiled by the industry, and everything everyone wants to turn every musician into. Everyone jumps on you and loves you.
"You look around and there's not too many people on their third and fourth albums doing their own thing that are getting a lot of exposure on MTV," he continues. "You've gotta be on your first record or 12th. You've gotta be the new savior of rock 'n' roll or you've gotta have staying power. Who cares? That's their world."
Since the original Mr. Crow's Garden, this Georgia sextet has always seemed the odd band out amid its hipper contemporaries like Drivin' n' Cryin' and Follow for Now. "We were not the most popular band in town by any means," Gorman says with a laugh. "We just wore what we wore and probably 20 people in town were into it. At the time, there were a few bands trying to do, I don't know what you'd call it--rock 'n' roll, but we definitely stood out. If we played in Atlanta, we could headline on a weekend every now and then. Out of town, we'd just open for other bands. We'd just drive around the Southeast, make 50 bucks and go home."
Ironically, for a band that got its first major career boost covering an Otis Redding tune, the Crowes didn't start out doing other people's material. At all. "We always did our own stuff. We were still figuring out how to play, and covers were sort of out of the question. You could butcher your own songs and no one knows better. Do that to something they might've heard and they get mad at you."
The Crowes ultimately advanced from butchering to grooving, but when the band signed to American Records (then Def American) and hit the studio, it was still far from a polished outfit. "That first record was seriously just a bunch of kids with no studio experience winging it," says Gorman soberly. "It came out with no attention or prehype and it started taking off after six months. We were just happy to be out of Atlanta playing clubs. We got to go to the West Coast; that was all we cared about. And we did the second record in a week, right when the first tour ended."
In comparison, amorica took a solid six months in the studio and was whittled down from 30 completed tracks, some of which had already seen the light of day as non-LP B-sides and are being performed nightly on this tour. "This is the first time we worked at trying to get sounds. We didn't put a time limit. We just told the studio, 'We're gonna be here, no telling how long.'"
Sorta like the O.J. jury.
But will justice be served to the Black Crowes? Despite the musical riches to be found on this album, from the painful self-flagellation of "Cursed Diamond" to the Latino rhythms of "High Head Blues" to the poignancy of "She Gives Good Sunflower"--most of the attention focused on amorica's flag-bikini-clad female-crotch cover photo. Complete with a pubic hair or two sticking out.
Says Gorman, "Before the record came out, every distributor in the country said, basically, 'We're not gonna put it into the stores.' Sixty percent of the stores in this country said, 'We're not gonna carry it. Give us an alternate cover or forget it.' Maybe it was a bit naive of us. It struck us as a funny, ironic statement because it could mean just anything."
"Anything" being a bit too broad for the powers that be, the band gave in and substituted a less-offensive cover.
But in Europe, the cover was greeted with a lot more intrigue than outrage. "We started the tour in Europe, and most of the press there said, 'Is it a man or a woman?' Exactly. What do you want it to be? This is going to sound funny, but if you see the vinyl, 12-inch amorica, it somehow makes more sense. Now that's a record cover. Something about it being small and on a CD, people think it's pornographic."
But don't think the Black Crowes are without causes to champion. Since they first got thrown off a tour supporting ZZ Top because they denounced the bearded ones' corporate sponsorship from the stage, the Crowes have gotten flak for their beliefs. Similarly, when the Crowes could've been headlining in stadiums, the band chose smaller theatres. This tour, the group has sought to make its shows "more bootleg friendly," as Chris Robinson puts it.
Tickets to any of the band's shows on this tour clearly read "AUDIO RECORDING ALLOWED," and the band's newsletter Taller encourages fans to trade tapes of shows. The band, which shared the stage with the Grateful Dead this past April, seemingly has more in common with the Bay Area vets than it has a predisposition for hoovin' on a doobie.
"On the first tour, we came across bootlegs, but we didn't realize how prevalent it was," remarks Gorman. "The first time you hear about someone having 60 gigs on tape, you're pretty blown away by it. Like, what's wrong with that guy, doesn't he have a life? Then you think, wait a minute, this guy's collecting. We wanted to make it a lot easier for them. There's one guy on this tour who has a list of 300 shows, which is the record so far [that] we know of. He's following the whole tour and he's paying his way by selling tapes. Selling copies of last night's show for four bucks, that's fine with us."
Not coincidentally, the music Gorman has been listening to on the tour bus is also of dubious legality. "The best stuff I've come across lately is bootlegs I've never heard. Neil Young bootlegs from '73, Allman Brothers stuff."
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Because every show is getting taped one way or the other, the Crowes have shouldered the responsibility of performing a different set every night, something almost unthinkable in most large rock shows these days. Perform a tune without computer-controlled, intricate lighting rigs corresponding to it? Not performing a song with the same hand gestures you used on the video? Unthinkable!
But the Crowes' modus operandi is a lot like its heroes of yesteryear, so perhaps it's no wonder that musicians of legendary stature have taken to treating the Black Crowes as peers and worthy successors. Jimmy Page turned up at a Paris gig, performing blues tunes like "Shake Your Money Maker" and "Mellow Down Easy" with the band. The Crowes are also slated to be special guests at some European dates this summer for both Page and Plant and the Rolling Stones. Could it be the Crowes are finally getting, to quote Otis, "a little respect"?
No doubt the Crowes will continue to ignore current trends in music and fashion and be perceived as an arrogant, bitchy rock band. The band's latest video hasn't helped matters, what with Chris Robinson sporting black nail polish and a cannabis plant drawn on his chin as if he were a Laugh-In go-go dancer. Yet the Crowes have already distinguished themselves by being the first band to perform a benefit concert for victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. If America is a pretty frightening place to live in these days, at least amorica seems to have its heart in the right place.
Black Crowes are scheduled to perform on Tuesday, May 23, at Mesa Amphitheatre, with Dirty Dozen. Showtime is 7 p.m.