Where Counting Crows August and Everything After was a touchstone, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings is only another tear in the bucket
I spent the winter of 1994 through the summer of 1995 soaking myself in the Counting Crows album August and Everything After. I did lots of variations on the theme of playing it through, playing some part of it, and playing some part of a part of it over and over. Up to a few hours a day. Usually with breaks in between.
The release date coincided with a time during which I'd begun to sense my life was all wrong. Instead of trampling down the infrastructure of everything that had thus far held all my meaning, I waited it out, riding the waves of Adam Duritz's enormous accumulation of personal funk. (Though I thought I was riding his haunting lyrics, vocal passion, and perfectly timed crescendos.) I now know that I put in those hours with August because I needed to absorb enough confidence to confront my troubles instead of just stewing in them. I don't know why it took so long to figure this out. For six months I witnessed the "Macarena"-style overplaying of three of the songs at my son's favorite ice rink every Friday night ("Mr. Jones," "Rain King," and "A Murder of One"). Pre-adolescents don't skate to songs whose dominant feature is the ability to get people wringing their hands, puking out big chunks of solidified tears, and pondering life's complexities. Hoo-ah.
Lucky I abandoned Counting Crows after that and missed the sad trauma of 1996's Recovering the Satellites. (I bought it, shelved it, and looked forward to breaking the plastic wrapper as a major component of my future growth.) I found out a year or so later that I missed two great songs, "Mercury," and "A Long December." In "Mercury," Adam says his crazy girlfriend drives him nuts, and the drumbeats relate how she sucks him into a funhouse that feels like an underwater vacuum. Recovering the Satellites followed an über-disc that came off as a greatest hits collection, even though it wasn't; it was produced in the aftermath of a success that must have been hallucinatory. Kurt Cobain died, and Adam Duritz had a nervous breakdown right around then. (It's rough being a famous touchstone.) No wonder I'm walking into walls in the lyrics where windows should be — these songs want to be left alone.
It's all the fault of people like me. Duritz's legendary AOL posting in his "Subject: me" file (March 1999) is as follows: "what the fuck are you people talking about? how the hell do you have any idea at all how i approach women or what i want out of my relationships with them?" In the sneeze diaries of the Web, Adam Duritz's personal life is far less important to us than sharing our opinions about it.
I'm not sure what's sicker — the way I became so obsessed with the debut album, or the way I listen to the love songs. I've always assumed that women have an easier time listening to Counting Crows' love songs because, instead of listening in the third person, or identifying with the singer, I usually take the position of the woman about whom the song is written. I'm worth it.
Category: love songs. Van Morrison versus Counting Crows. It hardly seems fair. Van has been around a lot longer, and he's the sex-song machine. While Van slobbers all over girlfriends who are right before his eyes, Duritz is clearly the master of stale, festering breakups he keeps current in his head. If somebody were to force him to cover Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne," Duritz could practice having a freshly regretted parting, experienced as a couple, almost before it passes.
His Elizabeth songs probably have the biggest cult following. Elizabeth is supposed to be someone with whom he had to break up because of career conflicts. It's a common relationship killer, not about money or ego, but about conflicting values, conflicting notions of acceptable lifestyle. ("Good Night Elizabeth" on Recovering the Satellites was written for her.) When that type of thing happens in my life, I read a self-help book about it. When it happens in a love song, I worship it.
Category: love songs. Bruce Springsteen versus Counting Crows. In his later works, Bruce has been finding women who have psychological spaces where he's not allowed — "secret gardens." In his earlier work, he describes a few girlfriends who are ugly or otherwise marginal: strictly out-of-date blue jeans, teeth knocked out, needing a dye job and facial. Duritz does the psychological stuff very well. But what do his girlfriends wear?
This Desert Life, the band's 1999 album, opens with "hanginaround," broadcasting weird noises from outer space, then drumbeats, then shouts. A guitar line wraps around, then a piano. Duritz jumps in and drives away, singing drunk about getting sober. The track went over big at the ice rink. There will be others, but it's hard to predict which. What's certain is they'll be songs the kids don't understand now but will figure out years later, smile to themselves and think, "I skated to this?" — just as I smile when I think of myself slow-dancing to, well, "Me and Mrs. Jones" as a kid.
The Elizabeth song on This Desert Life is called "I Wish I Was a Girl." It's the sort of title that gets one dubbed a "dork" in the popular press. "I'm going down to Hollywood. They're going to make a movie from all the things they find crawling around inside my brain," Duritz says. He's killing me. Sometimes I wish he'd party it up at the Playboy Mansion and come back with a raunchy number about a busty blonde. (Ouch.) The resignation in the guitar line draws me in. The rhythm slaps me with regret. The background vocals give me comfort. I'm undone.
Counting Crows' subsequent studio releases — Hard Candy (2002), and this year's Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings, haven't reached the commercial heights of the band's earlier albums, but the broken spirit of those songs will live on forever, crammed into skating rink rotations and Internet discussions, perpetually providing catharsis for fans who view the Crows' earlier albums as metaphorical milestones in our own lives.
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