The Battle between Authenticity and Self-indulgence at the Heart of Counting Crows
By Grant Rosenberg

For almost nine years, Counting Crows have been part of the rock and roll landscape, falling somewhere between the respected major label successes of Pearl Jam on the one side and the Goo Goo Dolls or Matchbox Twenty on the other. Many music fans don’t quite know what to make of the band. They were initially thrown into the category of alt-country, along with Wilco, Whiskeytown, the Jayhawks and the like, and it was The Band to which they were most often compared when the Van Morrison references became too much. Since then, their musical style has evolved from the folksy, acoustic guitar and mandolin sparseness of "middle America" to a more hip, rock-out throng, though still providing the requisite ballads. On July 9th, Counting Crows will release Hard Candy, their fourth studio album. As they make their way around the world opening for The Who and Santana this summer, we have a moment to pause and reflect on this musical act, its melodramatic shaggy dog front man, and whether or not they deserve such a visible place in the rock and roll pantheon.

In 1994, I saw their concert at the Riveria Theatre in Chicago. They were one of the bigger bands at the time, thanks to the success of the song "Mr. Jones," for which they are still best known, the first single from their debut album August and Everything After. The song was a plea for fame and fortune while battling the demons of insecurity and low self-esteem, and there he was, Adam Duritz, all paunch and circumstance, flipping his fake dreadlocks. What were we to make of this guy? He seemed a strange racial-ethnic amalgam. He was odd-looking, and his whiny voice either took you in or pushed you out. He pushed his braids from his eyes with Cher’s patented hair flip. Adam Duritz, despite the contrivance, was not market-tested.

The concert ended without their playing "Mr. Jones." I had to give the guys credit for defying the audience, depriving us not just of our expectations, but of what we saw as our musical right. Certainly it was a statement that they were more than one catchy song, but they also risked alienating their newfound fans and showing them disrespect. And more than a few people booed. Still, it seemed like we had a real talent on our hands, a band that combined great ideas and styles of American music, and a singer that wasn’t a pretty boy and didn’t have a pretty voice. "I want to be Bob Dylan/Mr. Jones wishes he was someone just a little more funky," he sang.

And then, two years later, now with shoulder-length braids and beard, Duritz did get that much funkier. The 1996 album Recovering the Satellites was full of electric guitars and sound and fury. Two years after that, they put out a double live album, Across a Wire: Live in New York, comprised of their acoustic VH1 Storytellers performance on one disc and a New York concert broadcast and recorded for MTV on the other, with several songs appearing twice. A treat for fans, it was nevertheless criticized for being bloated and audacious, given their lack of a comprehensive portfolio. Duritz’s already whiny vocals are even whinier here, and though there are some excellent versions of excellent songs on disc one, such as "Angels of the Silences," "Catapult," and "Have You Seen Me Lately?," we see his limited lyrical references laid out in front of us. Circuses, angels, rain, America, silence, sleeping, and dreaming are his six constant lyrical crutches. From "Have You Seen Me Lately?":

I was out on the radio starting to change
Somewhere out in America, it's starting to rain
Could you tell me the things you remember about me
And have you seen me lately?

I remember me
And all the little things that make up a memory
Like she said she loved to watch me sleep
Like she said: ‘It's the breathing, it's the breathing in and out and in and...'

Duritz is a literate songwriter, to be sure. The first and second albums have songs relating to a novel by Saul Bellow ("The Rain King") and a play by Sam Shepard ("Another Horsedreamer’s Blues"), respectively. Even when some of the music feels maudlin, such as in "Miller’s Angels," it still seems to dovetail nicely as a whole. Duritz turns some phrases that create more than a few moments of "that’s-exactly-how-I-would-have-put-that." In "Goodnight Elisabeth," he sings:

I hope that everybody can find a little flame
Me, I say my prayers, then I just light myself on fire
And I walk out on the wire once again

Duritz took the themes of alienation and lost love, and instead of setting them to industrial music like Trent Reznor, he kept it a little brighter and more constructive and had a nice slide guitar and organ to boot.

But buoyed by a latent optimism, the songs started to go too far in that direction. This was already hinted at in the VH1 and MTV performances, but it became clear in 2000, when Counting Crows released a third album, This Desert Life. Gone was the darker feel of the previous studio album; this was more playful and a bit goofy. The cover was some sort of Magritte parody, a chest-up photo of a man in a bowler hat, though instead of a head we see goldfish in a fishbowl swimming like two lost souls. The first track is their equivalent of Dylan’s "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35," a playful ditty called "hangingaround" that begins with the sounds of a waterbong and some excited yelling and ends with a smattering of applause from the "we’re having a party here" bandmates who seem fairly delighted by what they just played. A hidden track at the end of the album reveals them all joking around in the studio, imitating the 1969 moon landing. Was this a response to the constant criticism hurled at Duritz for being such a mope, for his "woe is me, I can’t find love or happiness" melodrama that felt more like the self-absorbed poetry of a misfit sophomore, the kind who would date the cheerleader if only he could? Probably not. Rock stars have been doing the long face since the beginning, and despite all the silliness, this album alternates between up-tempo and ballad, with words that continue to search for a home and someone to love. To wit, from the song "All My Friends":

At seventeen, had a better dream.
Now I'm thirty-three and it isn't me
But I'd think of something better if I could

All my friends and lovers leave me behind
I'm still looking for a girl
One way or another
I'm just hoping to find a way
To put my feet out in the world

What seems to have disappeared from the band of 1994 and even 1996 is Duritz’s built-in bullshit detector that Hemingway implored us about. His dramatic, confessional lyrics are personal, but they seem to imitate pain; it seems that Duritz has learned too well how to perform emotion and how to posture it. At their shows in the late-90s, Duritz would stop singing in the middle of songs and speak the lyrics, as in a play, head scratching included, as if these thoughts are only now occurring to him, or as if he was sitting at an all-night diner over coffee with an old friend (or lover), knowing he will repeat it to his shrink a few days later.

I can’t speak to Duritz’s private life, and it would be irresponsible to try. But his public commentary is fair game. On the under re-construction Counting Crows website (, Duritz has a tour diary, with new postings every few days, as the band travels around a few European cities while doing some promotional appearances and a few rock festivals. These journal entries are a double-edged sword, bringing Duritz closer to fans by discussing the evolution of a song and his random thoughts and daily routine, and yet also revealing and reveling in his unedited, sophomoric bent masquerading as p.r.-less honesty.

5/21/02 - A Tuesday in Amsterdam. 10:30 am

Jeez, I just bit my lip. I hate that. Now I'll be doing it over and over again all day. It's a clear cold day here. Not too cold though. I'm in my room at the Grand Hotel listening to Joni Mitchell records and reading the morning away.

More interesting is the minor controversy about the band’s association with Coca-Cola, having done a commercial for their coming participation in Coca Cola’s summer concert series. To many fans who have complained on the message board, it was a shocking move, an egregious example of selling out. Whether or not it is, Duritz’s take on it doesn’t quite make the grade. It is disingenuous, then defensive, then condescending, then self-righteous:

6/03/02 - Vienna

Oh yeah. I like coke. Well, not really coke. It's too sweet, but I am completely addicted to diet coke. So the commercial seemed and still seems perfectly harmless to me. I'm truly sorry if it upset some of you but that's the breaks. Sometimes I think people are too quick to make use of this term "selling out" without really thinking about what that actually means. As long as we make music the same way we always have and as long as business concerns never affect the way we make our art, then I think you are truly rude to accuse us of selling out just because we made a commercial for a product we actually like whose owners like counting crows enough to want us to represent them when they could probably have chosen people far more popular than we are.

This is a business we are in. Make no mistake about that. I don't happen to think that is a dirty word unless you do dirty business. Business is what adults do. Kids lives are all about free time and escaping from work, but adult lives are all about work and accomplishment and part of what I am trying to accomplish is to run the business of Counting Crows the best way I know how to run it without ever tainting the artistic side of what we do. And as long as I satisfy myself that I am doing just that, I know I never have to worry about selling out.

Clearly the band that refused in 1994 to play the song that put them on the map has changed. Duritz seems to be caught in a good case of bad faith, and it makes one wonder where the author of "Anna Begins," "Round Here," "Catapult," and "Long December" has retreated to.

When playing "Mr. Jones," on VH1 and other live venues in the years since it was first recorded, Duritz has taken it as anopportunity to issue a status report on how the band were doing now that they got all they wished for. "We all want to be big stars," he sang, and instead of the original verse that says they each have different reasons for that, he sings, "Yeah, but we start getting second thoughts about that."

What place does such melodrama have these days, that we are worried for him not yet settling down and finding love? He’s 35 and seems to wallow in his own Blue Period, because like Picasso–whom he references in "Mr. Jones"–he produces his best work that way.

Watching the video for the new album’s first single, "American Girls," nothing Duritz does rings true. It is all manufactured, down to the slow-motion earnestness of his grooveshake with the American flag draped on the loft wall behind him. We ogle at too-thin models playing dress-up while the pudgy, odd minstrel-jester with the upturned braids unravels the story, his ode to them, expanding the Beach Boys wish to now include the other 49 states. While the song is definitely hopping, a cross between Mellencamp and Ryan Adams, it isn’t pushing boundaries. It’s too conventional, too safe, and Duritz is just playing Boggle with his own songbook.

Yet another bit of controversy erupted when die-hard fans criticized the band for not including an additional verse in "American Girls" that was in an earlier incarnation. Duritz replied on June 6th, explaining why he took out a verse with a line about "Jesus on her knees":

I hadn't noticed it before, but [I] committed what I feel is the cardinal sin of songwriting. Writing lines that sound like "cool song lyrics". Well, let me put that better. Writing lines that sound terribly "meaningful" but are actually completely meaningless.

This journal entry describes an attempt to write an honest song, and I respect that. But the way Duritz writes about it goes beyond simple dialogue with fans and feels too defensive and confessional. He overplays his hand. Nor is this the first time. After Counting Crows toured with the band Live several summers ago, I saw an audio journal apparently done by Duritz, responding to fans who were let down by the abbreviated set the band played. He made an apology invoking the logistics of the tour and his own good intentions that droned on for so long that I was about to pledge money. Like Bill Clinton, he has his detractors, and like Clinton, he can’t seem to accept that not everyone is going to like him, even those who were fans initially. This is rock and roll. It’s messy and rude. Stop apologizing. The kids will be alright.

It is impossible to be unself-conscious on command, but Duritz should give it a try. It’s unlikely that he’s going to disappear up his own ass, but the danger is he will continue his band’s path of ho-hum albums, solid but mediocre. The latent hope is there, and it’s time to raise the bar again.