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 dont 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 Chers 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
wasnt a pretty boy and didnt have a pretty
voice. "I want to be Bob Dylan/Mr. Jones wishes
he was someone just a little more funky," he
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. Duritzs 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 Horsedreamers
Blues"), respectively. Even when some of the music
feels maudlin, such as in "Millers Angels,"
it still seems to dovetail nicely as a whole. Duritz turns
some phrases that create more than a few moments of "thats-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
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
Dylans "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 "were
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 cant 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 Duritzs 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 cant speak to Duritzs
private life, and it would be irresponsible to try. But
his public commentary is fair game. On the under re-construction
Counting Crows website (www.countingcrows.com), 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 bands association with
Coca-Cola, having done a commercial for their coming participation
in Coca Colas summer concert series. To many fans
who have complained on the countingcrows.com message board,
it was a shocking move, an egregious example of selling
out. Whether or not it is, Duritzs take on it doesnt
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
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
What place does such melodrama
have these days, that we are worried for him not yet settling
down and finding love? Hes 35 and seems to wallow
in his own Blue Period, because like Picassowhom
he references in "Mr. Jones"he produces
his best work that way.
Watching the video for
the new albums 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 isnt pushing boundaries. Its
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 cant
seem to accept that not everyone is going to like him,
even those who were fans initially. This is rock and roll.
Its messy and rude. Stop apologizing. The kids will
It is impossible to be
unself-conscious on command, but Duritz should give it
a try. Its unlikely that hes going to disappear
up his own ass, but the danger is he will continue his
bands path of ho-hum albums, solid but mediocre.
The latent hope is there, and its time to raise
the bar again.