“The Black Crowes: First in Indie Pop… Or Were They?”

Wow, if you want the very definition of “soul crushing experience,” just go to mtv.com and expect to find anything about “music.” And I mean hell, it’s a nice, grandiose idea, isn’t it? A world where you have one search engine, on one site, and you can type in, say, “radiohead no suprises,” or “smashing pumpkins 1979,” and Boom, up pops the classic video for either of these two songs. And you know what, I bet the comment material underneath would even be inspired and componential, not just someone calling someone a doofus, or making fun of their false teeth.

Well, what MTV does well these days is pregnant mothers: you can view them by the bushel barrel on there, some of them half-alive with predatory faces waxed in poses of timeless agony, there for the sick enjoyment of America (or more likely Indonesia, where they probably think this is what all Americans watch). But you shouldn’t be surprised: in fact, MTV ruined The Black Crowes back in 1990 when they started — they were meant to be an indie band.
I mean, I’m sort of ambivalent toward the whole Rick Rubin thing, knowing in my head some people who hate him, and others who worship. Shake Your Moneymaker, the Crowes’ debut album (there’s a rumor that Rubin bizarrely wanted to change the band’s name to the Kooke Kounty Krowes, whereas they were originally Mr. Crowe’s Garden), came to us under the financial supervision of one record producer (Rick Rubin and Def American), the nominal supervision of another producer (the enlisted, and “listed,” George Drakoulias), and the unofficial lambasting of the great Brendan O’Brien, responsible for “a potpourri of instruments.” Chris Robinson, as well, has dipped his hand in a couple instances of production work for other bands, but that’s nothing unusual — both Michael Stipe and Peter Buck have made regular trade manning the controls for several industry brethren. Still, the fact that O’Brien jumped ship after this one, possibly the sole, great album by the Crowes, shows that it was definitely too many cooks in the kitchen.
But when it clicked, man did it ever! What a full sound, indicative of so many charming Southern Rock ticks and habits, the background guitars chiming in around every corner sounding like ol’ freighters, the chord progressions the kind of obnoxiously simple rock and roll that in spite of itself, sneaks itself into the nearest, dearest parts of your psyche way more effectively than some fancy shmancy Dave Matthews arrangement. And there is no doubt in my mind that Chris Robinson is continually having a breakdown, on the mic, all over the place here. He would go on to have further breakdowns to come but just here and there, like the eventual performance at the Fillmore, yes, the same Fillmore their regionally beloved Allmans was scorched through in their heyday, which would eventually inform the disarming Freak’n’roll… Into the Fog live album.
The Black Crowes have been defined, in their careers, by very few, but undeniable, shimmering and inimitable episodes of greatness, and a hell of a lot of forgettable crap, with which to contrast this greatness. I happen to be a sucker for bands’ stories, for liner notes of re-releases detailing affectively sovereign perspectives on the given canonical music, or even for initial releases, like what Nick Hornby writes about The Gaslight Anthem for Handwritten. What Hornby hits on is the exact “Black Crowes” conundrum — because they’re so often accused of plagiarism, brandishing as they do such a conventional chord progression and song structure DNA. The noise of these detractors is just academic stuff, though, clamor of spiny squares with sticks up their bums, because you CANNOT FAKE Chris Robinson’s wail. Listen to the first song on disc two of Freak’n’Roll, “Cursed Diamond.” You have to be emotionally prepared for imbibing something like this — you have to be WITH someone, and around some candles, and somebody whom you can count on not to let you do something you’ll soon regret, something to level the great sociological gap we all perceive everyday, something like stealing, or defacing city hall, or lighting a cannabis plant on fire on the lawn of a religious right state senator… Chris Robinson COAXES YOU OUT OF YOURSELF. All great rock music has always been, at its core, kinetic energy — like a bizarre conjoining of opposite sides of the cosmos, whether it’s the roots stuff like Buddy Holly’s “Roller Coaster” or the hypnotic and apocalyptic tribal cadence of Liars a la “It Fit When I Was a Kid.”
And I’ll tell you what else you can’t fake: the sort of sadistic impetus which gets someone publicly bad-mouthing, right at the most crucial time, the hand that feeds them. Well, meet Chris Robinson, fronting the Black Crowes who are opening for ZZ Top at the beginning of the ’90’s, finally tasting the success he and his band had sought since ’84 when they were “Mr. Crowe’s Garden,” and finding only spontaneity, “miles from fakery,” as Noel Gallagher would put it, on his mind, making a “verbal tirade aimed at Miller.” [1] [2] I feel voyeuristic even reading any of Mr. Robinson’s comments about the incident in this Rolling Stone article (not to take away from their reporting here). It’s enough for me just to know that Miller is the heavy-handed corporation without a real “lust for life,” without a real prioritization of putting artists’ voices first, of abiding a certain necessary gumption and restlessness in those who provide us with our cultural messages. Remember, this is before “punk ethos” inundated the mainstream with grunge, and indeed the extent to which they ever actually did is debatable. Kurt Cobain wore a t shirt for the Rolling Stone shoot that said “Corporate magazines still suck,” but it’s not like you can see this from the picture. Robinson did something which he had to have known would yield calamitous repercussions, or at least would depress the folks providing his meal ticket, so purveyors of the “copycat” Black Crowes image can’t possibly have any sound argument.
The VIABLE knock against The Black Crowes, one that’s not really a knock so much as a point of fact why they’re not more universally celebrated? They were a band with an indie/mainstream identity crisis, and eventually, tragically, bowed to the wishes of the mainstream. [3] Throughout the ’80’s the media was dominated essentially by four successful highlighted musicians — Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson. The reason for this desertlike shortage of faces in the spotlight boils down essentially to economics — with the GDP on the wane and industry buying power vulnerable, the A&R simply couldn’t afford to take chances on acts that didn’t fit a certain mold — weren’t “new wave,” perhaps, or androgynous like Boy George and George Michael. The ’80’s were the decade of the black punk — Fishbone, Bad Brains, et. al., until Lenny Kravitz stole our hearts with the infectious and poppy “It Ain’t over ‘til It’s over,” Tracy Chapman, Des’ree, Dionne Farris and Tasmin Archer to follow suit.
If grunge was the omega to punk, The Black Crowes were the omega to the Southern Rock which had taken off on the strength of The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Mountain, the Marshall Tucker Band et. al. They could reel and rock you, as on the vilifying “Hard to Handle” or the “drunk on Sunday” blissed-out abandon of “Jealous Again,” but as everybody knows, their masterpiece was “She Talks to Angels,” a song about heroin every bit the weight of Alice in Chains’ “Heaven beside You,” and with, as we know, those beloved guitar harmonics. It moves with poise and deliberation, yet stunning completeness, as with any classic song, but it’s Chris Robinson’s guttural, captivating yowl that cements its status as a ringer, a track readily available even today on any hip stoner’s playlist.
The problem is, MTV killed it. They shortened it to four minutes, required of Robinson a second vocal take, and shot the video with this cutesy Mary Poppins-type dancing figure, instead of the lugubrious “goth girl” [4] depicted by the lyrics of the song, with “eyes as black as night.”
Done up right, the full five minutes, and with the original Robinson bursting vocal, “She Talks to Angels” properly captivates the hearts of America as it should, and maybe even puts Atlanta on the map as a viable “rock city,” as eventually happened with Seattle. Surely certain people out there will argue that the song shouldn’t have even had a video at all, for the sake of the Crowes truly staying with their artistic visions, and yeah, there is some point to this, but I happen to still be an overall believer in videos. Take Smashing Pumpkins’ bizarre and unforgettable “Ava Adore” (erroneously bashed as “hubris” by a recent Wicker Park documentary), or Beck’s “The New Pollution,” with that conceptually straight laced choir ushering things in, all decked out uniformly in that light blue garb. I mean this stuff is just fun — and these are albums I can enjoy with audio alone, in each case, or replete with video… but problems obviously arise when you start letting MTV run your life, and the situation for the Crowes was compounded by the economic woe of the late ’80’s. I mean there just was no “alternative rock” at this point — it was all hair metal and “punk,” those who did proffer roots-minded rock and roll so quick to swathe their sound in fathoms of unbecoming distortion (The Jesus and Mary Chain). Come the latter period of the following decade, you’ve got not only Marilyn Manson dressing up in boobs for an album cover and then orchestrating a truly weird music for “The Dope Show,” one which would air with regularity on said conglomerate channel, but even more importantly, you have Pearl Jam ruling the airwaves with the five-minute, 20-second (almost the exact length of the original “She Talks to Angels”) “Nothing as it Seems,” a very “down” number, as PJ Harvey would say, hardly the sort of “crowd pleaser” that seems so required of the sociologically cloistered, totalitarian ’80’s.
It was said over and over in Everett True’s Nirvana: The Biography that Nirvana essentially saved MTV, which had been at the time an all but doomed enterprise, and I don’t doubt that this is true. It’s also undeniable, however, that the late ’80’s and unrolling of the ’90’s were increasingly, more than ever, a “visual” age, with the propagation of computers as well as video game systems as household staples, so that if MTV truly couldn’t thrive in this culture, the fault lies mostly there within, not due to any outside force’s deleteriousness. To this day, music videos thrive as visual companions to club hits in our nation’s discotheques, and artists’ appearances, sadly, dominate the psyches of many listeners as much as does the music itself.
Now, it’s clear that The Black Crowes, or someone in their camp, did indeed want mainstream success, given their willingness to bow to the desires of the corporate machine, shortening “She Talks to Angels” and giving it an ulterior vocal run. But a curious modifier of the situation is the temporal distance between the recording of the full album, and “Angels”‘ propagation as a single (the latter wouldn’t happen until ’91, whereas Shake Your Moneymaker emerged in January of ’90). Indeed, it’s almost as if Brendan O’Brien is separated from the MTV compromise by worlds and worlds, never to reemerge, either.
But as a late-’90’s connoisseur, having salivated in the summer of ’98 over Everclear, Marcy Playground, Third Eye Blind and the Smashing Pumpkins album Adore, I wield a frighteningly amateur view of the Black Crowes, separated from perceptive cultural acuity not just by eight years, but eight LONG years, an epoch that saw among other things the demise of Kurt Cobain and the degeneration of Layne Staley. My impression of them, in other words, is predominantly singles-oriented — I copiously encountered the alpha-male “Hard to Handle” (which I admit I hated, and still do somewhat hate), not knowing or caring who it was by, and I always found “She Talks to Angels” high on a certain clout and weight… but I don’t think there’s any question it suffered in popularity for not being “grunge.” Hell, it wasn’t even technically “alternative,” when it reality, it was too “alternative” for its own good — soaked in the old Southern earth mud, steeped in beer-soaked emotion and harmony, too melodic to even be believed for its own penetrating and unforgettable sadness.
[1] http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/whats-so-bad-about-the-black-crowes-19910530
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Black_Crowes
[3] I can’t use the word “alternative” here to juxtapose “mainstream,” because as we know, much “alternative rock” became just as dilute and formulaic as the “mainstream” it was purporting to chafe.
[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/She_Talks_to_Angels

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