I met Adam Duritz backstage at the SFX in Dublin late 1994. His band was huge in the States and growing here. I loved August and Everything After and I was kind of on my own in Hot Press about this. Colleagues and friends thought the band and album was terrible. That’s why I open the piece declaring modestly that I’m on a mission to make them OK to like: “I have attended the gig, and just beforehand I have enjoyed a number of cold beers in the company of Adam Duritz, and I can state firmly for the record that everybody else is wrong. As usual.” I was, though, worried about Adam, hence the end of the piece. He seemed really unhappy about fame. Kurt Cobain, with whom she shared a label and whom he said he knew a little, was not long dead. It was a fraught frightening time. Adam and I spoke for about forty minutes and I somehow squeezed three Hot Press pages out of that. He spoke most enthusiastically about Big Star, who we both loved. Musician interviewees in my experience are never happier than when they are talking about music that they love that is not theirs.
Blow me down, it’s that chirpy Counting Crow Adam Duritz again, flapping his vocal chords on everything from bunking off the MTV awards, why the Rolling Stones are still “fucking great” and why he won’t be emigrating to Utah just yet. Witness for the defence: Niall Crumlish.
TODAY, I’M on a mission.
Not quite a mission impossible, but neither, I suspect, will it be a breeze, exactly. Its completion will require the excretion of an uncomfortable volume of sweat, the shedding of more than one tear and the loss, hopefully, of as little blood as possible.
It will be my task to, in the next page or so, overhaul misguided preconceptions, spit on snobbery and pour steaming scorn on sneering cynicism, simultaneously.
My mission, should I choose to accept it, is to make Counting Crows–the undisputed least hip band in the Western World–OK to like. Wish me luck: I’ll need it.
You see, most people aren’t utterly in love with Counting Crows. Record buyers are, yes, five million-odd of them, but they’re disqualified on account of having inflicted Whigfield and those bastards, Stone Temple Pilots, on us. Adam Duritz and his not-so-merry men have been dismissed by almost everyone with two so-called ears and a typewriter as a bunch of flatulent, even cynical, fakes; pompous, precious, just plain bad poets, only interested in harvesting some quick bucks for their supposed benefactor, The Man. Not only this but these people also claim not to like ‘Mr Jones’ very much. The nerve!
Well, I’ve assimilated the criticisms. I’ve heard the record, many times. I have attended the gig, and just beforehand I have enjoyed a number of cold beers in the company of Adam Duritz, and I can state firmly for the record that everybody else is wrong. As usual.
First let me say, on the subject of fakery: there is no such thing, in pop. Even Boyzone–even Stone Temple Pilots–believe in what they’re doing, whatever that may be, and when a band forms in someone’s bedroom, the purpose is not to shift units in Southeast Asia, it is to sing and play and have a laugh: what’s to fake? And as for being cynical, as some claim, moulding their sound to suit market tastes, firm in the knowledge that multi-platinum land awaits, I repeat: bollocks.
Success is luck. Masterplans don’t work for the simple reason that at the last count there were forty trillion groups on Earth, and the chances of any one of them even eking a longterm living wage out of pop are considerably less than their chances of winning the UK Lottery, or my chances of spending the rest of my days and nights in Mauritius with Gaby out of Neighbours. That is to say, minimal.
And, musically, here’s the thing: Counting Crows are a shockingly good group, who will in time be recognised as great. They make music to kiss your least favourite person full on the lips to. August And Everything After, their debut album, contains eleven songs (none of which is even remotely iffy) and at least eight glimpses of genius. Adam Duritz is among the finest Voices we have, and his warm true sob and occasional weary wail, his subtly shifting tunes, his co-Crows’ quiet empathy and the helplessly poignant sentiments of ‘Anna Begins’, ‘Round Here’, ‘Raining In Baltimore’ and their companions combine to form a quiet, unassuming, towering masterpiece which by turns warms, then chills the cockles of your heart, no matter how inert said organ normally is.
But you needn’t take my word for it: I have some very credible witnesses who are willing to testify. Alex Chilton is a friend and a fan and has supported Counting Crows throughout the USA; David Lowery of indie gurus Camper and Cracker also; and George Clinton has been into the band since before they even recorded a note. And, M’Lud, I would like to call, as my final witness, The One True God.
“Michael Stipe likes us,” admits Adam, shyly. “I met him, we get along, we’re friends, kind of.”
Then modesty intercedes, disappointingly.
“I’m not sure if he admires me ‘cos of the band or ‘cos he’s a nice guy and I’m an OK guy. I met him, he’s a friend of my friends, because there’s a lot of people Michael Stipe has no time for. We just get along. Like, that’s how friends are. That’s just like normal life. Just ‘cos it’s Michael Stipe doesn’t make any difference…” Adam pauses, and notes my sceptical look. The King of Rock, one of your few real heroes, is a fervent supporter and you don’t care? “…On the other hand,” admits Mr Fake Nonchalance, “I still fucking worship him!” He beams mischievously, the little scamp, and expands. “We weren’t at the MTV awards. We were on stage with Cracker that night, playing ‘Maggie May’. So I called Michael and asked him to pick up our award if we won. But they fucked up, and when we won Best New Band or something, Michael just stood there waiting for them to call him up. But they didn’t, and the presenter, I don’t know who, accepted it for us. So then REM won the next award and Michael just said ‘Sorry, Adam’. I saw it on tape, I was like…”
He gapes, speechlessly.
“Michael Stipe saying ‘I’m sorry’ to me on TV was, like, the coolest thing. I can’t even imagine anything cooler.”
So, being a rock star, it’s not all the ninth circle of Hell, then.
Adam smiles. “I never said there’s no plusses.”
And it’s true, he didn’t, but God, it was a close-run thing. Adam Duritz is a thoroughly modern rock star–that is, a fiercely reluctant one. He should, by rights and rock’n’roll tradition, be a happy camper (two words, ‘Rod’ and ‘Stewart’, spring to mind), but the days of the footloose and fancy-free multi-million record seller are, apparently, behind us, and, the obvious thrill of sharing the odd cuppa with his idols aside, positive pronouncements on the nature of fatal fame are harder to elicit from him than positive pronouncements on the nature of H. Whelehan’s facial hair from, well, anyone with eyes, really. ‘Mr Jones’, if it wasn’t when he wrote it, is quickly becoming the most hilariously ironic song ever, full stop.
It all happened so fast, is the thing. A year ago, this band was nothing; they had already recorded and released August, yes, but it would be a matter of months before it even sniffed around the nether regions of the Top 200, never mind waltz out of Wal-Mart by the skipload. The band could barely even spell ‘global megastardom’: they had spent their three-year-old life up to that point at home, paying their, if you will, dues.
“We played just about every club in San Francisco,” Adam reminisces. “We played all the bars too, actually. We were playing in the corners of bars for a while, a little three-piece, a four-piece and a two-piece, and we’d be set up there. It’d be the equivalent of walking into O’Donoghues–that little corner when you walk in?–the equivalent of being in there. We played in places like that for a while.”
Not for long, though. Their local popularity peaked soon with sellout shows in Slims, a Rock Garden-sized venue in central SF. In attendance at a number of these was Gary Gersh, former head of A+R at Geffen, now boss at Capitol Records: the man who signed Nirvana. The man who then signed Counting Crows.
When ‘Mr Jones’ was played to death by our beloved tastemakers in MTV, around Christmas, the Crows cracked the Billboard charts; August entered the Top 200 in January, went up forty points a week for five weeks until it hit Number Four, and by April the Crows were on the cover of the Rolling Stone. They were big, big stars, and Adam was–is–pretty ambivalent about the whole thing.
“It’s kind of fun at first, it actually becomes more of a pain than anything else,” he says. “It’s much better over here. This is the way it was when we were touring in the States around January or February, when it was just starting to hit big, but it hadn’t really hit and we still had some peace and we could enjoy ourselves. “Yeah,” he reflects, “it’s kinda nice right now over here. I can walk around Dublin. I couldn’t walk around in America. In New York, maybe, or in LA. Or San Francisco, it’s OK there, it’s a pretty cosmopolitan city. But in most of America, it’s real fuckin’ hard to walk around.
“I mean, we’re huge. We’ve sold four or five million records. That’s what happens, I guess. That’s what I’m saying, it’s not that great. I mean, I think about it now, there are, like, intense amounts of people that know very personal things about me. When you’re writing you don’t think about that sort of thing, it just seems like the sensible thing to do, you want to express yourself. But the repercussions of it are pretty… kinda weird.”
Now, we’ve heard some of this before, from a certain dead rock star, with whom Adam shared a label and an A+R man.
“Yeah, I knew him. Not real well. Not real well,” he repeats pensively. “I did know him though. Gary was very close to both of us. I think, of all the bands, he was probably closest to the two of us. I’m very, very close to Gary and his family. He just had a daughter; she’s my goddaughter. When I’m done with this tour, I’m going to go and hide out with him in Idaho for a while.”
This is probably a wise move: after all, Perry Farrell said in Spin that one way for Kurt to avoid the fame that eventually killed him would have been to move to Utah and let people forget about him. His fame would’ve died: he might be Syd Barrett, but he’d be alive.
“Yeah, but what the fuck are you going to do in Utah?” Adam replies, sinking that theory with something of a snarl. “I mean, I could do that for a while, probably for three weeks, I could handle it but, like, what’re you gonna do in Utah? I’m a city boy.”
Well, then, failing that, a pet theory of my own is that he should have moved here. The Rolling Stones can stroll down Grafton Street and no-one bats an eyelid except perhaps to remark “Wudja look at fookin’ Big Lips. Born in a crossfire hurricane, me bollix.” This, too, bombs.
“Kurt’s problems weren’t that simple, though.” Adam pauses, and mumbles. “Kurt was probably headed right where Kurt was headed and there was nothing a change of venue was going to do for that. I will say this, though: this life, it becomes totally unreal. People come in when you’re in the toilet and take a picture, and people scream at you on the street, and point, and freak out and go ‘Look! Look! Look!’ “What the fuck is that all about?” he asks, genuinely bewildered. “It gets where you can’t go anywhere. And it turns your life into this, like, insane thing. If you’re already a little insane, it’s just, like, a joke, man.”
Which is why I worry. And worry I do. Adam Duritz may not be insane, but he is, on record (i.e. in private), if not in polite conversation, really, really intense. His songs shouldn’t predispose him to hero worship; there are no anthems on August and Everything After, just the sound of a soul quietly disintegrating.
Of course, when you’ve gone to such lengths to tell the world just how fucking little you understand what’s going on, even in your own personal life – (typical is ‘Perfect Blue Buildings’: “Sleep in perfect blue buildings/Beside the green apple sea/Gonna get me a little oblivion, baby/Try to keep myself away from me,” sung by a voice so lost it could pass for Hansel) – it’s going to freak you out when people you don’t even know make you a star and look to you for answers, or gaze wistfully while you urinate. Of course, it’ll disgust you, embarrass you. It’ll make you crazy.
“They mean well, I know that. There’s a point in it where they love the music and they want to express that to you. And that’s where we were back in January, when we were opening for Cracker, it’s where we are over here now. The people that are coming here (the SFX) tonight love the music, ‘cos they’ve searched it out, ‘cos we’re not that big here. It’s not a freak show, it’s because they love the music, that’s a great thing,” he declares passionately.
“I totally appreciate that. This tour’s going to be great because of that. But there’s a point where it just becomes a freak show, you’re just a TV star, which is a particularly cheesy thing to be in America right now.”
There is only one way to avoid such cheesiness: avoid MTV. This is a topic on which Mr Duritz, like Eddie Vedder and Peter Buck before him, has strong opinions.
“Thought about it. You know, I’ve thought about it. ‘Cos I think that videos do bad things for music. People used to go to see live shows ’cos there wasn’t any place else to see live music, all you had was the record. And if you wanted to hear all the different things that people did with live music, how much they changed their songs and how much they expressed themselves at a given moment, you had to go to a live show. So you went to see the acts you loved, and you watched the opening acts too, ‘cos that was all cool too. And shows would be, like, Miles Davis opening for the Grateful Dead, and Sly Stone. That’s a classic Fillmore concert right there.
“Nowadays, though, people see MTV, which gives you the impression of seeing live music. It’s not, but it looks like live music and so, when you go to a concert, you (A) think it’s going to be like that, and it’s not, and (B) it’s not such a special thing to go to a concert any more. So, like, you boo the opening bands, or you don’t have time for the opening band. Alex Chilton played with us for a while; he got booed throughout the Midwest.”
Now it’s my turn to gape, speechlessly.
“It’s true! It’s fucking true. I mean, I worship Alex Chilton. Alex Chilton’s probably the biggest influence I’ve ever had, musically, in my life. There’s probably no-one more important to me as a songwriter than Big Star. To go onstage after an audience had booed Alex Chilton was… it was really fuckin’ hard to wanna play. ‘Cos my music’s not about that. It’s about, y’know, it’s real personal, so you wanna express it to people who boo your friends, well, I have a little trouble with that.”
Counting Crows supported the Stones, this summer. They could have become the victims. To be booed during the nakedly personal likes of ‘Sullivan Street’–a song that would have cured Johnny Cash’s Man Who Couldn’t Cry in two shakes of a lamb’s tail–would suck, as it were.
“That would suck,” agrees Adam. “But I mean as far as playing to the Stones crowd, that’s not exactly a wildly alternative crowd, at this point in their career. And we’ve sold four million records in the States, so if we’re playing a 60,000 seat venue, those are the people that bought the record.
It’s way more intense to play in a small place like this, if I was gonna have stage fright. Which I don’t, ’cos to me the more intense it is the better, so there’s nothing to be scared of, really; it’s what I do, I do this better than anything else. Walking around during the day is a lot harder than playing the gig, unless you lose the inspiration, which is something that also happens.”
Now, Adam’s band are, as I mentioned earlier, often thought of as pawns of The Man–hardly a hugely logical accusation, considering they only play small venues, don’t show up for awards ceremonies, only made two videos for August (in contrast to, say REM’s six for Automatic) and are signed to Geffen, home of noted corporate whores Nirvana, Beck and Hole, among others.
The only possible evidence against them comes in the form of this support to those ragged, boring old farts, which goes against much of what Adam has said about not wanting to be famous and how stadium shows are “freak shows.” So, why? Naturally, he has an answer.
“Well, it was fun! It was fun not having to be responsible for playing a whole concert every night. You see, I was there for one reason and one reason only–to meet the Stones and fuck around with the Stones. And I did, and they were fucking real nice and they’re still nice to me. I was in LA lately, and they were playing and they were fucking great to me. Ron Wood’s like, the nicest guy on Earth. They’re fuckin’ great. And, you know, the concert’s unreal.”
Don’t tell me you approve of them, Adam.
“Yeah, they rock,” he admits shamelessly. “Tattoo You is still one of my favourite records. That was only ten years ago. And Keith still has it, he still rips into ‘Happy’. They’re great.”
When the current European tour ends, in Madrid on December 15th, Adam’s off to Idaho. Then, the new record will commence recording, in February–two songs that will be on it, ‘Children in Bloom’ and ‘Goodnight Elizabeth’ have been live staples for months now and bode well for the album, being, like, devastatingly gorgeous. Adam’s also putting together a soundtrack album for Seán Penn’s new movie, which will feature either ‘Outside this Bar’ or ‘Firefly’, by fellow San Franciscans American Music Club. He’s going to use these projects to get sane again.
“Yeah, we can do what we want. And that’s what it’s all about, ‘cos, you know, I want to get back to some sort of normal life, too, I’m not really excited about spending my life like this.
“We’ll still do what we want to do,” he says, stonily. “We’ll do what we want to do.”
And then he’s off, America’s brightest new rock star, off to prepare for the astonishing gig he plays later that evening in the SFX. And you’re left hoping that he does continue to do what he wants, because when ‘Anna Begins’ hits the second chorus, and he sings, gushing and vulnerable, “The time when her kindness falls like rain / It washes me away and Anna begins to change my mind / And every time she sneezes I believe it’s love / And Oh lord, I’m not ready for this sort of thing,” but you can’t remember everyone you’ve been hopelessly, stupidly, pathetically devoted to and how they are Anna and how you need people, usually pop singers, to remind you how to feel, you shouldn’t but you do, and how no-one at the moment is doing that better than Adam Duritz.
And then they rush into the much-reviled ‘Mr Jones’, and Adam sings “We all need something beautiful / Man I wish I was beautiful,” and you think, for fuck’s sake, don’t ever split, don’t ever turn into Kurt, don’t do videos, don’t tour, don’t do any more interviews after this one, do what you have to to keep writing songs and making records because you’re right: we do, and, man, you are. A beautiful son.