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Sheryl Crow

She only wants to be with you

November 14, 1996
Sheryl Crow on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Sheryl Crow on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Mark Seliger

Can we talk? "Sheryl Crow plants a hand on her right hip and addresses what she calls a "granola crowd" packed tight in the Santa Cruz, Calif., Civic Auditorium. Crow has come to the section of "Can't Cry Anymore," a cut from her multiplatinum album, Tuesday Night Music Club, where she starts talk-singing, "Got a brother/He's got real problems/Heroin," but this evening she eyes the crowd mischievously and sings, "He's a real pothead . . . " The 1,500 or so assembled before her, well sprinkled with flannel shirts, overalls and other haute-hippie couture, let out an appreciative communal grunt, and Crow quite literally does not miss a beat: "You too?"

This moment typical of Crow's early-autumn minitour of the West, from small halls in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Price, Utah, to the Western Washington State Fair, in Puyallup and the gilded darkness of the Viper Room, in West Hollywood, Calif. Her goal is "to just go out and bust the cherry on the new material." One song from the pointedly self-titled Sheryl Crow drew fire even before the record came out, on Sept. 24. Thus, in each town, Crow makes a little jape before she plays "the Wal-Mart song" ("Love Is a Good Thing," which lashes the company for selling guns that end up in the wrong hands and led the chain to ban the album from its stores). In Santa Cruz, the crowd boos, and she double-takes: "Boo for Wal-Mart or boo for me?" Getting the right answer, she mutters, "Good – I can't have you angry with me. I'm very codependent."

It's close enough to a clichê: the beautiful thrush who's happy only when she's playing to an adoring crowd. But watched closely while on tour, Crow would seem to be living that cliché. Though she'll fly home during a break in the tour to see her therapist, Crow, her loyal fans may be flattered to hear, only wants to be with you. It's the work onstage that keeps her alive, perhaps literally. "There was a time," she says, "when every night I would fucking pray that I wouldn't wake up. I've had so many conversations with people about suicide – people who have never thought of it, never occurred to them, and I think, "Wow, that's really amazing.' "

Yes, Crow's had a steady guy for some three years now, but there's so much trouble there that bitter comments (as opposed to the last tour's more frolicsome intro to "Strong Enough": "This is for all the men I've tortured") spill out of her mouth at gigs. "That sounds pretty good," she says at sound check one day after working out the acoustic-guitar accompaniment to her beautifully bleak new tale of faded love, "Home." "And having said that, why don't I just hang myself?" Stalking through the video for her single "If It Makes You Happy" like a caged, headachey panther, she makes us send back the question, "Why the hell are you so sad?"

Crow doesn't just have demons – the inner voices that at least can be counted on to fuel one's art – she's got a ring of devils hounding her as well. Sure, she sold nearly 8 million copies of Tuesday Night Music Club – and her studio mates have been clawing her flanks ever since for not sharing enough credit, even hinting that she's their creation. "I was a musician who'd never gotten into thinking I had to prove myself," says Crow, who handles guitars with some élan and keyboards with real virtuosity. Even her disaffected colleagues grant her her vocal gifts. "Oh," says Tuesday Night producer Bill Bottrell, "she is one of the great singers."

The very hits she must play to make sure her audiences get cozy with her new material are rife with the undying issues raised by the success of Tuesday Night Music Club (the boys in the band called themselves the Tuesday Music Club – the TMC for short). Crow speaks with tormented compulsiveness of the success that has managed to haunt rather than comfort her: "There's been enough reference to the old record and those guys lashing out at me. It's unfortunate in some ways that the record did so well, because I lost friends over it. It all comes from the place of, 'How much did she do on her last record?' . . .  I just think that's something I'm going to suffer, this bruise in the apple, until three or four albums from now. It's not anything I can't tolerate. It just makes me mad sometimes, because I know where it's coming from. It's just a lot of bitterness."

Sheryl Crow was born and raised in the city of Kennett, Mo., whose population of 10,000-plus makes it a good deal bigger than such neighboring hamlets as Frisbee or Braggadocio, in the boot heel of the state. The Mississippi River snakes by some 20 miles to the east, and Memphis, Tenn., is close enough that Crow discarded the idea of recording her new album there lest her sessions be interrupted by friends and relations bringing casseroles. Her father, Wendell Crow (once described by her as "moody"), is a lawyer and trumpeter, and her mother, Bernice, a piano teacher and music buff. "We Do What We Can," from the last album, tells the autobiographical story of the young Crow listening to Mom and Dad's swing combo.

Crow was born on Feb. 11, 1962, the third of four children. From family photographs and stories, she can fondly reconstruct what now seems like a halcyon world. Sorting through pictures from the time, she sees one of her family gathered with some stolidity in the dining room, the grade-school Sheryl leaning into her parents with a slightly defiant stare. "Sulky kid," she says, studying it for a moment. Her folks remain in their brick house with its nice yard, not far from the downtown square, the county courthouse and the old Blakemore's pharmacy, where teenagers drank sodas and practiced mating rituals – without the Crow siblings. "We thought everybody was going home after school to practice piano," says sister Kathy, currently working in the Nashville, Tenn., office of a major music-publishing company (sister Karen, the most classically geared pianist of the family, lives in Perryville, Mo., with her husband and three children; younger brother Steve is a builder back home).

The kid grew into an attractiveness she still seems unwilling to acknowledge, but somehow center stage held few terrors. "Sheryl was a cheerleader and a twirler," recalls Kathy. "She wasn't shy about getting out and doing something, even if it meant that she had to be out by herself doing it." Crow ran track, made good grades and drew male admirers but had, only too literally, her dark nights of the soul, suffering a condition she shared with her mother. "I never could understand why I would have this 'sleep paralysis,' " Sheryl says. "There would be nights where I would be so afraid to go to sleep . . . In sleep paralysis, sometimes you get to the point where you are sure you're going to die in the dream, and your breathing stops and all that. It's a bizarre and twisted feeling where you feel completely paralyzed. And then the fear that comes along – it makes your heart race; it makes you sweat. I had it the night before I left L.A."

In other words, three nights ago.

Crow came out of Kennett High School and enrolled in the University of Missouri, in Columbia, emerging with enough education credits to be hired in St. Louis as an elementary-school music teacher. She improvised part of her curriculum on her synthesizer, and at night it saw service onstage with various bands. Now, as then, Crow knows covers. Her prime influences are the Stones and Rod Stewart, but "The Na-Na Song" channels Lennon and McCartney ("Give Peace a Chance" meets "Hey Jude"), and she does Led Zeppelin's "D'yer Mak'er" in her live set (her college band was called Cashmere).

Crow ended up on the beer-soaked bandstands of St. Louis, covering hits, and one night ("probably in the middle of some Quarterflash song"), she tried to steady a waitress who slipped while carrying mugs. Crow remembers the numbing bash in the mouth, then looking up into a mirror on the far wall to see her front teeth half clipped off, "Hee Haw style." She spent a miserable night with beer as her anesthetic, waiting for a dental surgeon, and it wasn't until the release of her debut a decade later that a lengthy restoration job saved the capped but threatened stumps that peek from under what one British scribe called "rock's sexiest top lip."

Crow was 24 when she took off for Los Angeles with, as success stories like to have it, little money and few prospects. She did jingles jobs and waitressed but hadn't been scuffling too long when the chance came to audition to be a backup singer for Michael Jackson. Her detractors would be interested to know that Crow credits her quality of "innocence" for the successful audition. Soon she was not only onstage in a Halloweenish blond wig, dueting with Jackson on "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," but splashed across the tabloids as his supposed lover. Some combination of simple exhaustion and recurring depression knocked her off her feet as soon as the Jackson tour ended, in early 1989. It might have been a good time to try to get a deal – the tour was her most attention-getting gig until she sang backup with Don Henley later that year – but Crow had fallen, and she was not quick to get up.

"When I went through a really bad bout of depression," says Crow, "my mom would call, and my mom and I are very close, but she would call, and she would say, 'You're a cute girl, you're smart, you've got everything in the world going for you,' and that would just make it worse. Because then it makes you even loathe yourself more for being sick."

Her Jackson-tour visibility had dimmed, but Crow still had her chops, as Hugh Padgham discovered one day when she was hired to sing backup for a session he was producing. Padgham got her demo tape and passed it to David Anderle, the head of A&R at A&M. Anderle alerted Al Cafaro, who runs the label, and soon, Crow was in Anderle's office. The impression he got that day hasn't changed, says Cafaro: "A very, very strong person, with an ultimate, overriding confidence in herself, but constantly assessing where she's at and what's going on. She's introspective and . . . a complex person who can be different parts of herself at different times. That's what provides the heat, the attraction – the power."

However strong Crow's sense of herself, Padgham was a force in his own right. When Crow went into the studio for her first solo sessions, "it was Sheryl's first time as the artist," recalls Cafaro. "She's in there with the man who produces Sting and Phil Collins. What do you think she's going to do? She's going to shut up and take direction."

The direction Crow took was toward a slightly glamrock mainstream, with busy layers of sound monopolizing the front-and-center space where her singing (hindsight says) clearly belongs. "It's a good record," insists Cafaro, though the label chose not to release it. "There's some really good songwriting on it, some really good singing on it, but it was an album-rock record, and that was not a format we felt really served her best in reaching an audience."

Nonetheless, A&M acceded to Crow's demand that her boyfriend at the time, Kevin Gilbert, frontman of the short-lived L.A. band Toy Matinee, be given a chance at a remix. He failed to salvage the album, but he asked Bill Bottrell – who had engineered recordings for Michael Jackson, Madonna and the Traveling Wilburys – to give a listen to both mixes along with Crow's gutsier original demos. Bottrell paid her a visit, and though he remembers he was "very insensitive," he heard something. It was 1991 and the first of several chapters Crow would share with the intense, hard-to-please and endlessly opinionated producer. "I now know," says Bottrell, "why Padgham, the most successful producer of the '80s, missed the main point of this chick whom he was working with." And? "Well, she's fucking hopeless. She's obnoxious. I mean, she was probably needling him to death, you know, nagging him to death."

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