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."
You can cast a pretty wide net among Crow's acquaintances without finding anyone ready to describe – beyond that familiar backhanded compliment of "driven" – what her essence may be. She can charm a roomful of back – stage handshakers, one by one, in 10 minutes with small talk ("Are you a couple? Well, you are now") and eye contact. She's Midwestern to the bone – no snob and no slacker – but if you're on her tour bus, best do your job right. The next crisis is never far off, and the handlers around her often have a hangdog look that probably takes a Sherpa guide to understand. Playing well (and selling records) is her best revenge. To do so, she works hard and long; her goad may be plain-old buried rage. Say this for the musicians whose conflicts continue with her to this day: Their rage is in the open.
The poster boy for the anti-Crow camp, were he still alive, would be Kevin Gilbert. "His death was tragic, but his life was not a tragedy," says Jon Rubin, who once fronted the '70s pop band the Rubinoos, became Gilbert's "manager by default" and is now executor of his estate. It was Rubin who found Gilbert's body at home in Eagle Rock, Calif., not far from his Pasadena studio, on May 18 of this year. The coroner's office listed the cause of death as "autoerotic asphyxiation": Gilbert was wearing a black hood and a skirt, his head resting on a leather strap chained to the headboard of his bed.
No one links Gilbert's sad demise directly to Crow. Nor does she accept any blame for Gilbert's admittedly great unfulfilled potential. "In the weirdest way, my reaction was that of not being surprised," Crow says of Gilbert's death. "As long as I've known him, he's struggled with life, as if every single event in life was out to bring him down or trip him up. His perception of the world, from a narcissistic standpoint, was one of darkness, unhappiness. Yeah, he had an accident. But I know the music he was working on at the time was pretty dark, really Gothic" Crow's farewell note may well be a song that's included only on overseas versions of Sheryl Crow – a faintly ironic country dirge called "Sad, Sad World": "I know you hate me, I see that now . . . I'm a bad, bad girl for letting you down/I remember every fucked-up minute/It's a sad, sad world without you around."
When Crow was making some demo recordings in 1989, her publishing company suggested that she work with Gilbert, and what became a troubled romance staggered forward through the summer of 1992 and the formation of the Tuesday Music Club. The group coalesced around Bottrell and the high-tech, low-key refuge of a studio he called Toad Hall. The catalyst was the erratically brilliant David Baerwald. The other members of the TMC were David Ricketts, with whom Baerwald had made the widely praised and million-selling album Boomtown; the songwriter and bassist Dan Schwartz; Brian MacLeod, best known for his work as a drummer with Wire Train and Tears for Fears; and Gilbert, who had his own studio inside Toad Hall. Soon after the first of the TMC's impromptu sessions, Gilbert began talking up Crow: "that girl who played keyboards for Toy Matinee at the Roxy." What Baerwald has called "the slacker poets and castrati revolutionaries" of the TMC decided that to counter "the increasingly macho atmosphere that was developing in the room, it would be nice to have some female energy around that wasn't so blockheaded." On the third Tuesday-evening session, Gilbert called Crow. Says Baerwald, "She walked into a buzzing hornet's nest of wild ego and – just fun energy."
What happened next captures the best and worst of the TMC – the anarchy, the ecstasy and the jealousy. Baerwald had become drinking buddies with an epic boozer, John O'Brien, then unknown. By the time his novel was adapted into the film Leaving Las Vegas, O'Brien would be long dead, but in between is the dispute that divides Crow and Baerwald to this day.
Jazzed in some way by O'Brien's novel (and flying on acid), Baerwald came up with a couplet en route to the studio that would be spun out for several more verses into the song "Leaving Las Vegas." "David couldn't function much," remembers Bottrell, "so we put him on this keyboard that had monophonic sound, meaning no matter how many keys you play, it only plays one. You still hear it on the record, going all over the place."
The remainder of that session and just three more such evenings constituted the bulk of the TMC's contributions as a group. "The rest of it is just sweat and blood from me and Sheryl Crow," says Bottrell of what – with an infusion of cash from A&M – were now understood to be sessions for a Sheryl Crow solo album. It was so far, so good for the ad hoc band. When the album was released, in August 1993, writing credits would be distributed liberally on the record, and the singers personal note on the liner would further thank the boys, most notably Gilbert ("I owe you big for two years of musical and emotional support").
But what should have been a landmark appearance on Late Show With David Letterman in March 1994 whipsawed into an emotional spinout for Crow. She did such a fine and passionate job on "Leaving Las Vegas" that the host called her over to talk, and when he asked if the song was autobiographical, she blurted out, "Yes." To the TMC, and especially John O'Brien and Kevin Gilbert, who were separately watching at their homes in L.A, it didn't help that Crow at once confessed that she'd never lived in Vegas and that the song was "metaphorical." ("As soon as I said the word yes," says Crow, "I was doomed. But, hey, you learn as you go.")
"Kevin went nuts," says Rubin. "Livid. I know he called her, going, 'What the fuck are you talking about?'"
That spelled the end of Crow and Gilbert.
When O'Brien heard Crow say, "Yes," recalls his sister Erin, "he got really torqued." O'Brien's father, John, drove his son through Venice, where O'Brien found Baerwald's house and pounded on the door. The wrath rattled around – after O'Brien shot himself three weeks later, Baerwald wrote a heartbroken piece for the L.A. Weekly accusing Crow of causing him to betray his friend and, by pointedly saying he didn't really blame anyone for O'Brien's suicide, somehow blamed her. "That absolutely destroyed me," says Crow. O'Brien's family, however, absolves her. "John was just mad about it," says his father. "I don't think anything at all having to do with this Sheryl Crow business was even one block in the foundation of his suicide." Says Erin: "John had a pretty jaded view of the entertainment industry, and, you know, this type of event contributed in no small part to that attitude. But the problems that drove him toward the end were – you know, that's a long, long bloody trip."
But alienation had sprung up earlier, around the time of the album's release. With Baerwald and the other members of the TMC feeling left out (to save money touring, Crow had gone back to Missouri to recruit a band) and Bottrell merely tolerating her because she was fronting the songs he prized, Crow went off on a grueling tour, working a record that for seven months refused to take off. That all changed with the release of "All I Wanna Do," in July 1994. Abruptly, Crow was nationwide. Eight months later she was at the Grammys, picking up her Best New Artist statuette.
Soon after, Crow returned to L.A. – not for the rest and woodshedding she deserved, but straight into Round 2 with Bottrell. "It's amazing we were still trying to work," he says, "but we both said to each other, "We write the best songs with each other.' I said to her, 'Look, we're really not getting along, you and me, but I like the songs a lot.' " In two weeks, they had eight tracks; all three songs Bottrell co-wrote with her would emerge on her new album.
Crow's emotional state, after months of open squabbles with the TMC, was "raw and vulnerable," she says. "My only objective on this record was to get under people's skin, because I was feeling like I had so much shit to hurl at the tape." She strove to add "some balance and levity." You hear it, especially in "A Change" (motored by hand claps and Crow's organ licks, about the long-dead, eccentric English studio geek Joe Meek), in the rip-and-run single "If It Makes You Happy" ("I promised you I'd never give up") and the Stonesy rocker "Hard to Make a Stand." On the Dylan-esque "Redemption Day," written after a USO tour in Bosnia with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, Crow seems to wonder why that duo's husband and father "waited till so late" to intervene. The chilling if beautiful track titled "The Book" ostensibly eulogizes a three-day love affair in Rome but could be about the TMC betrayal: "And I didn't know/By giving my hand/That I would be written down, sliced around, passed down/Among strangers' hands."
Work on the new album began at the austerely elegant Toad Hall, but Crow "was feeling ghosts in that room," says Bottrell. They decamped to New Orleans, where the seams in their relationship took just 24 hours to rip open. "The second day," says Bottrell, "we had a fight out on the side street with great hollering going on. It was a fabulous scene. Then I left."
"The unfortunate thing about success," says Crow, reminded of that day, "is that you have to work out your problems in public."
Crow had cut the bulk of the record in New Orleans and returned to L.A. to finish it off when the call came announcing Kevin Gilbert's death. Crow would attend the memorial service: "Yeah, everybody was there . . . It was very awkward. I feel like, I think I've done everything that I can, and now how is it I still can't do anything right? It's almost like a father relationship where you are just always trying to please somebody, and you can't really. And I still don't know. But part of that got worked out on the record."
Crow is sitting, in her almost formally attentive fashion, at a small table in a Vancouver coffeehouse. Through these chore-packed days – this visit has included a video shoot for the British program Top of the Pops, her gig at Vogue Theater and a meet-and-greet with Canadian press and radio types – she doesn't visibly flag till around midnight. She's bare-armed in the drafty joint (handling guitars and accordions has given her nicely strappy biceps) and bears the slightly clouded if alert expression with which she characteristically greets the world. It's not merely for business reasons that those around her like to please – when her grin does break through the clouds, it's like a reward, and she seems to be a woman who likes to laugh, when she remembers how. Yet the denim-clad, fresh-faced Crow of Tuesday Night Music Club has been replaced in her current campaign by a lip-sticked, er, sulky fashion tramp with hooded eyes who just might be getting ready to spit at somebody. "We had a day of press in Europe," says Crow, "and I had two guys come in and say, 'Your cover – you look so sad. Are you sad?' Well, doctor, it's actually a photo." She pauses a beat. "I don't feel like the same person. I don't feel like that accessible girl in the jeans shirt with a dog and, 'Hey, come sit down, I'll tell you everything.' I don't feel like that person anymore. I do feel like having a certain amount of space between me and the world around me. I had given it all away. And now I'm trying to get some of it back."
Somehow – with her drive, mixed with pride, anger and chops – Crow has pulled off a second, more personal arrival on her new album. She's used her influences ("I think that's good, as long as it's not so derivative that you're flying toward the vortex of normality") to churn up 13 songs and a couple of sweet B sides on which she belts ("like a bad lounge singer gone nutty" on "Ordinary Morning"), peals ("Everyday Is a Winding Road"), hushes your mouth ("The Book") and simply sings her ass off ("If It Makes You Happy"). She's pitched camp on VH1, sold 82,000 singles and 143,000 albums (hitting No. 6 on the charts) in the album's first two weeks, and made Wal-Mart squirm (local radio stations in Denver and Columbia, Mo., helped Crow make her point by distributing the album in, by God, Wal-Mart parking lots). She has asked something both simple and profound ("If it makes you happy . . . ") – albeit without having the answer herself.
This is what crow says to the crowd at the Puyallup state fair before singing "No One Said It Would Be Easy": "So I was thinking about getting married. Are you married? What the heck. My parents have been married 43 years, and they really like each other. My boyfriend and I have been together for three years, and we really don't like each other."
In Vancouver, Crow ponders relationships in a quieter setting. "I would never," she says of the boyfriend (an L.A. casting agent she's been on-and-off with lately), "want to say anything to hurt him. You know, I can't be responsible for what I might say between songs. Your relationships do change from night to night. You know, there are days when our relationship isn't so great, and then there are days when I think if I didn't have it, I would go nuts. It's gone this way, and it's gone that way, and it is difficult for somebody to be involved with someone who is not around very much. There's not enough I can do some days to make my boyfriend feel like he's the most important thing in my life – 'Well, then why are you in Vancouver?' – and it is an ongoing process. We have been working at it for three years, and we'll probably continue to work on it."
On "If It Makes You Happy," Crow avers, "I'm not the kind of girl you'd take home." She is, of course – kind to animals (her Lab-greyhound mix, Scout, is a sweetly morose shelter find) and children (she somewhat shyly recounts her morning visits to children's wards in the cities along her way). But hers is not an easeful style. "Ordinary Morning" asks whether painted birds ever fly away, but she's read the book and knows the answer: "They used to paint birds, and they would send them up into the air. And then they would fall to their death because their wings weighed so much. For some reason, that stuck with me."
Some days later, Crow is playing yet another warm-up in a hall an hour north of L.A. As she picks up her vintage Italian accordion to play "Strong Enough," she seems about to repeat her crack from Puyallup. "My folks have been married, like, 43 years?" she begins. But the set of her mouth changes as she shrugs the accordion on, and what she says sounds like a revelation, or at least a progress report, in its own right: "This song – this song is about people staying together." Then, as the audience crowds closer, she plays it with feeling.