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Sheryl Crow

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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.

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