That's amazing, man!" howls Chris Robinson, staring incredulously at the front page of today's paper. "I never thought I'd be on the cover of the Atlanta Journal unless I killed someone."
"Man, I never thought we'd pop along and start causing so much trouble," says Robinson excitedly, waving the paper in the air triumphantly. "It's cool, though. Someone needs to do it, and we do it with our own little bit of finesse."
What Robinson, the Black Crowes' singer and resident superyap, actually said during their opening set last night at the 16,000-seat Omni Coliseum, in Atlanta, was innocent enough. Indeed, he'd been saying the same thing every night on the ZZ Top tour for the past three months. "There's one point of the show where we break it down, and I'd point out to people that this is real, in the flesh," says Robinson. "It's rock & roll, they're not watching TV, and there's not going to be any commercials."
It was, he claims, "more of a comment toward those bands who look at what they do as commercials: 'Here's my three-minute commercial for my album.'"
Bill Ham, ZZ Top's manager and director of the group's Lone Wolf Productions, and Miller Lite, which is sponsoring the tour, didn't see it that way. Robinson says he was periodically warned by Lone Wolf emissaries to drop the rap. Pete Angelus, the Black Crowes' manager, says he received a call from Ham, who strongly suggested that he restrain Robinson from saying "anything about commercialization, commercials, sponsorship or endorsements."
"Basically, the sponsorship and the management tried to censor what to me was just a statement about what we, the Black Crowes, are," Robinson contends. "Doing the best we can, being free to be what we are. And that music is really the only thing we have control over in our lives.
"I said, 'Don't tell me what to say. Kick us off.' And they did."
Ham abruptly fired the Crowes after the second show of what was supposed to be a three-night homecoming stand at the Omni; tour promoter Don Fox relayed the bad news just minutes after me band came offstage. The Atlanta media, of course, had a field day. Later that evening, Chris and his brother, guitarist Rich Robinson, announced their unceremonious dismissal to the rest of the nation on the live, syndicated phone-in radio show Rockline.
Lone Wolf issued a curt press release the next day citing "philosophical differences between the two bands" and claiming that the decision to dump the Crowes was "arrived at entirely within this organization." Angelus says he has seen evidence to the contrary: "I don't think Miller Beer intended for me to see it, but I got a fax from someone at Miller Beer to Bill Ham saying they thought this was an unfortunate situation and maybe something should be done about it."
Miller Lite spokesman Dave Fogelson says he is unaware of any such fax and maintains that contractually all decisions regarding opening acts on ZZ Top's Recycler tour are the sole prerogative of Lone Wolf. Ham did not return phone calls from Rolling Stone.
Meanwhile, up in his hotel room with the curtains drawn, two sticks of incense smoldering in an ashtray and the new Bob Dylan box set blaring away on the CD player, Chris Robinson just shakes his head in disbelief. "It was like I was in high school," he moans. "I got into this because I didn't think anyone would ever do that. Certainly not guys who worked for other bands. It's getting a little stiff out there.
"Sometimes I feel like we're carrying the flag," Chris Robinson declares as Dylan whines "No More Auction Block," aptly enough, in the background."One part of it is, we were in the right place at the right time for our thing. But here's a band that people check out on MTV or in Rolling Stone and realize: 'Yeah, they say what they really wanna say and play what they really wanna. What a novel concept! That rock & roll can be interesting and feel good and be a real living, breathing animal. And young people, too! With some new kicks.'
"Then again," says the twenty-four-year-old Chris Robinson, "maybe it's just that we play some songs and people like 'em."
That part is true enough. After a year when no rock bands hit Number One on Billboard's album chart and a moribund season of subsequent Is-rock-dead? essays, the Black Crowes – the Robinson brothers, guitarist Jeff Cease, bassist Johnny Colt and drummer Steve Gorman – are satisfying an obvious public hunger for electric grit 'n' grind. Their double-platinum debut, Shake Your Money Maker – a guitar-party cracker that marries white Southern R&B crunch and Anglo cock-strutting attitude in the beloved early-Seventies manner of the Faces and the Rolling Stones – went Top Five and is flying out of the stores on the strength of the hit single "She Talks to Angels," heavy videoplay on MTV and fourteen months' touring. The album recently sold 108,000 copies in a single day.
But twenty-one-year-old Rich Robinson, whose robust, open-tuning style of six-string slash and slippery country-funk grease belies his quiet, sometimes stony demeanor, figures the Crowes' success is the result not of rising Seventies nostalgia but simply of good songs played hard – and of rock's periodic need to purge itself of accumulated bullshit. "I think we serve the same purpose the Stones did twenty years ago or Aerosmith did fifteen years ago," Rich says. "Just to slap you in the face and say, 'Shut the fuck up and listen.'"
"How many new rock stars have come around that have anything to say at all?" rails Chris. "Guys where you even want to know what they're thinking? Are they thinking? Where did it go astray?"
Chris pauses, casting another glance at that headline on the front page of the Journal. "Greed, probably," he says sadly.
I used to come down here years ago, when I was a teenager," says Chris as he and Rich sit on a small knoll overlooking the side-by-side graves of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley of the Allman Brothers Band. "I'd come down here from Atlanta with my friends, and we'd just sit here and hang out – drink beer, smoke pot and talk. It's so beautiful."
He's not exaggerating. On a balmy, late-March afternoon, the meditative serenity of this secluded, leafy patch of Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia, is enchanting. The dogwoods are in bloom, and visitors to the grave site have left a few empty beer bottles filled with fresh wildflowers in front of the headstones. There is, fortunately, no graffiti.
"I knew who they were when I was growin' up," Chris says of the Allmans. "But I wasn't into it. They represented something I didn't like."
"Yeah, rednecks," Rich interjects with a disapproving snort.
"But later on, I did get it," Chris continues. "I heard what they were doing musically, something nobody's done since. People try. Hey, we try. We played 'Dreams' in sound check the other night.
"What Southern rock became is not what the Allmans started out to be. They were creating a new Southern sound. And what we do now is what I'd like Southern rock to become. Although," he adds, laughing, "I know Peter Buck wouldn't agree with me.
"But there is a lot of the South in us. I don't know exactly what it is. Maybe it's just that we're a little closer to the ground. We have no pretensions about what we do. We're just a little earthier. We do things a little slower, more casual."
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