When the Black Crowes' producer George Drakoulias first saw Chris and Rich play as Mr. Crowe's Garden in New York in 1988, he thought they "kind of sucked." The sound was stiff, punkish college-radio jangle, the songwriting was nothing to rave about and as a guitarist Rich "was definitely holding back," says Drakoulias. "He was the only guitar player, so he just kept his right hand going. It was a lot of constant noise."
But Drakoulias, then an A&R rep for A&M Records, was impressed with Chris's singing and irrepressible stage presence. "Even though there were only twenty people in the place," he says, "he was very entertaining, and he obviously enjoyed what he was doing." Drakoulias also dug the band's taste in covers: the Stooges' "Down on the Street" and, at the end of the set, Aerosmith's "No More, No More."
"While the rest of their music wasn't like that, they really seemed to like playing that song," Drakoulias recalls. "They said they liked the Rolling Stones and they had some other songs more like that, but in Atlanta, if they played that stuff, nobody would come to see them. They had always listened to stuff like that, but they hadn't made a commitment to it."
Little over a year later, the commitment was made and the transformation complete. The Robinsons had a new sound, two new band members in Jeff Cease and Johnny Colt, and a new name, the Black Crowes. "Everyone just called us the Crowes when we hung out," Chris explains. "And we came up with Black Crowes – blackbirds. That was it." Thanks to Drakoulias, by then on staff at Rick Rubin's Def American label, the band also had a record contract. Not much of a contract, as it turns out; the group got a paltry $5000 advance and a so-so royalty rate. The Crowes have since renegotiated that deal in the wake of the album's success.
More important, the Crowes had material they deemed worthy of their renewed allegiance to late-Sixties and Seventies rock classicism. Some of the songs were old, like "She Talks to Angels," which Rich wrote when he was seventeen, and "Could I've Been So Blind," left over from the Mr. Crowe's Garden song-book. One was borrowed, Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle." But they were all steeped in the blues-based verities of established predigital rock tradition and charged by the brothers' determination to make music equal to that tradition in every detail, right down to the analog sound of Steve Gorman ramming his Dodge Dart into a trash dumpster in the studio parking lot for the car-crash intro to "Thick n' Thin."
"We wanted to do so good," Chris says now of Shake Your Money Maker. "And I think we were playing a little over our heads. We set our aspirations above what we were really supposed to be doing. We wanted to make a record as good as Exile on Main Street.
"There's one really arrogant part of me that says there hasn't been a rock album besides [Guns n' Roses'] Appetite for Destruction that has caused as much reaction as we have," Chris adds. "Definitely not Night Ranger and fucking Lover-boy and all those bands that ruined rock & roll. Maybe it's the same kind of thing as when R.E.M. popped up in the early Eighties. I think my record's much better than Murmur. We kick ass over that. We jam. It's a different thing, but . . .
"Then there's another side of me that says, 'Man, we're just lucky we got a record deal.' "
The Crowes' rise was anything but meteoric. The Robinsons went through three drummers and half a dozen bass players between their '84 Chattanooga debut and the summer '89 sessions for Shake Your Money Maker. (Colt got the bass gig a week before the band went into the studio.) They spent the intervening years touring from New Orleans to New York, making a princely twenty-four dollars when they played CBGB one night. "People say, 'Oh, they didn't pay their dues' – oh, yes we did," snaps Rich, who was still in high school and too young to get into a lot of the bars where the Crowes played in their formative years. Many was the evening Rich had to hide out in the car until it was time to go onstage.
Cease, who emigrated from Nashville to join the band in late 1988, remembers one particularly ignoble show at the Cotton Club in Atlanta. "We were looking for management, and we wanted someone to come see us," Cease says. "The show was free, and when you came in the door, you got a ticket and your first drink was free. And twenty-five people, maybe, showed up."
"I used to have a really bad chip on my shoulder," Chris confesses. "Because I wanted to do something with my music. I wanted people to hear my songs. And that was the energy, the fuel. I had to fight against the world. Now I'm at a point where I don't have to fight so much. I can see more of the horizon than just the angry red right in front of me. I've grown up a lot in a year."
Yet for all of his damn-the-nostalgia-full-speed-ahead talk, Chris can't help feeling a little cheated that he hit the big time in a less-than-golden decade. "I'm not one of those guys who dresses up and goes out to the Civil War battlefield and wants to relive Anrietam," Chris says. "I know what year it is. But look at Humble Pie, Rockin the Fillmore. That was a long show, that audience hung on to every note. You feel it. That's how rock audiences were. You went to the gig, and it was full of pot smoke, people danced through the whole show. It was a celebration, a huge block party.
"For the most part rock & roll has become such a staid thing," Chris continues. "The security guard tells you to sit down, so you do it? Goddamn!"
Chris also admits he was "a little naive about the greed thing. I really hoped that when things started happening for us we'd get into a different level of the business. 'Wow, maybe there are some people who just do it because they love it.' Professor Longhair, man, he just had to sing and play. And I just have to sing, I have to write lyrics. That's how I deal with things. And I was hoping there would be a couple more people like me when I got here."
Like, say, Axl Rose?
"You know, it's funny. Nobody's asked me about W. Axl Rose. Hmmm, I don't know if I'm in a diplomatic mood or not," Chris says, pausing as if to check whether he's got enough rope to hang himself.
"You know what, man?" he finally says. "I love Guns n' Roses because they were some guys who came around and just slapped everyone in the face. 'Fuck you, we will do drugs, we will piss on airplanes, we will play loud and sing whatever the fuck we please.' I love that sentiment.
"But all right, what are you gonna do next?" Chris continues. "Are you gonna keep putting off this album? Are you gonna take it somewhere? If I was in Axl Rose's position, I would realize how much shit there is you can change when you're that big. Because it's not about the musicians, it's not about the people who get it. It's about the people who don't get it. And it's called the music industry. It's about people who call records 'product'.
"To be given that position, man, I'd use it to my fullest advantage," Chris proclaims fiercely and, it seems, with a tinge of envy.
"Given that kind of thing," he adds with an evangelical glint in his eye, "you could change anything."
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
POLITICS No Price Big Banks Can't Fix
Picks From Around the Web
blog comments powered by Disqus