Good old rock & roll returns to the top of the charts
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."
You wouldn't know it to look at them. Chris is a hyperactive beanpole with a floppy mop of stringy brown hair, a stick-figure physique bordering on anorexia and a mouth that, like the rest of his body, is in perpetual motion. He externalizes every thought, no matter how marginal, at machine-gun speed but yaps mostly about music, his No. 1 obsession. And the chatter doesn't stop, not even when he's bouncing around the room and striking rock-star poses to his favorite records.
"Chris is just exhausting to be around," says Steve Gorman, who found out while sharing an apartment with Chris during the band's early days. "He puts on a Humble Pie record he's heard 8000 times, and he still acts like it's the first time he's heard it – 'Listen to this beat!' He's a marvel.'"
Rich is the strong, stoic type, almost to the point of invisibility when he's standing next to Chris. He has long, wiry blond hair and ruggedly handsome features that light up on those infrequent occasions when he cracks a smile. Rich, too, is obsessed – with his guitar playing, his songwriting and the Crowes' business affairs. Despite his age, he was the Crowes' manager until Pete Angelus (who also handles David Lee Roth) took over shortly before the release of Shake Your Money Maker last year. He still acts as the band's point man in all meetings and negotiations.
Yet at the heart of this extraordinary chalk-and-cheese act is a shared faith in the enduring power and glory of rock & roll and a mutual desire to taste it firsthand, without compromise. "Chris and I didn't decide to be in a band," Rich says. "We just assumed it." Rich got a guitar for Christmas when he was fifteen; he immediately started writing songs with Chris, who was all too keen to be a singer and lyricist, since "I didn't have the motor skills to pick up the guitar." Also, Chris confesses, "I didn't want to carry all that shit." Six months later, in the summer of 1984, the brothers played their first gig as Mr. Crowe's Garden, at a bar in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (The name came from a children's story.) They would have made fifty bucks, except the check bounced.
The Robinsons' ambition was, in part, genetic. Their father, Stan Robinson, flirted with pop stardom in 1959, when he scored a minor chart hit with the doo-wopish "Boom-a-Dip-Dip." The elder Robinson opened for Bill Haley and the Comets, shared a bottle of wine with Jimmy Reed and appeared on American Bandstand. (According to Chris, "We still have the TV Guide that says, 'Dick's guest tonight: Stan Robinson'") As a folk musician in the early Sixties, Stan also toured with Phil Ochs and got a pat on the back from Earl Scruggs at the Grand Ole Opry.
Rich says his dad – who also did some off-Broadway drama, played semipro football and is now a manufacturer's representative – never counseled his son the pitfalls of their chosen vocation. "He totally stayed out of it," says Rich. "Our parents were big on letting us do what we wanted to do." But Stan and his wife, Nancy, presented the boys with plenty of source material to draw from. "Very eclectic tastes my parents had," says Chris. "From Joe Cocker to Sly Stone to the Modern Jazz Quartet." Rich remembers hearing a lot of Irish folk and traditional blues; he claims that, Keith Richards comparisons to the contrary, he actually started playing guitar in open tuning because of repeated exposure to Muddy Waters.
Chris does not deny being influenced by – and head-over-boot-heels in love with – the Seventies bash 'n' sass of the Stones, the Faces, Aerosmith and Humble Pie. What he can't understand is why so many reviewers think it's a crime and why they can't hear everything else – the echoes of, among others, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Bob Marley, Ry Cooder and Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes – in the mix on Shake Your Money Maker. Actually, if the Black Crowes are guilty of anything, it's of tapping the same roots as their mentors, reaching many of the same musical conclusions and then, in songs like "Jealous Again" and "Twice As Hard," blazing a parallel trail to power-chord and bent-note nirvana.
"What is original?" Chris asks with evident frustration. "I'm not going to bang two badger carcasses together and recite poetry and say, 'Hey, here's the new thing.' We sing a traditional type of music in a very untraditional way. It's country music, and blues, and R&B, and other things. It's ethnic music. That's what we do."
He's also sick of hearing about his great debt of influence to Rod Stewart. "Hey, the Replacements could have been the Faces," Chris cackles, "but Paul Westerberg was chickenshit. Westerberg didn't have the haircut, but Tommy Stinson did. To me it's so obvious I'm a Steve Marriott rip-off that I never think about Rod. I admit it. Steve Marriott is the guy, him and Paul Rodgers and Gregg Allman. The thing I do with the mike stand, I picked that up from Steven Tyler. When I was a kid, I'd see films of Aerosmith on The Midnight Special, and the next day I'd have Toys in the Attic on in my room, running around like Steven."
Still, Chris argues: "I know deep down that regardless of what anyone thinks – whether it be the musicians flipping pizzas here who said we sold out or people who think I owe Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart something – you can't deny that the Crowes are a living, breathing band. If we could, we'd make two records a year. Because that's what you do, man. You're a band. You grow. Okay, now I have a credit card, and I can go to Tower Records and the bookstore and go buy a couch or whatever. But if I couldn't do that, do you think I wouldn't be trying as hard as I could to be here anyway?
"I knew, if given a chance to get in the game, we were going to show up with a big bat and a fucking big glove, and I was gonna swing for the fence. You go around once, man, and you gotta do what feels best."
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."
Everyone who's ever worked with or gigged with Chris and Rich Robinson for any length of time has at least one good story about their brotherly brawling. When Pete Angelus flew to Atlanta to see the Crowes perform for the first time and to discuss possible management, Chris and Rich picked him up at the airport. Angelus wasn't in the car thirty seconds before they were at each other's throats in the front seat. "They were arguing about which route to take to the club," Angelus says. "And there was an argument in the dressing room after the show about whether or not it was a good show."
Johnny Colt vividly remembers his first Robinson rhubarb. It was during his first week on the job, right in the middle of a Crowes rehearsal. One minute, the band was hitting a good groove. The next minute, as Colt tells it, "Chris is making faces, Rich is making hand gestures, Chris's mike stand goes up, Rich goes at Chris, and they're both falling down. They hit the ground and roll around. I just keep on playing, and when I look at Steve and Jeff, they're still playing, looking at each other and smiling.
"Then right when we go to a new part of the song, they stop fighting and Chris goes: That's it! That's what we need!' They jump up and start playing again. They fight, we get to the change, and suddenly their minds are back on the song."
"Those guys are closer than anyone you'd ever meet," according to Gorman, who, because of his size and strength, has been called upon more than once to pull them apart "They're always together, always going in the same direction. They don't always know it, though."
Actually, the Robinsons only fight about two things. One is, in Rich's words, "just bullshit. Chris will be yapping away, and I'll just tell him to shut up. It's a brother thing. Anyone who has brothers would know this."
The other is their songwriting, which is such a frequent source of friction it's amazing they get anything written at all. "Rich sees writing songs like building a house," Chris explains. "And I look at songs as taking buckets of paint, throwing them on a canvas and then jumping on it. There's no rules. So what you get after all this screaming and yelling is a well-built house with a whole lot of shit on it.
"Or," Chris continues, chuckling to himself, "you can look at it as a really beautiful paint job."
If the Robinsons agree on anything, it's that neither brother can imagine doing this rock & roll thing without the other at his side. And for all of their bickering and battling, they are in genuine awe of each other. Rich is amazed by Chris's daily superhuman diet of music and literature and claims that Chris, in a sense, was his most significant musical influence. "As my older brother he would go through the phases before I did," Rich says. "I'd take those records he was tired of and get into them myself. Because he would change phases every five minutes."
Rich also rushes to Chris's defense when asked about the latter's predilection for putting his foot in his mouth during interviews. "You ask Chris his opinion, and he'll tell you," Rich says. "And he knows sometimes he doesn't come off saying it right. Like the whole taping issue. All Chris said is, he's disappointed because great bands he's loved all his life were made to resort to using tapes in concert, and it bums him out because he feels they're better than that. It didn't come off sounding that way, but it disappointed him and made him look at the world and think, 'Man, things are fucked up, the music industry is just for shit.' "
Chris, in turn, is humbled by Rich's guitar prowess and astounded – a little worried, too – about the way his brother bottles up his feelings until he's ready to spit them out in song form. "He can be on the phone, twenty-one years old, discussing business deals and contracts that I have no idea what they're talking about," says Chris. "And the next second he can turn around and play me something new that makes me so excited I can't sleep for two days.
"I get worried when he gets stressed," Chris continues. "He doesn't relax like everyone else. He doesn't drink. He does no drugs. But he loves ice cream. That's his big thing. He'll get into a hotel, and he'll order up some ice cream from room service."
The fighting has eased off a bit in recent months – not because of success per se but because, Gorman says, "they're realizing that other people are paying attention – they're looking over their shoulders more." Just for the record, however, you should know that the Robinsons have two basic ground rules for combat: They never hit each other in the face, and unlike those other legendary warring siblings Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks, Chris and Rich never fight onstage.
"I think that's unprofessional," Rich comments with a sniff.
"Plus, we have so much fun playing," he adds with a devilish smile, "why worry about that asshole?"
Chris is well stocked with books and music for the unexpected four-week vacation the Black Crowes are getting courtesy of ZZ Top. Scattered on the floor of his hotel room are dozens of CDs – a compilation of early Sixties folk-gospel sides by the Staple Singers is on the box right now – and a small library's worth of paperbacks, including Adventures in the Skin Trade, by Dylan Thomas, Jim Thompson's Killer Inside Me, short stories by Joseph Conrad and Minefield, an anthology of poems by Gregory Corso.
"I guess it looks pretty pretentious and eggheady," Chris says, grinning. In fact, Chris briefly contemplated a career as a writer, majoring in English during his abbreviated stays at Georgia State and Wofford College, in South Carolina. "My mom thought I'd just fade away and go write the Great American Seedy Disgusting Perverse Novel," says Chris. Instead he's writing songs with lines like "You must keep pepper in your pussy to act this mean."
"I like that because it's funny," Chris says, flipping excitedly through a notebook full of new jottings that may well end up on the next Crowes album. "Ain't that weird? It just sounds right."
"Okay, this thing," Chris continues, reading from another page. " 'You sting me just like Halloween/And you kiss me like Judas between the sheets/You burn me right to my rotten bones.' I know that's going to be in a song. I like that picture.
"I just love language," says Chris. "And to me the cool thing about rock & roll is that it can be a 'mind' thing and it can be a 'gut' thing. Regardless of what I'm singing, when you hear Rich up there doing his thing, that's primal, man.
"But when you hear that line 'The sunshine bores the daylights out of me' [from "Rocks Off," on Exile on Main Street], that's poetry, man. It's rock &, roll, that attitude."
Chris Robinson has dedicated his life to that attitude, and he's savoring the rewards that have come to him because of his fealty. But like any young man who finds that his greatest wish has come true sooner than he expected, Chris doesn't entirely trust his good fortune. "I sometimes wonder if there's anything weird about being young and reaching your goals," Chris says with a nervous apprehension that sounds odd coming from this otherwise cocksure rocker. "Like, you go to the self-help section of the bookstore, and the books are all about attaining your goals. But no one tells you what the fuck you do when you get here. That's a whole new can of worms."
The cloud passes quickly though. "But you just make it your environment – your reality," he proclaims. "It's cool. And I dig it."