War of the Crowes
This story originally appeared in the March 20, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone
Sitting shoulder to shoulder on high stools, in front of a handful of microphones at Electric Lady Studios in New York, singer Chris and guitarist Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes look nothing like kin and act even less like bandmates.
The Georgia-born brothers are recording a dozen numbers as a duo, unplugged, a few weeks before the release of their band’s new album, Warpaint, on the Crowes’ own Silver Arrow label. Eleven tracks of brawny Southern rock and psychedelic
R&B ecstasy, Warpaint is the Crowes’ first studio album in seven years and their first since the Robinsons reunited in 2005 after a tense three-year split. Like the Kinks’ Ray and Dave Davies and the Gallagher brothers of Oasis, Chris and Rich — who were teenagers when they formed the earliest version of the Crowes in Atlanta in the mid-Eighties — are as famous for their arguments and outright combat as for anything else, including their vintage-rock aesthetics, live-show lightning and multiplatinum breakthrough records, 1990’s Shake Your Money Maker and 1992’s The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. And at Electric Lady, whenever they are between songs, the Robinsons are a compelling study in potentially explosive opposites.
Chris, 41, is a hippie whirlwind with a pointed Jesus-like beard, lanky dark-brown hair and a ski-pole physique. He is always in some kind of motion — tapping a foot, pacing the floor, lighting a hand-rolled smoke — and he talks at dizzying velocity in a bouncy Southern drawl punctuated by a sharp chuckle whenever he finds something funny, which is often.
Next to that verve, Rich, 38, is still water. Clean-shaven, with boyish features and a stevedore’s build, he speaks as little as necessary — in a deep, certain voice with no obvious Dixie in it — and smiles even less, especially when Chris is at his elbow, in hypergear. “You should write this down,” Chris says, cackling, when Rich stumbles at the start of one song, trying to recall a guitar part. “The one who doesn’t smoke weed doesn’t remember anything!” Chris turns to Rich and pats him on the shoulder. “That was just a little witticism at your expense, little brother.” Rich stares down at his guitar as if he hasn’t heard or felt a thing.
When the Robinsons were younger, that was enough to start real trouble. Pete Angelus, who has managed the Black Crowes since 1989, remembers their first professional photo session: “I turn my back to talk to the photographer. Within three minutes, a fistfight broke out. It was shocking even to me. How could something escalate to that level in such a small amount of time?” Even now, managing the brothers, Angelus says, “is not a matter of having a conversation every week. You’re in the middle of helping them communicate on a daily basis.”
For Chris, the grief is worth it. “We built this locomotive,” he says, explaining why he returned to the band after three years. “It’s sitting out in the field, with daisies growing through it. Let’s shine it up! The work was important to us. The work was the only fucking interesting thing going on.”
And when the music begins at Electric Lady, Chris and Rich are a perfect match, blood-bound partners in their vocal-guitar rapport and the country-soul righteousness of their songwriting. In a bare-bones version of “Walk Believer Walk,” a greasy-gospel stomp on Warpaint, Chris’ grainy howl soars and dives in acid-church rapture as Rich rides shotgun on dobro, in cutting bottleneck runs. In an old Crowes song, “Wyoming and Me,” Rich hovers alongside Chris’ plaintive bark in bright, empathic harmony.
And when they cover “Torn and Frayed,” the great road-life song from the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, the Robinsons sound like they are reliving all of the good and bad they’ve known, as partners and family. “You think he’s bad/He thinks you’re mad,” Chris and Rich sing together, on their way to a chorus that explains why, despite every difference, they are still in the BlackCrowes: “As long as the guitar plays/Let it steal your heart away.”
“There is something about their shared genes,” says Crowes bassist Sven Pipien, 40, who has known the Robinsons since he and they were in rival high school bands in Atlanta. “It’s very difficult to sing with Chris — he changes his inflections so much. But Rich knows his brother. I’ve known Chris long enough to sing with him, but not as innately as Rich does.”
“It’s not correct singing,” Chris declares cheerfully in his Soho hotel room the day after the Electric Lady session. “We are hardly articulate harmony singers. But it’s in that close-harmony tradition of the Louvins and the Everlys — the thing that makes brothers singing together so special.” Chris and Rich’s father, Stan, was a pop star himself for a moment in the late Fifties — his 1959 single “Boom-A-Dip-Dip” went to Number 83 in Billboard — and Chris remembers him as a taskmaster in living-room hootenannies. “When we were kids and wanted to join in, if you didn’t sing the right harmony,” Chris says, laughing, “my dad would tell you to shut up.”
CHRIS SAYS THAT SINCE he and Rich restarted the Crowes, “the thing that ties us together — the music — is stronger.” After a few false starts at writing together again, the brothers whipped up the ten original songs on Warpaint shortly before the sessions in Woodstock, New York, last summer. The Robinsons, Pipien, longtime drummer Steve Gorman, keyboard player Adam MacDougall and new guitarist Luther Dickinson made the whole record inside of three weeks, cutting luminous bruisers such as “We Who See the Deep,” “Evergreen” and the freak-nation anthem “Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution” mostly live in the studio.
“Chris and Rich have a great collaboration going,” says Dickinson, 35, who is the son of legendary musician-producer Jim Dickinson and who also plays with his brother Cody in the North Mississippi Allstars. “All my life, my dad told me stories about the Stones at Muscle Shoals. He saw how they worked, that the first complete take is it — chaos, chaos, chaos, magic! That’s the way Warpaint went.”
“That’s the payoff for everything else,” Chris says of the new record, with a mix of triumph and relief. “It’s incredible, the amount of quality shows we’ve done, the songs Rich and I have written, for two people who have a hard time being in the same room. I don’t think it has anything to do with love. Rich and I are doing this for ourselves — we always felt it was us versus them. I can’t believe that isn’t in rock & roll anymore. What happened to a little defiance against any system? Anyone tries to lay their fucking thing on you, man — you don’t want to do it.”
There is still, as he puts it, “the stuff that keeps us apart — it’s like earthquakes in Los Angeles,” says Chris, who lives there now. “You don’t talk about them. When one rears its beastly head, well, so it does. How do I fucking deal with this? I don’t know. I know Rich would say the same thing.”
Basically, he does. “I love that song,” Rich says of “Torn and Frayed,” a week after recording it with his brother. “When we connect on those levels, we connect. We feel the same things. It’s funny. After Amorica” — the Crowes’ third album, released in 1994 — “we were ready to split up. We fucking hated each other. But then we toured with the Stones, and Chris and I shared a moment we hadn’t had since we were kids — the two of us standing, listening, behind Keith Richards’ amps. The shit left, and we were watching the people who moved us in such a profound way.
“Outside of music, we probably would never speak to each other,” Rich says, laughing, something he does a lot when Chris is not around. “That’s the way it is.”
IN HIS HOTEL ROOM, with his hair parted in American Indian-style braids and E Pluribus Unum, the 1968 album by raga-folk guitarist Sandy Bull, playing in the background, Chris runs down who gets what from which side of the family. “I’m totally built like my mom’s people, the Bradleys from Tennessee — tall and thin,” he says. “The Robinson side is more like my brother. His shoulders are twice as broad as mine. My dad’s a big guy too.
“My dad’s gregarious and social, and I have that part of him — the humor,” Chris goes on. He says their mother, Nancy, “is sarcastic and dry. Most people would say I have my mom’s temperament. And my mom and dad — I don’t think they can say where Rich is from.” Chris laughs but sounds like he is only half-kidding.
Rich agrees that he takes after his father, but not just in frame: “There is a warmth to Dad they don’t see in me, because I’m pretty shy. But he’s a caring person, and I’ve always been sensitive — oversensitive a lot of the time. My face is pretty stoic onstage. People say, ‘He’s an asshole. He looks angry.’ I’m literally just listening, trying to hear the whole band.
“If you’re stuck in a family with two brothers, it’s a pain in the ass,” Rich says bluntly. “There are no sisters, just me and Chris. We are opposite spokes on a wheel. The hub is where we want to be.” When they meet there, Rich insists, “it brings us both a lot of joy. There is harmony — literally.”
There was mostly silence from January 2002, when the Black Crowes officially announced a “hiatus,” until March 2005, when the band played seven sold-out shows at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom. Chris has a shopping list of reasons why he left the group, including tensions within the band (“No one was happy”), his impatience (“I didn’t think we were working enough — there wasn’t enough music”) and changes in his personal life. On New Year’s Eve 2000, Chris married actress Kate Hudson. By 2001, he had also ended “a druggy period of my life. I had all this extra energy. I needed to do something that had nothing to do with the Black Crowes.”
The one thing Chris cannot say about the split is how Rich reacted to the sudden end of their band. “I don’t know,” Chris confesses. “We didn’t speak for a couple of years. I said, ‘See ya later,’ and that was it. But we don’t talk a lot anyway.”
“I was pretty blindsided,” Rich says, sitting in the Manhattan office of a friend’s book-publishing company. “There were hints. But all of a sudden it was ‘I’m not going to do this anymore. We’re going to call it a hiatus.’ I remember he said that.” The two did not speak again until January 2004. “Chris called me the day Ryder” — Chris and Hudson’s son — “was born. It was great to be an uncle.” (Rich, who lives in Connecticut, has two sons by a previous marriage.) Chris and Hudson divorced in 2006. “It was hard,” the singer says. “But we’re friends, and we created another life together.”
During the brothers’ time apart, Chris toured with his own band, New Earth Mud, and made two albums, New Earth Mud in 2002 and This Magnificent Distance two years later. Rich did soundtrack and production work, eventually releasing a solo effort, Paper, in 2004. All three albums are solid, appealing examples of the Robinsons’ shared passions for the raw poetry in blues and country music and the exploratory charge of late-Sixties psychedelia and early-Seventies power blues.
But the Robinsons’ solo records are most notable for what they lack: the other brother. “I had a sense Chris was not coming back,” says Gorman, 42, the only survivor, other than the Robinsons, of the Crowes’ original Money Maker lineup. (Chris and Rich have gone through almost a dozen guitarists, bassists and keyboard players in seventeen years.) Gorman describes seeing Chris play with New Earth Mud in Nashville in 2004. “I was sitting onstage, thinking, ‘He’s so happy, so at peace with himself. Good for him.’ We had a nice visit that night. But it was funny, because he said something about the Black Crowes. I was like, ‘Why are you even thinking about this?'” By then, Chris and Rich had reunited onstage at the 2004 Jammys, the jam-scene awards ceremony, in New York, playing the Crowes song “Sometimes Salvation.”
Asked why he could not stay away from his brother, Chris asks his own question, then answers himself right away: “You know what our business is? Keeping this commune on the roll, man. It gets back to the era that inspires me. The Grateful Dead are a prime example. They had a philosophy, a way they set up their dynamic, their lives. And they were heads, man. They were believers in where your art can take you. You can manifest your own place.”
He recalls a moment in the Eighties when the Crowes were playing Atlanta clubs for as few as a dozen people (at one, the dozen included Gorman’s mother), and Rich, still under the drinking age, cooled his heels outside in a car until showtime. “We all sat down in a room — me, Rich and Steve,” Chris says, “and looked at each other. We said, ‘We’re never turning back.'”
In some ways, Chris and Rich have not changed at all since then. Pipien’s reaction when he saw the brothers live for the first time, at a talent show in Atlanta, was that “Chris had this presence. I could sing, but he was a lead singer. And Rich was shy but very accomplished. His thing was chord structures, and he wasn’t messing around. He was the pedestal that Chris needed.”
Patti Smith describes Rich in similar terms. After Rich introduced himself in a New York coffeehouse a couple of years ago, Smith invited him to play on her covers album, Twelve, and the two have since played live with each other’s bands. “He’s confident without being egotistic,” she says. “It’s valuable to have a player who has that creativity and knowledge but who will take a supportive role. But I’ve also seen him where he was the dominant one, leading the pack. If no one else steps up, he has no problem doing it — without being asked.”
Chris is still all excitement, all the time. In rehearsals, Dickinson says, “Chris will dance over to you, looking at you, while you’re playing. If it’s not happening, he’ll start singing or directing something else, another idea. Then he’ll dance over to the next cat. I’ve heard stories about Isaac Hayes, the way he would conduct his band. Same thing.”
“I’ll put it this way, without being elitist,” Chris says with an impish smile. “Not a lot of stuff gets done when I’m not in the room: ‘Let’s do this.’ ‘It’s time to start.’ It’s about energy. That’s what I’ve always been for everyone, I hope.”
Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, who hired Chris as a singer for a 2005 tour, agrees. “That’s one of the things I love most about Chris: his enthusiasm,” he says. “He’s never down. There is always something that’s engaging him. And his knowledge of roots music is vast. It would even approach Dylan’s knowledge of that area. He was continually burning CDs for me — ‘Check this stuff out’ — all cool, deep, old songs.”
There is some disagreement as to whether Chris and Rich argue differently, or less, than they did before the split. The disagreements can be more intense, Pipien says. “When you’re more sure of who you are, you’re going to fight that much more strongly for what you believe in.”
“One thing that happens now that never happened when they were younger: They’ve learned that it may be worth walking away for a few minutes,” Angelus counters. “That’s a new communication mode. I will say, as a humorous note — in October 2007, there was a heated conversation in the tour bus. It escalated quicker than I expected. And I remember going, ‘OK, that’s enough. Because somebody just kicked me in the testicles.’ I happened to be in the middle.”
“Maybe Chris and I had something to work out from a past life,” Rich suggests. There is a thin, brief smile. “It would be nice if we knew each other and could just get along.”
Chris is too wound up by the future to keep talking about what might have been. “No matter what’s happened, I’m not bitter about any of it,” he says, bouncing in his chair after two hours of nonstop chatter. “I have no regrets. I’ve done dumb stuff. I’ve said things I shouldn’t have said. Whatever, man. Choices are made, so you make the next set of choices — hopefully better ones. That’s why I’m inspired by that acid wave, the guys who were there when there were no road maps. They were like, ‘We’ll see you on the other side. We’re all hangin’ on.’
“I need everyone I play with,” Chris goes on, still at high speed, “to believe what Miles Davis said: The music changes you. You have times when you don’t have an answer to what’s going on. But music will never let you down.”
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