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Counting Crows: Birds on a Wire

The band that fights the hype and battles the backlash as it revitalizes the sound and tradition of classic rock

Counting CrowsCounting Crows

American rock group Counting Crows, Dublin, Ireland, 1994.

David Tonge/Getty

As he wanders the halls of a Paris museum in search of some impressionists, Adam Duritz–the eminently recognizable fellow at the top of Counting Crows’ pecking order–has just been spotted by a pair of vaguely Beavis and Butt-head-like tourists.

Patiently, Duritz tries to explain to the twosome that, no, he’s not Mr. Jones. Rather he’s just the guy who sings the song of the same name, a composition in which the narrator happens to be addressing someone else named Mr. Jones.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, such vague subtleties of the creative process appear to be entirely lost on these excited teens. “Amazing song, man,” says one. “Nice meeting ya, Mr. Jones,” the pal says, chiming in.

“Believe me, that’s not so bad,” Duritz says with a laugh once they walk away. “I mean, someone came up to me and said, ‘Hey, man, I think I finally figured the whole thing out. Mr. Jones is your dick, right?'”


What can you really say about a gifted and unusually bookish new rock band fronted by a charismatic and strong-willed Jewish lad with dreadlocks that’s pulled the neat trick of going double platinum without compromising its strong artistic sense of itself even one iota–an almost instantly beloved group of previously struggling Bay Area musicians who somehow ended up playing at last year’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony before they even finished recording their debut album?

How about this: Congratulations, guys.

Certainly David Letterman was one Crows fan with no shortage of things to say about the band when it appeared on his show the same infamous night that Madonna waged a ratings-winning war on good taste. When the dirt-mouth diva finally left and Letterman came out to introduce Counting Crows, the relieved-looking host positively gushed. “Our next guests are one of the best new bands around,” he said, “and this is their debut album here. It’s entitled August and Everything After. And I’m telling you something, if you don’t have a copy of this, there’s something wrong with you.”

Thus warmly welcomed, the band–lead singer and main songwriter Duritz, rhythm guitarist Dave Bryson, bassist Matt Malley, lead guitarist Dan Vickrey, keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist Charlie Gillingham and drummer Steve Bowman–launched into an edgy yet somehow stately rendition of “Round Here,” the sprawling, devastating song of disillusionment that opens August and Everything After. The band was tight and focused, with Duritz, especially, in fine form. “Fortunately, I don’t get stage fright,” he explained later. “I just get rest-of-life fright.”

“Those Counting Crows, I’m telling you, that’s it,” Letterman said earnestly afterward. “We don’t need any more new bands. That’s it. That’s all you need right there. Those guys are unbelievable.”

Professional rock writers, meanwhile, have also been generally positive, if a tad more reserved, about Counting Crows. One thing a gaggle of curious critics have found to say about this band from the beginning has been, Geez, I sure like you guys, but, boy, do you remind me of someone I heard before.

The following is only a partial list of some of the folk whom Counting Crows have been compared to thus far in their young career: the Band, R.E.M., Bob Dylan, Pearl Jam, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Dion, Joe Cocker, Peter Gabriel, U2, Terence Trent D’Arby, the Rolling Stones, 10,000 Maniacs, Soul Asylum, the Grateful Dead and Thin Lizzy. One writer even went so far as to call the cover art for August and Everything After derivative of the work of Ralph Steadman.

Ironically enough, considering the group’s ornithologically oriented name, Counting Crows may be the first band in all of rock history not to be compared to the Byrds. Foremost among all comparisons thrust the way of Counting Crows has been the mudslide of references to Van Morrison.

First, there’s the matter of that willfully “Brown Eyed Girl”–like “sha-la-la” passage that Duritz sings at the start of “Mr. Jones”–an ironic but undeniably infectious gem of a song dealing with the hunger for rock & roll fame that only gets more irony drenched with every bit of airplay and video exposure.

Then there’s the fact that at Counting Crows’ unusual appearance before an audience packed with music-industry heavies at the Hall of Fame ceremony–some 26 years before the band’s first year of eligibility, for those keeping track–they performed Morrison’s classic “Caravan” as a very last-minute substitution for an abstaining Van the Man.

At this point the 29-year-old Duritz–far and away the band’s standout star as the Crows fly–is beyond frustration with those who wish to dismiss him as some sort of musical mini-Van. “Sure, I have those great old records, but I have lots of great old records,” says Duritz, who–here comes another comparison–resembles a Rasta Robert Downey Jr. “I think what I learned from Van was that when you go up onstage, it has to happen right there. It’s hard for me to be objective about this, but I don’t hear us as some complete cop band of anybody.”

Since Christmas, Duritz has taken to carrying around his personal items in a vintage promotional canvas tote bag, for Morrison’s 1977 album A Period of Transition that guitarist Vickrey gave him for a gift over the holidays. “Oh, it’s great,” says Duritz with a laugh. “Because there I am at interviews railing on and on about how I have the old Van records but that I hear little or no influence. At which point the interviewer inevitably says, ‘And so what about the bag?’ What can I say–that Van does influence the way I carry things?”

T-Bone Burnett–who produced August and Everything After–feels that the Morrison comparisons are mostly just an unfortunate effect of those prominent “sha-la-las.”

“The funny thing is that Adam just left them in there as a little joke to piss off Gary,” says Burnett. Gary is Gary Gersh, a close friend and adviser to Duritz who signed the Crows to Geffen and served as executive producer of the album before leaving the label last year to assume the presidency of Capitol Records.

“I think Adam’s probably regretting those ‘sha-la-las’ about now,” says Burnett. “But they’re their own band. The funny thing is that in one way Adam is going for the same thing as Van Morrison–that same sort of spontaneous soulful explosion. The thing you have to give Adam is that his aim is high. He takes his music extremely seriously, as well he should.”

Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that there was no shortage of tension during the recording of August and Everything After. After all, the Crows were still evolving as a band when an appearance at a BMI showcase in February 1992 kicked of a bidding war involving nine labels, all of which called the next day. “We had a long way to go from where we were to making this record,” says Duritz. No less an authority than Robbie Robertson personally advised the band early on to try recording in a house (à la the Band) rather than in a traditional studio.

“Recording studios are breeding grounds for despair,” explains Burnett. “And we all agreed that all our favorite records had a sense of place.” In this case the place was a tacky but glamorous white elephant of a mansion in the Santa Monica Mountains. Still, Duritz describes the months of recording there as “brutal, but good brutal. We had to learn that playing well and playing songs are two entirely different things.”

To support August and Everything After, Counting Crows endeavored to make it the old-fashioned way–they earned it. Both before and after the September 1993 release of the album, the band spent virtually all of its waking hours crisscrossing North America as a support act for Cracker, the Cranberries, Suede, Bob Dylan, Los Lobos, Jellyfish, Midnight Oil and nearly anyone else who’d have it.

According to Duritz, Counting Crows have been away so long that most of them have been evicted from their Bay Area homes. “We’ve been home maybe three weeks since October, so it’s hard to call it home,” says Matt Malley.

All this intensive road work eventually paid off as the Crows built a bigger fan base than anybody could have anticipated. Duritz says he originally hoped the album would pass the 100,000 mark. But bolstered early on by heavy airplay on Triple A radio–the new adult alternative format–the band soon crashed into the majors in a big way.

In mid-December, MTV started playing the video for “Mr. Jones”–a song that at the band’s insistence has never been released as a single. “Besides selling a few more records, putting ‘Mr. Jones’ out as a single would just risk making the whole world sick of a song that loved,” says Duritz.

As it is, the singer regularly reworks the song in concert. He no longer sings “I want to be Bob Dylan” but rather “I want to be Dave Lowery,” a nod to his pal in Cracker, or “I want to be Alex Chilton,” a tribute to his Big Star hero, who’s scheduled to play on some dates with the Crows on their summer head-lining tour. Says Duritz, “These days instead of singing, ‘When everybody loves me, I’m going to be just as happy as I can be,’ I should be singing, ‘When everybody loves me, I’ll be about as fucked up as I can be.'”


In January the Crows made a high-profile appearance on Saturday Night Live and found themselves being heavily rotated on MTV. Since then they’ve become a regular fixture on Billboard’s Top 10, right up there with Pink Floyd and the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos.

“The marketing plan for this band–such as it was–really was to have no marketing plan,” says Martin Kirkup, who, along with Steven Jensen, manages Counting Crows. “We just wanted to let the record get out there and give people a chance to see the band and have the pleasure of discovering them on their own.”

“This is a peculiar situation, where a band’s surrounded themselves with all sorts of good people, not the sleaze of the music industry,” says Bonnie Simmons, a famed San Francisco radio maven and an early Crows booster. “But that’s not really why they’ve connected. It’s because this is an album that really touches people, and records like that have a way of happening.”

In the end, those who write off Counting Crows as calculated reheaters of past rock legends may be missing the point.

Ultimately, the Crows are on a mission that’s more ambitious and brave than mere rock & roll recycling. This is a group that’s singularly unafraid of invoking the musical gods–a new band that can fit in comfortably on classic-rock radio. Yet at the same time, Counting Crows find themselves warmly embraced by a much younger and more alternative audience that responds deeply to August and Everything After‘s exquisitely bleak, intimate song cycle.

Though the Crows are rather mellow by grunge standards, there seems to be some common ground. After listening to Duritz sing at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame rehearsals, Eddie Vedder–who had the daunting gig of fronting the Doors that night–came up to the often-brooding Crows frontman and said he heard a vocal similarity between the two of them. “I guess on some level it’s rooted in the same place,” says Duritz.

This summer Counting Crows have the honor of opening the first eight dates of the Rolling Stones’ tour. The combined effect of all this suggests a certain passing of the torch–a considerable, if welcome, weight on the shoulders of any young band. But to talk to Adam Duritz–or to listen closely to the often-tortured songs he sings so passionately–is to see that he’s a man who knows what it’s like to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders.


The history of French rock is a long but not particularly proud one. Certainly our beret-toting friends have filmed some great movies, written some damn fine novels and painted more than their share of pretty old pictures. But after Johnny Halliday in the ’60s–think of him as Elvis Presley with a Croissant–the sad truth is that French rock & roll just ain’t much of a holiday. These days even Sweden is kicking France’s ass on the global rock front.

It’s April in Paris, and Counting Crows have arrived here as part of a three-week promotional jaunt through England and various European hot spots. Ahead of the band is a full schedule of interviews and photo sessions and shows. All the Crows are happy to do their share of talking. For instance, Charlie Gillingham–a well-spoken fellow who studied philosophy and artificial intelligence at Berkeley and who’s played with bands such as Wire Train–is set to talk to Le Monde and a periodical called Blah Blah. Dave Bryson and Matt Malley will be speaking, logically, with Guitar et Bass, while Dan Vickrey is scheduled to chat with the fine folk from Best and Premonition.

Still, the lion’s share of promotional responsibility falls to Duritz. “I think we’re pretty used to it by now,” says Bryson, who also attended Berkeley and who co-wrote more than half of the August songs. “Adam would stand out even if he weren’t in a band,” adds Malley.

“To the outside world, I’m the cute one, I’m the quiet one, I’m the funny one, and I’m the sad one,” says Duritz. “But still, this is a band. Maybe not always in terms of decision making, but it is a band.”

When Counting Crows reach their Paris hotel on this rainy afternoon of April 8, they are immediately hit with the word that’s fast spreading around the globe–that Kurt Cobain has committed suicide. News–particularly news in English–is hard to come by here, even on MTV Europe, which is caught up in preparing, inappropriately enough, for its Phil Collins Weekend. But as it happens, Adam Duritz is likely the person in France with the most direct line to the day’s events since his mentor and friend Gersh also worked closely with Cobain. And so a concerned Duritz immediately calls back to the States and gets confirmation of the tragic facts.

A few hours later, Duritz–a chronic insomniac who says he hasn’t slept more than a few hours in days–sits in the elegant hotel lobby. Like the rest of the Crows entourage, he still seems to be processing this painful turn of events. The heartbreaking news sheds a strange, sad light on what should have been, by all rights, a moment of celebration and pride for him.

“The last time I was in Europe, I didn’t ever get to Paris,” Duritz recalls. “I jumped on a plane and told myself that I’d never come back unless I was with a band.” That was back in 1989, when Duritz took an abortive trip overseas at the tail end of an extremely dark period in his life. “I was kind of drifting back then,” he says. “To say I was in bad shape would be putting it very, very nicely.”

He’d dropped out of Berkeley, but despite his struggling through a succession of bands, Duritz’s music career seemed to be going exactly nowhere. Having split with an Australian girlfriend whom he’d met on the Greek island of Corfu–she inspired August and Everything After‘s tortured “Anna Begins”–and feeling anxious about not making any new music, Duritz decided to head home and try to pull his life together. One of the first people he called when he got back was Dave Bryson, with whom he would soon found the first incarnation of Counting Crows.

Now that he’s finally made it to Paris, Duritz wants to actually see a little of the City of Light. And as unrock & roll as it might seem, he and the rest of this abnormally cultured band can’t wait to hit the museums. So over a long excursion to the Musée National d’Art Moderne, at the Centre Georges Pompidou and Musée d’Orsay, Duritz retraces the long and distinctly bumpy path that’s brought him here. As he does so, however, the subject of Kurt Cobain and death never seems far from the conversation.

Though he didn’t know the Nirvana leader well, Duritz explains that he feels a true sense of kinship with Cobain, who he thinks opened up the music world dramatically for Counting Crows.

“I wasn’t ‘one of the guys’ too much growing up,” Duritz says. “And I’m sure that Kurt felt like a real outcast, too. So when people start talking to you about how you’re some sort of a spokesperson for a generation, you can’t help wondering where the hell that generation was when you were 15. That generation sure as hell wasn’t there for Kurt when he was 15. But then the generation turns around and decides to assume the artist again. But the truth is you probably don’t get to be an artist when you’re quarterback of the football team or a cheerleader. So when they tell you that you’re supposed to speak for a generation, I think your response is basically ‘Fuck you.’

“To say that Kurt should have been happy just because he was a rock star is asinine,” Duritz add as he searches a map to see if the museum has any works by Rothko. “The only reason I’m famous now is because of unhappiness. For some reason unhappiness is something everyone wants to be a voyeur about. Your misery is everybody else’s entertainment. The fact that all of a sudden everyone is looking at you doesn’t change things. For some people it can just make things more difficult and embarrassing.”

Duritz grew up somewhat nomadically in Baltimore; Boston; El Paso, Texas; and, since he was a teenager, in Berkeley, California. His father, Gilbert, is a pediatrician who did early research on the effect of alcohol on pregnancy. His mother, Linda, went back to medical school in Mexico when Duritz was a teenager and is also now a physician. Duritz’s younger sister, Nicole–about whom he wrote an early break-through composition called “Good Morning Little Sister”–works for the American Association of Retired Persons.

“Adam listened to everything from the time we were kids,” says Nicole. “I remember we had the Jackson 5 and Barry Manilow. And in seventh grade, my father took him to see ELO at the Oakland Coliseum.” Duritz recalls his taste ran from the Ohio Players’ funk to his father’s old folk records.

They seem to be a tight-knit family, and indeed many people close to Duritz say that he has a remarkable facility for surrounding himself with family as well as an extended family of friends wherever he goes these days–apparently as a buffer from some of the music-industry insanity coming his way. “All the moving around, I think, got hard on Adam,” says his mother. “But to me he seemed to always make friends pretty easily. He just seemed to have that knack.”

These days Duritz seems intensely introspective and self-confident. He’s open–he’s the first to tell you that he uses hair extensions for the natty dreads. “The first time I wore them was the first time I really looked like myself to me,” he says. He’s also extremely well read–having devoured Shelby Foote’s entire Civil War series, assorted works by William Kennedy, James Thurber, John O’Hara, E.M. Forster, Banana Yoshimoto and, yes, Levon Helm recently.

He may become the first rock star to need a literature roadie. And Duritz (who’s “just friends” with actress Samantha Mathis) is even something of a sex symbol. “Girls have always liked Adam,” reports his sister, Nicole. “Why not? He’s funny, he’s charming, and he’s passionate about what he does.”

While most rock stars only start dating actresses once they actually make it big, Duritz had a brief romance years ago with Mary-Louise Parker. In fact, Parker indirectly helped name Counting Crows, a phrase taken from a divination prayer, echoed in August and Everything After‘s concluding “A Murder of One,” that Duritz heard in one of her movies, Signs of Life.

Yet to hear Duritz tell it, his has been a long, often-dark ride to the top. “I was dangerously screwed up for a long time, and drugs exacerbated it,” he explains as we wander past a few Picassos. “Lots of drinking and drugs–pot, hallucinogens. I had one very bad acid trip that lasted a long time. And somehow my mind learned how to duplicate it. It’s a very bad thing when you start having acid trips without taking acid.”

When it’s suggested to Duritz that he’s probably fortunate that fame came to him later than it did to, say, Mathis’ late friend River Phoenix, Duritz shakes his head and says, “Believe me, he handled things much better than I would have. When I was 23, I just didn’t have sober days. I was falling apart. I was in a really big hole. There was a time I couldn’t tie my own shoelaces–When I had to sleep in the same bed with my dad because I couldn’t get to sleep otherwise.”

Eventually, with the help of a physician and his parents, Duritz managed to “wean myself of all medication. I started to climb out of the hole a little bit.”

At least part of Duritz’s problems seems to have been the result of soul-killing frustration he faced finding the right artistic outlet for himself. From the time of his earliest public performances singing “Beth” to the girls at Hebrew school or “Black Dog” at local bar mitzvahs, Duritz knew what he wanted to do.

Knowing this didn’t necessarily make things easier. “It’s really a heartbreaking life,” Duritz says. Though always playing in such bands as Sordid Humor, Model Society and Himalayans–most of which included bassist Marty Jones, who is the real Mr. Jones–Duritz felt like he was going nowhere.

“I had nothing to fall back on,” he says. “All I knew how to do was write songs and play them in clubs. But I never had any interest in anything I did. And I could see that what I was doing wasn’t very good in a lot of ways. I’ve always been self-destructive, and I thought this was the ultimate in self-destruction–building an impossible life for myself.”

“Adam always says that the only thing he could do was sing and write music,” says his father. “I know he wanted to make something of his life by the time he turned 30. That was the time limit. That was the deadline he gave himself. Fortunately, he was able to follow his own dream and still make it.”

The dream began coming true around the time Duritz returned from Europe in 1989 and started playing with a group that included Bryson and Marty Jones. This band, too, fell apart, with Bryson–a bit of a technical whiz–going off to engineer Faith No More’s album Angel Dust. Eventually, though, Duritz and Bryson began teaming up–as Counting Crows–and playing open-mike nights at Bay Area coffeehouses and clubs. Performing with Bryson in such a stripped-down environment seemed to bring out something different in Duritz.

Soon the pair had drafted an all-star team of sorts, featuring some of their favorite local players — such as Matt Malley (who’d played with Bryson in the popular, vaguely Roxy Music-is local band Mr. Dog), Charlie Gillingham and Steve Bowman — to record a demo, and things started to jell. All of them were young Bay Area vets, except Gillingham, a transplant from San Pedro, Calif. “In a way, this was my dream band,” says Duritz. Counting Crows was also something of a dream come true for the other band members, especially for Malley.

After Mr. Dog broke up when its singer ran off to join a cult, the bassist was close to changing careers and becoming an air-traffic controller. “There had always been something missing in everything I’d been doing before,” Duritz says as he scans the canvases of the cubists. “I couldn’t tell you what it was, but then one day I just stopped missing it. Everything stopped being half-assed.”

All this helps explain why Counting Crows have already earned a reputation for being a young band singularly unwilling to bend over backward for the sake of exposure. Just the other day in London, for instance, the Crows ended up blowing off a high-profile appearance on Top of the Pops because it was decided the band shouldn’t edit the length of its song. “This is definitely not a cookie-cutter band,” says Steve Jensen, who’s accompanying the Crows on this European tour. “Initially, it makes things more difficult for people who want to promote them in traditional ways. But in the end, it makes things easier, because they know what they want. Along the way, there are sparks because we’re breaking a lot of rules.”

“If I’m an asshole, then it’s because this stuff is sacred to me,” Duritz says. “Nobody is going to make decisions for us just because they tell us they know how to. All I know is what it’s like to be a music fan, because I’ve been one my whole life. And I know what turns me off. That’s why all we wanted to do was make a record and go out and play.”

An admirer of R.E.M., both for their music and for the way they managed to sell without selling out, Duritz believes too many bands ultimately hurt themselves by allowing too many concessions. “I think you start screwing up when you start doing things that don’t feel good or right.” He pauses to check out a Matisse. “Whatever you do should feel good in here,” he says, touching his chest. “That’s how you write, that’s how you play, so it might as well be how you run your career.”

“How do you say Spinal Tap in French?” asks Dave Bryson. “Le Tap,” the band answers in unison.


A funny thing has happened on the way to sound check. Counting Crows have gotten utterly lost in a series of twisted underground tunnels beneath the Arapaho–the tiny Parisian club where they’re playing tonight. This comic mishap seems to break the slight tension today among these friendly fellows.

Due to a last-minute schedule change, the band is scheduled to go onstage today at an unrockish 5:30 p.m. This means that Peter Stuart, a friend of the band’s, won’t get to open up for this show–an unfortunate fact since one of Duritz’s favorite aspects of his newfound fame is the bully pulpit it affords him to push other acts, either by sharing a bill or wearing a T-shirt.

Furthermore, equipment problems have led to the decision to make tonight’s show a semiunplugged affair. And there’s still a little residual anger with Steve Bowman for being late for yesterday’s photo session. Apparently anxious to save some of the $30 per diem that each of the band members is getting for this promo tour, Bowman has spent a few days in international laundry hell, and he’s one free man in Paris who got completely lost in his pursuit of clean clothes.

All this is forgotten when Counting Crows hit the Arapaho stage. Duritz has said that one thing he definitely admired about the Band was its almost telepathic sense of interactive musical chemistry, and this evening the Crows have it. Bryson, a strong rhythm guitarist, stands to Duritz’s immediate left, keeping things anchored at all times.

Vickrey–the newest Crow–proves that he’s an agile lead player and an excellent vocalist in his own right, adding trippy riffs to the already spooky “Ghost Train” and beautiful harmonies to “Omaha.” Matt Malley–who often sings AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” in sound check–displays an engaging energy on bass that at times recalls Rick Danko. “Of course, he’s the guy in the group who never listened to the Band,” says Duritz. Gillingham is a soulful whiz on Hammond organ.

Pounding away behind them all is the now freshly laundered drummer Bowman, whose intricate beats prove him a flashy but solid time keeper. Despite his recent lack of sleep, Duritz offers riveting, open-hearted renditions of the August and Everything After material, a few unreleased songs, covers of numbers by San Francisco friends and a haunting cover of Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost in You,” which he and Bryson serve up as a duet.

In concert, Duritz brings songs like “Rain King” and “Omaha” an almost jazzy expressiveness. Before launching into “Perfect Blue Buildings”–a powerhouse of a song filled with images of self-destruction–he offers what is clearly a tribute to Kurt Cobain. “It’s a hard world for some people to live in,” Duritz tells the crowd. “I hope the person I’m talking of finds peace.” Throughout it all, the French crowd gives the band its undivided attention.

“The core of our audience is always men and women who stand in front who are completely in tune with everything we’re doing, hanging on every lyric,” says Bryson. “Then, of course, sometimes you get the one guy who really wants to body surf.” Earlier Duritz confessed to feeling some ambivalence about the whole process of performing. “Sometimes when we’re onstage, I wonder, What is it with these people?” Duritz says, shaking his head.

“What do they want? Because this is definitely not hopeful music, you know. There are a lot of songs about how your whole life as a child is hopes and dreams, endless possibilities about how you’ll fall in love, have a life and do something that’s meaningful to you. Then you grow up and get there, and nothing works. None of it. I’m not offering them hope. I’m not offering them anything, really. I mean, all I’m singing about is some stuff I thought about myself. If you think about it, the whole thing is pretty self-centered and bizarre.”

So does that mean he didn’t have a good time tonight? “Oh, no, man,” Duritz says with a laugh. “That felt great.” 

In This Article: Counting Crows, Coverwall


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