It’s hard waiting for heaven. May your song keep you alive.
We don’t choose what we love.
This thought occurs to me a lot, but never more acutely than with the music that finds a home in our hearts. I never cease to be amazed at what moves people and to what degree, where a band that leaves me utterly cold can be central to another’s existence. It’s why I’ve largely quit pissing on anyone’s parade in recent years, no matter how little I think of an artist’s work (I do gleefully make an exception for Nickelback and a handful of others, but largely reserved for whiskey stoked, in-person rants). What music we honestly, helplessly, beautifully, stupidly, really, really, really adore is so fucking personal that it’s really nobody’s business trying to dismantle something so amazingly nourishing and childlike in its magical effects. And we almost never come to this music by choice. It finds us, usually right exactly at the moment we need it most, reaching a sure hand into our depths and squeezing blood into our veins. It’s life force, kids, and anyone who tells you otherwise is carrying on a sadder existence than those who understand and embrace this truth.
Under the weather. Never got better. Wrapped up in disease.
I met the rock ‘n’ roll band of my life on a storm throttled night driving back to Santa Cruz in 1990. Weaving up Highway 17 into the mountains underneath a sliver moon, I heard a sound coming out of the radio that honest to God made the hair on my arms stand up. It was on a late night show on long defunct KOME radio in San Jose, CA – the soundtrack of my 70s and 80s childhood and young adulthood with tag lines like, “Don’t touch that. You’ve got KOME on your dial.” I pulled over to a payphone as soon as I got into town, rain battering away, and drenched to the bone, I rang the DJ and miraculously he answered.
“Who the fuck was that band you played a few songs back, the one about staring at it cold?”
“That’s The Black Crowes, man. The song’s called ‘Stare It Cold’ and it’s on their first album, which comes out next week. Shake Your Moneymaker is the title.”
A profuse number of ‘thank yous’ later I knew what I was doing on Tuesday, and it took all of one spin for me to know I’d met MY band. It was the kind of thing I imagine early fans of The Kinks or The Who must have felt, and while I’d been hugely influenced by punk’s vanguard of The Clash, Black Flag, etc. I’d never had something that got into the fiber of me in the same way as the Crowes, music felt rather than just listened to.
Go down, go down, you stranger. There’s something waiting for you.
From that week forward it’s been love. I no longer pussyfoot around the term when it comes to the Crowes. From the first show I caught that November [The Cabaret in San Jose] on through the ensuing seven studio albums and 137 shows that followed that initial gutbucket, follicle activating response has never faded. Its intensity has fallen and risen due to circumstance, material choices, lineup changes, etc. but at the root this is something that lasts in a world that constantly reminds me of the impermanence of things. Even if usually wise Shakespeare thought love fickle, sometimes it is steadfast and a balm when all others chafe and vex us. While many other loves I’ve known have proven, well, problematic, what I have with the Crowes keeps on keepin’ on.
In fairness, like all lovers, I forget sometimes what they mean to me and simply ignore them for a period. But eventually they find me again, as they did this week, out for a drive, devouring distance and finding none from the thoughts in my head. For no reason I can explain, I grabbed Amorica and Three Snakes and One Charm for the road. Both were dusty from more than a year’s inattention, relegated to the CD rack where the Crowes have lived since they went on hiatus in December of 2010. And while I’m seriously diggin’ where both Chris and Rich Robinson have gone in their solo pursuits, none of it puts lead in my pencil quite like what The Black Crowes do together. And pounding the steering wheel, a cursed diamond true in full throated voice, I remembered all over again how unreasonably and wonderfully and madly I love this band.
Do you hear me breathing? Does it make you want to scream? Did you ever like a bad dream? Sometimes life is obscene.
While parts of what they do is pure fun – lusty vehicles like “Blackberry” and “She Gave Good Sunflower” spring to mind – the Crowes are mainly concerned with rocky places, the jagged and sharp crevices we must navigate in our journey. I’ve often thought of their music as hardtack for the hard road, just the stuff to get you by as you steer your wagon towards the horizon. It’s romantic and maybe a bit goofy, and I accept those glosses gladly because the music AND the way they deliver it really has sustained me through thick and thin, speaking to me when those around me could not reach me, offering catharsis when I felt trapped and out of options, or more positively, a perfect score to being split open and ready for joy and pleasure wherever they could be found. Yes, as a words guy, the lyrics mean a great deal to me but Chris’ words wouldn’t have the thwack they do without the movement and muscle of the music around them. It’s what they do together that conjures the spell – the cauldron merely a cauldron if they don’t share the eye to see what they’re brewing up.
Through all their transformations and changes, they have remained fascinating to me. There are a few clunkers, to my tastes, in the catalog, but they don’t trouble me and never really have. I figured out young that love doesn’t mean loving every aspect of a person or thing but merely being willing to engage with it with one’s full being at every turn. Shit, friction and all those crazy things that throw off sparks are part and parcel of the Crowes, and their music reflects these struggles – internal and external – offering comfort for those unsure about where right and wrong really abide but willing to wrestle for an answer just the same.
I love you in the worst way, the only way I know…This life is great, and it’s better when you’re not alone.
And I love the people this band brings together, the citizens of Amorica. Some of the greatest, most intense days of my life have been spent with the tribe at shows, enjoying pre- and post-gig get-togethers where we can be unashamed of caring as deeply and fervently as we do about this band and their music. Like the songs themselves, it’s another way the Crowes have helped a bunch of people feel less alone and less misunderstood. It’s a gift – one which I haven’t been as appreciative of as I should be in recent years.
Tonight, I found my thoughts winging back to March of 2005 and the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City. More than the shows themselves – special to me for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was my review of them leading to befriending the band, penning liner notes for a few releases, countless interviews and more [it remains a glorious strangeness and blessing to me to be entangled with this gang of unique, hyper talented souls] – it is the whole atmosphere of togetherness and shared cause, the LOVE offered up without disguise or reservation within the Hammerstein – from the crowd and from the stage – and at numerous watering holes at all hours around NYC those sweet, dear days, that lingers.
Understanding that – really letting it surface and fill my head tonight – made me think we need to do it again when this current hiatus comes to a close. Wherever and whenever The Black Crowes reemerge, I think the faithful should gather. Not everyone is a member of this tribe, and it’s a privilege we shouldn’t take for granted, especially in a time where so much of America and the world is at cross-purposes and incapable of real communication and compromise. Might it not be a swell idea to throw our arms around the people who get where we are coming from, the gang riding the same wavelength, and squeeze them tight, whispering, “Peace on you, brothers and sisters,” as we leap into the greasy grass river together, perhaps unclear where these cosmic friends will take us but game for it all.
Seed planted, and like good foreplay, I kinda dig the waiting because I know what good company and good music await me when it’s done. As the boys themselves once put it, let’s walk right through the door just to see what’s inside. Hold my hand, it’s freely given, dear Amoricans.