The Black Crowes' classic rock style
Welcome to the first day of what could be a college course: Introduction to Classic Rock Star Behavior, Circa 1975. It is 3:00 p.m. when Chris Robinson, lead singer of the Black Crowes, hauls himself onto his band’s bus in front of their hotel in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., but he’s acting as if the party never ended. ”I’m gonna f— somebody tonight!” barks Robinson jovially, pale and unshaven and brandishing a Heineken bottle that seems to clash with his ”Think Before You Drink” wristband. Sprawled around the bus, the other Crowes — guitarists Rich Robinson (Chris’ brother) and Jeff Cease, bassist Johnny Colt, and drummer Steve Gorman — merely shrug, as if they’ve heard it all before.
The Black Crowes can act like rock stars because, at the moment, they are. After clinging like a pit bull to the bottom of the pop charts for nearly a year, their hard boogying debut album, Shake Your Money Maker, crept into the Top 20 and has now gone platinum. They’ve been nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy, and they’re spending the first half of ’91 on the road with ZZ Top, who asked the Atlanta group to join them on their U.S. tour. Credit their success to simple hard work: The band has been touring relentlessly for a year, headlining club dates and opening for Aerosmith and Heart. And credit it to an audience too young to remember the glory years of FM hard rock; to them, the self-consciously ’70s-style raunch of Shake is as close to authentic good- time rock & roll as anything released since the heyday of Humble Pie. Whatever the reasons, everything is going their way, and the Black Crowes don’t mind being on the receiving end, thanks.
As with their music, the Crowes are going about the rock-star life the old- fashioned way. They dress in sleazoid rock-dude garb, avoid combs, prefer to listen to the blues and old-wave hard rock, and, at least during this part of the tour, hire strippers and indulge in alcohol and pot. They slam everyone from David Byrne to power-ballad kings Winger while spouting charmingly naive sentiments like, ”We want to make rock & roll important to everyone again — as music.”
The Crowes, however, are not aging rockers on the comeback trail. Ranging in age from 21 to 25, they were in kindergarten when such excess-is-best behavior and music defined the rock & roll life-style. Times have changed, but not for the Crowes. Even in an era dominated by rap, dance, and pop-metal, this is the way they think a rock band should behave and perform, and they’re going all out to re-create the flamboyance of old. Despite their musical similarity to the Rolling Stones, the Crowes may never be able to claim the Stones’ long-standing title as World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band. But they could be something else: the World’s Last.
After a half hour, the bus chugs into the parking lot of the Capital Centre in Landover, Md. ”Lite Beer and ZZ Top Welcome You” announces a sign. ”That’s disgusting,” Chris Robinson, 24, says. He is not contemplating the concept of corporate sponsorship and its insatiable grip on the rock business, however. ”Lite beer sucks,” he adds.
”I guess you could say what we’re doing is old-style,” says boyish-looking Rich Robinson, 21, picking at a very un-rock & roll grilled chicken salad one morning in Georgetown. ”But you could say the Rolling Stones were old-style in the ’60s because they were doing what Chuck Berry was doing 15 years before. It’s just a matter of having talent.”
Talent is precisely what much of the Atlanta music scene thought the Crowes didn’t have when the group began there as teenagers in the mid-’80s. In a region that gave us the quirky alternative likes of R.E.M. and the B-52’s, the band — originally called Mr. Crowe’s Garden and founded by the Robinsons — was ignored. ”We were the black sheep,” recalls Chris Robinson. ”Everyone thought we were junkies or wiseasses or had bad attitudes.” It didn’t help that they were floundering musically, playing everything from thrash metal to an approximation of the old-time rock they’ve since made their trademark. Then producer George Drakoulias heard them and helped sign them to Def American, the feisty label that is home to such pop misfits as the Geto Boys and Slayer; Shake Your Money Maker was released in early 1990.
Whether their booze-and-blooze music is viable or a pointless rehash of rock clichés remains debatable among critics. The New York Times denounced the Crowes as ”100-percent ersatz, early-1970s rock,” while the heavy-metal magazine RIP deemed them ”a classical bolt of rock & roll.” The group, naturally, prefers the latter description.
”We’re not just puppets out there,” contends Colt, 22, as the band members kill time in and around their dressing room — actually a white-cinderblock locker room — at the hall. ”We’re up there playing. There’s a whole new generation that hasn’t seen five guys and a piano player (on this tour the Crowes are abetted by keyboardist Eddie Harsch) come out and play. It’s new to them, and that’s a shame.”
The relentless work schedule does have its demands. Standing up to run a few errands, Colt suddenly winces. A few nights earlier, he drank a little too much after a gig and fell down on the bus, slightly injuring his right leg. ”It was ugly,” he says, annoyed. ”Not funny — ugly.”
Something isn’t clicking in the arena. The Crowes take the Capital Centre stage, ripping into ”Thick N’ Thin,” a piano-driven stomp, and the nearly sold-out ZZ Top crowd gives them a respectable ovation. Chris’ scarves and microphone-stand-twirling are pure Rod Stewart, and brother Rich’s guitar grunge is Keith Richards updated. The music is harder than on the group’s album, with an added raw, careening edge; it has grease on its wheels. But the audience’s response is muted, and it begins to annoy the band. ”You’re not watching us on MTV!” Chris scolds them. ”You can get up and do whatever the f— you wanna do.”
It doesn’t fully work, and the crowd’s lack of interest deflates the band. Even ”Jealous Again” — a Stones soundalike that, on record, captures the band at its strutting best — and their current single, ”Hard to Handle,” are sluggish. After their allotted 40 minutes, they leave the stage to a polite round of applause and pile back into the dressing room.
The fun isn’t over yet. There is a backstage birthday bash — videotaped for posterity — for tour manager Mark Botting featuring two strippers. (”It was totally disgusting,” says stage manager Jim Otell later. ”You woulda loved it.”) Then the band, dragging along beer and Jack Daniel’s, piles into its bus and heads out for a night of clubbing.
But the mood is sullen. Up front, Rich Robinson is sulking about the crowd’s less-than-crazed reception. ”It does get — not repetitive — but it does seem pointless when you’re up there and the fat-asses are sitting on their lazy asses not doing dick.”
The next morning, Chris Robinson is in his hotel room with the curtains drawn, burning incense, an open can of Colt 45 on his coffee table, an old Flying Burrito Brothers record playing on his portable sound system. The night of carousing, it turns out, never fully materialized for him.
”I came back after dinner and went to sleep,” he says wearily, lying back on the couch. ”You’d hear all the stories about the Stones and Zeppelin tours. But the Stones would come over here and do 28 shows in two months, and that was it. We’ve been out for 11 months. That’s pretty insane. But everyone’s adjusted.” He shrugs. ”It’s just like… life.”
There’s a knock on the door. Tour assistant Jeffrey Gorman pops in, running one of his perpetual errands for the band. This time, Gorman is delivering a fresh pair of pants. ”Whoa,” says Robinson, jumping up with delight. ”Look at my new bell-bottoms!” But something isn’t quite right about them. ”Actually,” he adds, ”they’re just flares.” Even the Black Crowes can’t find perfect bell-bottoms in 1991.