The realization seems a little “Hard To Handle,” but it’s been exactly 20 years now since the Black Crowes emerged from Atlanta’s indie-rock scene, caught the attention of American Recordings founder Rick Rubin, and sold over three million copies of their debut album, Shake Your Money Maker, thanks to an impressive string of hits that included the aforementioned Otis Redding cover, “Jealous Again,” “Twice As Hard” and “She Talks To Angels.”
The band known as Mr. Crowe’s Garden until 1989 originally started out as a bunch of rebellious teenagers growing up in the East Cobb suburbs, listening to the alternative sounds of California’s Paisley Underground and jamming on punk rock, dreaming of one day playing the 688 Club. This was back in the mid-’80s, when Atlanta’s music scene stood in the shadow of Athens (which had recently given birth to bands such as the B-52s, R.E.M. and Pylon), and you could count the number of solid alt-rock bands there on one hand.
“I think the one consistent thread we’ve had through the tapestry of our career comes from that indie-rock place,” Chris Robinson recalls. “I saw some amazing shows at 688—Rain Parade, Black Flag, Let’s Active… My first concert there was The Replacements, and all of R.E.M. was on the side of the stage watching them. I snuck in with a fake ID, and that was the first time I ever did anything like that. I smoked one of my first joints in the girl’s bathroom with a dude that was in the band Uncle Green. It had nothing to do with being rock stars. It had nothing to do with being successful. People wrote poetry and did paintings and played music. It was a super Southern outsider weirdo enclave. That’s where it started. That’s where we decided what our politics would be—the counterculture idea of us vs. them.”
The band (which at the time included singer/songwriter Chris, his guitarist/songwriter brother Rich, guitarist Jeff Cease, bassist Johnny Colt and drummer Steve Gorman) began blending its alternative influences with the classic sounds of the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Rolling Stones and Otis Redding. But in those days—before YouTube, social media and reality TV shows allowed anyone with a modicum of talent to achieve their allotted 15 minutes of fame—rock bands didn’t approach their careers with a five-year business plan. So the Robinsons were as surprised as anyone when record label A&R scouts came calling.
“It was never planned,” Rich Robinson insists. “We just started playing music and took it as it came. We had started out writing punk rock songs with our cousin, because we weren’t even good enough to do cover songs! Eventually a friend offered to send a tape of us to A&M, and they paid for us to go to North Carolina and record a demo when I was 16. Doors just kind of opened for us…”
Hitting the road
Like many Atlanta bands during that era, Mr. Crowe’s Garden essentially had to leave their hometown in order to become famous. But on the strength of Rich’s remarkably assured songwriting, Chris’ classic rock showmanship and Drakoulias’ pitch-perfect production, become famous they did immediately upon releasing their debut album in 1990. Shake Your Money Maker’s retro sound stood in stark contrast to what was considered cool at the time, but a string of hits that included “Twice As Hard,” “Jealous Again,” “She Talks To Angels” (which Rich had written at age 15) and a cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard To Handle” made it a smash success and turned the Black Crowes into international superstars.
“The goal when we made Shake Your Money Maker was to have the best songs and make the best record,” Chris recalls, “because the reality was that maybe this is the only record we’d ever get to make. We were always a strange local act: We’d have a gig at the Cotton Club and all the other bands would have set lists of material they’d worked on, while we’d write a song at sound check and play it that night! But we realized we had something to say….”
“There’s something amazing about fulfilling your dream. I remember when I was a kid wondering what it would be like to sell a million records, but when we started playing shows in Atlanta, sometimes nobody would show up!” Rich adds with a laugh. “But we wound up selling seven million copies of our first album, and it came really fast. I don’t think any of us had the tools to deal with success on that level.”
By all accounts, the Black Crowes didn’t handle their rapid ascension to stardom especially well. Bickering amongst the band was legendary, and by 1991 they’d already replaced guitarist Jeff Cease with Marc Ford. Born rebel Chris Robinson found sudden stardom especially tough to reckon with, getting the band tossed off a high-profile 1991 tour with ZZ Top after launching onstage verbal tirades against corporate sponsorship in general and tour sponsors Miller Beer in specific. He was also arrested for assault and disturbing the peace that year, for allegedly spitting on a woman at a 7-Eleven store.
The elder Robinson brother openly acknowledges the difficulties he had being in a multi-platinum band at such an early age: “When anything is that successful, people get jealous. You get in an argument with someone at a bar and for the rest of your life you’re a piece of [trash]. It was hard to come home, where everyone used to be happy to see you,” he admits, “and now you’re a rock star and they don’t know how to behave. The Shake Your Money Maker tour was 350 shows, and after that we bought a house on Mt. Paran Road. We went in my garage and wrote Southern Harmony there, and then we were back on the road for another 14 months. We really just sunk ourselves into the work and the madness.”
That madness has clearly taken its toll on the band over the past 20 years—they’ve gone through five guitarists, four bassists, three keyboardists and two drummers in the past two decades—but the Robinson brothers have remained relative constants despite a level of fraternal fighting rivaled only by the Gallagher brothers of Oasis. So what keeps the notoriously combative siblings together after all this time?
“I’m a fan of Chris’s,” Rich insists, “and I don’t think there’s a better frontman than him. Even if you take us being brothers out of the equation, he’s a great singer, and when he hits the nail on the head, he’s a phenomenal lyricist. We don’t get along a lot of the time, but as an artist I really respect him for what he does.”
Chris, who has the sort of rambling conversational style you might expect from an outspoken marijuana proponent, takes a more circuitous route to arrive at the same conclusion: “There’s an instinctive part of making music with a sibling that is unique and special. I have a hard time finding the right perspective on it because for many, many years I was never in a band with anyone else. It’s like you’re raised by wolves, and then you live in a regular house. It’s like, ‘Wow, not everyone is peeing on the bushes?’ It took time to realize that that was our dynamic. But the music always made me feel good, even if we weren’t getting along. To be honest, without music we probably wouldn’t have known each other very well. To me, music has been the thing to keep us in each other’s lives.”
Truth be told, Chris and Rich Robinson’s tempestuous relationship may be the X factor that has allowed the Black Crowes to remain relevant over the 20 years since Shake Your Money Maker was released. Despite a three-year hiatus, commercially unsuccessful attempts at solo careers, and a move from American Recordings to their own Silver Arrow label (distributed by Megaforce), the band’s 2008 album Warpaint managed to debut at #5 on the Billboard charts. It was a remarkable accomplishment for a band that hadn’t released an album of new material since 2001, particularly in a music industry landscape that had seen apocalyptic changes during that time.
“You could see it heading this way,” Rich says of the current music business climate, “but I don’t think anyone really knew what the Internet was going to be. People are becoming disenfranchised, because music is so important to people and it’s become so disposable. The industry has shifted so much, and it’s beaten down this creative endeavor that’s been such a strong part of our human evolution. Throughout history, we’ve used music to evolve, from religious hymns to classical music that elevates people to great heights. And now it’s a… ringtone you can download on your phone?! People don’t have respect for things that are so easy to get, and now that people can download anything they want I think they’ve lost respect for it. It’s become more about spectacle than it is about the music.”
Perhaps that explains the downright anachronistic approach of the Black Crowes’ latest album, Croweology, a two-CD set featuring all-acoustic arrangements of some of the band’s best-loved hits. Cynics might dismiss the concept as a quick “Greatest Hits” grab for cash, but Rolling Stone critic David Fricke gave the album four stars, saying it gives the veteran rockers “a reason to go on.”
According to Rich Robinson, the idea arose from a three-night stint of acoustic shows the Crowes did at Town Hall in New York a few years ago. “We had never done a full acoustic presentation before,” he recalls, “but we really loved those shows and I think our audience did as well. So when we decided to make this record, we decided to do songs spanning 20 years, and we wanted to do it in that acoustic format. It was really inspiring for me, and I think for everyone in the band. These songs we’ve played thousands of times over the years suddenly had new life, and everyone was really proud of what we did.”
Surprisingly enough, his brother agrees: “We definitely wanted the album to celebrate a lot of elements of what we are, with some of the iconic Crowes songs and some [representing] who we are now. The funny thing about the song selection was that Rich and Steve and I each put our lists together, and when we got to the studio 75 to 80 percent of the lists were the same. That really made us go, ‘OK, we’re all on the same page!’ In 20 years, that hasn’t happened very often,” Chris acknowledges with a laugh.
Rebels in the museum
Released on August 3, the album was the first step in what promises to be a very busy year for the Black Crowes. To coincide with the release of Croweology, in August the band unveiled a 29-part video series on their website, in which Chris Robinson reflected on key points in the band’s colorful history. On Sept. 11, the Marietta natives were inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, an honor that the Robinson brothers received with a mixture of emotions.
Rich seemed suitably touched by the occasion. “I’m very excited and honored to be a part of it,” he admitted earnestly. Who wouldn’t be? Especially when you think about the lineage of artists that have come from Georgia—Gram Parsons, the Allman Brothers, James Brown, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Little Richard, even R.E.M. and the B-52s. There’s such a broad spectrum of great music that came out of Georgia, and to be a part of that is both flattering and very humbling at the same time.”
Chris, on the other hand, seemed amused by the odd circumstance of being honored by an establishment he has always taken great pains to rebel against. “We didn’t set out to be in a museum,” he laughs incredulously, “but here we are! It’s funny because I realize that the path we’ve chosen hasn’t always been the easiest. We definitely wanted to do it our way. But I like that it’s a permanent thing, and of course to be close to music that has influenced us so much. Little Richard, James Brown and Gram Parsons were all huge influences on our lives and our music, so I guess it comes full circle. Our biggest commercial breakthrough was ‘Hard to Handle,’ so for us to be inducted into the Hall of Fame alongside [Otis Redding] is super cool. It’s one for the weirdoes!”
*‘Goodnight,’ but not necessarily goodbye
After that, the band launches their “Say Goodnight to the Bad Guys Tour,” which will find them traveling from coast to coast until the end of the year, culminating in a six-night stand at San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore. The title, of course, is a reference to a line from the Al Pacino gangster classic Scarface that Chris clearly finds hilarious.
“We’ve been a difficult band over the years,” he admits. “Other bands that have had that kind of commercial success would’ve ridden that train into the ground in terms of a blueprint or a sound. Although I think we have those things, I think we’ve moved on to something more creative and interesting. Along the way you get called self-indulgent, self-destructive… and all those things apply. But I also think those are the things that make for the most soulful and intriguing music. Even our fans argue over us. But to us, it’s just tongue-in-cheek: say goodnight to the bad guys!”
Those who interpret the tour’s title literally could assume that this is the band’s way of saying farewell to their fans, but neither Robinson was willing to predict what the next step in the 25-year evolution of the Black Crowes might be.
“We don’t really have a next step,” Rich Robinson insists. “It’s kind of like the beginning of this band, when we never really had a plan. This time, we’re just gonna take some time off until it feels right to get back together.”
Chris Robinson, ever the showman, is a bit more verbose in his response. “The most important thing is that we’ve had an incredible five years. This is my favorite tenure of this group, with me, Rich, Steve [Gorman], Sven [Pipien], Adam [MacDougall] and Luther [Dickinson]. I think we all feel in our hearts, minds and souls that we’re going to pick it up again—probably sooner than later, hopefully—but we need some space and time for our music and our minds and our families. It’s been five years solid of touring. We need to explore some other stuff, and I think it’s progressive to look at it that way. That’s something that you learn as you get older. If we had done that earlier in our career,” he muses with a laugh, “we probably wouldn’t be talking now!”