By Kevin Broughton
The Black Crowes could have become the greatest American rock and roll band of all time, or at least in the conversation with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. Around the time the scourge of hair “metal” was fading and the fad that would become grunge was just kicking up, the band from Georgia revived Stones-style, blues-based rock in a way only Aerosmith had done (and then, briefly) before them.
Fans of the band saw the potential immediately; within a few years and albums, though, they became vaguely aware of the dysfunction that would cripple the band. Sure, Chris and Rich Robinson didn’t get along, but how bad could it be?
Worse than anyone could have imagined, it turns out. And thanks to former drummer Steve Gorman’s enthralling memoir, Hard to Handle: The Life and Death of The Black Crowes, fans get an intimate look at a slow-motion train wreck. Think of Almost Famous in real life, with fist-fights.
Gorman, the youngest of eight kids from Hopkinsville, dropped out of Western Kentucky University in the late 1980s to move to Atlanta and join a band – a band that didn’t yet exist. He didn’t own a drum kit; bought his first one about a week after arriving. He had only “air-drummed.”
It was also about a week into his Atlanta residency that he met Chris Robinson, then fronting Mr. Crowe’s Garden. When Drivin N Cryin poached drummer Jeff Sullivan, Chris (who had recently gone cold-turkey off his antidepressants after his therapist committed suicide) gave Gorman the hard sell. He soon relented and along with Rich (still in high school), formed the core of what would become the Black Crowes.
Fortune smiled on the band early. It was a different era in the music business, obviously, but they were on the fast track after being signed to Ric Rubin’s label, Def American. George Drakoulias prudently informed the band they needed to tour and practice more before hitting the studio. Before heading back to Los Angeles, Drakoulias gave them some sage advice: Start listening to the Stones, like Beggars Banquet- and Exile-era Stones. And to young Rich Robinson: Learn to play in open G tuning, like Keith does. This, without question, impacted the Crowes’ sound on their first three albums – and their overall sound -- more than anything else. Gorman, incidentally, refers to Rich as a guitar savant; the same applies to himself behind a drum kit. Those two were the instrumental backbone of the Black Crowes.
Drakoulias produced the first two records, Shake Your Money Maker and (to this day the band’s masterpiece) The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. So, after massive record sales, universal critical acclaim and touring all over America and Europe, what’s the next move? Chris decides the band doesn’t need a producer anymore. Oh, the hubris that ensued.
Quick, what’s the first thing that comes to mind about their third album, Amorica? Probably the album cover: a young lady’s midsection clad only in American-flag bikini bottoms, with, uh, some grass showing on the field.
Gorman: “Chris, what the hell are you thinking? Places like Wal Mart and K-Mart will never carry this album.” (They didn’t.)
Chris: “I don’t care. Black Crowes fans don’t shop at those places.”
Predictably, album sales absolutely tanked as a result. (It’s a shame, too, because Amorica is probably the band’s second-best record.) It would be the first of many times Chris Robinson would presume to speak for Black Crowes fans, and over the years he’d be proven wrong manifestly and continually. At one point Gorman, sick of the presumption, told him, “You have no idea how to relate to our fans. How much money would you say you spend on weed in a year?” Not batting an eye or catching the gist, Chris deadpanned, “About a hundred grand.”
Over the next dozen years, Chris would – time and again – drop a grenade into the band’s midst. There’s a clinical term for someone who is incapable of empathy and engages in destructive behavior when success would otherwise abound. Gorman never calls Chris Robinson a sociopath, or even bipolar. But he’s surely thought it. The Robinson brothers were toxically codependent, and it spread through the band. Rich had been bullied by his older brother all his life, and rather than stand up to him, he took it out on his band mates in passive-aggressive fashion. Gorman, the runt of his own (much larger) familial litter, exasperatedly gave Rich some advice: “Next time, take a folding chair and smash Chris right in the f*cking face with it. Send his ass to the hospital, and I promise you, this will stop.” If Rich had taken it to heart and followed through, Gorman’s book would be alternate history.
But he didn’t. Many, many times, Gorman – after enduring a Chris Robinson tantrum of verbal abuse – offered him a free first punch. Had Chris taken him up, we’d again be looking at a different Crowes retrospective. He’s a bully who’s never endured a good ass-whipping, and Black Crowes fans are the worse for it.
Gorman would leave the band after the 2010 tour and return a few years later in response to the pleadings of the Robinsons and the band’s manager. This time, they promised, it would be different. And it would, for a little while. Then, in 2014 it was all over again. Rich released a letter explaining that the band was done, seemingly taking the high road: “I love my brother and respect his talent, but his present demand that I must give up my equal share of the band and that our drummer for 28 years and original partner, Steve Gorman, relinquish 100% of his share, reducing him to a salaried employee, is not something I could agree to.”
Oh, the irony. Several years earlier, the Robinsons – both of them – had written Gorman and demanded he give up his ownership in the band they’d formed together. The drummer called their bluff and was ready to walk until they quickly relented.
Each of the book’s 40 chapters are packed with vignettes that will leave fans shaking their heads at what might have been. No spoiler here, but the one that sums it all up involves Jimmy Page. You remember they toured together and made a double album, right?
Of all the infuriating episodes in Gorman’s tell-all, it’s the one that will piss you off the most.
Still, it’s a book you can’t put down. As in, buy it on a Friday afternoon and you’re up till 3:30 a.m. reading.
And you’ll finish it while watching your favorite team the next day…in between plays.
Gorman says, “This isn’t the story of the Black Crowes, but it’s my story of the Black Crowes.” It’s one well told, but ultimately sad. I hope the movie isn’t a letdown. Meantime, let’s remember what was, and what could have been.