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Hard to Handle
The Life and Death of the Black Crowes--A Memoir
By Steve Gorman
With Steven Hyden
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A Good Day in The Black Crowes Was Just a Day That Wasn’t Bad
My band The Black Crowes had a hell of a run. But, man, it was weird.
Our first album, released in 1990, was huge. Our second album was also a success, and it solidified our place among the world’s best and biggest rock bands. And then… things went sideways. Over the next twenty-plus years, we lost about 90 percent of our original audience. A lot of that was by choice. We purposely avoided doing things that would’ve helped to grow, or at least maintain, our fan base. We did what we did, and we didn’t do what we wouldn’t, for better or worse.
But here’s one good thing about The Black Crowes’ self-destructive streak: it weeded out our casual followers and tested the resolve of our staunchest fans. In the end, the people who stuck with us really, really, fucking loved us. And it’s those people to whom we owe our career. Because of their support, The Black Crowes were able to maintain a healthy touring business for decades. Years after “Hard to Handle,” “She Talks to Angels,” and “Remedy” came and went from MTV, we could sell out theaters from coast to coast in the 2000s and 2010s, even as we continued to test the patience of our fans with a series of frustrating decisions and inevitable flameouts.
When the band called it a day for the first time in 2002, the primary cause of our internal misery was the constant battling between Chris and Rich Robinson. From the day I met them, they fought. It’s not like they got famous and suddenly couldn’t get along. They were never on the same page. But they had the same last name, so they figured, Well, we have to do this together, I guess.
The sibling rivalry between the Robinsons was omnipresent, and it had simply run its course. We weren’t young, hungry kids anymore. When we were first starting out, we were all more tolerant of each other’s bullshit. At the very least, we could ignore each other’s bullshit, pretend it wasn’t as bad as it actually was, and then get on with our day.
By the time everyone was in their midthirties, it had gotten much harder to do that. The prevailing sentiment was, Guys, fucking enough already. Why are you always fighting over the same shit? The brothers would always say, “This is our business. Don’t worry about it.” But that was impossible. Their nonsensical sibling rivalry infiltrated every aspect of the band’s existence. Everybody else in the band and crew were pulled onto one side or the other, despite our best intentions to stay neutral and do whatever it took to keep the whole thing moving forward. It was exhausting.
The Black Crowes broke up in 2002, although at the time it was classified as a “hiatus,” which is a great word to use when you think it’s over but can’t quite be sure if that’s the case.
By 2005, there was a prevailing sense of, Well, shit… let’s do it right this time around. Everybody had (allegedly) grown up, and after experiencing reality outside The Black Crowes, we realized that it probably wasn’t as cool as life in The Black Crowes.
There was, initially, a very real and urgent desire to not repeat mistakes. Within eighteen months, though, it was apparent that we were back on the same hamster wheel: fight, tour, record, fight, tour, record. People don’t change unless they truly want to change. And The Black Crowes didn’t truly want to change. It felt very much like it always had. We’re a really good band, but it’s a total pain in the ass to be here.
There will forever be one overriding truth about The Black Crowes—we were, at our best, a great fucking band. Many people loved the music we made. But enjoying that love was simply never allowed in The Black Crowes. It’s frustrating that the band could never evolve to a place where there was genuine appreciation for all we had done, and for the fact that we’d found and maintained an audience. I can point a finger, and people can point fingers at me. Everyone has their own perspective. But the whole thing was tense, angry, and difficult.
To be clear—there were a million laughs along the way, and there was at times a true esprit de corps in The Black Crowes. But many of those laughs and much of the bonding was fueled by denial and a desperate, gnawing fear of facing the toxic reality of our interpersonal relationships and admitting the consequences of our self-destructive decisions and lifestyles.
Between 2005 and 2010, we made three albums and toured constantly. We found ourselves living through the same grind as before. And, just as before, it became impossible to agree upon, much less maintain, a discernible set of goals.
By December of 2010, the band had completely run its course. Chris had checked out entirely. He no longer wanted any part of a band in which he didn’t call every shot. He needed to be completely in control, despite a lengthy track record of calamitous decisions and misguided efforts with very painful consequences.
He put together a band called The Chris Robinson Brotherhood and then, for the second time in nine years, initiated a hiatus from The Black Crowes, intent on forging a new path that no longer required working with his brother.
I went to see that band in 2012 in Nashville. He was actually smiling. He rarely smiled that way, so genuinely, when he was onstage with The Black Crowes. I thought, Well, good for him. I hope he’s actually happy.
So I was surprised when, after the gig, he asked me about doing a Black Crowes tour in 2013.
“Why do you want to go back to something that makes you so miserable?” I said, laughing.
But shortly thereafter plans were in full swing to tour in 2013 as a “test run” for an anniversary tour in 2015, to mark twenty-five years since the release of our multiplatinum 1990 debut album, Shake Your Money Maker. The tour in 2015 would also most likely be a proper farewell to our loyal fans.
We still had a few hurdles to clear. The Robinson brothers hadn’t spoken in a year and a half. As our manager was putting the tour together, Chris and Rich were threatening each other in emails on a daily basis. “I’ll kill you if you do this… I’ll quit the tour if you do that,” and all that standard bullshit.
At our first rehearsal in Brooklyn, the rest of the band was wagering on how long it would be before they actually came to blows. The over/under was three hours. During our first break, the two of them paired off and had a quiet conversation in the corner. To everyone’s utter amazement, that one brief chat was all it took to bury the hatchet. We finished that rehearsal without incident. And then the next, and the next.
We played 120 shows that year, almost all of them sellouts. Promoters loved it. The reaction from the fans was consistently positive. The brothers got along very well, at least initially. We were set up perfectly for the tour in 2015. We talked, at length, about putting out new music in 2015. Maybe not an entire album, but certainly an EP of four or five new songs. If 2015 was going to be our last tour, it was important that we not kill ourselves. Shorter legs, longer breaks. Let’s do it right. Do it smart. Go out on a high.
We made it about two-thirds of the way through the tour in 2013 before everything turned sour. No one saw it coming, either, as shortly before things started to unravel, the brothers had grown closer than they’d ever been. Their father, Stan, died, and Chris and Rich shared their pain in a way that seemed to pave a newfound acceptance and appreciation for each other.
The bond didn’t last long. Three weeks later, we had a ten-day break in the tour. When we reconvened in Portland, Maine, it was immediately apparent that whatever closeness they had developed had just as quickly disappeared. That break was all it took for Chris to decide he no longer needed his brother, much less The Black Crowes.
We finished the tour as we had so many tours before, running on empty with all the screws coming loose. A year that had started with such promise, and so much positivity, finished on a note of relief, at best, as well as profound sorrow at another lost opportunity.
In early 2014, we played four corporate gigs: Las Vegas, New Orleans, New York, and Boston. Those were ultimately the last shows The Black Crowes ever played—private gigs for a select few instead of the grand anniversary tour we originally envisioned.
After our last show in Boston, I shared a car to the airport with the Robinson brothers: the three founding members of The Black Crowes taking what turned out to be our final ride together.
We were on different airlines. I got dropped off first. “All right, fellas, see you later,” I said.
“Okay, see you, man,” Rich said.
I looked at Chris, but he didn’t say anything. He was staring at me, a million miles away, staring through me actually, with an uncomfortable look on his face.
I stared back at him, blankly. Again I said, “Later, man.” And again, nothing.
After a few seconds, I laughed and said, “Well, all righty then!” I climbed out of the car and walked into the airport.
I texted Rich, who was still in the car with Chris. “He’s about to blow this whole fucking thing up, isn’t he?” I wrote.
“What do you mean?” Rich texted back.
“Look at him. He couldn’t even speak to me. He’s up to something.”
By that point, we all knew each other so fucking well. We couldn’t hide a thing from each other.
“Yeah, you’re probably right. He’s just staring out of his window,” Rich wrote back, still sitting right next to his brother, wondering whether or not something dramatic was cooking in that drug-addled brain.
A few days later, we got our answer. Chris’s wife sent an email to Pete Angelus, our manager of twenty-four years, stating his demands for his continued involvement in The Black Crowes. Moving forward, Chris wanted 75 percent of all the band’s income. That was quite an upgrade from the 33⅓ percent share he had been receiving.
It was apparent that our existing partnership agreement no longer meant anything to him.
The terms were nonnegotiable. There would be no discussion. Give him what he wanted, or he wasn’t coming back.
Pete and Rich then called me together, and Pete read the email over the phone. The email from Chris’s wife was long and rambling, whereas Pete’s response was simple and direct: “They both reject your new terms.” And that was the end of The Black Crowes.
Twenty-seven years. One email.
As far as I know, Chris and Rich haven’t spoken since. Chris and I haven’t spoken, either. I can’t imagine we ever will. I saw him once at the Nashville airport and he hightailed it away from me.
I’m not bitter about how things shook out. In fact, I’m genuinely amazed at how well we did, for as long as we did it, all things considered.
I think The Black Crowes overachieved for fucking ever. There’s no reason on earth that those people should’ve had that run. We simply weren’t made of the stuff of long-term success. We were too self-destructive, especially together.
There were tremendous strengths and there were crippling weaknesses within The Black Crowes. The band could never consistently ignore the weaknesses and focus on the strengths. The rare times we were focused, the results always spoke for themselves. The rest of the time it was a real battle.
In the grand scheme of things, I’m forever grateful for the experience.
As for me and Chris, we’d had huge ups and downs for years. He and I had conversations that lasted hours upon hours, leading me to feel connected to him as a brother. And the next day, or ten minutes later, we’d be telling each other to fuck off. For almost thirty years, we’d played very different roles at very different times in each other’s lives. We’d been roommates, bandmates, friends, and enemies.
But no more.
I don’t miss being in The Black Crowes. We had countless great moments, real highs, real dream-come-true kind of stuff, and within minutes the mood would always turn dark again. It was the inherent nature of the band when it was together. The highest of highs cut short by the lowest of lows.
A good day in The Black Crowes was just a day that wasn’t bad. That’s ultimately how it felt.
The idea of going back on the road again, or of simply being in a room together, is unimaginable. The Black Crowes are finished, and they should be finished.
I do have one eternal regret, though, and it’s that we didn’t pull off that last tour. The ultimate purpose of that tour was to say thank you: to our fans, the people most responsible for our existence, as well as each other.
I wish we had done that. I really wish we had. But we didn’t.
I feel like there’s some unfinished business. Neither Chris nor Rich have shown any interest in preserving The Black Crowes in any significant way. Chris seems to think singing Black Crowes songs on occasion with a pickup band is in some way meaningful, but it’s dubious to suggest those shows are about anything beyond financial desperation.
So I felt compelled to tell this story. If I don’t, who will?
At the very least, I can tell you what happened from my point of view.
On February 20, 1987, I moved via Greyhound bus from my hometown of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, to Atlanta, Georgia, to start a band.
I was twenty-one years old and had dropped out of college midway through my senior year at Western Kentucky University, in Bowling Green, two months earlier.
My buddy Clint Steele had called me out of the blue back in September—it turned out he was playing guitar and wanted to know what I was doing.
“I’m dropping out of college and I’m going to start a band,” he said. “You’re drumming all the time now, right?”
Nope. Not at all. Well, at least not in reality. But in my head? Yeah. Always. Nonstop.
The only thing I ever truly wanted was to be a drummer in a rock band. For as long as I could remember, I had listened to music and imagined myself playing the drums. When I played records, I would focus on how the drums would play off the other instruments. And I would air-drum for hours, years after most people stopped doing that kind of thing. When I went to see bands, I would focus on the drummer, judging his playing with a critical ear as if I really knew anything about it.
While in college, I actually played on borrowed drum kits a handful of times, and had just enough irrational confidence to convince myself that with a real commitment, I could be a pretty good drummer.
But playing all the time? No way. Not by a long shot.
“Yeah, man, every day,” I said, lying without hesitation.
“You any good?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Do you want to start a band with me?”
“Okay, cool! Let’s do it in January. We’ll go to Boston, it’ll be great.”
I had never been to Boston. Hell, he could have said Bangladesh. It didn’t matter. I was in. From the moment I hung up that phone, I was a changed man. I was in a band.
I never went to another class, but I did stay on campus for the rest of the semester enjoying what I viewed as a three-month college farewell tour which was, in every way imaginable, fantastic.
A month later, Clint called me and said, “Hey, man, I don’t want to go to Boston. I’m going to move back home to Atlanta. It’s cheaper there. It’s a cool scene.”
“Okay,” I said. I mean, I really didn’t care. It was all the same to me. It wasn’t Kentucky.
In November, Clint called to say he was on his way to Bowling Green for a night to hang out. He was bringing his friend Sven Pipien.
“Sven was the singer in my first band a couple years ago,” Clint explained, “but now he just started playing bass and he’s really good. He’s German, you’ll dig him.”
I’m already in a multinational band. This is gonna be great!
We had a summit meeting in my dorm. We immediately decided the three of us were going to make rock history. As Clint and Sven had already played a handful of club gigs in their former band, I took everything they said as gospel.
One thing our new band didn’t have was a singer. I introduced Clint and Sven to a freshman on my dorm floor named James Hall. He sang and played guitar in a cover band that did songs by The Smiths and The Cure, which for Bowling Green in 1986 was mind-boggling. I suggested James come down and jam once we were in Atlanta. You know, just to vibe it out.
James insisted he had to finish the entire school year, but said that maybe he would come down for a week at spring break and then, if we all clicked, he would move for good the following May.
Just like that, we had a band.
About a week before I was supposed to leave for Atlanta, Clint called and asked if I could meet him and Sven in Tuscaloosa instead. He said their roommate Chris was playing a gig there that Friday night with his band, Mr. Crowe’s Garden.
“We’re going to drive over with them. It’ll be a fun gig!” Clint promised. “They’re opening up for some local band at a club, and we’ll just party there, and then Saturday we’ll all get up and drive back to Atlanta.”
“Okay, cool,” I said. Tuscaloosa was yet another place I had never been. I was gonna get on a bus and go somewhere, by God.
Then, the day before I was supposed to head out to Tuscaloosa, Clint called again.
“Fuck it, just go to Atlanta. The gig was canceled.”
“Okay,” I said. “Who is this Chris guy, anyway?”
“He’s our roommate,” Clint replied. “You, me, Sven, and Chris are gonna live together. He’s totally insane but he’s really funny. His band is about to get signed by A&M Records. They’re doing demos for some guy from LA.” I didn’t really understand what that meant, but it sounded pretty damned impressive.
That Friday morning, February 20, my brother Doug took me to the bus station to catch a six o’clock bus. Atlanta is a big city, I remember thinking, I’ve got to look tough. I was wearing a flannel shirt, faded blue jeans, and a full-length black-leather trench coat, plus purple Chuck Taylors. That was a twenty-one-year-old Kentuckian’s idea of looking tough. I had a lot to learn.
The ride took forever. I had a two-hour stopover in Nashville, and then we stopped in just about every damned town between Nashville and Atlanta. I had a giant WKU duffel bag stuffed with everything I needed for my new life: clothes, shoes, books, some CDs, and a dark-brown beer bottle with twelve $100 bills shoved inside.
It’s happening! My real life is beginning. I was so excited. We pulled into Atlanta at five thirty in the evening. It was already dark outside. I stepped off the bus into the black, cold murk of an uncertain future.
As I looked around for a familiar face, I heard a voice I didn’t recognize.
“Are you Steve?”
“Hey, man, I’m Chris.”
Short hair, big nose, really big eyes, skinny as a rail. Holy shit, this guy looks just like fucking Emo Philips. He wore a faded denim jacket, a white button-down, and jeans. It was the first time I saw my future bandmate, Chris Robinson.
“Where’s Clint?” I asked.
“They went out to have a smoke or whatever. We’ve been waiting for a while.”
Just then Clint and Sven walked out. We exchanged awkward guy-hugs. Clint asked, “You got all your stuff?”
“Yeah, I just have this one bag… and TWELVE HUNDRED-DOLLAR BILLS!” I yelled.
I just blurted it out. There was a beat, a pregnant pause, and then we all fell out laughing. There was something about the absurdity of loudly announcing to the world I was packing what might as well have been a million dollars. It struck us all as funny. We were off to a good start.
A couple of minutes later, we all piled into Chris’s VW Rabbit. This was the first, and last, time I ever got into a car Chris was driving. I was fucking terrified. He was frantically sharing the story he’d seen on CNN that day about Hosea Williams, the famed civil rights leader. Williams had been marching in Cumming, Georgia, when the Ku Klux Klan showed up to throw rocks at him and his fellow protestors. Chris was acting out all the parts; he did an admittedly fantastic Hosea Williams impression, as well as all the various Klan spokesmen, the CNN reporter, and the hippie counterprotestors. He acted out the whole thing while driving through downtown Atlanta, all while looking at me and Sven in the backseat. To say he was animated would be a tremendous understatement.
“Dude! Look at the road!” we all yelled.
Chris was hilarious and completely frenzied. It was true mania with him right away, like a live wire. But he made me laugh.
We drove to Peachtree Battle, and pulled up to a Mexican restaurant called Jalisco. The four of us got a booth and all ordered Miller Genuine Draft, which was new on the market and therefore somewhat exotic to our minds.
We told stories and we all laughed a ton. I had never been so happy to be anywhere in my life.
“Don’t worry, guys,” I said drunkenly, “if we get into any shit tonight, I’ve got twelve hundred-dollar bills on me!”
We screamed with laughter. When the dinner check arrived, I grabbed it. “First night in town, boys, let me pick this up. I’ve got TWELVE HUNDRED-DOLLAR BILLS!”
Over the next few weeks, this was a constant running joke. Of course, that was my money to buy a drum kit, and soon enough I had burned through almost half of it and still hadn’t gotten a job.
In the meantime, we moved into a two-bedroom house in Candler Park, at 292 Oakdale Road. The rent was $450 a month, which broke down to $112.50 per man. I remember thinking I could probably panhandle for rent, or do odd jobs in the neighborhood, if push came to shove.
Sven had originally signed the lease, and one time the landlord came by to check on the place. He was an old Georgia cracker. When he knocked, I opened the front door and he looked me up and down suspiciously before finally mumbling, “Sevens Pippi… where is he?”
Of course, we called Sven “Sevens Pippi” for years after that.
Anyway, Chris and I ended up as roommates. We didn’t have beds, just mattresses on the floor, courtesy of his parents. Clint and Sven, the two smokers, took the other room.
Both bands, Mr. Crowe’s Garden and our unnamed new band, would be able to rehearse at the house. As I had still only played drums a handful of times, I didn’t have any sort of realistic idea of what I really needed to get started. I borrowed a car from Clint’s mom and drove to a store called Rhythm City, where I proceeded to get royally ripped off.
“I need everything,” I told the sales guy. “I need a seat, I need sticks, I need cymbals, whatever else I’m gonna need for my gig next week.” I didn’t actually have a gig next week, but I thought saying I did would make me seem legit.
“What’s your budget?” the sales clerk asked.
“Seven hundred bucks.”
I might as well have stamped “sucker” on my forehead. I bought a Pearl Export starter-level drum kit and these Zildjian Scimitar cymbals that sounded like trash-can lids, some pedals, some stands, some sticks, and some drum keys. I walked out with a receipt that read “$699.99.” I literally had one penny to my name, but I didn’t care. I was a real drummer now.
Back at the house, I stared at my new drums with a mix of excitement and apprehension.
What the fuck have I gotten myself into?
I didn’t know much about the Atlanta music scene before I moved there. The Georgia Satellites had just blown up. Their big single “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” went to number two on the charts the very week that I moved there, but they were in their thirties. They might as well have been a hundred years old.
Athens was a different story. I was into a lot of bands from Athens, especially R.E.M. I had seen them on every tour since the Chronic Town EP came out in 1982, and they were far and away my favorite band. Like a million other college kids in the south at that time, Athens was my mecca. I figured, well, Atlanta is close to Athens, at least.
Upon arrival, the Atlanta band of the moment was Drivin N Cryin, who had just signed to Island Records. Clint and his friends were obsessed with them. It was pretty clear from the jump that they were the kingpins in the scene we were about to join.
Clint, Sven, and I named our band Mary My Hope. The first day we set up to rehearse, I was terrified. I couldn’t hide the fact that, in actuality, I didn’t know what I was doing. All those years of air-drumming, watching other drummers, imagining this very moment—it was all useless. I just played a straight beat for hours. No fills, not ever a cymbal crash. I hammered away on the same simple beat and either sped up or slowed down depending on what Clint wanted. He had written some songs, and he had already been in a band and rehearsed before, so he led the way. Little did I know that what most songwriters want is exactly what I was providing: a simple beat without any nonsense for them to work around.
It was late March, only a month after I came to town, and we already had a proper rock ’n’ roll flophouse for two bands to rehearse and operate out of. As planned, James came down for spring break from WKU to jam. We played him the songs we had been working on, and he quickly learned them. By the second day, he announced, “That’s it, I am finishing school in May and moving here full time.”
I felt like I had just won the lottery.
Mary My Hope booked our first gig at a bar near Emory University called The Dugout, where I had found a job as a doorman. It was the end of May, and we were opening for Mr. Crowe’s Garden.
I barely slept the night before. We loaded into The Dugout for sound check late in the afternoon. I set up the kit, and the house soundman came onstage to place mics around the drums. I sat down at the kit and a minute later he said, over the PA, “Okay, Steve, let’s get some sounds. Start with the kick drum.”
- "One of the year's most buzzed-about rock bios!"—JamBase
- "Bands are beautiful fragile toxic things--always one wrong glance or argument away from falling apart. Steve manages to tell the tale of the internal turmoil of the Black Crowes, in all its sordid detail, without ever getting finger-pointy about it. I honestly couldn't put it down. Made me nostalgic, sad, and happy too."—Chris Shiflett, lead guitarist of Foo Fighters
- "Reading this book brought me back to a time that rock and roll mattered to me more than almost anything else. I was at some of the early Black Crowes gigs depicted here, and the book is so well drawn, that I could not only hear the music again, but smell the sweat coming off the band and crowd as clearly as I did back then. This is Almost Famous, told by the guy behind the drums, who remembers every chord change, every fight, every song's journey from demo to record to live performance. Essential reading for rock fans everywhere."—Brian Koppelman, co-creator and showrunner of Billions
- "Hard to Handle is an amazing and a lot of times uncomfortably candid account of Steve's time in the Black Crowes. The opportunities presented and then lost. The ups and downs. The fights. The fuck ups. This book is literally the Angela's Ashes of rock memoirs. Every time things seem to be looking up for the band an insane decision, comment or substance seems to drive the band right into a ditch, only to see them somehow use that negative momentum to then attain a new level of success. I absolutely loved this book. Can't wait for the movie!"—Bill Burr, comedian
- "I couldn't put the book down--absolutely unbelievable read! Now I know why I was lucky to play tennis; I didn't have to deal with anyone except myself!"—John McEnroe, New York Times bestselling author of But Seriously and You Cannot Be Serious
- "A raw, intimate portrait of the band vividly unfolds as Gorman recounts his history with the Crowes, from their conception to their final days. While this is a familiar tale in some ways, Gorman sidesteps the usual clichees. The book is a reminder of the band's wide-ranging talent and great music... Gorman has written a brutally honest, deeply personal memoir of the group he helped to create. A must for fans of the Black Crowes and American rock and roll."—Library Journal
- "Insightful and explosive....almost every page has some sort of jaw-dropping revelation...and Gorman was there from the very beginning to the last downbeat."—The Houston Press
- On Sale
- Sep 24, 2019
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Da Capo Press