I spent the winter of 1994 through the summer of 1995 soaking myself in August and Everything After. I did lots of variations on the theme of playing it through, playing some part of it, and playing some part of a part of it over and over. Up to a few hours a day. Usually with breaks in between. The release date coincided with a time I was beginning to sense my life was all wrong. Instead of trampling down the infrastructure of everything that had thus far held all my meaning, I waited it out, riding the waves of Adam Duritz’s enormous accumulation of personal funk. (Though I thought I was riding his haunting lyrics, vocal passion, and perfectly timed crescendos.) I now know that I put in those hours with August because I needed to absorb enough confidence to confront my troubles instead of just stewing in them. I don’t know why it took so long to figure this out. For six months I witnessed the “Macarena”-style overplay of three of the songs at my son’s favorite ice rink every Friday night (“Mr. Jones,” “Rain King,” and “A Murder of One”). Pre-adolescents don’t skate to songs whose dominant feature is the ability to get people wringing their hands, puking out big chunks of solidified tears, and pondering life’s complexities. Hoo, hah.
Lucky I abandoned Counting Crows after that and missed the sad trauma of Recovering the Satellites. (I bought it, shelved it, and looked forward to breaking the plastic wrapper as a major component of my future growth.) I found out a year or so later that I missed two great songs, “Mercury,” and “A Long December.” In “Mercury,” Adam says his crazy girlfriend drives him nuts, and the drumbeats say how she sucks him into a funhouse that feels like an underwater vacuum. Recovering the Satellites followed up an über-disc that came off as a greatest hits collection even though it wasn’t; it was produced in the aftermath of a success that must have been hallucinogenic. Kurt Cobain died, and Adam Duritz had a nervous breakdown right around then. (It’s rough being a famous touchstone.) No wonder I’m walking into walls in the lyrics where windows should be—these songs want to be left alone.
It’s all the fault of people like me. Duritz’s legendary last AOL posting in his “Subject: me” file (March 1999) is as follows: “what the fuck are you people talking about? how the hell do you have any idea at all how i approach women or what i want out of my relationships with them?” In the sneeze diaries of the Web, Adam Duritz’s personal life is far less important to us than sharing our opinions about it.
I’m not sure what’s sicker, the way I got so obsessed with the debut album, or the way I listen to the love songs. I’ve always assumed that women have an easier time listening to Counting Crows love songs because, instead of listening in the third person, or identifying with the singer, I usually take the position of the woman who the song is written about. I’m worth it.
His Elizabeth songs probably have the biggest cult following. Elizabeth is supposed to be someone he knew, and they had to break up because of career conflicts. It’s a common relationship killer, not about money or ego, but about conflicting values, conflicting notions of acceptable lifestyle. (“Good Night Elizabeth” on Recovering the Satellites was written for her.) When this type of thing happens in my life, I read a self-help book about it. When it happens in a love song, I worship it.
This Desert Life, the new album, opens with “hanginaround,” broadcasting weird noises from outer space, then drumbeats, then shouts. A guitar line wraps around, then a piano. Adam jumps in and drives away, singing drunk about getting sober. This will be the first track to go over big at the ice rink. There will be others, but it’s hard to predict which. What’s sure is they’ll be songs the kids don’t under stand now, but figure out years later, smile to themselves and think, “I skated to this?” just like I smile when I think of myself slow dancing to, well, “Me and Mrs. Jones” as a kid.
The new Elizabeth song is called “I Wish I Was a Girl.” It’s the sort of title that gets one dubbed a “dork” in the popular press. “I’m going down to Hollywood. They’re going to make a movie from all the things they find crawling around inside my brain,” Duritz says. He’s killing me. Sometimes I wish he’d party it up at the Playboy Mansion and come back with a raunchy number about a busty blond. (Ouch.) The resignation in the guitar line draws me in. The rhythm slaps me with regret. The background vocals give me comfort. I’m undone.
Counting Crows play Hammerstein Ballroom November 7, 9, and 10.