I first heard the Black Crowes in 1991 or so when their version of "Hard to Handle" was all over the radio and MTV. As an eleven year old growing up on classic rock of the 1960s and 1970s and who had just started learning how to play guitar the year before, it blew my mind. While I became a fan of grunge and alternative when those hit big in ~1991/1992 and became the dominant musical force of the decade, in those early 1990s years it was either classic rock, 80s synth-pop or hair metal bands that ruled the airwaves. The Black Crowes were a massive breath of fresh air and I became a lifelong and devoted fan from that moment on. It's better left to get into more detail in a subsequent post, but every album release of theirs became an event in the 1990s and I even got to see them live in 2001 on the last tour they did before their initial breakup (with Spacehog and Oasis opening for them!). I'd always seen the band as similar to the Kinks, Oasis, and Spacehog in that they were creatively led by two brothers who had a real love/hate relationship with each other, but beyond the feuding siblings aspect to the band, I assumed they were just like any other rock band with their various ups and downs. However, by the time it came to their final breakup in 2015 I'd learned a lot more about the band's inner workings and so when I heard that drummer and founding member Steve Gorman was writing a memoir of his (and the Crowes') career, I knew I had to read it.
Along with brothers Chris and Rich Robinson, Steve Gorman was the only member of the Black Crowes who was there from the very beginning all the way to the very end. (As an aside, the band has been teasing a comeback these last few weeks but as far as anyone can tell, it's just the brothers Robinson using the Black Crowes name with a bunch of hired sidemen...no former Crowes members are involved and Gorman certainly isn't). Most Crowes fans acknowledge that while the Robinson brothers were the creative force behind the band (being the writers of all their songs), Gorman was the heart and soul. He certainly didn't waste any time in the book getting right into the history of the Crowes, picking up the story with his initial move to Atlanta in the mid-1980s at the end of his college years in order to form a band with friends. Shortly after arriving in Atlanta, he befriended the Robinson brothers (who had their own band, Mr. Crowe's Garden) and they shared their love of classic rock and the burgeoning indie rock scene spearheaded by the legendary R.E.M. (who hailed from nearby Athens). Gorman helped the brothers out by playing drums on some demo sessions they had lined up and eventually joined forces with them in starting a new band that eventually became the Black Crowes. The rest, as they say, is history...and what an insane history it was.
As Gorman makes clear numerous times throughout the book, Hard to Handle is the history of the Crowes as he saw it. He readily acknowledges that the other guys in the band (especially the Robinson brothers, who come out of this book looking worse than ever) may have seen (and probably did) things differently than he did. With that being said, as one of the few people in the band who didn't descend into drug addiction, I was comfortable taking what Gorman said at face value. He traces the band's history from the heady early days when their debut album Shake Your Moneymaker launched them into stardom through their 1990s heyday when they released masterpieces like The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, Amorica, and Three Snakes and One Charm. Gorman not only dispels many of the myths that grew up around the band (i.e. that the making of these albums wasn't nearly as tense and drug-fueled as they've been made out to be) while also giving numerous examples of how the Robinson brothers continually self-sabotaged the band's career, both purposely and accidentally. Indeed, this ends up being the theme of most of the book: Chris Robinson's bizarre behavior and seeming mental issues and Rich Robinson's lack of intelligence or social skills. Both brothers are shown to have terrible business acumen and horrible interpersonal skills. Gorman takes the reader all the way through the initial phase of the band's career, from their formation in 1987 to the break-up in 2002, in exquisite detail. While doing so, he mentions his own insecurities and breakdowns along the way while remaining ever thankful for the love and support of his wife and friends outside the band throughout it all. There are also some hilarious and interesting stories about the various other bands the Crowes interacted with during the 1990s (with a lot of detail focused on the legendary Jimmy Page and Robert Plant).
My one and only complaint with the book is the short shrift Gorman gives to the second and final phase of the Crowes' career from 2005-2015. After spending over 300 pages giving us the story of the band's first fifteen years, he wraps up their final decade in one chapter which I thought was a real shame. One of my favorite albums of theirs, 2008's Warpaint, was released during that period, as well as the albums Before the Frost...Until the Freeze and Croweology. The latter album (Before the Frost...Until the Freeze) was recorded live in the studio in front of a small audience and it would have been really interesting to hear Gorman's thoughts on what that process was like. With that being said, he seemed to finally be in a good place and at peace with how insane dealing with the brothers was once he rejoined in 2005, so perhaps he didn't feel a need to even bother telling any stories from those years. Speaking of the brothers, it's unlikely Gorman will ever get a Christmas card or phone call from either of them again. While this book certainly isn't a hatchet job and many/most of the stories he tells have been corroborated elsewhere, it's also a classic case of "never meet your heroes." While learning more about the Robinson's than I previously knew doesn'tt make me like their music any less, to say this book was eye-opening would be an understatement. As I mentioned before, Gorman freely admits that others in the band probably saw things slightly differently than he did, but at the same time you can tell he really loved the band and the fact that so much insanity went on around them and that almost every failure they had was self-inflicted, it's hard not to believe most, if not all of what he says.
Hard to Handle is one of the best rock memoirs I've read in a long time and tells the story of one of the best (and most quintessentially American) rock bands of the last thirty years with equal parts love and disbelief. The Black Crowes have been called "The World's Most Rock and Roll Rock and Roll Band" and while there certainly wasn't any shortage of sex, drugs, or rock and roll in their story, theirs isn't a story of excess and debauchery as much as it is a tale of egos, poor judgment, and dysfunctional relationships. If you're a fan of the Crowes or just like a good band biography, Hard to Handle is essential reading.
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