Music

The Titanic Sibling Rivalry that Propelled One of the Greatest Rock Bands of the 1990s

Members of the Black Crowes place their handprints in cement as they are inducted into the Hollywood Rock Walk in 2001. From left: Eddie Harsch, Chris Robinson, Rich Robinson, and Steve Gorman. (Fred Prouser/Reuters)
In Hard to Handle: The Life and Death of the Black Crowes, former Crowes drummer Steve Gorman gives an insider’s history of the band.

Brothers often fight, and that goes double for brothers in rock bands.

From Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks to Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis to John and Tom Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, rock and roll has had its fair share of legendary sibling rivalries. Now, a new book makes the case that Chris and Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes might have topped them all.

Hard To Handle: The Life and Death of The Black Crowes is Crowes drummer Steve Gorman’s attempt, aided by music scribe Steven Hyden, to give an inside look at the story of perhaps the best rock band of the 1990s. Gorman was an original member of the group and the only person to put up with the Robinson brothers for the duration.

Over the course of the book, a clear picture of both Robinsons emerges. Chris, the vocalist, is the supposedly care-free hippie who is actually “a control freak,” described at one point as the angriest and most judgmental person Gorman has ever known. Rich, the guitar player, is the sulky loner, unwilling to take part in most communal band activities and unable to enjoy the band’s success.

Chris, Rich, and Steve exist as the lone constants in what has been described as “The Most Rock ’n’ Roll Rock ’n’ Roll Band in the World.” Over the years, those three and a rotating cast of 14 other bandmates did their best to live up to the title. Members experienced enormous success, label fights, lineup changes, fistfights, drug abuse, break-ups, hiatuses, triumphant returns, and epic live shows. They even produced not one, but two complete unreleased albums in the ’90s, only made available long after the decade had passed on a compilation, The Lost Crowes.

Gorman has been very careful to say this is not the history of the Black Crowes, but his history. It’s one of the reasons the book works so well. You won’t read much about those amazing songs being written, because Gorman didn’t write them, and there’s little projection to be found in the course of the book. But Gorman’s decision to largely stick to what he personally has seen and heard doesn’t mean he is without insight. Early on, we learn about the brothers’ songwriting methods:

Rich would play parts and Chris would put them together. That was their process. Years later, Rich would describe himself as the architect of The Black Crowes sound and I’d think, No, dude, you’re the lumber and parts supplier. Chris is the architect.

If you’re not a die-hard fan of the Crowes, there’s still much to enjoy. The rise of the band coincided with a rock revival in the music industry. Thus, it crossed paths with hair-metal outfits, grunge rockers, 70s legends, and even the jam-band scene. Stories about Aerosmith, Lenny Kravitz, Oasis, AC/DC, and others dot the narrative.

The Crowes often are dismissed by critics as Rolling Stones wannabes, but the Robinson brothers were just as influenced by the music of The Faces and Humble Pie, along with the southern-rock textures of the Allman Brothers. The band was unabashedly retro in its look and feel, as evidenced by the bell bottoms worn by more than one member. But it also injected its own style and substance into its songs, beginning with its second album, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. After that, no two Crowes records would really sound alike again, as the band expanded its horizons and added touches of psychedelica, Americana, and heavier rock ’n’ roll.

In fact, the legendary band that plays the largest role in the book is Led Zeppelin. Robert Plant is christened “Uncle Bob” by Chris following a series of friendly meetings early in the Black Crowes’ career. Meanwhile, the Crowes ended up touring for a while with Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page. The most jaw-dropping story of the book involves Page and that tour. Shockingly enough, it concerns neither drugs nor sex.

In many ways the book tries to address the question: “What is one willing to put up with to achieve his dreams?” With the success of its first few years, the band had reached the top of the mountain. The book doesn’t hide how desperate all involved were to reach the same heights again in the years that followed, yet how unwilling members were to do the little things that could help get them there. The Replacements may have written the longest chapter in the annals of rock ’n’ roll self-sabotage, but Gorman makes clear that the Crowes wasted plenty of opportunities themselves.

Virtually every member of the Crowes was miserable around the rest of his bandmates for large portions of the band’s time off-stage, but for Gorman, moments of excellence in a sold-out venue soothed many wounds:

That’s essentially how The Black Crowes stayed together. If the band hadn’t been great, it would have ended years earlier. But you put up with all the bullsh** because one day Jimmy Page says, ‘There just aren’t live bands like you guys anymore. You really made me want to play. I want to join your band!’

Gorman recounts multiple occasions on which he came close to leaving. And he did, in fact, officially quit in the early 2000s, only to be lured back for another run that lasted until 2014, when the Crowes splintered again over Chris’s alleged demand for a much larger percentage of band revenue. At that point, lingering acrimony made any future Crowes music seem exceedingly unlikely. Yet recent reports indicate that a Gorman-less reunion could be in the works for 2020. The oft-bickering brothers are said to be burying the hatchet in advance of another tour. Despite just two Top-40 singles during their career, the Crowes cultivated a devoted fan base, some of whom followed them from city to city for each tour date.

It appears those fans that Gorman couldn’t walk away from for more than two decades could now provide enough fuel to power the Black Crowes for one more flight.

Scot Bertram is the co-host of the Political Beats podcast at National Review. He also serves as a lecturer in journalism and general manager of the student-run radio station at Hillsdale College.

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