Hard to Handle
Hard to Handle: The Life and Death of The Black Crowes – A Memoir
By Steve Gorman with Steven Hyden
[Da Capo Press]
“Chris Robinson’s greed buried The Black Crowes in a shallow, unmarked grave of no fixed location. He left The Black Crowes to lie dead forever, forgotten alongside countless others who lost their way.
The Black Crowes deserve better.”
So writes Steve Gorman in his new autobiography Hard to Handle: The Life and Death of The Black Crowes. As the drummer and founding member of The Black Crowes, Gorman tells a great tale of modern-day rock ‘n’ roll. His version of RNR success is not strikingly different from other versions of rock history; high-altitude levels of success mixed with numbingly sad low levels of failure mix to create The Black Crowes’ story. He seems to have done what he could to add to the success and steer clear from failures. But as the propellant of the band, he was always a solid drummer whose force certainly allowed for The Black Crowes to move forward, yet he was unable to steer. This, he writes, is an extremely frustrating position in which to be. Those steering the band were Chris and Rich, the Brothers Robinson. Thanks to them The Black Crowes were constantly hitting brick walls…and with Gorman’s contribution they were doing it with unbelievable force. No matter how hard he tried, he could not avoid the crashes…and each crash was a total disaster.
“The problem with The Black Crowes – and this will always drive me crazy – is that we weren’t some hard-luck story, like Big Star or The Replacements,” writes Gorman. “If you are Alex Chilton or Paul Westerberg, people look at you and say, ‘Man, they should have had bigger careers.’ But we had a big career. And we threw it all away.” The Brothers Robinson were so poorly adjusted to life, success, relationships, music and each other that they continued to ruin it for everyone.
In 1987 Gorman moved to Atlanta to join a band that became Mr. Crowe’s Garden. Soon they were sharing stages and conversations with bands like Mary My Hope and Drivin’ N Cryin’. Small steps were made, and Chris’s lyrics and vocals, combined with brother Rich’s guitar, helped create a solid songbook and an attractive vibe. With some major label input, their image and sound were changed from rooms adorned with Echo & The Bunnymen posters and jangle pop to The Black Crowes. A new outfit emerged complete with ‘70’s British swagger, rooster bonnets, rails of blow and tilted whiskey bottles. Gorman’s story is a must read, especially for any Atlantans who might remember those nascent days of the scene replete with such fixtures as Jalisco’s, Rhythm City, L5P Fellini’s Pizza and The Dugout.
Whatever happened, the Brothers Robinson would not allow success to lead to happiness. “The brothers would soon fully commit to an all-out, full-scale, head-to-head battle for control of the band that would largely destroy The Black Crowes,” tells Gorman. “The rest of us would be caught in the crossfire – we were all ultimately collateral damage.”
Gorman never treads closely to the role of a psychologist, but his analysis of the Brothers Robinson’s dysfunction is apt and, seemingly, accurate. They fought all the time, and neither was bright enough to know when he was right or wrong. “Their nonsensical sibling rivalry infiltrated every aspect of the band’s existence. Rich had lived his entire life in Chris’s shadow,” surmises Gorman. “He wasn’t happy there, but he couldn’t imagine anything else.”
Hard to Handle is rife with the Brothers Robinson’s flagrant RNR fouls. “They were a two-man clown car,” writes Gorman. Their race to the title of The Biggest Jerk is a close call but Chris seems to have won – if for no other reason than because Rich didn’t do drugs so those around him didn’t have to deal with him losing his pharmaceutical compass. Yet, Gorman writes, “Rich has always been guilty of thinking he is a lot smarter that he is.”
The Brothers Robinson’s self-sabotage tries hard to overshadow the high points of The Black Crowes, but Gorman makes sure to note all the fun they had and with whom. They played with Aerosmith, ZZ Top, Robert Plant, H.O.R.D.E., Furthur, The Rolling Stones and, most prominently, Jimmy Page. Yet no matter their moments of onstage ass-kicking clarity, the Brothers Robinson were there to ruin it all. “The key [to success] was simple: don’t make enemies,” recounts Gorman. “We were constantly making enemies.” They would bail on shows and insult the fans. “Chris insisted that playing the songs our fans wanted to hear was bullshit,” writes Gorman. “‘I didn’t get into this just to be a jukebox’” Chris said. “Never did it occur to Chris that some dudes from Long Island were in town just to fucking rock. Or that a couple from New Jersey hired a sitter for the night, met some friends from college in a bar across the street and were really hoping we could give them a special night away from the normalcy of their daily lives.”
Chris could not help but make bad decisions. One of the more comical ones was when he became a Deadhead. “In the 1980s, Chris fucking hated The Grateful Dead,” writes Gorman. “He hated the music, he hated hippies, he hated the whole culture. Back then, when the Dead played a three-night stand at the Omni, he’d sit at Fellini’s Pizza in Little Five Points during my shifts, mocking all the Deadheads. So, it was a definite shock to see Chris become a Deadhead.”
Their time with Page was certainly their high point as the shows they did with him were hugely successful and critically acclaimed. Each night they were giving new life to one of the most coveted song catalogs in rock music. “Jimmy didn’t try to make us sound like Led Zeppelin,” remembers Gorman. “’You’re already a band,’ he told us. ‘I’m joining your band.’” Gorman and Page had a special friendship, one that Gorman never took for granted; the two of them taking naps together is a sweet and tender passage. Page once told him, “Nobody since Bonzo [Zeppelin drummer John Bonham] does that like you would. It always felt so good to play with you.” This time it was Rich to steer the band into a wall. Rich rejected Page’s offer to contribute to a Black Crowes song/project that would have resulted in a Page/Robinson/Robinson credit or a Page production credit. “No thanks. We’re good,” he told Page. After that exchange Page left the band. That helped Gorman finally quit The Black Crowes…something he had wanted to do before Page arrived on the scene. He writes, “Jimmy loved playing with us. We loved playing with him. And Rich took that away.” Even Plant said, “I thought he played better with you lot than he had with me in years.”
The money and the music were good and eventually Gorman had a family to support and a home in Brooklyn. He wasn’t stupid, just committed. “I saw myself as a guy who had packed a parachute, knew it was ready to go, but hadn’t stepped on the plane yet,” he writes. In the end he had to use the parachute as the Brothers Robinson crashed the band into the final wall…with corpses strewn all around them…corpses they were never able to see. “Chris had fully committed to his narrative that he was The Black Crowes,” concludes Gorman. “His greatest talent was clear to see. He was a fucking genius at surrounding himself with other people filled with real talent, dedication, and humanity and dragging them all down into the muck and filth and disorder of his own existence. And when they wobbled, or struggled, or fell…he moved on without them, kicking them out the door. And for that he wanted more. More credit, more control and more money. Always more.”
Gorman deserves some sort of award for dealing with all he did, all the while helping The Black Crowes ascend to a pinnacle of rock ‘n’ roll. He’s kept his credibility and Hard to Handle illustrates all the hassle and heartbreak he had to endure to do it. Heck, there were seventeen members in and out of the band throughout the years with only three constants. “If nothing else, this book has been my attempt to place a proper headstone at that grave site,” concludes Gorman. “A proud and strong marker to stand forever for anyone interested enough to seek it out.”