Counting Crows vocalist Adam Duritz felt nervous. The reviewer from Rolling Stone was coming to the Detroit show on the night before Thanksgiving. The new band was headlining a concert of its own, the weather was rainy and cold and the 29-year-old vocalist worried whether the Crows would draw many people so far from its Bay Area home.
Even though the band had lured a decent crowd to a show the night before in the nearby college town of Lansing, it still took Duritz by surprise when more than 700 customers filled the small club in Detroit. It looked like a good sign to him.
Duritz was right. In January- spurred by an appearance on "Saturday Night Live," constant MTV airplay of the "Mr. Jones" video and breakthrough radio play across three formats-the Crows album "August and Everything After" went through the roof. It streaked onto the charts, hitting the top 10 within weeks. Six months after its September release, it has sold more than 1.25 million copies.
How this unknown Bay Area band blasted out of nowhere to become the biggest new act of the year amounts to a modern-day fairy tale. It's a show-biz success story with all the contemporary trimmings: a red-hot demo tape, a determined record company executive, good timing, some luck and, most of all, enough talent to make people notice.
"I'm in shock," Duritz said recently during a brief return to his Berkeley home. "I thought we would make a nice, small record and tour. I don't understand how this happened."
It all started with a demo tape- a tape so good it made jaded professionals, long weary of auditioning unknowns, stop cold. The tape was the work of songwriter Duritz and guitarist Dave Bryson, who owns Dancing Dog Studio, a 16-track facility in Emeryville, where the producer has been polishing demo tapes by local bands for more than 10 years.
His own band, Mr. Dog, had a major-labor offer more than six years ago, when the lead singer suddenly abandoned the project.
Bryson and Duritz met through mutual friends. Duritz, an English major from UC Berkeley who grew up with one ear fastened to the radio, was thinking about quitting music altogether. Then his roommate, David Immergluck, a onetime member of Camper Van Beethoven, convinced him to answer a classified ad, which landed him a gig with an alternative rock band called the Himalayans.
Duritz also was singing background vocals in another group, Sordid Humor, when he formed an acoustic duo with Bryson. This was the nucleus of Counting Crows.
Bryson and Duritz began making tapes, using a variety of musician friends to round out the sound, slowly putting together a repertoire and a band at the same time.
By winter 1991, the Counting Crows had accumulated one long, impressive demo tape- some versions featured more than a dozen songs- crafted into a gleamering shine by Bryson and bristling with Duritz's passionate, literate, tuneful songwriting.
Duritz called a lawyer friend of his father's, who referred him to another music-buisness lawyer in the firm's Los Angeles office. The lawyer encouraged him to send a tape, but then left it sitting on his desk for weeks before guilt moved him to shove it into his tape player.
"It was the single best demo tape I've ever heard in my life," said Allen Lenard, who agreed to represent the group in its search for a record deal.
Meanwhile, Gary Gersh at Geffen Records, the man who signed Nirvana, heard about the tape from a friend of his wife's. He tracked down lenard, and took the tape with him on a Utah ski vacation over the Christmas holidays. Gersh popped it into the tape player in a rented Jeep as he pulled out of the airport parking lot and didn't take it out for the rest of the weekend.
"I was nervous," said Gersh, who is now the president of Capitol Records. "I rarely fall in love with something that much."
He flew to San Francisco to catch the band's next gig, at the Paradise Lounge. Unimpressed with the show, Gersh nevertheless met with band members the next morning and asked if they had the songs from the demo in acoustic versions. "The tape was too clean for my taste," he said.
Two weeks later, he was back in San Francisco along with associates from his label. The annual Gavin Seminar was in town and the band was appearing in a showcase of local rookies at the I-Beam. The place was packed with record executives and the Crows' show had improved greatly.
By this time, the Crows had found managers. Martin Kirkup and Steve Jensen of Direct Management laughed when they got the tape from attorney Lenard. With a dozen songs, on the cassette, the tape was about for times as long as most demos, which usually are trimmed to three or four songs- music-buisness professionals have limited attention spans. They joked about it on their way out of the office and headed for home for the weekend. But before Monday morning, they were on the phone raving over this incredible tape.
Kirkup, a former English professor who ran the artist-development division of A&M records in the late '70s, joined forces with onetime booking agent Jensen in 1984. They managed modestly successful groups such as Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark and Echo and the Bunnymen, and also had steered the B-52's into a major comeback. They, too. saw an inept Crows' Paradise gig, but wanted to represent the group anyway.
The day after the I-Beam showcase in February 1992, Jensen and Kirkup fielded calls from nine labels. Three contenders quickly emerged- Geffen, Elektra and A&M.
The band member seriously investigated each label, meeting with heads of different departments at each company. Money was never the issue: creative control was. Geffen, who offered to let the band and management participate fully in marketing and promotion plans, won the day. Two months after the I-Beam showcase, the Counting Crows signed with the label.
Another convert was Bonnie Simmons, a Bay Area radio legend who became one of the band's biggest boosters. Not only did she court the group for a music publishing company she represented, but she aired the demo tape on her weekly KPFA radio show.
Another bidding war broke out, this time for the group's publishing rights. Simmons' small company was left in the dust when EMI Publishing won.
Nonetheless, Simmons sent a copy of the tape to producer T Bone Burnett. "There is an element of serendipity to all this," she said. "I've known T Bone for 20 years now and I have never sent T Bone Burnett a tape before. I've thought about it, but I've never gotten it together. I don't know why I did this time."
While the band initially held some experimental sessions with producers Don Dixon of R.E.M. fame and George Drakoulias, best known for his work with the Black Crowes, the Crows quickly settled on Burnett. He has worked with Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and U2's Bono as a guitarist and songwriter, but as a producer his choices have been more esoteric: Los Lobos, Leo Kottke, Bruce Cockburn.
When it was time to record, Gersh had a novel suggestion for the band. He told them to rent a house, live together and bring in remote recording gear rather than use a regular studio.
"One thing I've learned from Robbie Robertson and Peter Gabriel," Gersh said, "is that making records has so much to do with the vibe of the place where you're making the records."
"I was tired of studios," Burnett said. "They reek of despair. It sinks into the walls."
"The last thing we wanted to do was to go into a studio where we would all know what we were doing and make a 'professional' record," Duritz said. "I wanted to go to live it. To be stuck in there, trapped, where the whole world is making that record."
They hunted up a rambling rental in the Hollywood Hills, and Duritz decorated it with a few paintings from home and a giant autographed picture of clown Emmett Kelly. Burnett showed up every morning and they worked until late at night. If Gersh couldn't stop by, he checked in by phone. In many way respects, these two months were not just recording sessions, but boot camp for an unseasoned band that hadn't slogged it out in grimy nightclubs and seedy rehearsal halls.
The demo versions of the songs loomed over the project. From the moment he first heard the tape, Gersh wanted them to make a different kind of record. "I wanted to take a bunch of demos that sounded like a record," he said, "and turn it into a record that sounded like a bunch of demos."
Said Burnett, "If you cut a song to get a great new version of the demo, all it would be is an exercise in recording, not a real moment. All Adam wants to do is find real moments."
"I don't like the demos," Duritz said. "Since we recorded them, I became much more honest. I think that's what's good about me. They were clever more than meaningful, but not what I wanted out of our band. I wanted something more raw, emotional with edges. I was determined to make that kind of record, but we didn't know how to make a record. So all we could do was brutalize each other until we got it on record. It was not a picnic."
One song, "Raining in Baltimore," was written and recorded while the rest of the album was already being mixed. Meanwhile the title track was ten minutes long. Duritz never recorded a take that he liked, so it didn't make the album at all.(It'll be on the next one instead.) And Gersh brought in engineer Scott Litt, whose work includes records by R.E.M and Nirvana, to do some final mixes at a real studio. Now the album was done.
While the band was recording , Gersh's friend Robbie Robertson of The Band suggested the Crows stand in for Van Morrison at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame awards dinner in January 1993. These complete unknowns shared a stage with Cream, surviving members of the Doors and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. It was an auspicious debut forever embeded in the legend of the Counting Crows.
When the time came for the label to deliver the album to radio the band insisted on no single, no focus track, just the plain unvarnished album. Gersh had left the label to become president of Capitol Records, but Duritz still stayed in his house when he went to Los Angeles.
Simmons arranged for the band to appear at a Boulder, Colo., convention of Adult Alternate Album (AAA) radio program directors a few weeks before the album's release.
The AAA radio format is a fresh concept of underground radio, more open to honest music than hit-oriented stations. The Crows played for virtually every program and music director from all the AAA stations in the country, along with Rosanne Cash, Maria McKee and Bruce Cockburn. "They just blew everybody away," said Bill Bennett, vice president of promotion for Geffen Records.
When the Counting Crows album arrived at radio stations a couple of weeks later, the programmers began playing different tracks in different markets. "A Murder of One" emerged as the initial favorite. Simmons, once a radio promotion executive at Warner Bros. credited with breaking Dire Straits in this country, went to work on the project as an independent hired by Geffen. It was her first promotion work in more than 10 years. Within two weeks, virtually every AAA station in the country was playing the record.
Soon, the label was pursuing alternative radio, as well. Within two months airplay has begun to spread, with "Mr. Jones," a sarcastic take on rock stardom, now getting the most attention. In November, the label finally released a video of "Mr. Jones," which swung into rotation on MTV. Album radio also started playing the song.
By now, David Immergluck wanted to concentrate on his own band, Monks of Doom, so guitarist Dan Vickery joined the lineup, which includes bassist Matt Malley, keyboard player Charlie Gillingham and drummer Steve Bowman. Then the Crows hit the road opening shows for Midnight Oil, Suede and the Cranberries.
When the Counting Crows juggernaut hit hyperdrive in January, the band was touring with Cracker, a band led by another Camper Van Beethoven alumnus, David Lowery. As crowds began showing up more for the opening act than the headliner, Lowery simply asked the band to let him open one of their future tours. Today momentum continues to build. The second video from the album, the old Himalayans song "Round Here," is ready to roll. Fresh from a European tour, the Crows will headline three nights at the Fillmore Auditorium during its opening month.
And Duritz is still reeling from the album's explosion. A deferential and earnest young man with a ready smile and a powerful appetite for music- he is collecting gospel tapes from truck stops around the country and recently discovered the album "Jolene" by Dolly Parton- he takes his work, but not himself, seriously.
" I love my songs," he said. "I think they're incredible. They mean everything to me. That they move other people makes sense to me, they mean so much to me."