Ask Adam Duritz — lead singer, doomsayer, masochist and all-world breakup specialist of Counting Crows — about the genesis of a certain sad song, and things get real dark, real fast.
This is not surprising, of course. After all, Duritz is the self-defeating Rain King of the '90s roots-rock scene, the dreadlocked imp who wanted to be the next Bob Dylan. And who knows? If it weren't for the perils of his own tortured head, maybe he could have been.
I tell him I've been listening to the deceptively upbeat If I Could Give All My Love — or — Richard Manuel Is Dead from 2002 LP Hard Candy. Key lyric from a man who pummels hearts like Godzilla stomps cities? "Nearly spring in San Francisco, and I cannot feel the sun / You were sleeping next to me, but I knew that you'd be gone."
When he hears my request, the 49-year-old sighs on his end of the phone, perhaps perturbed, as if I somehow plucked the pointiest arrow from his crowded quiver of self-loathing. But he tells his tragic tale anyway.
It was 6 a.m., the Baltimore-born Duritz begins in his Berkeley-raised hippie way. It had been a long late night. He was with a new girl — always a new girl, often a famous new girl, Mary-Louise Parker and Monica Potter and even those two stars from Friends, Courteney Cox and Jennifer Aniston. For a brooder, he's also a hall-of-fame Lothario.
But no names here. "She and I grabbed the paper that morning." Manuel, from Canadian roots-rock staple the Band — one of the most obvious influences on the Crows — had died. Then things got worse. "The impermanence of everything just hit me," Duritz says. "The hopefulness of meeting this girl suddenly became hopelessness."
It should be noted that Manuel committed suicide in 1986. Duritz doesn't flinch: "Hard Candy was about memories, the way you remember certain things." He hangs onto the past — or as he likes to call it, "films about ghosts" — like jagged heirlooms, never letting the wounds fully heal.
Without breaking stride, he moves to the backstory of another song from that album, a cut called Miami: "I remember standing at the airport gate, back when you could wait for someone at the gate." Another girlfriend, a model this time, had been in Europe all summer. He couldn't wait to see her — well, at least he thought he couldn't. As she walked up the tunnel: "All of a sudden, I had this horrible feeling that nothing was going to work out. It hit me all at once."
Both stories are told within the first five minutes of our call, a chat meant to promote Counting Crows' summer-tour kickoff Wednesday at the Straz Center in Tampa and a new LP, Somewhere Under Wonderland, the group's first original material in some six years, due this fall.
But first, therapy.
Perhaps Duritz was simply panicking? Or maybe these were self-fulfilling prophecies?
"Who knows?" says Duritz. "They came true though."
• • •
Much like his endless string of crumbled relationships, that Voice of a Generation promise didn't quite pan out. One of the reasons is no doubt because Adam Duritz is always, unfailingly, Adam Duritz. It's a gift and a curse. His songs are written in blood and loss and more than a touch of mania; they've taken their weary toll.
He has battled depression; he has been diagnosed with a dissociative disorder that makes things seems unreal, or maybe too real, or maybe just too weird. Being Adam Duritz is both awesome and awful.
"A few years ago, I got tired of everything," says the man behind such painfully lovely and very profitable '90s laments Round Here and A Long December. "I really got bitter about things. I didn't feel like writing for myself anymore."
It wasn't always that way. Back when he was in the midst of selling 20 million albums worldwide — MTV's Best New Artist, Grammy-nominated for the same title — those Dylan boasts didn't seem totally far-fetched.
"I wrote Rain King in 40 minutes," he says. "I tend to sit down and stay with a song, you know, eight or nine hours sometimes. If I don't finish something, I throw it out. I always know. If they're no good, I just throw them out."
There was a lot of "good" on the Crows' first four records, including prodigious 1993 debut August and Everything After and 1996's dazzling sophomore effort Recovering the Satellites, which explored the correlation between fame and loneliness. Plus don't forget the Oscar-nominated Accidentally in Love from Shrek 2, an otherwise giddy pop gem about a guy who sees love as a "problem."
He didn't do it alone. Robust credit should be given to the other guys in the band, loyal to the cause after all these years, after all these breakdowns, deft players like guitarists David Bryson and Dan Vickrey and organist Charlie Gillingham. Almost all of the original members are still with the group.
And yet, there's no mistaking who drives, or stalls, this crew. For the past decade or so, Duritz has often been a mess. There was a misguided covers album, some cluttered tours. His live shows are hit-or-miss affairs. I've witnessed outright disasters; at one gig, he tried to fit the word "orangutan" in almost every song (no, really). I've also seen phenomenal, life-swelling sets that made you wonder just how big the Crows could have been.
A little while ago, Duritz started writing again, the block gone, the most hopeful he has been in a long time. The upcoming Somewhere Under Wonderland will be put out by Capitol, their ballyhooed return to a major label, which means there must be something catchy on there. "Capitol Records — just like the Beatles!" Duritz chirped (he rarely chirps) when the news broke.
"These new songs are different from what I've done before," he tells me. "The guys are saying it's like spending a whole [bleeping] hour inside my head."
Which, thankfully, doesn't sound that different at all.
• • •
One more thing:
Duritz is single.
There is no girlfriend, famous or otherwise, these days.
"I've been hermit-y for a while," he says. "I've been alone."
Duritz turns 50 in August. It's time to break some trends, he says. "It's not necessarily my fault that I have these problems, but it is my responsibility when I put someone through this time and time again. I'm tired of hurting people. I really am."
Good for you, I say.
But, c'mon ... no dates at all?
"Well," Adam Duritz sighs, "just a few ..."
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.