Friday, January 27, 2006

A Little Story With The Black Crowes

Sera and I are going to see The Black Crowes at Hard Rock Live on Sunday. It will be our 7th time seeing the Crowes. I've been a big fan of the Robinson brothers from the first time I heard "Jealous Again" on the radio back in the spring of 1990. One of those rare times when I immediately liked a tune. The sound had the excitement and energy missing from most rock songs since the 1970's, an era of great music that I missed due to my infantile age. One critic at the time wrote that the Black Crowes sounded like what the Rolling Stones should have sounded like in the 1990s had they still had any inspiration or creativity.

In June 1990 I went on my first backpacking trip to Europe, one that would ultimately change my life forever. I arrived in London on June 6, the anniversary of D-Day. That was no coincidence as I timed my landing to have some significance.

I was very lonely in London and spent 8 days wandering its rain soaked streets wondering if I did the right thing by coming overseas. I didn't meet many interesting people and I was spending a small fortune in the city. I chose London as my first stop because they spoke English. I was afraid to head to the mainland due to the language barrier and spent more time in London that I should have.

One afternoon I picked up a local Time Out magazine. This was new to me as it had yet to make its way over to the States. Thumbing through its list of events I saw The Black Crowes were playing that night at the historic Marquee Club. This is where The Beatles, The Who and The Rolling Stones played before they made it big. I only knew two Crowes songs, "Jealous Again" and the Otis Redding cover, "Hard to Handle." But I wanted to do something fun and different. Something to liven up my London doldrums. I headed to the Marquee that afternoon for a ticket and saw a sign indicating tickets would not be on sale until 3 hours before showtime. I had a few hours to kill. I walked over to a local park and watched the ducks. My loneliness was only exacerbated by watching school children playing soccer. I was a ghost on that bench. No one took any notice. I felt like a ghost in life. I seriously questioned what I was doing in Europe. I never cared about traveling but felt the need to do something different. Many friends from college did some type of exploratory adventure after graduating--hiking the Appalachian Trail, traveling across the US, etc. I had no money after college and simply moved back home and found a job.

But during that year of working I met several people who told great tales of their backpacking exploits around the world. They opened my eyes to the possibilities of another world. I was convinced. I soon had a passport, a Eurail Pass and a Let's Go Europe book and was ready to go.

But now I was lonely and unhappy in London.

Eventually I made my way back to the Marquee and found a huge line wrapped around the block. I gloomily trod to the back of the line by myself. I was surrounded by English and Germans, all talking, laughing and sharing smokes. Once again I went unnoticed. Word was that we would never get in to the club--it would be sold out shortly. Forty-five minutes went by and we hadn't moved more than a few feet. I was getting skeptical. Then typical English weather arrived and further dampened my spirits. I had no umbrella and was getting drenched. Frustrated, depressed and soaked I left the line.

I finally left London a few days later and took a ferry to France and a bus to Amsterdam. I had a horrible experience on the day I arrived in Amsterdam and fled the next morning for a quieter, safer Brussels. But I couldn't figure out how to use the pay phone at the Brussels train station and felt utterly lost and hopeless. I was on the verge of tears and desperate to return home. And then, like what happens to so many vagrant travelers in dire straits, fate took over. I met another American who was traveling alone, having just arrived. He was visiting a college professor from Michigan. He helped me find a hostel in Brussels and invited me to dinner. That evening I enjoyed an exquisite meal in a 4 star restaurant in Brussels, free of charge. From loneliness and despair to pure joy in 24 hours. The rest of my European trip was almost beyond words. I stayed several months, moved to Paris with a French girl and almost got married and became a French citizen. Amazing how quickly things change.

The Black Crowes toured the U.S. in 1992 but once again I found myself in Europe, and I missed the whole tour(a bit of irony is that I met Crowes singer Chris Robinson's future wife, Kate Hudson--about 15 at the time, and his future in-laws, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, while in Greece.) They didn't play in New York again for 3 years. By this time I was living with Sera and moaning how I had never seen them. But they finally returned in 1995 for their "Amorica" tour. Five shows at The Beacon Theater that March--the best venue anywhere for a rock concert. I got on line early for tickets and got two great floor seats for one show. The band allows recording of their concerts, and I brought in a cheap Walkman. They put on one of the best concerts I have ever been to. We were on our feet the entire night. Great rock music at its purest and finest--and with the band simply dressed in t-shirts and blue jeans I imagined this was what a great '70s show was like. The way concerts were meant to be. And for me, it was a show 5 years in the making. I still have my poor quality recording of that night tucked away in a box somewhere. A few years later I watched VH-1's Behind The Music on The Black Crowes and was surprised to hear they seriously considered breaking up just days before their 5 night run at the Beacon in 1995!

All their shows are lively, fun and extremely loud. The band has never reached the fame of bigger acts and usually plays smaller venues with general admission seating(though they just headlined Madison Square Garden on New Year's Eve). Sera and I always arrive early to get in the front row, and we always have an incredible experience with a great jamming band.

But whenever I think of The Black Crowes I am reminded of a lonelier version of myself many years ago. I don't know if I would have enjoyed the show that night in London--only knew two songs, no one to talk to--but I always regret that I didn't see a show by a much younger version of The Black Crowes back then. A version as young and innocent as myself back then. Guitarist Rich Robinson was only 18 at the time and had just graduated high school. This turned out to be their first ever U.K. show. The Black Crowes website has set lists and little tidbits for most of their shows, but the London Marquee page simply says, "no information available." I do have a lot of information available on events surrounding the day of that show, but I doubt that's what they're looking for.

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