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Artist: Sheryl Crow

Sheryl Crow

Bio

Sheryl Suzanne Crow (born February 11, 1962) is an American blues rock singer, guitarist, bassist, pianist and songwriter. Her music blends country, pop, folk, and blues rock into one mainstream sound, and she has won nine Grammy Awards. Crow is also a noted political activist. Crow was born in Kennett, Missouri. Her parents were members of a local big band in which her father, an attorney, played trumpet. The family was very musical and owned three pianos. In school, she was active in choir, athletics, and school plays. Even at a young age she was a perfectionist who strived to please her parents. In high school she was a drum majorette, member of the Pep Club, the National Honor Society, Future Farmers of America, Freshman Maid, Senior Maid and Paperdoll Queen. When her prom date was later questioned about her fame he said that at the time he thought she "would be a doctor's wife someday". She graduated in 1984 from the University of Missouri where she majored in music education with a concentration in piano. Coincidentally, actor Brad Pitt and ABC-TV news anchor Elizabeth Vargas were also students at the University of Missouri at the same time Crow was studying there; however, it is unknown whether or not any of these three future celebrities actually knew each other while they were students. Following college she became an elementary school music teacher in a suburb of St. Louis where she could be located closer to her fiance. Teaching during the day allowed her the opportunity to sing in bands on the weekends. Many people who knew her socially then, describe her as a nice, kind, elementary school teacher whose goal was settling down to raise children. At times, they acknowledge, she also struggled to get by on a teacher's salary. Other than comments about wanting to go to California someday and "make it", and her weekend band gigs, few during this period of her life saw the relentless determination that would someday carry her to multi-millionaire rock stardom. Or if they saw it, they didn't realize they were witnessing a future rock star in training. This time in her life, in retrospect, might accurately be considered by those who knew her then as her "wilderness years." After a couple years of teaching and healing from a broken engagement, she was introduced to a local
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Articles

Sheryl Crow Mojo, Oct 1996

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EVERY FEW YEARS AN ALBUM IS MADE IN LOS Angeles of such wistful sunniness that it sets up shop on the radio for months on end and very soon charms its way into the hearts and record collections of a generation. In 1977 that album was Fleetwood Mac's Rumours; in 1994 it was Tuesday Night Music Club by Sheryl Crow.

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A celebration of the female spirit torn between freedom and security, its musical echoes of the Woodstock era revived the freewheeling hippy chick as a model for our times after years of exhortation by a stream of musical aerobic instructresses. Bathed in the carefree atmosphere of LA's endless summer, its passing clouds of pain and diary-like detailing offered dimensions that repaid repeat plays. Trouble in paradise, if you wanted it: top-quality drive-time rock-lite, if you didn't. Either way, seven million people bought Tuesday Night Music Club, and the record industry lavished upon it three Grammy Awards.

But, like with so many sunnyside-up LA albums, there is a dark side. Tuesday Night Music Club has had a fallout of rare nastiness. Not one of Sheryl's collaborators on the album has remained on the team, and harsh accusations have been levelled each way. Even as Sheryl basked in her Grammy successes, former songwriting collaborator David Baerwald wrote to the Los Angeles Weekly all but accusing her of precipitating the suicide of novelist and screenwriter John O'Brien for failing to credit him for the use of his title Leaving Las Vegas for her hit. Even worse, Sheryl's ex-boyfriend and the album's pianist Kevin Gilbert was found dead, asphyxiated in an auto-erotic accident, leaving behind a journal chronicling his tormented relationship with Sheryl and the hurt that followed her ascent to stardom. "I don't know if I can ever forgive her," he wrote. "I don't hate her – I'm just soooo disappointed..."

Tuesday Night Music Club should have been just an album, a thing of beauty and a joy forever. But it turned into a can of worms. And now Sheryl Crow has made another.

AS SHE SPILLS THE COFFEE IN A STANDARDISED HOTEL suite in a city which is a byword for Middle America at its dullest, Springfield, Illinois, Sheryl Crow confesses to feeling "battered". She is just a few dates into an idiosyncratically low-key tour of some of America's more off-beat venues. A couple of thousand have seen her in Davenport, Iowa; 2,000 more in Vail, Colorado. Tonight the star attraction at the Illinois State Fair, she shares a bill with tractor tug-of-war competitions, the prize pig beauty contest, a funfair and all the Polish sausage you can eat.

While select members of the European press are flown in to herald the September release of her self-titled second album, American journalists complain they are kept at bay Unlike 1994's year-long campaign, Sheryl will no longer take time out to pose for any old photographer; in 1996 we take our pick from an exquisitely slender picture selection ranging from a sunny blast of eyes, teeth and bared shoulders to don't-fuck-with-me ice-maiden cool. There's not much in between.

What seems to be happening is an exercise in both artist promotion and rearguard damage control. To be stressed is the excellence of the new album, how it is all her own work, and that she is taking it to the people in authentic dues-paying style. To be avoided at all costs is the over-exposure which might spur a media-led backlash, with recently surfacing tales of fear and loathing as ammunition. At stake is her multi-platinum sales potential upon which her record company A&M depends, and a career which took Sheryl over a decade of sweat, setback and heartache to achieve.

Sheryl may need to rebuild some bridges to reclaim her turf. Tuesday Night Music Club sold off the back of an awful lot of tour mileage and PR. All, at first, went swimmingly, as Sheryl delighted everyone she met, and on stage the band bonded and the music cooked. But just as the album wouldn't stop selling, the tragedy that followed must have seemed to Sheryl like a curse she had done nothing to deserve. As the tour wound from 1994 into 1995, stories began to circulate of tantrums and sackings, and of Sheryl's increasing withdrawal from the company of her musicians and record company support system into the bolt-hole of an improving book and a bloody mood. People would come out of meetings with her shaking with rage and frustration.

That Sheryl already feels "battered" so soon in the promotional round is not an encouraging sign, even if outwardly she presents a vision of clean-limbed loveliness. The dictates and responsibilities of stardom seem to weigh heavily on her. Unspoken but clearly to be inferred is that her eagerness to please means that she is constantly both put upon and taken for granted, but her fuse is getting shorter all the time. Yet she instinctively seems to adapt to what you want: for MOJO she is thoughtful, attentive and a card-carrying member of The Rolling Stones' fan club; for other publications she has been frothy, flirty or posy, as required. "If you get into the psychology of why people wind up as entertainers," she told me two years ago, "it's probably the age-old story of the kids that needed attention or acceptance and didn't get it. I got less attention than anybody else in my family because I was able to take care of myself. I was not the problem child in my family."

So how is success treating Sheryl Crow?

When all this started happening to me, people on the record label and my manager didn't expect it. We just went with the flow. For a minute we were everywhere, not because of ambition but opportunity. The press took off during exposure to the Grammys. People wrote articles, and got interviews from other places, and created an image that wasn't necessarily true. And also people were tired of me. It backfired, particularly on me. It also backfired on a number of people in different ways. In the end I had a lot of negative press. I was everywhere and people were sick of me. Then there were people from my record who were jealous. They were writing that they created me, and I wasn't around for my record. People were making real desperate moves to bring me down.

But you learn as you go. There wasn't anyone before me that I could look at and go, Look what happened to her... It's lucky for Alanis and people like her who could go, "Look what happened to Sheryl Crow..."

Producer Bill Bottrell has admitted that he was over-protective and over-possessive of Tuesday Night Music Club.

And you know what else happened? Two other guys in the group became overwrought with jealousy. One since then died, Kevin Gilbert, who I was really in a strong relationship with. He and David Baerwald lashed out, out of self-preservation and bitterness, and it's unfortunate because I was very close to Kevin and I was very good friends with David. The more successful America became, the more bitter they became that their careers weren't happening. They did some mean-spirited press and Bill didn't defend me, and Bill knew the story. Me and Bill did most of the record. Kevin and David ego-wise were having problems with each other. And I know that Bill feels bad about it.

It was very interesting for these guys to find a female who could play every instrument they could play. I play bass, guitar, keyboards and Hammond. I think they were intrigued by that, and not only that, I was coming from the place literally where they were coming from. I know that was part of the intrigue and attraction. With creativity between men and women there is a funny line – sensually, there is that electricity. You have that common language of music and creativity. Creativity is a personal thing and you have to feel some kind of safety and openness, much like a relationship.

So our sessions were definitely convoluted. I was having a relationship with Kevin and I was working with Bill, and Bill's role as producer was trying to keep it together, moving in a fashion that was expected of an artist. In the end, people came away from it feeling really protective of the role they played, to the point that in the end Bill and I had to yank it away from people. I named the record Tuesday Night Music Club to make people feel credited and appreciated. People made lots of money and there was a backlash, which really devastated me. So when I went to make this new record, I wanted that emotion, and to make a beautiful record.

Me and Bill were working on this new record together, but on the first day he left. Professionally and personally he was not only feeling the pressure because of the follow-up to the last record, but also, I think, Bill in his life liked to be an artist. He knew what I wanted to do, and that it would be a struggle for him. So he left, and in many ways this opened the door for me: I could make a record that I really wanted to make, that has all the emotion I was feeling at the time, which was extremely raw; I wanted to get it on tape. I found a really musical female engineer, Shirley Anne Schumacher; we were able to rub it in.

*

LIKE SHE SAYS, THE ABIDING THEME OF THE SECOND ALBUM is the personal trauma of the first. Sheryl had entered the lives of the so-called Tuesday Night Music Club as Kevin Gilbert's girlfriend, having played keyboards and sung backing vocals in his band Toy Matinee; she needed to make some commercial music, and inexpensively, if she was to retain her A&M contract. So producer Bill Bottrell figures out the right approach and musical chemistry, and delivers a very commercial album indeed. Lo, it's a hit, but then Kevin Gilbert dies in the most depressing circumstances, and the rest of them feel written out of history too. At root, they're men and she's a very attractive woman who seems to reflect what you want of her: how can there not be a sexual undertow to the whole wretched tangle?

Those of Sheryl's former colleagues who have since suggested that she offered little to the Tuesday Night Music Club proceedings other than a focus for their song ideas might be surprised to hear its successor, the pointedly titled Sheryl Crow. If she was clueless back at the start of Tuesday Night Music Club, she clearly learned fast. Of the 14 songs, perhaps only two are surplus to requirements. The remaining dozen are various in style, though licks, fragments and, indeed, sodding great chunks recall the heyday of blue-eyed soul, swamp and country-rock. And they project all the passion she hoped for, even animating such satirical songs as 'Maybe Angels', about UFOlogy as a modern manifestation of the need to believe in the transcendent (Sheryl also contributed 'On The Outside' to the ET-themed various artists album Songs In The Key Of X). Many songs bear the autobiographical stamp, a lyrical and vocal intensity that suggests personal preoccupations near the surface. Among them is 'A Change'.

Tell me about that one.

It was strangely inspired by a magazine article about Joe Meek. Keeping in mind that Bill had just left, it was about this producer who had a very corporate time as far as music making was concerned – the BBC with engineers wearing lab coats, specific hours of recording and so forth. This producer produced in his own home and manufactured a big hit. He was such a good producer and advanced for his time, and eventually he kinda self-destructed. He represents so many people, people really struggling in a logical, controllable space. Coming off what happened with the press on my last record, it's about losing grasp of the world and eventually losing control.

A lot of people thought my last record was about running away from things. When I go through these new songs, they are like being for the moment, about levity and balance and finding a perspective that you can live with.

Is the dilemma whether to stay or run away the theme of the song 'Sweet Rosalyn'?

I write songs like the most elementary composition class you ever had. That is the intent of the song. I was inspired in New Orleans, the strip clubs and the energy in the frenetic French quarter where we were recording. It has become so oddly fashionable to become a stripper, like the Demi Moore film Striptease. The women in these places have their own story of intrigue, which is enticing because they represent something in their personalities which we want to let loose.

'Redemption Day' echoes Dylan's 'Masters Of War' with its repeated A-A-A-A rhyming scheme. Is there such a thing as a contemporary protest movement in rock?

I was so inspired by MOJO's article on Bob Dylan [by Greil Marcus, MOJO 32]; it evoked a huge well of emotion for me. When I was a kid writing songs, bad songs, I'd go down to the drugstore and get all these magazines like Creem and Rolling Stone with people in them like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, a whole community of musicians who were outspoken about the Civil Rights movement. That's what I wanted it to be like. Since then I feel we have lost our innocence. Nowadays there is no sense of community between musicians, no common goal that musicians are outspoken about. The common voice I'm hearing is that there is a feeling of apathy. I too have been extremely disgruntled with the people in power.

I went to Bosnia with just a guitar, by myself, playing for the NATO troops – I went with the First Lady, sponsored by the USO – and digested all that, but I didn't feel the need to write about it because my going over there wasn't a political statement. But one night I had just got through a bad split with my boyfriend after three years and I was really upset, and I sat down in front of my computer, and within 10 minutes I had six stanzas of this song – not how I typically write. Reading it back, I realised what the song was really about – Rwanda and Bosnia, and slowly realising that there are only a handful of powerful men out there who come together in a meeting room and decide the fate of a nation. When you go over and see open graves that doesn't make sense any more.

The new album has three overpoweringly emotional highlights: 'Home', 'If It Makes You Happy' and 'The Book', which last-mentioned has the ring of confession as it details an intimate affair ("three days in Rome") publicly betrayed. Is it written to a certain someone in a code only he would understand?

Actually there is a code. The song is written metaphorically. I didn't have a three-day affair in Rome, but the emotion it evokes is a real sentiment of exposing yourself to someone and then having it used against you. When I wrote this song, it was really capturing a moment about that feeling of helplessness, of not being able to make things right. There's no way to retrace our steps, to really know what the truth was. That's one nice thing about writing about music: I get to work out my demons.

When I went in to make this record I was extremely raw, and I had a very strange thing happen. One of the guys [David Baerwald] in the group [which made Tuesday Night Music Club] wrote a letter to the LA Times [LA Weekly, to be precise – Editor] saying that he had known the writer of the book of Leaving Las Vegas, that he had grown up with John [O'Brien]. And when we wrote the song 'Leaving Las Vegas', that I had known of the book and that I had promised to give John O'Brien credit. I wasn't to know...and it was typical for Baerwald to come up with the song. Maybe David just felt terrible that the guy killed himself. But when I was working with David he didn't know John. He said to me when the record was finished that there is this book Leaving Las Vegas. I said, You're kidding me. He said, "Don't worry, titles of books aren't copyrighted."

I play on David Letterman, and I didn't know that this guy John O'Brien killed himself. So David [Baerwald] calls me the next day and says, "You were supposed to give him credit. Didn't you know about it?" I didn't know about it, Bill [Bottrell, producer] didn't know about it. I feel terrible when I sing 'Leaving Las Vegas', but he didn't kill himself because of the song I sang on David Letterman. He killed himself because he was troubled and he didn't want to live any longer. In the end I think David became so self-consumed with guilt, maybe he had a feeling of bad karma. So he wrote this very eloquent letter. He said that he had grown up with him, they were soulmates, and he made me out to be the bad guy. I was really confused, and I still don't know the truth. But short of calling John O'Brien's family, it doesn't even matter. He then either lied before the song, or during writing the song. Why someone would write a letter in that...self-aggrandising way, I don't know. It really, really confused me and there is no way that you can fight with truth. It's either true or not true.

Not ever do I want to play 'Leaving Las Vegas' again.

*

ONE HALF OF THE LA DUO DAVID+DAVID AND THEN SOLO artist of such dauntingly dark but acclaimed albums as Triage, David Baerwald was, like Sheryl, signed to A&M, and became a key song-smith and musician on Tuesday Night Music Club. I put Sheryl's allegations about John O'Brien to him, and this is his e-mail response: "John and I met in the summer of 1980. We lived next door to each other in Venice, he with his then-wife Lisa, me with my then-girlfriend Melody Platt. We were close, off and on, until the day he died. We were born two days apart in the same tiny hospital in the same tiny town of Oxford, Ohio. We looked alike, thought alike, and for a short while, drank alike. He saw me survive a love affair with death. I became an example of life afterward. This is a highly emotional issue for me. John was a member of a circle of friends that goes way back in my life. His death still is an issue in that circle. Melody for a time held me partly responsible. Lisa, I think, still does. John died believing that I'd betrayed him.

"John didn't want songwriting credit on the song. He just wanted a thank you. Sheryl knew that, I knew it, Bill knew it, and David Anderle [the album's A&R man] knew it. A&M sent out 500 copies of the book as a pre-release promotion. I choose to believe that it was a simple oversight that his name wasn't included in the thank yous.

"The publisher of Leaving Las Vegas had gone bankrupt. The movie seemed way off in the future. John felt invisible.

"Sheryl has made similar statements to other journalists, some of which have come to my attention, and she's agreed to stop. We have agreed to try to take whatever steps we can to repair, as far as possible, our relationship.

"I think she's just made a very good album. I wish her well.

"The article in question was first published in the Los Angeles Weekly, and then republished in Film Threat Magazine.

"Sorry if I seem a little abrupt here, but I'm trying to retain a level of equanimity, and not respond emotionally in a way that I might regret later."

Another former Tuesday Night Music Clubber, Dan Schwartz, also e-mailed MOJO with his account of that album's creative chemistry. "Bill told me that 'Leaving Las Vegas' was from a book written by a friend of David's, and pointed out the book on the massive shelf at the back of the studio. After John's suicide, he handed me the book to look at the inscription, which reads, 'Dear David – Here's the text for your song. Never abandon me as your friend.' Bill said that David initially told no-one that the title came from a book, but brought it in two weeks later. Sheryl knew. Everybody knew. Even I knew, and I wasn't there the night of the song...Surprisingly enough, I don't actually have much ill will towards her, but I hate lies."

The acrimony that dogs Tuesday Night Music Club may be the very reason why Sheryl Crow is so good. Curiously, one of the best songs, 'Sad World', seems to have dropped off the final running order. If so, it's doubly a shame, as its tone of regret might offer some kind of balm to those in Sheryl's past who feel bruised.

"I think it's about the innocence of the last record," she sighs. "Kevin was no longer in my life, which makes me particularly sad. There are aspects of David Baerwald which I love and were challenging; he is wildly creative, but in the end destructive. It's about relationships in general which don't work. The fact that you can invest three years with somebody, which is so intimate, on a level of trust, openness and compassion...in the end it ends. Although it's part of life, it's sad and tragic."

Oh, and the night of the interview Sheryl goes onstage and plays a blinder. Third number in? 'Leaving Las Vegas'.

Never say never...

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