Twenty Years Ago Today: Counting Crows Changed A Life
The first CD I ever bought was “August and Everything After” by Counting Crows. It was mid-September, 1993, and I was a freshman at Yale.
I was convinced I’d love it before I even listened to it, based only on the insightful review in Rolling Stone:
Great rock & roll is often cinematic, creating worlds that listeners can enter, sonic moments that they can live in. What is most impressive about August and Everything After, the debut album from the Bay area quintet Counting Crows, is how many such moments there are.
We all know how high hopes can ruin a record. What stunned me about “August and Everything After” was how easily it surpassed the expectations Rolling Stone had set.
For months, the album felt like my own little secret. I evangelized it to friends, family or anyone who’d listen. They had a hard time grasping my zealotry for the fledgling band. It seems strange, today, to think of Counting Crows as fledgling. But, for a period of five months in late 1993 and early 1994, they were. The smash hit “Mr. Jones” — which became a No. 1 song in April 1994 — had not yet been released. In casual conversations, if you mentioned Counting Crows, the likely reply was, “Are you sure you’re not thinking of The Black Crowes?”
Why did I love this album? Because it made me feel less alone. It is so easy, as a solipsistic freshman, to think you’re the only person going through what you’re going through. You can try turning to music for solace, but most songs — now, then and always — focus on emotional extremes. Love, heartbreak. Bliss, isolation. Desire, rejection. Rare is the record that navigates the ambiguous spaces in between. But that’s the magic of “August and Everything After.” If there’s a more nuanced song about the tricky terrain of friends-with-benefits than “Anna Begins,” I have yet to hear it. As music writer Steven Hyden points out on Grantland, “The song is so direct and plainspoken that it hardly seems like art; art that doesn’t seem like art being the most difficult kind of art to pull off.”
I felt as if Adam Duritz — the Crows’ lyricist and lead vocalist — understood my emotional plight. He knew the confusing chaos of being a friend with benefits. He knew what it was like to think daily about suicide (“Perfect Blue Buildings”). He knew what it was like when the only faith you could find was lying to yourself about beautiful women falling for you (“Mr. Jones”). He knew what it was like to suffer the world’s indifference to your many-splendored feelings (“Round Here”). He knew the agony of long-distance relationships (“Raining in Baltimore”).
Here’s a performance of “Mr. Jones” from 1994:
It was no small thing, either, that this was my first CD. The power to digitally skip from song to song — to not necessarily listen sequentially, as you would with a cassette or vinyl — meant that I was listening to individual tracks more often than I usually did. If I had five minutes to kill before heading to class, I’d listen to a single song, reading the lyric sheet, reconciling its story with my own.
My favorite song on the record is “Rain King.” As I studied its lyrics for the first time, I could not believe what I was reading: A song that was based not only on a novel, but on one of my favorites, Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow. It was, at the time, an affirmation: It proved that Duritz really did know what it was like to be me. He had read what I’d read. His contexts were mine.
In January 1994, Counting Crows came to a New Haven concert venue called Toad’s Place, which was (and still is) around the corner from the campus. In vain, I tried recruiting friends to attend the show with me. Most of them were still unfamiliar with the band. So, I went alone — the ticket cost $10 — and sang every word to nearly every song. The band did the entire album, plus a cover called “Jumping Jesus” (released on last year’s “Underwater Sunshine”.
The setup of Toad’s makes it easy to get close to the stage. And, as Duritz sang the word “sweat” in “Perfect Blue Buildings”…
“beneath the dust and blood and sweat that hangs on every body / There’s a dead man trying to get out.”
…he wiped his brow, and sweat drops fell on me and the other concertgoers standing front and center. At the end of the show, before coming off the stage, he shook hands with everyone in front, including me.
Walking back to my dorm, I knew that my life’s mission had changed, in a meaningful way. I kept thinking: “I need to do something like that with my life.” I didn’t want to be a rock star, per se; but I wanted to put my art in the world, with the belief that it could reach and aid others in the way that Duritz’s songs had reached and aided me.
Nearly twenty years later, I have one published novel to my name. I’m not sure how many people it’s reached or aided. It certainly won’t reach as many people as “August and Everything After” (which ultimately sold seven million copies) has reached. But, if it reaches just one person the way the Crows album reached me, I’ll be satisfied.
Ilan Mochari is the author of the recently released novel “Zinsky the Obscure,” which Chris Castellani named one of his five “Good Reads for the Summer” on WBUR’s Radio Boston. He still listens to “August and Everything After” and reads “Henderson the Rain King” on a regular basis.
Is there an album or band that has influenced your life at a key moment — to the point where you’ve relished it for twenty years or more? We invite you to share your musical touchstones in the comments section.