Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our show 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 55, which discusses Counting Crows and their ballad “A Long December” with an assist from The Ringer’s Bill Simmons.
On alternative-rock radio, throughout the mid-’90s, one could hear, several times a day, a grown man make this noise.
What do you suppose Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz meant to convey, exactly, with this, uh, yelp, this whoop of virile gregariousness that punctuates his band’s 1993 hit “Rain King”? That song title is a Saul Bellow reference. Have you read Saul Bellow? You up on Saul Bellow? His acclaimed 1959 novel Henderson the Rain King? You got that reference, right? Of course you did. “Rain King” by the Counting Crows is about being a struggling writer or artist or whatever, and getting pissed off that not enough people like your stuff yet, and complaining to your mother about it. Relatable!
That’s my interpretation anyway. I’m into it. We can agree that “When I think of heaven / Deliver me in a black-winged bird” is an excellent opening line for an alternative rock song. (Other great alt-rock opening lines from 1993 include “All I can say is that my life is pretty plain” and “In a town of chimpanzees, I was a monkey.”) We can agree that the image of a black-winged bird “flying down into a sea of pens and feathers” is a lovely description of the creative process. We can agree that if you’re literally going to sing the words “I deserve a little more” in the pre-chorus to your alt-rock song, you’d better make sure that pre-chorus is a good one, and this, my friends, is a good one.
Don’t try to bleed me
’Cause I’ve been there before
And I deserve a little more
That line, that moment, the other voices bolstering his right there on I deserve a little more, it sounds like Adam Duritz mounting and flying a black-winged bird off a rooftop, does it not? But why is Adam Duritz so alone? What’s his mother supposed to do about it? What does Adam Duritz think he deserves? What does he really want?
Right, so fame, fortune, adulation, and perhaps a few dates (separately, one assumes) with two of the three actresses starring in one of the biggest sitcoms of the ’90s, got it. When I look at the television I wanna see me staring right back at me, that’s another great line from another great alt-rock song, yes? But hold on, we’re not even off-topic and we’re off-topic.
Here we have the tragic alt-rock fame arc—the giddy rise and sullen fall of the ’90s rock star—as illustrated, as bookended, by two emotionally diametrically opposed applications of the word yeah, as delivered by Adam Duritz in two different Counting Crows hits three years apart. 1993. Counting Crows are spry young poetic roots-rockers outta San Francisco whose debut album, called August and Everything After—Adam Duritz was born in August—was an unlikely grunge-counterprogramming smash. Came out in fall 1993; 3.8 million copies sold in 1994 alone. “Mr. Jones” constantly on the radio. “Round Here” constantly on the radio. And yes, “Rain King” constantly on the radio. Sing it with me, or don’t. Ah, but disillusionment beckons. Counting Crows make the cover of Rolling Stone in summer 1994. Adam Duritz is warmly and accurately quoted, as he wanders thoughtfully around various famous Parisian art museums, giving various dour Blue Period–type morose-alt-rock-star quotes.
He says, “Fortunately, I don’t get stage fright. I just get rest-of-life fright.”
He says, of the famous line from “Mr. Jones,” “These days, instead of singing, ‘When everybody loves me, I’m going to be just as happy as I can be,’ I should be singing, ‘When everybody loves me, I’ll be about as fucked up as I can be.’” I assume he really did that while singing “Mr. Jones” live at some point. He changes the words in concert all the time. Drives people nuts.
He says, “Sometimes when we’re onstage, I wonder, ‘What is it with these people?’”
He elaborates: “What do they want? Because this is definitely not hopeful music, you know. There are a lot of songs about how your whole life as a child is hopes and dreams, endless possibilities about how you’ll fall in love, have a life and do something that’s meaningful to you. Then you grow up and get there, and nothing works. None of it. I’m not offering them hope. I’m not offering them anything, really. I mean, all I’m singing about is some stuff I thought about myself. If you think about it, the whole thing is pretty self-centered and bizarre.”
Actually, he was conducting his Rolling Stone cover-story interview the day the band found out that Kurt Cobain had died. That feels relevant. Adam Duritz, while checking to see if this particular Parisian museum has any Mark Rothko paintings, says, “To say that Kurt should have been happy just because he was a rock star is asinine. The only reason I’m famous now is because of unhappiness. For some reason unhappiness is something everyone wants to be a voyeur about. Your misery is everybody else’s entertainment. The fact that all of a sudden everyone is looking at you doesn’t change things. For some people it can just make things more difficult and embarrassing.”
Second Counting Crows album comes out in 1996. Called Recovering the Satellites. I love this record. The displacement and disenchantment and unhappiness radiating from this record make me very happy. The second-to-last song is called “A Long December.” This one seems to make a lot of people happy, or at least, it makes a lot of unhappy people slightly less unhappy.
Adam Duritz was born in Baltimore in 1964; he turned 30 the year his band sold nearly 4 million copies of its debut album. His family moved a few times as a kid: Boston, El Paso. They settled in Berkeley, California, when he was a teenager. Smart kid. Well-read kid. Not a happy kid, necessarily. He told Rolling Stone, “I wasn’t ‘one of the guys’ too much growing up. And I’m sure that Kurt felt like a real outcast, too. So when people start talking to you about how you’re some sort of a spokesperson for a generation, you can’t help wondering where the hell that generation was when you were 15.”
He kicked around in semi-successful bands for years, namely Sordid Humor and the Himalayans. You can find video footage, on YouTube, of Adam Duritz, fronting the Himalayans, apparently in 1991, playing 924 Gilman, playing the Berkeley punk-rock Mecca 924 Gilman, home of Operation Ivy, pre-superstardom Green Day and Rancid, et cetera. No bands on major labels allowed. Here we observe the Himalayans—featuring Marty Jones on bass, that’s Mr. Jones to you—performing a moody little tune of Adam’s called “Round Here.” A much moodier and more menacing version of the soon-to-be-famous song “Round Here.” Sounds like the Cure’s “Fascination Street.”
These early bands fail, by International Fame and Adulation standards, and Adam Duritz, in what quickly emerges as a theme, grows disillusioned, and sets music aside possibly for good, and decides to backpack around Europe and so forth for a while before starting his life For Real. He’s a vagabond type. In Australia, at some point, he’d met a young lady named Anna. But he is inexorably pulled back to the Bay Area, and a new band called Counting Crows coalesces around him, featuring various dudes from various bands in his orbit. As Adam will later put it to Rolling Stone, “To the outside world, I’m the cute one, I’m the quiet one, I’m the funny one, and I’m the sad one. But still, this is a band. Maybe not always in terms of decision-making, but it is a band.”
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.