August 5, 2015
Adam Duritz is sitting alone in a Miami hotel room surrounded by dirty laundry when he tells me how much he misses his bed.
“I really like my bed back home,” he says over the phone. “It’s really fucking comfortable. I’ve had it for like 12 years.”
I feel an urge to quote a commercial I saw that recommends getting a new mattress every eight years. I start to offer up this precious lifehack nugget, but opt for something a little more provocative.
“Is it one of those TempurPedics?” I stammer (that should get things rolling). Adam, a seasoned interviewee, gracefully skirts my hard-hitting question.
“We’ve pretty much been on tour for the last 20 years,” he says. “Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Europe …” he reels off all the places they’ve been just since March. “At this point,” he says, “I’m more used to being on tour than I am being at home.”
I actually jot down the following note while Adam is talking: It’s not about how long you have a mattress, it’s about how much time you spend on it. There is an awkward lull in the conversation, so I consider sharing my profound new mattress theory with Adam. Thankfully, he continues with his thought.
“I really miss my friends and family,” the 51-year-old singer says. “When you’re gone all the time, you realize that other lives go on without you. That’s not easy to get used to. You miss weddings, birthdays … it can be tough,” he trails off.
Dirty laundry, aging beds, four weddings and a funeral. It’s not exactly how I expected a conversation with the lead singer of Counting Crows to start. This interview just got personal– at least for me.
Some of the most pivotal moments of my young adult life, like the summer of 1994, were soundtracked by the music of Counting Crows; that August, I was floating somewhere between my freshman and sophomore year in college, somewhere between 19 and 20-years-old. I was home in Knoxville working as a food delivery driver for Smoky Mountain Farms Steakhouse and Beefmarket and contemplating not returning to school in a few weeks.
I was halfway to work, and already running late when “Mr. Jones” came on the radio. It was the first time I had heard it (Knoxville radio was a little late to the game). Overcome with emotion that I didn’t quite understand, I pulled into a Wendy’s parking lot and listened.
The song ended and I needed to hear it again. So instead of heading straight to work, I drove to Cats Records and bought “August and Everything After” for $18.99 (twice the amount I would make in tips that night). I listened to that album all night as I made deliveries. I listened to it all the way back to school in the fall. I’m still listening to it.
Then in 1999, at a Counting Crows concert, a nice girl told me she loved me. I ran away. Literally, ran in the opposite direction and hid in the crowd. After the show, I found her waiting for me by the car. It was an awkward ride home.
Four years later, another girl, Lydia, told me she loved me at a Counting Crows concert. This time I didn’t run. We got married and had a son (who now sings every word to Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby). None of it made sense back then. All of it makes sense now.
Counting Crows were my gateway drug to more profound, thought-provoking music. Up to that point, my music discourse usually ended in a mutual agreement with my friends that Bret Michaels was indeed referring to “screwing hefty girls” when he sang, “Unskinny Bop…Bop… Bop..” Counting Crows, however, and Duritz’ lyrics in particular, presented me with questions that didn’t necessarily have answers. “August and Everything After” hit me at the right time in the right place. That gray (guitar) area between childhood and adulthood. Where answers are shrouded in a haze of inexperience. Where everything and nothing had a name.
In his songs, Duritz taught me to embrace names and places, even when those names and places belong to someone else. Every time he begs “Maria” to dance with him, and every time he extends an invitation back to “Sullivan Street,” the names and places from my own past surface, forcing me confront my own Maria, my own Sullivan Street. I always wondered if Adam meant for that to happen. So after casually mentioning the impact his music had on me (and countless others), I ask.
“Do you ever think about the idea that Counting Crows songs have soundtracked millions of people’s lives,” I say. “Hook-ups, break-ups, deaths, first jobs, new apartments, marriages …”
“No,” he interrupts, “it’s too hard for me to comprehend all that.”
Feeling a little defeated, I consider rephrasing the question (or maybe now is my chance to share my mattress theory). But after a long pause, he continues.
“When we started out, a lot of people told me to use less proper nouns in my lyrics,” he says. “You can’t use specific places and names they told me– other people won’t be able to relate. It’s too personal. That advice seemed stupid to me. I’m not going to write shitty, vague songs just to relate to other people.”
“Then I discovered,” he continues, “that the more personal I made the songs, the more other people did relate to them. It was a pleasant surprise. I don’t have much of a relationship with the way other people attach to my songs. I’m just really glad they do.”
There’s no reason that I, or any of Counting Crows’ fans, should be emotionally invested in the proper nouns of another man’s life. We have our own list of names and places to think about. But music is art and art is stories. And we need the stories of others to try to make sense of our own.
A lesson many of today’s younger musicians have forgotten (or perhaps were advised against). Current popular music is a victim of it’s own vagueness, sticking around just long enough to insult the intelligence of its audience, then vanishing into the ether of obscurity.
“You don’t have to pander to people to make your art,” Duritz says. “Be personal, because everyone else has hearts, too. They don’t need to be spoon fed. I can write incredibly personal songs about my life and it turns out that other people are totally capable of relating to them. People don’t need you to make it vague for them. People are complicated beings.”
The irony of the deeply personal nature of his lyrics, of course, is that Duritz suffers from a serious mental illness, depersonalization disorder, that makes him feel as if he is an outside observer to himself. Like he is watching the world, rather than living in it.This isn’t breaking news. Since being diagnosed in 2008, Duritz has talked publicly and openly to the press about his disorder.
“I have a dissociative disorder which sometimes makes the world seem like it’s not real,” he says. “There’s rarely anything I find more lonely than realizing that nothing is real. You’re as isolated as you can possibly be at that point.”
“When I was younger, and it first started happening, it would lay me out,” he continues. “It was beyond terrifying. As an adult, terror is not a big part of your life. It is when you’re a kid– you have nightmares and things you don’t know aren’t real. But as an adult facing terror is hard. But you live with something long enough you learn to adjust to it.”
As Duritz learned to manage his disorder, his songwriting took a backseat. Seven years passed between albums. Then last year, Counting Crows released their seventh album, “Somewhere Under Wonderland.” On the surface, the album may not seem to plumb the same personal depths that Duritz did on the early albums, but in all honesty, his songwriting has never been stronger, and the band never sounded better.
“Somewhere Under Wonderland” is filled with names and places: New Orleans, Alex Chilton, Reno, Jack Johnson, Fredericksburg, Victor Frankenstein– Maria even makes a cameo. The album is a flood of proper nouns on a more universal scale than ever before.
I suddenly realize that there’s only one minute left of the allotted 15-minute interview, and I still have two questions for Adam. The first is about their live show. The second is about me. There’s only time for one. I choose me.
“I turn 40 in a few weeks,” I say. “And I just quit my job as high school English teacher after 13 years to pursue a career as a professional writer. Am I crazy? Do you have any advice for me?”
There’s a long pause, and he takes a deep breath.
“Well,” he finally says, “I totally get that. It’s what we did with our lives, too. It’s a big jump, but you gotta do stuff like that– so you don’t have any regrets. A lot of people don’t make that choice, but I did and I never regretted it. It was terrifying, but I never regretted it.”
I thank him for his advice and wish him and the band good luck on their summer tour. I’m about to hang up when Adam, sounding very intense, says, “The choice you’re making– it’s the same choice I made. And I do think it’s the right choice. I hesitate to tell anyone to walk out on a limb, but I’m so glad I did. And you will be, too.”
I know he’s right. It’s been a long time since I was that aimless kid sitting in a Wendy’s parking lot listening to Mr. Jones for the first time. Twenty years of choices, good and bad, and I survived them all. I’ll survive this change, too.
Still a sense a of terror rises up in me, something I’ve been feeling a lot of lately. Tears begin gathering in my eyes, and I’m not sure what to say to Adam at this point, when he chimes in with a final thought.
“It’s hard making that leap from a hobby to a life,” he says. “But hard isn’t the worst thing in the world.”
Catch Counting Crows in Charlotte on July 27 at PNC Music Pavilion