Counting Crows Are Not a Punchline. How Can This Be?

·6 min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

The least surprising thing about Counting Crows is that they played a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony before they’d even finished recording their first album. The band felt like an institution since before the start, a vibe as comfy as a thrift-store sweater, so of course they’d be on a bill in 1993 alongside reunited versions of Cream and The Doors, of course Robbie Robertson would introduce them, and of course that’s how you would have heard their name first. It makes sense.

It’s not surprising either that Counting Crows would still be making music, even if the songs on the band’s newly released EP Butter Miracle, Suite One are the first they’ve put out since 2014’s Somewhere Under Wonderland. It’s not even surprising that the music is the good kind of familiar; this is a band who’s sounded like they’ve been together for thirty years for thirty years.

What is a surprise is that they’ve done something none of their contemporaries has managed: they’ve made it here, all the way to 2021, without ever becoming a punchline. And that’s straight up shocking when you consider how hard they’ve begged to become one.

Photo credit: Vince Bucci - Getty Images
Photo credit: Vince Bucci - Getty Images

The they in this case is of course a he. While there are almost certainly other members of the band—some estimates have put this number as high as six—Adam Duritz has always been the focal point of Counting Crows, and despite decades of doing everything we forbid our rock stars to do, he (they, whatever) remains in the pantheon. He’s put a target on his back and a Sideshow Bob weave on his head, yet we refuse to take the shot.

When August and Everything After was released, all those months after that Hall of Fame ceremony, its sound stood out against the chaos of new and underdeveloped post-Nevermind bands that mainstream radio had surrendered to. The album blew up in 1993 and stayed blown up; next time you go to a bar, put any track from it on the jukebox and I promise a minimum of three people will sing along with every word. That ecstatic “yeeeeaah” at the end of “Rain King” says it all: we’re here, and your classic rock station now has no choice but to acknowledge music made after 1984.

Photo credit: Steve Eichner - Getty Images
Photo credit: Steve Eichner - Getty Images

Getting what he wanted hit Duritz pretty hard, and by their second album, Recovering The Satellites, the melancholy of the man who thinks too much about his fame had set in. (Contrast the weary song-ending “yeahhhhh” of “A Long December” to the one that closes “Rain King.” You could make an entire ‘90s jukebox musical out of Adam Duritz’s yeahs.) He took “Mr. Jones” off the Crows’ setlists because he could no longer relate to the desire for fame in its lyrics. “Have You Seen Me Lately,” he asked, and boy had we. We hate it when rock stars take themselves this seriously, when they hate fame this much and talk about it this openly, especially when they’re this new. We’d just drummed George Michael out of America for less.

In this time, Duritz began committing the cardinal sin of being an average-looking guy who goes out with beautiful, famous women, and to this day he has never repented. A bearded, sad-sack Ric Ocasek with a parade of glowing Paulina Porizkovas, Duritz dated Samantha Mathis, Monica Potter, Emmy Rossum, Jennifer Aniston at the peak of Friends and then Courteney Cox that same year. He’s the first draft of John Mayer, yet somehow he’s dodged the label of “cad.” His list of famous girlfriends is so extensive, my research indicates it includes Trishelle from The Real World: Las Vegas, a fact that just made me push back from my desk and say, out loud: “Adam.”

Photo credit: Ron Davis - Getty Images
Photo credit: Ron Davis - Getty Images

And once you start calling the guy out, it’s hard to stop. He covered The Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost In You” and made it sound like something from a Berkeley coffee house, leading a generation of less-imaginative singer-songwriters to disembowel their favorite new wave hits. (Adam.) He did a gender swap on a Joni Mitchell classic so that we wouldn’t think a big yellow taxi had come to take his old man away. (ADAM.) He makes and sells his own wine and spent much of lockdown posting cooking videos on Instagram. (ADAM.) He buried the band’s best song on a compilation, so if you wanted “Einstein on the Beach” in 1994, you had to shell out for all of DGC Rarities Vol. 1. (You ended up with some very good Beck and Weezer tracks that way, but still: ADAM.) It’s like he’s trying to alienate us, and we just refuse to let him.

They have not remained Pearl Jam huge, but Duritz will likely be the first to tell you that was never the objective. Instead, Counting Crows has simply endured, which is impressive enough given how their early peers have petered out. Hootie and the Blowfish released one of the best-selling debut albums of all time, and got the gas face before they managed a second. Spin Doctors and Blues Traveler had mainstream moments and then went right back to playing colleges. From the Class of 1993, only Dave Matthews Band has joined them in sticking it out, but they’ve also become the easiest fraternity stoner signifier since the Hacky Sack. Counting Crows carries no such stigma. Not even with the white guy dreads.

Let us now address the white guy dreads. Early in the band’s career, Duritz said his signature haircut was like his Superman cape, a way to physically manifest rock stardom. Since then, he’s been cagey about whether or not the hair is real, even in recent years when they looked about as natural on his head as a foam We’re Number One finger looks at the end of your arm. He has since either shaved or removed them, depending on who you ask, and a nation offers its thanks.

You will not hear their absence in Butter Miracle, Suite One. It is pure Counting Crows, comforting without feeling like a retread, elevated bar rock and beat storytelling unfolding over four tracks, five if you include vinyl-only B side “August and Everything After.” (Releasing your debut album’s title song as an album track, 28 years after the fact? ADAM!) It will keep them in the unique place they inhabit in our culture, never a joke or a throwback, not a stadium act but not an act to ignore. Just off to the side, where they’ve always been most comfortable. And though every cell in my body is primed to root against them (him, whatever), I want this for Counting Crows. You might too.

Counting Crows are back, and in spite of Adam Duritz’s best efforts, we are ready for them. It’s more than a surprise. It’s a goddamn butter miracle.

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