February 6, 2020

FTV: Steve Gorman


     Steve Gorman looked into the bathroom mirror and conversed with his reflection:  “Just do what your gut tells you.” His gut replied, “Do NOT join this band, they’re (expletive deleted)

crazy.”  With that settled, he resolved to stay with Mary My Hope, the band he had joined soon after relocating from his native Kentucky to Atlanta, Georgia.  He went to break the news about turning down the offer to join Chris Robinson’s band Mr. Crowe’s Garden. Out on the the balcony where they were polishing off a second bottle of wine, Gorman looked Robinson straight in the eyes and said, “Alright, I’m in.”

     If the name isn’t familiar, Steve Gorman is the former drummer for The Black Crowes, a radio personality, and the time keeper for his current band, Trigger Hippy.  Our source for all things Crowes, Todd from the WOAS-FM Western Bureau in Eugene, tells us that the brothers Robinson (Chris and his younger brother Rich) have reconvened the band, but with new sideman.  After reading Gorman’s new book (Hard to Handle:  The Life and Death of the Black Crowes – A Memoir (2019) by Steve Gorman and Steven Hyden), it doesn’t sound like he was sitting on pins and needles waiting for a reunion to happen.  Even if he was, Gorman casts serious doubts that he would have jumped back into the middle of the maelstrom that had tossed him about for several decades.  Gorman has never been one to keep his opinions under a basket, but this entertaining, no holds barred account of his life as a musician sheds some light on this former band.  Admittedly, Gorman points out that the story is told from his perspective, but he certainly had a front row (well, back row from his location on stage) seat to observe all that took place in The Black Crowes’ saga.  From what I have read about the battling Robinson brothers from other sources, he didn’t really need to juice up the stories as much as just report what he observed from his fly on the drum stool perch in the band.

     Having read a lot of stories by and about drummers, Gorman’s isn’t typical.  He didn’t do the ‘jam with his friends, play wedding receptions, gig at frat parties, and eventually become famous’ route.  Before he dropped out of Western Kentucky University, his only connection to the drums was his long held yen to be a drummer in a rock band.  As Gorman tells it, “For as long as I could remember, I had listened to music and imagined myself playing the drums. When I played records, I would focus on how the drums would play off the other instruments.  And I would air-drum for hours, years after most people stopped doing that kind of thing. When I went to see bands, I would focus on the drummer, judging his playing with a critical ear as if I really knew anything about it.”  There isn’t a drummer who ever picked up a pair of sticks who hasn’t done the same things, but the other side of that coin is “get a drum kit and start practicing”. Gorman says he did sit behind someone else’s drums a few times, but just enough to fuel an “irrational confidence” in himself that,  “yes, I could be a pretty good drummer.” When his friend Clint called and invited him to drop out of school and travel to Boston to form a band, he jumped at it with no realistic idea if he could actually pull it off. Boston eventually became Atlanta, then Tuscaloosa, and again Atlanta where he landed in February of 1987 with one bag of worldly goods and $1200 to his name.

     The first person he met as he came off the bus was Chris Robinson, who told him that guitarist Clint and bassist Sven Pipien would be right back.  Gorman’s first impression of Robinson was that he looked like the new wave, deadpan comedian Emo Philips. He moved into a house with the trio and started chipping away at his $1200 grub stake while they plotted the future of their band with no name.  Robinson was already the singer in a band called Mr. Crowe’s Garden, but as he got to know him better, Gorman had a hard time picturing his rather neurotic sounding new friend as a lead singer. Once he saw him on stage, he knew Robinson had that extra something that meant he was made to front a band, he just wasn’t there yet.  

     Gorman finally figured out that if he was going to be the drummer in the newly named Mary My Hope band, he probably needed a kit.  He visited Rhythm City where he detailed what he needed and the clerk inquired what his budget was. Sure enough, the salesman set him up with Pearl brand Explorer starter set and cheap line Zildjian cymbals that “sounded like trash can lids.”  Gorman was happy to finally own a drum kit, but when he told the clerk he had seven hundred dollars to spend, “I might as well have stamped ‘sucker’ on my forehead . . . the bill came to $699.99, leaving me with one cent to my name.”

     Dominated by The Georgia Satellites, R.E.M., and a newer band called Drivin’ and Cryin’, the music scene spreading out between Atlanta and Athens was a lively place to break a band.  These bands would serve as the template for the kind of music the newly named Mary My Hope would play. As they set up to rehearse the first time, Gorman was terrified because he really didn’t know what he was doing.  Luckily, he had the good sense to keep it simple: “I just played a straight beat for hours. No fills, not ever a cymbal crash. I hammered away on the same simple beat and either sped up or slowed down depending on what Clint wanted.  He had written some songs and had already been in a band before, so he led the way. Little did I know that what most songwriters want is exactly what I was providing: a simple beat without any nonsense for them to work around.” With both Mary My Hope and Mr. Crowe’s Garden rehearsing in the same house, Gorman had plenty of time to soak up the vibe.  He quickly felt comfortable drumming with a band and started to feel like, “Hey, this just might work.” Their first gig would find Mary My Hope opening for Mr. Crowe’s Garden at a college bar called The Dugout. It was Steve’s first gig and the first time he heard himself playing on a kit amplified through a PA. Three months after arriving in Atlanta, Gorman says, “I was an entirely different person from the one who had moved to Atlanta.” 

     It was shortly after this first ever live gig by Mary My Hope that Chris first asked Gorman to join Mr. Crowe’s Garden.  When he refused, Robinson did a little arm twisting to get him to at least play on a couple of demo recordings MCG were about to make.  Their drummer had just departed to play with Drivin’ and Cryin’, so Gorman figured it would be a new experience. After they had jammed the tunes a few times, the recording engineer praised Gorman’s feel.  When Steve admitted that he had only been playing three months (“I’m way over my head,” Gorman told him),

the engineer said, “You’re fine, man.  I just want you to find the pocket. You don’t have to play any fills.”  Gorman recalled, “I would have never admitted to anyone I thought I was already really good.  I couldn’t play many fills, but I always knew instinctively what not to do.  Young drummers tend to overplay, but that was never an issue with me.  I played simple, straight, and strong.” 

      During this first recording session, he also got to see the Robinson brothers writing process:  “Rich would play parts and Chris would put them together. Rich would play a few chords and Chris would say, ‘Do that again, just stay there, that’s the verse.’  Then Chris would start singing, and tell Rich, ‘Go up somewhere so I can go down.’ Then Rich would play one of the twelve chords he knew and wait for Chris to give him the yea or nay.”  On the road home from the session, Chris put the push on to get Gorman in the band, but Steve wasn’t interested in being in a band with the two brothers. “It wouldn’t be ‘my’ band,” Gorman said even when Robinson tried to convince him that they would all be considered equal partners.

     Gorman’s Mary My Hope bandmates were not at all happy to hear that he had recorded with the Robinson brothers.  Steve assured them that he was not going to leave his band for MCG, yet there were signs that all things were not well with Mary My Hope.  Both Clint and Sven were taking LSD regularly and Clint said, “I’m only excited about the band when I’m tripping. If I’m totally straight, I don’t get excited about much of anything.”  Gorman knew next to nothing about drugs but he knew that this spelled trouble for the band. It no doubt was one of the contributing factors that made him ignore his gut instincts and join Mr. Crowe’s Garden.  After playing only his third live band gig, he told the Mary My Hope guys that he was leaving them. MCG would soon have a recording deal and, “how could I turn that down?” They were not happy. Steve found it ironic that within twelve months, Mary My Hope signed a deal, were planning a trip to Europe to record, and were doing quite well on the circuit.  “Meanwhile,” Gorman reports, “Mr. Crowe’s Garden couldn’t get arrested.”

     The band progressed and improved by playing as much as they could.  Their new mentor from A&M Records, George Drakoulias told them not to be impatient about getting into the studio.  He encouraged the band to disect the Stones, Faces, and Humble Pie so they would be ready when the time came to record.  By the time they began recording their first album Shake Your Moneymaker (with a relatively unknown producer named Brendan O’Brien recommended by Drakoulias), they had shuffled personnel some.  With a new bass player named Johnny Colt in the band, Gorman was just getting comfortable with him when they entered the studio.  His first experience with playing to a click track was a disaster, leading Rich to suggest that Drakoulias bring in a ‘real drummer’ for the sessions.  Drakoulias took Gorman out for a burger and shake to discuss things. Drakoulias had been telling Gorman that he was ‘falling off’ the click track and Steve said he was going crazy trying to fix the problem.  Gorman told George that he was pushing the beat to fix the ‘falling off’ problem, to which George said, “You keep speeding up because you’re pushing, that is what I am saying.” Gorman suddenly realized that he wasn’t crazy after all:  “‘Falling off’ means slowing down!  That’s what that means! If you mean speeding up, then say speeding up!  As it turns out, I was pretty good playing to a click track.  All it took was a nervous breakdown at Steak ‘n’ Shake and I was good to go.”  A little over three weeks later their debut album was in the can.

     Def American record founder Rick Rubin had wanted to retool their image and name.  Rubin told them, “I just don’t see it. I don’t know what to make of you guys. You’re a southern band and you don’t look southern.”  Even though they were based in a city of four million people, he wanted to dress themselves in overalls, flannel shirts and work boots.  Worse yet, he wanted to rebrand them the Kob Kounty Krows (the KKK!). He may have been the label boss, but the band dug in their heels and vowed to keep their name.  Chris hinted to Rubin that if the band needed a gimmick to get some attention, he would be glad to do a pro wrestling number on Rubin right then and there. Rubin was a big wrestling fan so he got the hint and dropped the KKK idea.  With the exception of Johnny, the band wasn’t all that invested in Mr. Crowe’s Garden, so they began jotting down alternatives, the only condition being it had to have ‘Crowes’ in it: The Stone Cold Crowes? Flying Crowes? The Heartless Crowes?  Someone even suggested The Black Crowes but they rejected it because of the redundancy (“Have you ever seen a crow that wasn’t black?”). In the end, they vowed that they would just fight for the lame name that none of them really liked anyway.

     They were informed that the label’s international distributor hated the Mr. Crowe’s Garden name and if they stuck with it, the album wouldn’t be released across the pond.  Ruben let it be know that he kind of liked the sound of ‘The Black Crowes’. The battling Robinson brothers decided that the threats to not release the album were probably not going to come true, but it was a fight with no purpose.  Thus they became The Black Crowes and their meteoric rise in the music world began. We have discussed the battling Robinson brothers before and after we see how this ‘new’ version of the BCs turns out, we will no doubt talk about them again.  Gorman probably won’t be in the discussion, but who is to say? They tried without success to replace him once before and ended up begging him to rejoin. Gorman has dropped many hints in recent articles that he isn’t about to make that mistake again, but as they say, “Stranger things have happened.”

     I enjoyed reading Gorman’s take on The Black Crowes.  I have heard him interviewed on radio and on the internet.  He is an engaging, funny personality on the air and is capable of telling tales about life on the road with the best of them.  It is unfortunate that he peppered his 344 page book with enough expletives to sink a battleship. If this book ever becomes the basis of a reality TV show, it will contain more bleeps than any of the Tony Beets’ segments aired on the popular Yukon mining soap opera, Gold Rush.

Top Piece Video:  Steve Gorman’s current band Trigger Hippie performing Don’t Want to Bring You Down