For more than 25 years, Steve Gorman provided the beat for one of rock’s great bands of the 90s – The Black Crowes.
Recently, Gorman released a tell-all biography of his life in The Black Crowes called Hard to Handle: The Life and Death of the Black Crowes.
Gorman called into 519 to chat about the book and his life and memories with the band.
What makes this the perfect time for a memoir?
I don’t know. I didn’t think about it in those terms. I know that in 2017, it made sense to me to start writing it all down. It was enough, a few years had passed since the last Black Crowes tour. I had long since realized that the Black Crowes had nothing, no part of my future, it was something in the past. And then really the essence of what made that band the best was very, very long removed. We continued to work and tour and make records, but the band that was at its most special had long since gone. In the months following the death of Ed Harsch, who was our piano player for 15 years, he died in November of 2016, I had long since realized the Black Crowes were over for me, his death was just a true sense of finality to the story. It just ended the story.
And I saw what made that band great in very stark terms. Over the few months following without trying to, it just locked into focus and everywhere. The story of the band, the way it felt, and the way it looked, and the way I remembered it, it all just made sense. I got a sense of this is exactly how it was, and this is how it will always be to me, and that seemed like a good time to start writing. And I didn’t feel angry or bitter, I felt sad about a lot of things, but also very appreciative for a lot of things. And that’s really the tone of the book, I think.
It sounds like everything was written from memory, or did you keep a diary of things that happened?
No, it’s all from memory. I have a very linear and very detailed memory, which at times feels very much like a burden. But at least for writing a book about the band, it was a helpful thing. And I wrote probably three times as much as the final edit, and I thought the whole time I was writing it, man, I’m leaving so much out. So, it’s an interesting thing. Because the fact is, my memory of the last 10 years is really vague, it’s just not nearly as specific. And even I’d say the last 20, once my wife and had kids, thankfully a lot of that memory went to other things, as opposed to just what the band was doing.
Was it difficult or emotional when you started to write? Because I’m sure it brought up a ton of memories.
No, it wasn’t really. There was two things that were emotionally charging to actually write. One was the very end of the book, which I, the epilogue, if you will, wrote early in the process, and I was struggling to stay focused because I didn’t know how it was going to end. I know how the story ends, but I didn’t know how the book was going to end. I had so many varying thoughts on what my final point should be. And like something from a bad movie, I popped awake in the middle of the night at 3:00 in the morning and opened my laptop and wrote it all, and fell right back asleep. And I got up the next morning and looked at it, and I was like, yeah that’s it. That was it. That was great. And once I did that, the rest of it actually came, the flow was easy. At least I knew where it was all leading to, and that made a big difference.
But then there was only one, but that was actually emotional, reading that. It is a sad statement. And it made me sad, but I also felt such relief. It was just the entirety of knowing where this is going to go now. That brought out a very strong feeling to process at the time.
But then the only other time when I was writing something, there’s a chapter from the spring of 2000 when Sven Pipien, our second bassist, when he flanked out of the band. That was really difficult to write. And I think the reason it was difficult is because he and I had never really talked about it. It’s just not something I’ve ever processed really on any level, other than, at the time I just put my head down and kept working. And then when he returned to the band and was healthy, I didn’t feel any need to go back and, well, hey, let’s look forward. But looking back on it now, it was really heartbreaking for me at the time and it was really sad to write about now 20 years later.
It sounds like you approached this as a no holds barred type of book, or did you hold anything back?
No, I didn’t hold anything back. There are plenty of things that aren’t in the story, but not for any reason other than it didn’t move the story along. There were plenty of stories. Like I said, I wrote three times what the final version is. When it was time to edit it, the main thought I had was, I just don’t want to be repetitive. And story, context and details might change, but the themes were repeated often. And Steven Hyden, who helped with the book, he was essential. That was really the part of the book where he was involved on a regular basis. He just gave me some great pointers. He said, look, you’ve got to trust the reader already knows who everybody is. You don’t have to go into all of your thoughts and how traumatic moments in the book were, where I was at my lowest, weakest, and I’m not showing great character.
And he would say, you don’t need so much detail. They get it. It’s impactful, and people are going to get the vibe. You don’t have to overkill it with every last detail and thought. There were things like that where I was in the editing process and wanted to make sure that I wasn’t over killing things that were already well established. That was really the main goal.
What does the Black Crowes mean to you today?
It’s my past. Its 25 years of my life. When the last tour ended, I was 47. That’s significant. As of right now, I’m 54 and it still represents half of my life. It was 27 years, I guess, all in. So, it means, that’s something, like I said, I can be very proud of. I can be very proud of a lot of what we did, and I can be happy that I learned from all the things we did wrong, and that I came out of it in a very good place and with a sense of who I am. As much as I felt that, when I joined, when I moved to Atlanta when I was 21, I knew exactly who I was, like any 21 year old does.
Here’s the full unedited interview.
Now that it’s been all said and done for you for a few years, what does The Black Crowes mean to you today?
It’s my past. It’s 25 years of my life that were, I mean, 21 years old too when the last tour ended and I was 47. That’s significant. As of right now, I’m 54 and it still represents half of my life. It was 27 years, I guess, all in. So, it means, that’s something, like I said, I can be very proud of. I can be very proud of a lot of what we did, and I can be happy that I learned from all the things we did wrong, and that I came out of it in a very good place and with a sense of who I am. As much as I felt that, when I joined, when I moved to Atlanta when I was 21, I knew exactly who I was, like any 21 year old does.
And then that was put to the test and challenged, and I learned an awful lot and I changed greatly. And I came out of the band with a far more actualized sense of who I was. And people were, many people were lost along the way. People were damaged along the way, and I certainly was both at times. But it’s something that I’m very proud of how I ultimately handled everything, and that’s really what it was to me.
I look at the book as a story that is relate-able to anybody that’s dealt with addiction, friendship and loyalty and betrayal and trust and secrecy. When you have addiction, you have codependency. When you have addiction in a family, or in an office, or in a band, or anywhere, you’re going to have a culture that’s formed, not intentionally and oftentimes not even something that’s acknowledged, where there’s a lot of secrets are kept. And you circle the wagons, and you think you’re protecting the addict, but you’re really protecting your own sense of shame and your own sense of responsibility for that addict.
There’s a lot of these themes that are very relate-able. The context of my book is in a rock and roll band, but it’s really just a story about people, like any great story is. I’m not saying this is a great story, I’m saying, I’m happy that people see it that way. When I say great, I mean in the epic, in the long term, this is all about people over a quarter of a century.
Is it hard for you to watch Chris and Rich continue the band for another round this year?
No, not at all. It’s the least surprising aspect of the whole thing. It’s not hard because that’s not the Black Crowes. That’s got nothing to do with the ethos of the band. It has absolutely nothing to do with why the band was formed. It has nothing to do with why the band was ever great, and it has nothing to do with why the band sustained for 25 years. It’s a completely different situation. And it’s called the Black Crowes. They have the legal right to do that and that’s fine, but it’s got literally nothing to do with me or anyone else that ever played in the band, besides the two of them.
This is the 30th Anniversary of Shake Your Money Maker. It was such a monumental album for the band and set the bar really high for anything after it. What do you think made it such an amazing album?
Well, it’s so many factors that, the album itself, just to have it finished and recorded and mixed and mastered, and the record that we all sat on for six months before anyone else on Earth heard it, we loved it. We were proud of it. It was an album that exceeded our goals, frankly. We weren’t that great of a band. We had some good songs, we had great potential, but we didn’t know to be a great rock and roll band yet. We hadn’t had the experience, we hadn’t played enough shows, we’d never toured. We’d go out for a long weekends, four days in a row was the longest we’d ever toured just around the Southeast before that album was released. So, we knew we had set a really hard, a really high bar.
Before anyone else had ever even heard it, we felt pressure to keep up with it. We’ve got to become that band that’s on that record. And so, to our credit, as much as it’s easy to say we were all knuckleheads at that age. We did have an innate sense of, we felt very, I wouldn’t say pressured or under the gun, but we had a responsibility to be as great as that record. And so, we hit the ground running from its release with that as our mindset. And that gave us something to think about, as opposed to is it selling? Is radio playing it? We weren’t as focused on the quote unquote success of the album, as a lot of artists probably were at the time because we were holding ourselves to a higher standard. And when the album did start to take off, and in fact, Canada was the first country where it went gold and the Canadian audience really embraced it ahead of the American audience.
We didn’t, it was a mistake to not stop and have a little rite of passage moment every now and again. Like, hey, we did this. All right. It’s almost like we were afraid to acknowledge it was succeeding because we didn’t want to take our foot off the gas in terms of becoming a better band. Older, wiser people would be able to separate those things very easily, but that wasn’t enough at the time.
Hard to Handle goes hand in hand with The Black Crowes so much that many don’t realize it’s actually an Otis Redding jam. How did The Black Crowes come into it?
We were in pre-production for the album in the Spring of 1989, and Otis Redding’s box set had just been released. It was the first one. And so, I worked at a used record store and I got a promo copy of it, and we were all listening to it pretty regularly. Everybody was, we were all fans of all the stuff that Stax made, Sam and Dave and Otis and Carla Thomas, we were all Booker T and the M.G.’s. We all knew those records. The box set was a great chance to really just dig into Otis. And so, we were playing it all the time and it was just on anywhere we would be, it seemed. And at some point, George Drakoulias, our producer, the guy who had signed us, he said, you guys are listening to Otis all the time.
Why don’t you do an Otis song? And he threw it out there like, Georgia band, Otis is from Georgia. What do you think? And our initial reaction was, hang on, excuse me one second please. Okay. So Otis, as a fan, and this story’s in the book. George suggested it, Chris was a little reticent at first, because what singer wants to cover Otis his first album?
But then said, well, how about Hard to Handle? And we whipped up an arrangement really quickly. And my mindset at the time was, oh, this will be a cool B side. It never occurred to me it would make the final album. That’s just not the kind of band I thought we were. I just seemed like, no, we’re here to do our thing. And when I heard the finished product, of course, I was like, man, that’s pretty great. And still was wondering if it should just be a B side, but then you play that album for your friends over a few months, and it’s hard to deny that every single one of them had their eyes lit up when that came on.
The drums are so important in songs like Hard to Handle. What was your approach to drumming on that first album?
My approach was to not mess up. That was it. I was in over my head. I felt intimidated by the process. I was excited and exhilarated, but also a little wary. I didn’t have that much experience in the studio, and I was really just trying to, my approach to drumming has always been on one level you’re the foundation, at least in the kind of music we played. If I’d been in a three piece prog rock band, it’s a very different thing. But for the music we were playing, the drums are, if you’re going to put down electricity, if you’re going to dig plumbing, you got to have the ditch first, and everything goes in there. I approached drumming as always putting everything in sports analogies. I played sweeper my whole life as a soccer player, which is running the field from the back.
You’re not getting all the attention, but everything runs through you and you’re the center. You’re blocking shots, you’re getting rebounds, you’re passing outlet to the fast break. You’re getting points, but you’re not the focal point. You’re not the flash. And that’s how I approach drumming. And I just knew my job was just to be solid and give everybody space to be their best. And that’s just the kind of thing that, the more you can talk about it, the more it gets confusing. It’s, talking about music has always a dicey prospect. It’s just a feel thing and a vibe thing, and mine was always to basically set the table for everyone else to shine.
Was there a certain sound and style that you needed to maintain for The Black Crowes that maybe you otherwise wouldn’t have used elsewhere?
I learned how to play in the band, and Rich learned how to play in the band, and Chris learned how to sing in the band. With all of our musical talents, we had very little experience in the grand scheme of things when we started playing together. So, we learned together. The Black Crowes feel and the sound was anytime Rich and I were playing together, that’s what it felt like. And then you add Chris’s vocal and that’s the Black Crowes. And so even, despite the many lineup changes, the thing that can’t be replicated about the Black Crowes is when you’re dealing with a rhythm guitarist and a drummer who were self-taught, and who taught themselves and learned together, there’s just a feel there, there’s a genuine chemistry that’s impossible to replicate. And so we didn’t have to think about it in those terms of what are we trying to do for the band. We were the band. Anything we played, that was the Black Crowes.
What was the hardest part of being in the Black Crowes?
Everything. I mean, the hardest part about being in a band is being in a band. It’s because we lost perspective early on. We didn’t have the same values, ultimately. It doesn’t sound like rock and roll to talk about. But we had very different values in the band, and that’s what made it amazing. It lasted as long as it did, because we had two brothers who were fighting for control of the band the entire time. It was something neither one of them was equipped to control. And the success of the band and the band at its greatest, was when nobody was in control. We were all moving together as one. And so, basically it’s a team, and the team concept was something that neither brother had a fundamental understanding or interest in ever understanding.
And it took a while for everyone else to realize that, because it’s hard to acknowledge, oh, this guy doesn’t even know what we’re talking about. You pay lip service and we’re all in this together, but then actions speak very differently. And so, we all had very different goals and values. And so, it’s difficult to get anything done in that situation. I think it’s a testament to everybody’s malleability and willingness to work hard, and the fact that that enough of us did have a very solid team spirit, that it lasted as long as it did.
What was the easiest part of being in the Black Crowes?
It was, when we were playing great, a great show or a great track in the studio, that bought a lot of time. You could walk off stage after a great night and the next three days it didn’t matter what happened, because we had just done. When you’re in a great band, a whole lot of other things become easier to swallow. You justify and rationalize, not consciously, but your subconscious is making it all okay at all times. But I mean, there was, when I say everything about the band was difficult, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth it at all. It was unnecessarily difficult. It was unnecessarily dysfunctional. But that’s just who the band was at the end of the day.
The brothers were at each other’s throats all the time. When they would alienate everybody else with their bullshit, then suddenly they would decide they’re on the same team. And then it was them against the band. And it was this constant flow. The tour they’re doing this year, the band ceased to exist because of demands Chris made that his brother said absolutely no way to. And then seven years later they’ve painted themselves in a corner and it’s like, okay, we don’t need anybody else. Let’s just do it ourselves. And it just says everything about what their true motivations are.
And again, that’s fine. I mean, if you can make a living playing music in your 50s, you are ahead of the game and there’s no reason not to. But it’s got nothing to do with me and it’s nothing I would be interested in being a part of, because if it’s not, there’s no connective tissue to the original band or to anything about the band other than this is songs that we wrote when we were teenagers and we need money. And so, I’m not interested in that. And thankfully, I’m not in a position where I even have to consider that. It’s the furthest thing from my mind.
Last year, you started a new radio show chatting about classic rock. For fans that may not have heard it, tell us about it.
Yes. Steve Gorman rocks. It’s on the Westwood One Cumulus network in the states. We’re on five hours a night. It’s 7:00 to midnight Eastern, but it’s all across the country. And it’s a classic rock show. It’s 10 or 11 songs per hour. So, it’s really not a ton of talk. I had done sports talk radio for seven years before that, and classic rock is a very solid format. There’s never not going to be an audience for that. But at the same time, classic rock is now the 1990’s. We’re looking at songs that are 30 years old being a part of that format. And so having done a lot of radio and looking for something new, and I was tired of sports.
I wanted to get into a music format. It certainly made sense to me, if classic rock is going to bring the 1990’s in, I felt like I was a pretty good person to do that, to be the guy behind a little bit of that in some form or fashion. And so we, it took a few months to put the show together. Any project like that has a lot of cooks in the kitchen initially, but we launched in September and it’s going great. I have a lot of fun. After doing sports talk, on one hand it’s a much lighter load to carry. Because like I said, I’m only talking for seven or eight minutes an hour, as opposed to 44 minutes an hour. But those minutes all really have to count. There’s no wasted beats. Sports talk is great because you can change your opinion four times in one segment, as long as you’re moving. And this is a very different thing.
Your bio on Westwood One says you have entirely too many pets. I gotta know. What is too many?
Some days any is too many. We have two dogs and two cats. And it’s just a house of fur basically. There’s just hair on everything. Anything that the cats haven’t destroyed with their claws is covered in pet hair. It made perfect sense at the time, but my wife and I look at each other regularly and go, what the hell were we thinking?
But you couldn’t live without them?
Of course not, no, no. I mean you get used to what you have. There are days when I just go, okay if I go to a friend’s house that doesn’t have pets, you walk in, you immediately are aware of the fact that there’s no hair floating around in the atmosphere. And it’s like, oh, this is nice.
Lastly, tell me about Trigger Hippy. There’s a new album.
There is, we put this out in October. It’s called Full Circle and Then Some. We’ve had that name in place since 2009. It’s really the bassist, Nick Govrik, and I. For years, Trigger Hippy with me and Nick and whoever showed up to play with us. That was just the name we liked. We did put a band together and made a record that came out in 2014, and we toured for a year with that and it was a lot of fun. It wasn’t a band that was built to last, it was just obviously without any drama or dysfunction, nothing like the Black Crowes. It was actually a really enjoyable process and everyone got along great, but it was clear that everybody had other things they were doing or wanted to do or needed to tend to.
It just wasn’t built to last. It felt like herding cats a little bit, to just keep everybody focused. And that was fine. It was just obvious to Nick and I to pull the plug, and then are we going to reboot this? Or what are we going to do? It took a couple of years, because I did have a sports talk radio show that was busy. Nick is a restaurateur. He has two restaurants. He’s a chef. And you he’s the principal songwriter in Trigger Hippy. He’s got three kids. I have two. We had plenty of other things keeping us busy. And so, after a couple of years, we, I was talking with Ed who’s an old friend of mine, he said, man, I’d love to play with you guys if you’re going to do it again.
And that was really the spark. I said, oh man, let’s do this. One thing lead to another. Suddenly we’re in the studio making a record and we loved it, and really thought about it in terms of, okay, if we’re going to be a band, let’s actually be a band. Let’s not do this side project thing. If Trigger Hippy is going to work, when we work, let’s be really focused and committed and try to do something that is, in our minds, very special. And that’s what the album was and that’s what the shows are. And we’re touring, we’ve been out on the road off and on since October. And we’re just lining up a lot of dates for 2020 and it’s very, very enjoyable. Very proud of the record and the band.