August and Everything After by Counting Crows
My holiday in Spain, and how I fell in love with Counting Crows.
August and Everything After was my favorite album when Kurt Cobain died in April 1994. The memory of that day is still vivid in my mind, as it was a time of mourning for the loss of a great musician and my treasured CD collection. As I returned from a school trip to Spain, I realized with a sinking feeling that I had left my Case Logic booklet, containing 24 of my favorite CDs, on the airplane. Just as I was settling in to watch MTV, a news update by Kurt Loder broke the tragic news that Kurt Cobain had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. It was a shock to my system, and I couldn't believe I hadn't heard the news sooner. It was either Saturday or Sunday and the news had broken on Friday. I guess that was possible in those days? The description of the event was straightforward but jarring, conjuring a brutal and almost crass image in my mind.
As a high school freshman, my music collection was the most important thing in my life and losing it felt like a significant blow. Losing a musician who felt like they were one of my own added a layer of complexity to my young brain as I dealt with things that made me sad, both small and impossibly large. Close to home and universal. While my mother called the airline to recover my CDs, I anxiously paced around the kitchen, feeling powerless. Fortunately, one CD remained with me; my copy of August and Everything After that was still in my Discman CD player.
Thanks to the airline, I got my CDs back, but the moment was very emotional and confusing. I had the sense of tangible personal loss of my treasures contrasted with the enormity of the less tangible but almost universally felt loss of an iconic musician. All of this was also steeped in the fragility of 15-year-old hormones and temporary jet lag. Here I was, learning that we lost Kurt Cobain after one of the most interesting weeks of my life, with Counting Crows as the soundtrack. That’s what I think of first when I think of August and Everything After. It’s hard to explain to anyone who wasn’t there because you don’t associate Nirvana with Counting Crows. They couldn’t be more different, except that they were both on alternative radio at the same time.
It was serendipitous in many ways. The first city we visited in Spain was Madrid. It was my favorite because it was this walkable, clean city. It felt very safe, even for a 15-year-old and his older classmates. I was the only freshman on the trip, but one of my older sister’s close friends was also on the trip. It was comforting to feel like I had a big sister with me. As we walked around Madrid, I saw posters advertising the Counting Crows album that I was already completely obsessed with. The cover of August and Everything After was everywhere in Spain during that trip. As we drove from city to city - Madrid, Toledo, Sevilla, all the way to Costa Del Sol, I listened to these tunes over and over again.
I don’t remember buying this CD or what drew me in other than the ubiquitous “Mr. Jones” on the radio, but “Round Here” grabbed me instantly. Starting an album with a tune as good as “Round Here” is advisable if you can pull it off as a band. I’m not a “lyrics guy” per se, but you can’t help but learn the lyrics to “Round Here.” Even with some of the tight patters of consonants, this song made me want to sing. I ended up singing in a band many years later, and after hearing myself on recordings, it’s clear to me that I learned a lot of what I know about singing from Adam Duritz. As I would get to driving age, I would sing Counting Crows at top volume, doing my very best to copy every vocal gymnastic and trill. “She must be tired of something, Round here she’s always on my mind.” and then finishing at the very top of your vocal range? The controlled chaos of hitting those notes and almost spitting the words on your way to the top of “very very late… I can’t see nothing, no nothing…”
I could spend time talking about “Mr. Jones,” but I feel like I don’t need to. The only shocking things about “Mr. Jones” are that it never hit Number 1, peaking in the second spot in America and that the song has become whatever it is when the band plays it live these days. And this is where I admit in my older years that I’m done seeing Counting Crows live. I used to be angry about it, but anymore, I feel like bands don’t owe me anything. The band doesn’t play their songs in a super-recognizable way. I understand not wanting to play songs exactly how they were on the record decades later. Still, there’s a communal aspect to singing along that I love too much to continue to partake in Counting Crows shows, personally. You can’t sing along hardly at all if the choruses drastically move both the beats and the notes of the vocal melody. But I don’t want to get too negative, especially over art that I really love and owe a lot to.
“Perfect Blue Buildings” sounds just as moody in the verses today as it did back in the 90s. And then the flourish of the understated chorus the first time through foreshadows an overly emotive finish. In the bridge, when the falsetto vocal comes in, it’s just perfect. It never hits the levels that “Round Here” hits at the end, but it’s satisfying.
“Anna Begins” is one where the lyrics stand out, even to a non-lyrics person. “This time when kindness falls like rain, it washes me away and Anna begins to change my mind. And every time she sneezes, I believe it’s love and oh lord, I’m not ready for this sort of thing.” And then, in the next stanza of the song, Adam Duritz hits complimentary notes as if he’s harmonizing with what he should be singing. These creative choices take songs that might feel repetitive and make them special.
“Time and Time Again” was my song. It wasn’t a big hit. It didn’t get much attention. But for whatever reason, it was one that I loved more than anyone else I knew. The layered vocals in the chorus and the harmonies of the simple chorus, “Time and time again” melts my heart. “I can’t please myself.”
Conversely, I don’t love “Rain King.” I like it and it’s a great song, but everyone else in the world loved that one more than I did. Shocker! Craig doesn’t love the most upbeat and happiest songs on a Counting Crows record? I’m so predictable. Honestly I was an emo kid before I ever knew what emo was or would become.
“Sullivan Street” is a song that must have stuck in my brain because I ended up writing a song with a similar chord progression many years later in my own band. In fairness to me, it’s a chord progression that exists many places in popular music. The two chord teeter-totter is a great way to write a verse. See if you can sing the “Sullivan Street” verse to this song I wrote.
But guess what? You can also sing “Love Stinks” by the J. Geils Band. I’m just saying… Both of those songs are superior to mine by about a million times. Back to Counting Crows.
“Ghost Train” is a song that I didn’t like at first until I got to the chorus and the song's end. Honestly, the verses are meh, and just wasting time to contrast with some of the most beautiful chorus melody work the band does on the whole record. “Hey how do you do? She said hey, how do you do?” Not much in terms of lyrics in black and white, but when they’re sung with all the trills, it’s enough to make the most sensitive emo kid hug himself, which I’m sure I’ve done while listening to this song.
“Raining in Baltimore” is one of my favorite songs to sing in the car to this day. It’s a perfect sad boy ballad. One of my favorite sections in any song I’ve ever heard is in this song. It’s the perfect level of simple lyrics and emotive singing that just explodes out of an otherwise chill piano ballad. “There’s things I remember and things I forget. I miss you. I guess that I should. Three thousand five hundred miles away, but what would you change if you could?”
It all finishes with “A Murder of One” which is upbeat and kind of a driving rocker, but still with feeling. It was the leading set closer for the band in 1994 and you can just imagine it. It also is one of the few songs that I can think of where a band will use their own band name as a lyric. “I dreamt I saw you walking up a hillside in the snow, casting shadows on the winter sky as you stood there counting crows.”
One for sorrow
Two for joy
Three for girls and four for boys
Five for silver
Six for gold and
Seven for a secret never to be told
… There's a bird that nests inside you
Sleeping underneath your skin
When you open up your wings to speak
I wish you'd let me in
Counting Crows would continue to be a big part of my life through their next record Recovering the Satellites. While not a “perfect album” in the way August is, Satellites is something I would consider a great record to this day. “Angels of the Silences” still rocks. “Children in Bloom” is a great song. “Recovering the Satellites” has another one of my very favorite singable moments in any song I’ve ever heard. “She. She. She sees shooting stars and comets’ tails. She’s got heaven in her eyes. I don’t need to be an angel, but I’m nothing if I’m not this high.” And of course, never forget that “A Long December” is absolutely a Christmas song. Add it to all your playlists. You’re welcome.
Beyond that, it was a perfect dovetail to the end of my high school years and into my college years. I saw Counting Crows on July 9th, 1997, with my high school girlfriend. A month later, would say goodbye and not even talk about the fact that we weren’t really still together, even though we both knew that we weren’t. A few months later, in October 1997, I would go to the show with some friends - including a trio of girls - from my dorm. The show was at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. The girls were surprised that the metal kid from Cleveland also loved Counting Crows.
I continued to buy the band’s records, the live one, Across a Wire, This Desert Life and even onto Hard Candy in 2002 after I was out of college and working as a corporate whore back in Cleveland. I stand by the fact that Hard Candy is somewhat underrated. It’s an imperfect album to be sure, but it has some killers on there, including the one where Cheryl Crow sings amazing background and harmonies, “American Girls.” Honestly, listen to it. It’s a great song. Up-tempo. Nearly a rocker.
But it’s all through the lens of the origin story. If I hadn’t fallen in love with that first album across the country of Spain at the age of 15, who knows what my relationship would have been like? If I hadn’t flown across the ocean to pal around a foreign country with my sister’s friend and a random band of folks who had nothing in common other than taking high school Spanish, who knows how those songs would sound to me? Imagine if that hadn’t been the disc with me in my discman in the immediate aftermath of learning of Kurt Cobain’s death, which rocked me to my adolescent core?
I’m not the person who thinks “everything happens for a reason” because I don’t really believe in “the reason.” Apologies to Hoobastank. However, I love over-examining my fandom's context to these enduring art pieces. The music is special in its own right, but all we have is our own context, right?
Post-script: I apologize for not mentioning a single other member of Counting Crows other than Adam Duritz. It’s completely unfair, but, yeah. To me it’s always been about the vocals and lyrics with Counting Crows. I know that it’s going to be criminal to some, but I don’t have anything to add. It’s a phenomenal band that’s been pretty consistent in terms of members.
A Murder of One - underrated gem...favorite lyrics
"I've been watching you for hours.
It's been years since we were born.
We were perfect when we started...
I've been wondering where we've gone."
Ahhhhhhh...a little midlife angst that flew way over the head of a 16 year old kid