Adam Duritz of Counting Crows

by Carl Wiser

Before he formed Counting Crows, Adam Duritz was an English major at the University of California, Berkeley. Books were always his thing, and a big influence on his songwriting. "Rain King" was seeded in the 1959 Saul Bellow novel Henderson the Rain King, the tale of a seemingly successful man who is nonetheless unfulfilled. The band thought it would be their big hit, but that honor went to "Mr. Jones," a song about a guy who wants to become famous, thinking it will solve all his problems.

With America enraptured by "Mr. Jones," Adam was suddenly a celebrity whose most popular work had turned against him. He could no longer witness the song from the perspective of its character, since he was now living it.

The next Counting Crows album, Recovering The Satellites, dealt with this struggle - notably on the song "Have You Seen Me Lately." Adam had written himself into one of the great literary characters of his time: a sensitive soul whose unwanted adulation was fueling his preternatural talent for writing songs.

Somewhere along the way, Adam realized that every song he wrote was "about me." Even his Oscar-nominated song for Shrek 2 ("Accidentally in Love") turned out to be autobiographical. After Counting Crows' 2008 album Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings, he put his pen on hiatus. Their 2012 album Underwater Sunshine was a collection of covers, allowing Adam to detach a bit while continuing to perform. In 2013, the band released Echoes Of The Outlaw Roadshows, a live album compiled from their 2012 tour ("Mr. Jones" didn't make the set list).

Adam is writing again, and doing so with the gusto he recalls from the days when he was hanginaround Berkeley, not sure where things were going, but having a great time doing it.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): A lot of people have talked about how Counting Crows songs have helped them through some really rough times. Have any of your songs ever helped you get through difficult times?

Adam Duritz: Well, I don't know that writing songs is cathartic the way that people would like to think it is, but I will say that if I'm going to have a terrible day, I'd rather have a terrible day in which I wrote a song than just a terrible day in which nothing good happened.

I've been crazy a lot of my life and I've written a bunch of songs, and I could have just been some crazy guy who didn't get shit done. This turned out a lot better for me. Songs got me through 30 years of my life. It's not like you break up with someone, write a song about it, and that makes it okay to lose them. It doesn't really. But it's better than nothing.

I don't really know if they get me through hard times. I'm not sure if that's what they do. This is my whole life playing music, so it's gotten me through good times and bad times.

Songfacts: Do the songs ever change meaning for you over the years?

Duritz: Sure. They change meaning during the week.

But they're not riddles, and they're not translations. They're not in a foreign language to me. This is a set of feelings and a story. It's like a coffee filter: you pour your coffee and it comes out differently every day. Or you could say that your day's a filter and you pour your songs through it. But one way or another, your perceptions of things change.

When "Mr. Jones" broke through in 1994, Top-40 radio was caught in the Malachi Crunch between grunge and hip-hop, so desperate for palatable hits that Ace of Base made hot rotation. Along with Lisa Loeb's "Stay" and Sheryl Crow's "All I Wanna Do," "Mr. Jones" was the fresh new sound of this singer-songwriter renaissance, feeding the hunger for songs filled with engaging lyrics and wrapped in sweet-sounding melodies.
My perception of "Mr. Jones" was a song about me and Marty [Adam's friend Marty Jones is the titular "Mr. Jones"] out drinking, hanging out with his dad's flamenco troupe and wishing we could talk to these girls and thinking, man, if we were more famous, maybe we'd be able to do that. But we're not. And as a result we're just sitting here.

It's also a song about the foolishness of thinking that everybody liking you will make your whole life better, because of course that doesn't work. You know that. Your mom told you that in third grade when she told you it wasn't a popularity contest. Well, it felt like a popularity contest at the time.

But I knew that at the time and you're supposed to see through that guy: "When everybody loves me, I'll never be lonely." You're supposed to know that's not true. For one thing, there's no such thing as "everybody loves me." Nobody knows you in that case. So I knew that wasn't going to happen that way. But you still want it: you want life to be easier, you want to be a rock star so it's easier to talk to a girl. It's the same crazy person sitting there with the girl later, though. So it doesn't fix things.

But my perception of it changed. There's a way I thought it was going to be when I wrote it, and there's a way that I was actually right, and I knew it was going to be when I lived through some of it. The song is the same, but the meaning changes a little bit, for sure.

Outside of the jam band and jazz idioms, no one does improvisation like Counting Crows. Refusing to faithfully reproduce the studio versions of his songs on stage, Adam varies the arrangements, turning "Round Here" and "Rain King" into extrapolations of their originals.
Songfacts: You also change the structure of your songs a lot, which we can hear on Echoes. When you're up there performing the songs, what does it feel like?

Duritz: You can't do anything wrong, really. I think one of the nice things about playing music is a sense that whatever I want to do is okay. As long as I'm really expressing something, then any way I want to express the song, it's fine. It's all just exploration and self-expression. I have a sense when I'm on stage that there's nothing I can do that's wrong. Aside from, like, forgetting things. But even if I forget the words, the truth is I can always make up more. And I do that all the time. It's just like, Okay, I don't remember the words the song is supposed to have, but what am I feeling right now? This is what I'm feeling right now. Here it comes. It's really not the end of the world even when you do that, as long as you don't panic.

So I feel like they're real fluid, that time on stage is fluid and things can change. You've got to be careful so you don't screw up everyone around you. But I feel like I can go anywhere I want. I feel like the other guys are free to do that, too, to a certain extent. As long as we're all paying attention, then you can follow each other around in circles. We do that, we play tag around the songs all the time, and it's pretty cool. I think I would have been bored doing this job a long time ago if I really thought we were supposed to go up on stage, do them like the record over and over again, just recreate that for people. It never really interested me, so we never did it. Literally, from the first gig ever on tour, we were screwing around with songs. First gig ever.

Songfacts: What is it about "Rain King" that lends itself so well to your live performances?

In America, you couldn't buy the "Mr. Jones" or "Rain King" or "Round Here" singles - they weren't issued (they were foisted on radio stations, however). This was a ploy to drive sales of the album, and it worked. Counting Crows debut album, August And Everything After, sold over 7 million copies in the US.
Duritz: I don't know. That's the first song we started messing around with. We were up in Vancouver to play a town pub. We were opening for Suede and the Cranberries, I think. We were sitting by Lake Victoria in the afternoon, me and a couple of the guys - Charlie [Gillingham] and Dan [Immergluck], maybe. And I just said, "Tonight in the middle of 'Rain King' after the solo, I'm going to give you a signal, everybody drop down." And they're like, "What for, what are we going to do?" And I'm like, "I've no idea. Something. I just want us to be the kind of band who can do this." And they're like, "Cool, let's try it." So I did.

And I just did something. I have no idea what I did that night. First time I'd ever done it.

One day I started signing "Oh! Susanna," another day all of a sudden I was thinking about "Thunder Road," a song that you know a lot of the words to without thinking about it, and then I started just singing it. I've never really played in cover bands, so the first time I tried it, I only got a little of the way through the song and then I forgot the rest of the words. Then I did it a few nights later and I got further through the song. And one time I got all the way through the song. It was cool. It just seemed interesting. Fun. A different way of looking at my song and that song together.

Now they make mashups, so it's sort of the same thing, but I was singing "Thunder Road" over "Rain King" broken down, and it was cool. It just seemed like we were free to do stuff if we wanted.

Songfacts: I'm only going to ask this because you mentioned "Thunder Road," where "Mary's dress waves." Bruce Springsteen is famous for putting girl's names in his songs. You do that, as well, sometimes real, sometimes not. Maria, for instance. Is there any rhyme or reason to the girls' names that you choose?

Duritz: Yeah, they're mostly people.

Songfacts: Real people?

Duritz: Yeah. But, I mean, Springsteen's famous for writing good songs. And one of the ways you write well, at least as I was taught, being an English major, is details. Details matter to me. When I started at the record company and other places, people tried to tell me to stop using so many details, that it made it hard for people to relate to my songs if I used proper names and proper places, it was a bad idea. But that always seemed stupid to me.

I think if you want to tell someone how you feel about them in a song, tell them what's on the walls in the room you're in. That really, as silly as it sounds, it works. That's how Faulkner, Hemingway, that's how everybody I read growing up, works. You tell them what's on the walls. How you feel comes out between the lines. It really does. It's just so much better to say, "All at once you look across a crowded room to see the way that light attaches to a girl." Like that line in "A Long December." That is to say, "I've got a crush on her." It's the details that make it matter.

And the proper names matter to me, and so I use them. I think that comes across to other people, even if it's not the name they're thinking of. People ask me questions like that all the time, like, "Who's Anna?" [from "Anna Begins"] She's Anna. You don't know her. She's in Australia. But she's every girl you ever felt that way about, too.

I use the proper names because they ring for me. When I use them. I pretty much always use proper names. They're just people's names. I may have changed the name a little bit sometimes, changed Amelia to Amy ["Amy Hit the Atmosphere"], Betsy to Elisabeth ["Goodnight Elisabeth"] because it worked in the song better. But mostly I just use the name, they're just people.

Adam wrote "A Long December" after his friend was hit by a car. He spent a lot of time visiting her in the hospital, and was thinking about her one night when the song hit him. The next day, after making another trip to the hospital, he recorded the song with the band, completing it that night.
Songfacts: You mentioned "Long December," and you've talked about how that song came to you really quickly. Do any songs ever work the opposite way, where they take you just years to write?

Duritz: Oh, yeah. Sometimes. But rarely. I never used to write that way. I would finish it in one sitting, however long a sitting was - 40 minutes for "Rain King," couple of hours for "Long December," maybe 8 hours for "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby" - but it's a longer song. But it's one sitting. I would always sit in that feeling for a while.

But there are songs, especially on this record and Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings where I really took time and reworked them. I started writing "When I Dream of Michelangelo," in 1990, and I didn't finish it. And then I took parts of it and some of the ideas in it to write "Angels of Silences" and "Goodnight Elizabeth" for Recovering the Satellites, which is '96. And I didn't finish the actual song of "When I Dream of Michelangelo" until we did Sunday Mornings a few years ago.

That's rare. The last few years when I sort of stopped writing; I was writing for the play [Freeloaders], but I wasn't writing for Counting Crows. And I realized I was doing things differently: I wasn't sitting down through the whole song anymore. Usually I would just throw that away, because I thought it meant the song wasn't good enough, but then I realized I was never going to have anything.

So I started writing pieces of music and singing them into my phone, recording them into the computer, just writing pieces down. I'd be in the back of the bus; I'd wake up in the middle of the night and I'd have a verse in my head. And I would work the verse out and then I would sing it into my phone. It would be just one verse of some song that was not written yet.

The first song that we wrote for this new album is called "God of Ocean Tides," and it comes from about five lines sung into my phone in the back of the bus in the middle of the night somewhere in western Tennessee near the border of Mississippi. I just happened to wake up in the middle of the night. I was lying there singing this thing to myself, and I thought, "Shit, I've kind of got a verse here." I grabbed my phone, put the voice memo on, sang it in there, put it away. Came to it much later, maybe a year later, finished it here. That was the first song we wrote for the new album.

Some I wrote in single sittings, some are pieces of things. I just finished one the other day, this song called "Palisades Park." It's a long song, and I started writing it about two or three years ago. It was a piece of music that I was thinking about using for the play, which is why it was named "Palisades Park" for no particular reason. Because it had to do with the play, a setting in the play. There were no words to it, but I had about five minutes of me playing and singing kind of nonsense words, going through all the different changes.

I pulled it out and I really loved it. I finally sat down and really worked at writing the whole thing. It took me a while - it took me a week and a half, and the guys were here. I really love it. It's my best piece of music I've written - it's beautiful. It's really long. It's more like a "Round Here" kind of song. It's a long song with different sections to it. It reminds me of the sort of stuff we do live, but on a record.

Songfacts: Tell me about the song "Have You Seen Me Lately."

Duritz: What about it? What would you like to hear?

Songfacts: I'd like to know what you were thinking when you wrote that song and what it means to you.

Duritz: Well, my whole life had changed in the wake of the first album. People bitch about people writing second albums that are about, "Wow, it's hard being famous." But, I mean, fuck you, what are you supposed to do? It's your life, it changes, and it's really weird. And it is difficult to deal with it. And if you're a guy who writes about what you're going through in life, then you can't not write about going through that if it happens. It was just such a weird thing to go from being a pretty shy, private person, to being on the cover of magazine stands. I wasn't really prepared for that, especially because I was already kind of unbalanced, and that really set it off.

"Have You Seen Me Lately" is about that. Dealing with the relationships with people in the wake of that, how I felt about knowing whether they were real or not real, and my perceptions of my social life having exploded out across the radio.

Songfacts: What were you thinking about when you were doing "Hanginaround"?

Duritz: It was weird. I was really into things people were doing with loops at the time; a lot of people that were messing around a lot in the studio, some of the Sparklehorse stuff, or early dance beat music, and how people were taking drum loops and taking very organic things, like a Jackson 5 piano part, flipping it and repeating it, and then singing another song over it. I was just really into that.

When we were doing This Desert Life [1999 album], I wanted to make a whole record where we could experiment in the studio, where we could do anything we want with the songs. We can record live easily. We can always record a whole song live. I don't even think there's any overdubs on "Long December." It's the fifth take, done. But it's also kind of cool to take that and chop it up into pieces like you hear Brian Wilson doing on Smile, where he's cutting pieces of songs together.

I was just really interested in taking some time in the studio and messing around with stuff. We recorded in weird ways: we took baby monitors that were sitting around the house and a transistor radio and we reversed the polarity in them so they would record instead of broadcast. We'd hang them over a drum kit so the kit sings the drum sound. It was literally a baby monitor or a transistor radio or something, hung over the front of the drums, and that's pulling a whole sound, just that one little thing.

We were trying to be creative with how things sound, and "Hanginaround" was just the first one we worked on. I had this idea for a very simple three or four chord pattern that would go around over a hip-hop beat, and then all of a sudden exploding into a harmony of choruses. It just seemed like a really fun drum-loopy thing to do.

The funny thing is it doesn't sound like loops, but it is. It sounds like we're just playing piano, but there's actually eight piano parts on there. I played a part, and then Charlie'd play a part. And I'd play a part inside Charlie's part, and then he'd play another one. There are like six piano parts bounding in and out of each other.

Songfacts: And what you were thinking lyrically?

Duritz: We spent 10 years in clubs, so I spent a lot of years hanging around Berkeley, not necessarily sure whether I was going anywhere, but having a lot of fun. Being up late, getting drunk, and playing music. I spent a lot of years not really knowing where that was going.

The idea of a song created with loops made me think of being on a loop myself. I wrote that song about when I was younger and the latter years in Berkeley and how I loved it there, but I was kind of going nowhere.

In 1994, while August and Everything After was ensconced on the charts, Counting Crows' label, Geffen Records, released an album of demos, outtakes and otherwise forsaken songs on a compilation called Geffen Rarities Vol.1. Songs by Nirvana, Weezer and Sonic Youth were included on the set, but it was the Counting Crows song "Einstein on the Beach (For an Eggman)" that got picked up for airplay.
Songfacts: "Einstein on the Beach." The song just kind of popped out of nowhere. It wasn't even on the album. And it's this incredible song. Can you explain what's going on in that song?

Duritz: It's just kind of a goofy thing I did. It was an exercise. I was thinking, How do you write pop riffs? How do you write a hooky song with a guitar riff? I hummed the guitar riff into [Counting Crows co-founder] Dave Bryson's answering machine at this place he was staying in LA. It was just me playing games. I never thought it was the greatest song, but I do like it. It's more clever than it is meaningful to me. It sort of takes the idea of, what if you're someone who's a brilliant mathematician like Albert Einstein or any of us doing creative work on something that seems so clean and brilliant, and then it turns out to be an atomic bomb. It's your idea, which is so amazing and graceful in and of itself, but it turns into something not so great. Or great, because it certainly ended World War II, so that's nice.

So I was just being clever. I don't think there's a lot of depth in that song. I thought it was cute, but I never even considered recording it for August and Everything After. That's not even a demo from the studio, like an outtake - that's from back home before we were ever signed.

It didn't belong on that record, but Geffen wanted an extra song for the Rarities record. That's something that no one was ever going to buy, and no one was ever going to listen to. Those records that the labels put out, you don't remember any songs from any of them. Nobody does, except that this one time, I gave them that song and then years later, August and Everything After is blowing up and I felt like it had been about enough, and I said I wouldn't do any more videos or singles for the record. We did "Mr. Jones" and then "Round Here," And I said that was it, because I thought it was going to be too big of a backlash and we were not going to have a career.

I thought, That's enough. We'll keep touring, but no more singles, no more videos. No more of that stuff. We were going to put out "Rain King," which everyone thought was the real single off the record - no one thought "Mr. Jones" was. And "Round Here" certainly, at five plus minutes, was not a single.

But "Rain King" was the one that should have been coming out next, and I was like, "I think we've gone far enough with this. Let's just stop so we can have a career." Because I saw people around me putting out records that got a little too big, and that was the end of them. I didn't want that for us, so I stopped it.

Unfortunately, at that point Geffen then released the Rarities record and put out "Einstein on the Beach" as a single. Gave it to radio, and of course it went straight to #1 [on the Alternative Songs chart], which I'm sure doesn't usually happen on rarities records. And then every fuckin' other song on our record went up the charts again. They all went up on their own without us putting them out: no videos, no nothing. I've got to wonder how many albums that record would have sold if we hadn't shut it down. Because it sold, I don't know, what, 10 million records? It's crazy. And that was with us trying to keep it under control. I'm glad we did that.

But "Einstein on the Beach" was a demo from before we were even signed, from back at home recording. And because we weren't giving them any more singles off August and Everything After, they put out the Rarities record with "Einstein" and gave it to radio, and radio wanted another Counting Crows song right then. So straight up the charts. At the time I was pissed off. Now it's like, eh.

I think we played it at one gig in San Francisco in like 1991 before we were even signed. I don't think we've played it again since then. I have no idea how to play it.

But I don't really mind that. I think it's a great pop song. I like listening to it every now and then because the harmonies are so good, and the unabashed enthusiasm of my singing on that song is fun for me to hear.

November 12, 2013. Get more at, or join crowd at Adam's Twitter feed.
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Comments: 2

  • Kiran from Birmingham, UkWhen we think about songs 9 out of 10 times it is 'boy meeting girl' and so on an so forth. When I started listening to Counting Crows I learnt songs can be transcendental. I used to play 'August and Everything After' in my car, and believe me, driving from Woodbridge, Virginia to South-East DC, where I used to work in a Check Cashing store, away from home, alone, misunderstood, running after the better life, 7 days a week, I am probably the only person who can relate to Adam's lyrics as best as possible because I have dissected them, researched them, related to them, as no one, possibly could have done. I am in my 50s now and my only regret is why he is so much under-rated.
  • Amy from MontanaI've never looked myself up before but I did today. Amy is not Amelia. It's Amy. Just say'n. ;)
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