Book Review: “Hard to Handle: The Life and Death of The Black Crowes—A Memoir”

Steve Gorman chronicles a living example of Tolstoy’s observation, “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Being famous might mean enjoying the cats without having to clean the litterbox, but it can also mean dislocation and separation from the sanity-keeping foundational elements of one’s psychological makeup. In Hard to Handle: The Life and Death of The Black Crowes—A Memoir (Hachette Books), Steve Gorman takes us by the hand and leads us through what it was like to scale the highest mountains of rock stardom while, often simultaneously, struggling in a valley of frustration.

Fans of The Black Crowes will get a glimpse of what was happening behind the scenes from the day Gorman stepped off a Greyhound bus in Atlanta — which was also the day he met Chris Robinson — through to the final straw, and they will probably encounter a few surprises along the way. Credit is given where credit is due. Nevertheless, Gorman doesn’t hide the incredulity he had at the time regarding the contradictions baked into Chris and Rich Robinson’s individual personalities and the mercurial nature of their relationship. Relying on a conversational style, he takes a matter-of-fact approach to the subject from, as he makes clear, his perspective as the drummer and a founding member of the band.

Sprinkled throughout are witty, anecdotal observations like, “Chris somehow failed as both a hippie and a capitalist,” which serve the narrative well and make for an entertaining read.

Hard to Handle also provides a unique perspective on the history of times. The Black Crowes emerged from the thriving ’80s alt-rock scene, and the success of their debut album, Shake Your Money Maker (1990), happened after Guns N’ Roses conquered the world with Appetite For Destruction (1987) and before Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991) flipped that same rock world on its head. All three bands were thoroughly informed by everything from Led Zeppelin to REM to The Replacements, although the mileage varied in terms of perceivable influence.

Perhaps due to the timing, The Black Crowes broke through the before/after wall established by Nevermind to become one of the pre-eminent rock bands of the ’90s alongside bands like Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins while remaining well outside of all things “grunge”. Gorman describes the arc of band’s career through this period in detail, including the fateful choice of the controversial cover art (and name) for the band’s third record, Amorica.  The move (albeit an artistic one), was insisted upon by Chris Robinson and resulted in a significant downturn in sales as compared with the band’s first two records. It also foretold the way in which both of the Robinsons would undermine the band’s fortunes through capricious decisions and a baffling willingness to ignore the very people tasked with helping them.

All that being said, Gorman makes one thing crystal clear: He loved being in a great rock band, and he knew it when the band was firing on all cylinders. This was particularly true with the lineup of the band during the making of Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1992), which also included original bassist, Johnny Colt, as well as Marc Ford on guitar and Ed Harsch on keys. His ability to put into words something that, in its essence exists on a purley creative, emotional level, is a stellar acheivement.

He also leaves no question that the musical world The Black Crowes created made up for dealing with all the other bullshit for a very long time.

Until it didn’t.

Yeah, it’s a book about a band, but the coolest thing about Hard to Handle is Gorman’s ability to consistently shine a light on the contrast between The Black Crowes as a band and The Black Crowes as a brand. At its core, it describes the heroic struggle — and balance — between art and commerce; move too far in either direction and the ship founders.