Adam Duritz Out Of The Abyss

Aquarian Weekly 3/26/08BUZZ

Counting Crows Front Man Battles Identity Crisis and Serious Mental Illness to Emerge with a Powerful New Two-Act Record

Counting CrowsSaturday Nights & Sunday Mornings will be the last Counting Crows record.

Not because they’re breaking up, but because who makes records in this ghostly digital world anymore?

Apparently the Counting Crows do, and their singer, primary songwriter, lyricist, and spiritual center, Adam Duritz demands, “If the music business is falling apart and no one is buying records anymore, and if this the last record anybody makes, we’re going out with a bang!”

Fifteen years ago, in the band’s debut single, “Mr. Jones”, Duritz pleaded from the edge of oblivion; “I want to be someone who believes.” And now, after nearly two decades of walking what he describes as a tightrope of fame and fortune while teetering on the edge of a serious mental disorder, the same voice laments in “Sundays”, “I don’t believe in anything at all”.

For the better part of the past two years Duritz was debilitated from a psychosis called Dissociative Disorder, causing him to retreat into isolation and gain an alarming amount of weight. He stopped reading, a purgatory for a Lit Major from Cal Berkley, and worst of all, stopped writing songs and performing, what he describes as his “touchstone” to the world.

It was a culmination of what Duritz says was “one long downhill slide” from which he has emerged after entering a program and receiving the correct medication. He is eating healthier, dropping the weight while writing and recording the gripping Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings, which he describes as songs about “dissolution and disintegration and climbing out of the hole”.

“Every chorus of ‘Mr. Jones’ ends with ‘When everybody loves me I’ll never be lonely”, which you know is not true,” Duritz argues today. “Winning a popularity contest cannot fix your life. You’re supposed to see through that in the song. The guy has a dream, and it’s a great dream; you should have it – go ahead and want to be a rock and roll star – but that dream is not going to fix your life. I knew that even then. Before it happened to me.”

It has been a long, strange trip from evangelical to agnostic; most of it’s details bleeds from every track on what may be the final collective yawp from his band, the Counting Crows; the canvas for his journey from endless night to a new morning. One Duritz is not afraid to share in song or on the cover of another rock and roll weekly.

There appears to be a concerted effort to push the Saturday Nights part of the record in your face, electric guitars, edgier lyrics, and then unfurl the second half as a mellower, reflective collection of songs.

If you’re an artist, you owe the truth. Period. That’s all you really owe. People can make judgments whether they like it or not. For me, it’s exactly how I felt. Maybe my style’s over-raw.

There was no concept to it. The songs define it, and then you make it work; but once it’s there, there is no compromising. There were people who told me to take several songs off this record, “1492”, for instance. “It’s says ugly things about yourself like you can’t count on me. It’s embarrassing, so get it off! Pick a more positive song!” So, it says really ugly things about me? “On a Tuesday In Amsterdam Long Ago” is embarrassingly raw too. I admit it. It’s ugly to them, but to me, its kind of the point of it all, like it or not. Maybe they’re all embarrassing. Maybe “Tuesdays” is over-raw. Who knows? But it can’t be over-raw if it’s exactly how I felt. If it’s over-raw then that’s who I am, so either way is true. If you’re an artist, you owe the truth. Period. That’s all you really owe. People can make judgments whether they like it or not. For me, it’s exactly how I felt. Maybe my style’s over-raw.

Could there be a song that you’ve written that would never be released because it’s too close to the bone?

No, I don’t think so. Too close to the bone would be the reason for releasing it. That would be the point. You want to get as close to the bone as you can.

What about the second part of the record, Sunday Mornings?

As my life changed, we were finishing up what you would now call Saturday Nights. I started writing other songs, and I could see this other kind of record as a companion piece. So we started expanding on that while we were recording the second set of sessions and at the same time learning how to record and arrange what became Sunday Mornings. It was this one album that gave birth to something else it is now.

We had this great idea, it was cool, and it told a different kind of story than it would if it were a shuffle selection of easy listening songs. We were looking to do something different. Definitely by the time we were recording Sunday Mornings we were aiming at what we eventually ended up with.

You mentioned your life changed. You’ve been pretty candid about the period you’ve gone through in the last year and half to two years, your bout with mental illness and depression; and going through it in your work. Is there any fear among artists that without a constant harangue or that constant inner conflict, you can’t create, or is that complete bullshit?

I think it is. I couldn’t write when I was at the worst. I didn’t write for years. It’s not really depression, though. It’s a different thing entirely; it’s a Dissociative Disorder. The world literally seems like an hallucination. The world just doesn’t seem real. Imagine living for twenty years as if you were having an acid flashback. That’s what’s been going on in my head. And it will never stop. It’s not going to go away. The challenge is to learn to live with it, to not panic.

The depression or anxiety comes when the world seems like an hallucination. You tend to get a little fat and worried, because, you know, it sucks.

The truth is in the past year and a half I became complete debilitated to the point where I could not function at all, but it was a long decline. It’s part of the reason I’ve had trouble all of my life.

Adam DuritzBut as far as creativity goes; if you’re a writer, you write. I write when I feel things. Sometimes I can be very happy and it can remind me of things in the past that are gone. I wrote “On a Tuesday In Amsterdam Long Ago” a few days after “Accidentally In Love” (Shrek II soundtrack/nominated for 2004 Academy Award). They’re both about the same thing. “Tuesdays” is about this idea that while I’m completely in love right now, which is incredibly beautiful, what if it’s just a post card, what if I’m looking at this moment in my life like a snapshot of something that was and now isn’t a long time from now. It’s a very sad song, as opposed to “Accidentally In Love, which is a completely ebullient song about unabashedly falling in love. I don’t know which of the two I like better. It’s harder to write about something that’s happy, maybe, but that doesn’t mean you can’t. It just means you need to be a good writer.

To write about those things is a lot harder, because it’s harder to be happy…for me. At a certain point you get tired of trading your life for song. I’ve done it for a long time now, under this impression that my life wasn’t anywhere near as important as being an artist. I’m not sure that’s a very good decision to be continuing to make.

The song “Washington Square” reminds me of the Henry James novel of the same name, mainly because it seems to describe this struggle with identify and self-doubt in a world of wealth and privilege.

Well, it’s definitely about a loss of self, and it’s about losing your mind. It begins with a complete loss of sense of who you are. I hadn’t read Washington Square; so I can’t really say it relates to that, but yes, the first part of this record is definitely about completely losing all sense of your self, and the second part is how do you put your life together when you don’t have a sense of self. How do you go get it if you completely let go of your life while trying to live it again? You don’t know how to do it, so you’ll mostly fail. But that’s okay. Life isn’t always about succeeding in everything. Half of success is in the doing.

I notice a theme of your work is to use cities as a metaphor for whatever you are getting at, whether it appears as the name of a song, “Omaha” or “Miami” or in the case of this record, where city names appear in almost every song and some titles.

I suppose so. I don’t use cities as metaphors so much as I tend to write detail. I think I read once of Hemmingway that you begin with one true thing and then you go from there. You don’t want to say; “I love you” as much as you want to say; “All at once you look across a crowded room and see the way the light attaches to a girl.” The details of what’s going on in the room, the books on your shelf, communicate something about the way you feel. If you just say, “I feel this way” it actually doesn’t communicate real feelings, because it’s just the words that stand for something rather than mean something. So I believe in writing details and cities are where things take place. “I wandered the highways from Dublin to Berkeley” from “Washington Square” has to do with the two cities I left behind and ending up in New York City and then having to leave there again.

You’re living in Manhattan now, and were there for most of the time you wrote and recorded some of these songs. So seeing how cities are part of your canvas, how did living in New York City influence these songs?

Imagine living for twenty years as if you were having an acid flashback. That’s what’s been going on in my head. And it will never stop. It’s not going to go away. The challenge is to learn to live with it, to not panic.

I suppose New York effects me because I write about my life, so any place you are will be a different tone than another place. They all have an effect on me. I don’t know where I can metaphorically interpret how New York fits in. I definitely wanted to record Saturday Nights here and Sunday Mornings in Berkley. But a lot of it had to do with not wanting to leave home to record. New York City has an affect on me, but it was also nice to go home and record Sunday Mornings too. There’s something about the tone of Berkley.

I began to dissect some of the new songs and noticed epilogues or at the least hints of reprised lyrics from earlier songs; more directly; “Now I’m the king of everything, and I’m the king of nothing” from “1492”, harkening back to “Rain King” from the first record. “Dreaming Of Michelangelo” from the second record. “This dizzy life” from “Hanging Tree” reminded me of This Desert Life, the title of your third record. “The girl on the wire” from “On a Tuesday In Amsterdam Long Ago” and “I walked out into the air” from “Washington Square” repainted the picture from “Round Here”, again, on the first album. Were you thinking in terms of looking back, encapsulating the last twenty years of your life and paying homage to the band’s legacy, or am I reaching here?

I don’t really write in a calculating way like that. I don’t think things through. But then there is “Michelangelo”, which was begun twenty years ago. I had this idea of Michelangelo lying on his back painting the Creation: God reaching out to Adam, and in my mind not being able to quite reach God. Obviously it’s the opposite, God has just touched Adam and he is alive. This is what’s happening, but in my mind it was always he reaching out and not quite touching God. But I couldn’t flesh this out. So the idea crops up in “Angels Of The Silences”, but as I changed, experienced more, and understood what the song was going to be about; it became about the constant struggle of the artist to reach for something divine, to create something out of nothing, which is the original divine act; there was a void and let there be light, making something out of nothing. Anything! Build a chair, make a song, make a jump shot, but always try and reach for something different. But to me I would never, ever be able to reach an understanding, a feeling of satisfaction in it. Finally, what the song is really about for me is that while you’re spending your whole life stretching out from something you can’t touch, you forget to touch everything else around you, and that I had become so divorced from the world through this disorder that the only thing I ever focused on was the music and it was the only touchstone I had on earth, and I had lost touch with everything else, and that is what that song was about, and now I knew how to write it.

I will say the use of “Come on, come on,” in “Cowboys comes from the nadir. He’s lost his mind entirely. He can’t feel anything, and he can only touch the world through acts of violence, and he’s trying to get something to come into him and come out of him, something to pull his life out of his numbness, and he’s screaming, “Come on, come on, come on, come on!” But, again, it’s a very different feeling than the celebratory “Come on, come on, come on, come on!” in “Accidentally In Love.

I wrote “Cowboys” all in one night and I certainly wasn’t thinking of “Accidentally In Love at that point of my life because I was completely out of my mind and I certainly was not in love.

Having gone through all you described, your disorder and identity crisis, writing and singing about it, putting it together in art, is there a sense that you’ve come through and the record reflects the failures and successes as you described them?

Well, I’m no doctor and there is no exact science for psychosis; but it’s scary. It’s a difficult thing. You have to be careful every day to ground yourself.

Take it day by day.

Yeah, but I’m thinking a lot further forward these days.

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One Response to Adam Duritz Out Of The Abyss

  1. Ciara says:

    James I just wanted to say I really love that you and Adam are working on the podcast together. I love everything about it. I really hope Adam is doing better. I read before – let me see if i can find it I saved a screenshot of it somewhere because it resonated so much – he says:

    “every night I go out on stage and have this incredible emotional connection between me, the band, and the audience. Then, just like that, it’s over. I go backstage, back to the bus, back to my hotel room, and sit there all by myself. That deep connection is yanked away in an instant. It’s like breaking up with your girlfriend over and over again, every night”.

    For some of fans it’s almost the exact opposite with the same resulting detachment; the band is gone, the music is over, and it’s back to your own shitty life. Just for a few hours, you partied with Counting Crows, and to me that is so special. A moment in time when you sing the same words at the same time as someone you’ll never know but who seems to know you so well. The more you experience these special moments, the more you notice how scarce they are, and somehow something so magical can make your life seem so redundant.

    I don’t know what I’m rattling on about anymore. I cannot wait for the book, I just ordered your Warren Zevon. Enjoy your friendship, tell him to keep safe and ask him please, please don’t leave us behind.

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