In We’re No. 1, A.V. Club music editor Steven Hyden examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be “popular” in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, he covers Counting Crows’ Recovering The Satellites, which went to No. 1 on Nov. 2, 1996, where it stayed for one week.
So far we’ve discussed five blockbuster albums in We’re No. 1, three of which are records that, like this column, grapple directly with what it really means to be a popular musical artist in the specific time and place they were released: Bad is about Michael Jackson’s megalomania and paranoia in the wake of Thriller, The Wall is about Roger Waters hating Pink Floyd and its audience and hating himself for hating those things, and Born This Way is about Born This Way adding extra capital to Lady Gaga’s overall net pop-culture worth.
I haven’t done this intentionally, but I have a feeling that “fame and what it all means” is going to be a recurring theme with many of the albums I end up writing about here. This is an interesting trend for two reasons:
- Like most people who aren’t famous, I make a point of being vocal about my annoyance whenever famous people create art that comments on their own celebrity. I accuse them of being self-pitying and self-absorbed. I criticize them for not removing the blinders of their elevated status and expressing something normal people can relate to. And I think I’m sort of full of it. Deep down, I’m fascinated by this kind of art, because I find objects of mass popularity compelling—hence this column—and I think I’m actually able to relate to albums like this more than I care to admit. (More on this in a moment.)
- Critic Chris Molanphy of the Village Voice recently observed that most of the records that have sold one million copies in one week during the SoundScan era—there are 17 of them—are not considered the most important or beloved works in that artist’s career. He dubbed it “the AC/DC rule,” after the Australian hard-rockers who scored their first No. 1 with 1981’s For Those About To Rock We Salute You, which was the follow-up to Back In Black, which peaked at No. 4 but has never stopped selling. Today, only hardcore fans would even mention For Those About To Rock in the same sentence as Back In Black; it’s an album that shined brightly only for a time, like rays of light from a distant, dying star, but now is just another AC/DC record that’s in the long shadow of Back In Black. Which is why it makes sense that disillusionment with stardom is a common thread with so many of these records. No. 1 albums often aren’t the apex of an artist’s career; they may in fact be the beginning of a decline.
Counting Crows’ Recovering The Satellites—which was No. 1 for only one week in November 1996—definitely falls in line with the albums I’ve been writing about lately. It’s not as successful or fondly remembered as Counting Crows’ 1993 debut August And Everything After, which went to No. 4 on the Billboard chart and sold 7 million copies on the strength of enduringly popular songs like “Mr. Jones” and “Round Here.” August was a record fans were able to discover own their own, over the course of several months, before it finally became one of the biggest alt-rock records of its time. By the time Recovering The Satellites was released, Counting Crows had amassed enough fans to ensure that whatever it put out next would go to No. 1, but nobody thinks that this makes Recovering The Satellites more significant in the arc of Counting Crows’ career than August And Everything After. When Adam Duritz dies, the first paragraph of his obituary will talk about how he once wished he was Bob Dylan while quoting the chorus of an annoying Van Morrison oldie. Recovering The Satellites might get mentioned toward the end, after his dalliances with the foxiest cast members of Friends and that horrible Oscar-nominated Shrek song—if there’s still space.
And yet Recovering The Satellites is easily my favorite Counting Crows album, precisely because it’s the record where Duritz went from wanting to be a big star (or so he sang in “Mr. Jones”) to equating his celebrity with slow-motion drowning. This was not an uncommon sentiment for ’90s rock bands, though by 1996 the music press was no longer sympathetic to guys like Duritz being so angsty all the time. While August was generally warmly received by critics, the backlash kicked in hard with Satellites, and this had a lot to do with Counting Crows being among the last of the big-selling grunge-influenced bands. The guitars on Satellites are appreciably heavier and screechier than the clean-sounding Americana of August—though today Satellites just sounds a lot like Wildflowers-era Tom Petty—and Duritz was obviously cut from the Eddie Vedder/Michael Stipe mold of brooding, sensitive frontmen that was just about to go out of style as the droogs of rap-rock waited in the wings.
Rock magazines that had worshipped at the altar of Vedder and Kurt Cobain were now hungry for something different, and they pounced on Satellites, which was widely pilloried for being a self-pitying and self-absorbed record. And Duritz was specifically singled out for not removing the blinders of his elevated status and expressing something normal people could relate to.
The result: Counting Crows is now a band that cool people are supposed to hate. The best throwaway example of this that I can think of is a Spin story from several years ago that casually compared Counting Crows with Dishwalla, a band whose greatest accomplishments are recording the kind-of popular song “Counting Blue Cars”—the one where the guy sings “tell me all your thoughts on God,” ’cause he’s on his way to see her— and coming up with the most ’90s-sounding one-hit-wonder band name ever. I’m guessing this comparison was meant to denigrate Counting Crows, and not praise Dishwalla, but I’m dorky enough to still like Counting Crows, so I’m not qualified to determine this.
I loved Counting Crows throughout my teen years, but I was shamed by the cool-kid brigade into disowning them in my early 20s. That changed when “Another Horsedreamer’s Blues” from Satellites came up on a mixtape made by my friend Rebecca while we were driving around the Wisconsin countryside. After I instinctively made a snide remark, she rightly smacked me down for being a degenerate poser. What was I doing? Of course “Another Horsedreamer’s Blues” is a great song, and it comes from an album that meant a lot to me during an important period of my life, back when I didn’t have the wherewithal to pretend to be hipper than I was.
Recovering The Satellites was released on October 14, 1996, which was about a month into my first semester at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. I was living on the top floor of 10-story Towers North, the same dorm Justin Vernon sings about on the new Bon Iver record. This makes Towers seem a lot more romantic in my mind’s eye than it was at the time; truthfully, I was sort of miserable there. Unlike seemingly every other dude on my floor, I had never drank or done drugs at that point, and was terrified to experiment. This pretty much alienated me from all my neighbors, especially the guy next door who played Pantera’s Vulgar Display Of Power every day at exactly 3 p.m. while the two nice-enough country boys across the hall put away the better part of a Natural Ice 30-pack.
I liked Eau Claire, but it was a weird place. If I had to sum up Eau Claire’s weirdness in one sentence, it would be this: “It’s a landlocked northwestern Wisconsin town with its own water ski team.” (They’re called the Ski Sprites, and they’re technically from nearby Altoona, but you catch my drift.) But I was three hours away from home, and all of my friends were away at other schools, so any place would have been strange and uninviting.
I spent a lot of time listening to music that semester, and the albums I played the most were Weezer’s Pinkerton and Recovering The Satellites. I didn’t notice it at the time, but they’re basically the same record. Both are concept albums about going on the road and fucking up your relationships, and learning to live with that. This was something (I guess) I could relate to: I wasn’t on tour with a rock band, but I was, in a sense, “on the road” and away from my old life.
The things that fascinated Rivers Cuomo and Adam Duritz about the new reality they suddenly had foisted on them seemed a lot like what I was struggling with in my new reality—the constant sense of dislocation, the feeling that your friends and loved ones were slipping away, the self-awareness that you were presently between the identity you had shed and a new self that hadn’t revealed itself yet, and the sneaking suspicion that this dramatic change of life hadn’t erased your old fears and weaknesses like you hoped it would.
In truth, I had little in common with these guys. Maybe 20 percent of Pinkerton and Satellites actually applied in any real way to my life. But without even realizing it, I simply zeroed in on that 20 percent and disregarded the rest, which made the whole thing seem like it was about me. This is probably a common attribute of the relationships most of us have with the music we love. Which is why vague, impressionistic, non-specific lyrics are generally the best. All it takes is one song (or even one line) to speak to you in some small but incisive way, and you’ll fill in the rest with your own experience.
With Cuomo, that meant setting aside a lot of strangeness about half-Japanese girls and two-timing lesbians and making Pinkerton into a personal self-empowerment record in the mold of “The Good Life.” (At this point I could hear hip-hop malapropisms like “shakin’ booty” in Weezer songs without wanting to smash Cuomo’s Buddy Holly glasses under my sneakers.) It was easier with Duritz, whose songs somehow seemed more relatable even as they delved deeper into the murk of his fame-addled psyche.
I found traces of my own life in stray lines scattered throughout Recovering The Satellites, which seemed to address my situation using the language of Durtiz’s tour diary, sometimes in bizarrely prescient ways. I still have no idea what “Monkey” is about—I’m guessing drugs, a girl, or an actual fucking monkey—but to me it referenced a stupid running joke from high school where my friends and I called each other “monkey” while we cruised up and down my town’s main drag. (This is what passed for entertainment pre-internet, kids.) What had been a tired, annoying gag now seemed poignant, and the part where Duritz sings, “Hey monkey, where you been, this lonely spiral I’ve been in,” went from sounding pretty dumb to making me want to choke up a little.
But it’s the songs that dealt most explicitly with Duritz’s fame issues that inexplicably resonated with me the most. “Have You Seen Me Lately” is about how Duritz gets freaked out by hearing himself on the radio, but to me, the song’s message was simply: “I feel like I’m fading away.” Yep, I’m feeling you there, Adam. “Daylight Fading” is clearly a song about going on tour and leaving your girlfriend behind, but to me it was really about my high-school girlfriend, who was still living back home. The only lyrics that mattered to me in that song were, “I am waiting for the telephone to tell me I’m alive” and “I want to say goodbye to you, goodbye to all my friends, goodbye to everyone I know.” Uh-huh, that’s me right now, brother. All the backstage observations on Satellites went by the wayside for me. Duritz and I felt the same things for completely different reasons, but at that point, that made him seem like the closest thing I had to a soulmate.
Jesus, that sounds melodramatic. But it’s the embarrassing, shudderingly honest truth. I can vividly remember walking around the frigid UW-Eau Claire campus in the middle of December, listening to Satellites’ penultimate track “A Long December” on headphones right after that high-school girlfriend dumped me over the phone, and getting stuck on the part where Duritz sings, “I guess the winter makes you laugh a little slower, makes you talk a lower, about the things you could not show her.” I still get stuck on that line. It perfectly sums up my feelings about every failed romantic relationship I’ve ever had, even though, when I break down the actual words, they don’t really make sense. (I don’t know that I’ve ever “laughed a little slower.”) But every time I hear those lyrics, something just clicks, and I’m breathing in that cold, Canadian air back in Eau Claire. I listened to that song over and over again that winter, enjoying an extended wallow with Adam Duritz over our shared angst about memories we were trying to hold on to as they passed us by.
Ultimately, “after fame” records are designed for and about this wallowing process. Adam Durtiz loved his own painful confusion enough to write songs about it, and I gladly lapped those songs up, because part of me enjoyed my painful confusion, too. Lester Bangs called this “crying towel” music, where nothing is learned nor gained other than a chance to feel bad about your circumstances. The creation of Recovering The Satellites certainly provided Duritz with an excuse to keep on messing up his life and not engage with the world, just as listening to it allowed me to block out the people on my floor rather than simply loosening up and popping open a Natty Ice with the bros next door.
But if Recovering The Satellites had never existed, I would have found a different excuse to not drink that Natty Ice (or whatever mass-market shit beer that guys from Hudson, Wis. are drinking these days). Duritz was the most openly vulnerable rock star of his time, and that’s why I gravitated to him. He was the bard of blundering emotionalism, a monument to mawkishness with fake dreadlocks, a weight problem, and an off-kilter voice with a questionable grasp of pitch. He was a nerd in the way it’s not fashionable to be a nerd; his best subject was feelings, which made him inherently uncool, and therefore a natural for me to connect with. His best songs uncannily captured that feeling you get when you’re at your neediest, your most unflattering, your most nakedly lame—and that’s how I felt all the time.
It’s easy to disparage songs like that. But when I’m alone, and there’s nobody around to crack easy jokes with, I can put on Recovering The Satellites, and it will understand.
Coming up: Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits: 1971-75