OK, here’s one that immediately transfers me to the early Nineties, should I wish to go there, and I don’t know why I should. Counting Crows’ August and Everything After was like the last CD I bought in Princeton before moving—at the end of August, get it?—to Connecticut in 1994. So the album—by a new band!—covered that transition and became strongly identified with my first fall in CT.
The Crows dominated for a bit there because I couldn’t stop listening to the album, one of the better debut albums I can think of, after R.E.M. And I’m not usually a debut LP kinda guy. It makes sense though, in this case, because I have not liked nearly as much subsequent CC LPs, though Recovering the Satellites (1996) has a great title song and some others and This Desert Life (1999) is fine. There’s just something about lead singer/writer Adam Duritz that began to cloy by the end of the Nineties. Which might just be a way of saying that he’s stuck back there forever.
Today’s song was the lead single and biggest hit by the band. It’s also the one I first saw the video for, and it’s the one you’ve got to identify with to some extent, if you’ve followed rock at all. The tale of two dudes out on the town, commiserating that if they were big, big stars they could get the ladies is real enough. And Duritz keeps upping the ante too—suggesting he’d like to be a painter or that he’d like to be painted by a Picasso. And that killer line: “When I look at the television I want to see me / Looking right back at me.” That kind of immediate feedback seems, by then, to be the only true indication that one truly exists. Which makes the video actually fun because, well, there he is—on the TV. Top of the world, ma!
And that’s the other thing one grasps in the song, though Duritz—who found actual stardom not the endless high the singer of this song seems to think it will be—tends to get a bit heavy-handed in trying to switch gears in live performances of the song, rather than just let it be a primal cry that can't be satisfied: when everybody loves you, you won’t actually be as happy as you could be, and you may be lonelier than ever, as a big star. It will feel a bit more like being torn apart by lions. Well, so the kid has some learning to do, and that’s built into the song, as I hear it, since it’s all about naïve wish-fulfillment. “We all want something beautiful / Man, I wish I was beautiful.” Well, sure. But it’s not just about scoping beautiful women, it’s about trying to “be beautiful” by being “someone to believe in,” while insisting “I don’t believe in anything.”
Of course, the yoking together of Mr. Jones and Dylan is also irresistible. Though Duritz says the song came about because he was actually out drinking with his friend Marty Jones, the use of the phrase “Mr. Jones” has immediate echoes. There’s “Dylan’s Mr. Jones,” referenced by John Lennon in “Yer Blues” and a figure, in Dylan’s “The Ballad of a Thin Man,” for the eternal drag, the critic, the square, the dude that just doesn’t get it. To be out and about with that Mr. Jones would explain why you ain’t getting nowhere with the chicks. In Dylan’s song, Mr. Jones is bewildered by a carnivalesque scene he has stumbled onto, and the Crows’ song—in referencing that—makes us think of how easy it is to be on the outside looking in, where the hip, happy, and pretty people meet.
The line “I want to be Bob Dylan / Mr. Jones wishes he could be someone just a little more funky” is also funny in that regard. No, Dylan’s Mr. Jones wouldn’t want to be Bob Dylan, that’s for sure. But the line should tip us to the fact that this isn’t Dylan’s Mr. Jones. Duritz’s Mr. Jones doesn’t go in for the same kind of head-trips that the singer goes in for. He wants to be someone funkier than Dylan, which means he doesn’t think being Dylan is the answer to his “jonesing” (ha!) for babes. Like maybe he should be James Brown, or someone like that. The speaker’s reply: “when everybody loves you, you’ll be just about as funky as you can be.” Touché. But then, there’s never been a point at which “everybody” loved Dylan; still, the line might make us recall “everybody must get stoned,” which is a way of saying, “everybody should be as funky as they can be.” If they dare.
And the song is funky, in a repressed-white boy way. It’s like Duritz acts out the guy who finally gets his chance at open mic night to let it all out. He can’t get laid, no one takes him seriously, he thinks he’s sensitive enough to be an artist, if only he could paint or, wait, better yet, maybe some artist should paint him, with his gray guitar, I mean, he “felt so symbolic yesterday,” that must mean something, and so that gets him thinking he could be a real artist/poet like . . . Bob Dylan!, and be a big star, on TV, on MTV. “But we don’t know why and we don’t know how.” It’s as if the given of pop culture says “do this” and every budding Mr. Jones follows suit. Cue Andy Warhol and his fifteen minutes of fame idea.
The kicker: “we all want to be big, big stars, but we got different reasons for that.” Which is a way of suggesting, a bit tongue in cheek, that it might be more complex than that. Being a star doesn’t equal being loved in quite the way he might wish, and being a star who is loved for being a star might not really satisfy those reasons one has for needing that validation. The way Duritz sings it, hitting those high notes, keeps the anxiety front and center, and it just keeps mounting as the song goes on.
Help me believe in anything / Because I want to be someone who believes.