NORMIE MONDAY ep. 73 - Tuesday Night Music Club
Welcome back music lovers. Thanks for stopping by for another installment of Normie Monday, my weekly blog posting that focuses on reviewing music, movies, television, books, or whatever may be capturing my attention at the time. For those of you that have been following my past couple weeks of articles about the tragic story of Kevin Gilbert, this week is where it starts to get really interesting. After independently releasing two albums with his bay-area band Giraffe and relocating to L.A. to work on the Toy Matinee project with hot shot music producer Patrick Leonard, Kevin Gilbert found himself working on a project that would ultimately wind up being his most commercially successful endeavor. However, it is a story filled with lies, betrayal and music industry corruption. The resulting album is Sheryl Crow’s debut smash hit Tuesday Night Music Club.
Sheryl Crow’s grew up in Missouri where she graduated from the University of Missouri with a B.A. in music composition, performance and education. While in Missouri, she worked as a jingle writer, composing for such mega-corporations as McDonald’s and Toyota. Her first major break into the big time came when she was selected to sing backup vocals for Michael Jackson during his Bad World Tour (she would even perform a duet with Jackson for the song “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”). This led to Crow landing several gigs singing background vocals for notable performers in the late 1980’s; including Stevie Wonder, Don Henley (on his excellent The End Of The Innocence album) and Kenny Loggins.
In 1991, Crow was hired to fill the keyboardist position in Kevin Gilbert’s Toy Matinee, a group that he’d suddenly become the leader of when co-founder Patrick Leonard decided to bow out. Gilbert had to reform the group from scratch to undertake a promotional tour. Toy Matinee toured up and down the west coast, and Gilbert and Crow began a romantic partnership while on tour. After the tour was over, Crow continued her search for a solo career, eventually signing a record deal with A&M Records. In 1992, Crow recorded what she thought would become her debut album with famed producer Hugh Padgham (best known for working with Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Hall And Oates, The Police, Sting and several other notable 1980’s acts). This debut album even got so far as having an official release date before A&M decided to reject the album. Sheryl was understandably shaken about this decision, and it seemed for a bit like Sheryl Crow would have gone on to become another of the great unknown artists, resigned to a life of mediocrity.
Meanwhile, Kevin Gilbert had begun collaborating with a group of musicians that producer Bill Bottrell (who’d produced the Toy Matinee album) had assembled in his home studio. This group consisted of Bottrell, Gilbert, Brian MacLeod (who’d played drums on the Toy Matinee album), guitarist David Baerwald (who’d had some moderate success in the mid-eighties as half of David + David with the song “Welcome To The Boomtown,” a top 40 hit), David Ricketts (the other half of David + David) and Dan Schwartz. The six musicians had been coming to Bottrell’s Pasadena, CA recording studio Toad Hall every Tuesday night to hang out, get drunk, laugh, write songs and jam. Originally, the collective never considered the outlet anything of significant value or commercial potential, it was just a way to get away from the pressures of the music industry and have some fun. Bottrell nicknamed the collective of friends the Tuesday Music Club.
When Crow’s original debut was rejected by A&M, Gilbert (whom Crow was still dating) decided to bring her to one of the Tuesday night jam sessions. Originally, the idea had been tossed around that the group might help Sheryl reshape and/or remix some of the material from her aborted debut, but this idea was quickly abandoned when Sheryl began collaborating with the other Tuesday Music Club members on a whole new batch of songs. Eventually, it morphed into Sheryl becoming the main singer with the other six members picking up their strongest instruments to help write and arrange the songs. Sheryl played some of this material to the execs at A&M, and they were much more impressed with it than they had been with her original debut. The focus then became to help Sheryl Crow make a new debut album, an album that wound up being called Tuesday Night Music Club.
The album opens with “Run, Baby, Run,” which is co-written by Bottrell, Baerwald and Crow. The R&B waltz begins with a gospel-tinged piano and staccato electric guitar strums on the four beat of the measure, over which Crow sings, “She was born in November 1963, the day Aldous Huxley died.” To me, the song is about a child of the 60’s, growing up with idealistic hippie parents, coming to grips with the cutthroat nature of the modern world. Kevin Gilbert takes a rare turn on the drums for this song, not an instrument that he’s known for, but he gives us a simplistically groovy beat with a couple of tasty fills. The chorus soars powerfully with Crow wailing out, “Run, baby, run, baby, run, baby, run, baby, run!” over anthemic organ chords. Also of note in this song is Bill Bottrell’s spiraling pedal steel guitar lines weaving delicately in and out of the vocal melody. This song was chosen to be the first single released from the album, doing nothing upon release. This was a trend that was soon to change, however.
The followup single comes next in the running order. “Leaving Las Vegas” was one of the first songs that the Tuesday Music Club began working on. Originally brought to the group by David Baerwald and David Ricketts, it features lyrics based on the novel of the same name by Baerwald’s friend John O’Brien. The music is based on a I-IV-ii-V chord progression and a simple bass groove (courtesy of Ricketts) that reminds me of Steve Miller’s “The Joker.” It also features a dry drum machine track, hand percussion and a lively drum track that kicks in for the chorus, with Crow wailing “Leaving Las Vegas!” in a slightly off-key manner. This song was the second single released from the album, reaching #60 in the Billboard Top 100 and #31 in the Mainstream Top 40. Sheryl Crow generated some controversy when she performed this song on the Late Show with David Letterman and stated that this song was autobiographical, even though nobody in the Tuesday Music Club remembers her contributing much in the way of writing this song. This comment supposedly infuriated John O’Brien whose book Leaving Las Vegas inspired Baerwald to write the song. O’Brien was still complaining to his agent about Crow’s comments on the day he committed suicide.
Up next is the acoustic ballad “Strong Enough,” one of the better known songs on the album. It features a delicately finger-picked acoustic guitar that gives way to another 12-string acoustic, subtle hand percussion and atmospheric keyboards. One of the best moments of the whole album comes in the bridge, where Crow pleads, “Lie to me, I promise I’ll believe. Lie to me, but please don’t leave.” I find this to be a unique sentiment to write into a pop song; someone promising to look the other way about a loved one’s lies just so that loved one won’t leave. This was the fourth single released from the album, and it became a smash hit (#5 in the Billboard Top 100) and one of Sheryl Crow’s best known songs. A few years later, Kevin Gilbert and Brian MacLeod recorded a version of this song under the name Keta Men (a play on the popular clubbing drum ketamine). The intentionally hilarious house/disco rendition (somewhat of an homage to the Village People) was intended to gain plays at gay discos in Europe and piss of Sheryl Crow.
Up next is one of the songs that Crow played a more direct role in composing, and (not surprisingly) it’s one of the more forgettable songs on the album. “Can’t Cry Anymore” is a mid-tempo rocker without much in the way of memorable melodies or hooks. It opens with a clunky electric guitar figure that is expanded with an equally uninspiring rhythm section. The best part of this song is the vocal harmonies on the refrain of “I can’t cry anymore,” one of which is Kevin Gilbert.
“Solidify,” however, is one of the better deep cuts on the album. It picks things up significantly with a funky rhythm and some jagged rhythm guitar playing. It is more of a collaborative effort with the other members of the Tuesday Music Club, which seems to signify the better songs on the album. Kevin Gilbert turns in some jazzy organ parts over the funky rhythm of this song and Bill Bottrell provides some bluesy slide guitar. Additionally, this song features some of Crow’s more spirited singing on the album and some interesting word play that wouldn’t surprise me if it came from Gilbert, as it bears a closer resemblance to his lyrics than Sheryl Crow.
Up next is a track that sounds like it came from an impromptu jam by the Tuesday Music Club. “The Na-Na Song” features a droning groove and shouted, almost rapped lyrics that remind me of “Give Peace A Chance.” Once again, the humorously cynical lyrics bear the mark of Kevin Gilbert, with Crow ranting out about consumerism, capitalism and commercialism, topped off with some Lennon-esque lines like, “Guardian angel dust in the wind cries Mary.” Between the ranted verses, the band chirps in with a chant of, “Na na, na na na na, na na na na, na na.”
Another decent deep cut comes next, the mellow “No One Said It Would Be Easy.” It begins with a vibey electric guitar (maybe even a baritone guitar) playing a spacious figure over gently strummed acoustic guitar. The lyrics paint a picture of a troubled relationship, maybe even Crow’s and Gilbert’s. It’s about the difficulty of getting your life together with someone, both emotionally and financially. The couple in the song squabbles about little things like fixing dinner and doing laundry while one of their dads pays their rent. In the chorus, Crow laments, “No one said it would be easy, but no one said it’d be this hard. No one said it would be easy, no one thought we’d come this far,” in tight harmony with someone that I believe to be Gilbert.
Up next is a song co-written by Crow and Baerwald, the scathing “What I Can Do For You.” Crow wrote the song about the sexual harassment that she had experienced on her road to success. It features a steady eighth-note bass line and solid drum beat, over which Crow sings from the point of a male record executive that is trying to convince a young woman to sleep with him so that he’ll help her get ahead. Gilbert turns in a variety of keyboards on this one; moody organ, vibey electric piano and spirited acoustic piano. Bottrell plays some simple pedal steel guitar lines as well. This track was another early single released from the album, but it only reached #97 upon first release, but made it much higher after a re-release in the wake of the success of the next song.
“All I Wanna Do” is the song that introduced most of the world to Sheryl Crow. It became Crow’s first worldwide smash, reaching the #2 position in the Billboard Hot 100 (Crow’s highest position to date). It was co-written by Crow, Baerwald, Bottrell and Gilbert (who plays the funky bass part on this song), and the lyrics were based on a poem by poet Wyn Cooper who also received a co-writing credit. The song features an impossibly funky groove courtesy of Gilbert’s tasty bass, MacLeod’s tight drumming and a variety of percussive devices. I’m particularly fond of the pre-chorus, which features a strange minor-second chord change that is highlighted by an odd Mellotron (also probably Gilbert) that is repeated three times before launching into the chorus. For the catchy chorus, an energetically strummed acoustic guitar pops up to propel the song along. This song garnered two Grammy’s for Crow (as well as Baerwald, Bottrell, Gilbert and Cooper, as co-writers) when it won Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 1995.
The next song is probably my personal favorite track on the album. “We Do What We Can” features a more dynamic structure than many of the albums statically grooved songs. It begins with a lo-fi drum machine loop, over which Gilbert softly pads out some jazzy chords on the piano and Dan Schwartz plays a sub-sonic (possibly upright) bass part. This song has a smokey torch jazz feel to it, emphasized by the addition of muted trumpet (played by Sheryl’s dad Wendell). I love the cascading chord progression in the chorus, highlighted by a gorgeous vocal melody from Crow. After two verses and choruses, the band suddenly erupts into a fast 3/4 beat with live drums bashing out a tense beat as the piano plunks out a melancholic melody. The intensity of this middle section is built until it falls back down to the lo-fi drum machine beat and moody jazz piano, rounding out the song with another final verse and chorus.
The album ends with what I feel to be another of the more forgettable songs on the album, a song co-written by Crow and Bottrell, “I Shall Believe.” A mellow gospel-tinged ballad, it features a soft drum beat, ambient keyboards padding out the chord progression and a little guitar figure repeating a two note phrase that starts to get a little bit annoying by the end of the song. It ends the album on a bit of a down note.
When recording of the album was completed, Sheryl Crow took the album to A&M and completely abandoned the rest of the members of the Tuesday Music Club (except Bill Bottrell, who has worked with Crow on numerous occasions since). Several of the other members of the group had thought that they would go on to become Sheryl’s backing band, but as soon as the album was finished, she dumped all of them (including Gilbert) and went straight to the top. Tuesday Night Music Club (the album) went on to sell 7.6 million copies over the course of the 1990’s, went to #3 in the Billboard 200 chart, spawned two Top Ten singles and won Crow three Grammy’s (Record of the Year, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and Best New Artist).
Bill Bottrell continued with a successful producing career, producing artists such as Rusted Root, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, Elton John, Christina Aguilera and (once again) Sheryl Crow. David Baerwald released a couple of solo albums that did not do much commercially, but his biggest post-Sheryl success came when he wrote the song “Come What May” for the Moulin Rouge musical and movie. David Ricketts biggest commercial success came when he produced Meredith Brooks’ Blurring The Edges album (which contained the smash hit “Bitch”). Brian MacLeod continued to work as a session drummer, playing with the likes of Tears For Fears, Melissa Etheridge, Pink, Christina Aguilera, Jewel, Rosanne Cash, Sara Bareilles and Kevin Gilbert. And Kevin Gilbert… well, I’ll leave the rest of that tragic story for next week.
So, there you have it. Kevin Gilbert’s biggest shot at success was cruelly pulled out from under him just when it was looking like it might be his biggest break. Although, cosmically, it might be a bit of karma for Gilbert’s abandoning of his Giraffe band mates when Patrick Leonard offered him the opportunity to start a band in L.A. (Toy Matinee). His ruthless treatment and exploitation at the hands of the shamefully opportunistic Sheryl Crow caused the already-depressed Gilbert to retreat to an even darker and more cynical state of mind, a mental state that would greatly influence his final works, but more on that next week.
In summary, although I’m sure most of you have heard at least two or three songs from this album (the big hits), there are many more entirely worthwhile moments to be found. I feel that the music works best when the entire Tuesday Night Music collective is joyously jamming and feeling the energy while Sheryl’s voice rages over the top of it. It’s certainly Sheryl Crow’s best album. Frankly, I can’t stand much of her later work. Her second album has a couple of OK songs, but everything after that is pretty horrible, if you ask me. However, I find the back story of this album to be the most entertaining part about it. As a chapter in the career of Kevin Gilbert, it marks the moment when he officially gave up hope and began on the downward spiral that eventually consumed him. Give it a listen, see what you think.
If you have Spotify, you can listen to the entire album here: http://open.spotify.com/album/11ZOyF9bKgnusVD1rUapwv