Pop: Eating Crow

It's tough getting to the top, even tougher once you're up there. Just ask Sheryl Crow, whose career blossoms while her relationships sour. Charlotte O'Sullivan is concerned
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The Independent Culture
For such an attractive woman, Missouri rock chick Sheryl Crow can be very uneasy on the eye. On the cover of the latest issue of Rolling Stone, she's dressed in a tiny see-through dress, finger placed tantalisingly in mouth. The pose says baby doll, but the face - as iron-jawed and stretched as Iggy Pop's - says, I'm knackered, back off. Post-modern paradox or duff photo, who can say?

Sheryl Crow has a new album out, full of smoky night-club percussion and sugary rhythm 'n' blues. Like the raucous love child of Bryan Adams and Tracy Chapman - as raised by Edie Brickell - it lowers the spirits deliciously.

Crow, though, is still best known for her summer-of-'94 hit, "All I Wanna Do Is Have Some Fun", which helped bring sales of the album Tuesday Night Music Club up to 10 million. Ironically, Crow herself is "sick to death" of the single. But recently she's become associated with something far more irksome - the emotional poison surrounding the "collaborative" effort that gave rise to Tuesday Night Music Club, which started seeping out two years ago and just keeps on seeping.

As the title suggests, the three-Grammy-winning TNMC was a team effort, based on a series of sessions with various culty LA musicians, including David Baerwald and Kevin Gilbert, all of whom received co-writing credits. Bones of contention abound, however, mostly concerning the song "Leaving Las Vegas".

When Crow performed it on Late Show With David Letterman in March 1994 and was asked if the song was autobiographical, she gushed a happy "Yes". But, according to Baerwald, that was impossible, since he wrote the misery- fuelled lyrics, inspired by his friend John O'Brien's book of the same name - something Crow knew only too well. The uncredited O'Brien later committed suicide. And thanks to Baerwald's subsequent, melodramatic letter to the LA Weekly all but accusing Crow of causing O'Brien's death, a new image of Crow, as ruthless and grabby, began to emerge.

Meanwhile, to make knotty matters knottier, producer Bill Bottrell declined to back up Crow's version of events. Then Crow's ex-boyfriend, Kevin Gilbert, died in an auto-erotic accident, leaving diaries in which he supposedly wrote of Crow's rise to power in less than complimentary terms. Finally, on the first day's recording of the second album, Bottrell walked out. And then there was one.

Crow composed the majority of the songs on the new album herself. She also played most of the instruments. And the critical consensus seems to be that she has proved herself. But in Britain, surprisingly, the album is not doing that well - it's currently at number 44 in the charts. Though newly wary of the press, Crow is nothing if not a grafter - hence the plethora of British interviews you'll see this month.

Today, I find Crow cosied up in a hotel restaurant with her manager and Eric Clapton, with whom she's said to be "very close". She comes as a shock - far tinier than imagined: a little, brittle china doll in the severest of frock coats.

Leading us to her room, bright blue eyes atop scorched cheekbones and an impressive set of horsy teeth, she makes sure to walk between her managers. On arrival, she sits down and shares her ice-cubes with me, plopping them into my glass with a warm, sweet cackle.

It's tempting to make sense of people by looking at their past. Crow was raised in Kennett, a tiny city in which "everyone looked out for each other". She describes the Crows as a "normal, Midwestern family. They were concerned about manners." In fact, the way she describes it, family life sounds quite fraught. Sheryl's father, a musician who gave up playing the trumpet professionally to become a lawyer, apparently battles with the need to express himself: "... he can't do it, so he drinks, or hits rock bottom". Crow believes her sister, Karen, a classical pianist, has inherited a lot of her dad's personality. She claims Karen was always jealous of her. "She wanted to be the best pianist the world had ever known, but everything she did came really hard to her, whereas I got the maximum from the minimum. I'm not a very competitive person," she says, "but Karen was very competitive. We were both into athletics and I can remember our last track meet when I was 15, she was 17: I beat her in the very last competition - she was just destroyed over that."

Looking at the whole TNCM tangle, would it be unfair to say that, at 34, Crow is still running the same race? Take her erstwhile producer Bottrell, who was recently quoted in Rolling Stone as saying of Crow, "She's fucking hopeless. She's obnoxious...". When I mention this, she says, "Y'know, I don't really care what he says. I know where it's coming from: it's an internal thing - it's about how he feels about himself and his own unhappiness, that he's unfulfilled as an artist."

It's the same with poor Kevin Gilbert. He, too, like her father, her sister and Bottrell, is filed under Furious Failure. "He lashed out at me. But Kevin was a really unhappy person. In the world, in his body. He was just so resentful that he wasn't acknowledged for his greatness." Even when Crow refers to Gilbert's death, the competitive edge remains. "It's very ironic," she drawls. "All he wanted was to be respected, and if he had died of a drug overdose, he would have had the respect of at least the rock world. But he didn't, he died in a humiliating fashion, in the world's eyes." As all the papers dutifully reported, he died of asphyxiation with a skirt and hood on, chained by a leather strap to his bed. Crow juts her chin out sharply: "Even in the end he didn't win."

It's all about winning and losing for Sheryl. But it's not clear she'll finish the course herself. Crow says there's a "distinct" voice inside her that in the past has made her think about suicide. She has always talked fulsomely on this subject and today is no exception. "Suicide," she says, "represents hope, release..."

Certainly, for all the rock 'n' roll hobnobbing (Crow is delighted to hear that Bryan Adams is in town - "Hey! Someone give him my number, so we can go hang out"), her life does not sound an enviable one. It's full of ghosts. She says she's always seeing Kevin Gilbert, "everyday, in odd places, from the back and he'll turn around and I swear it's him and then he's gone."

Crow is also haunted by the fact that none of her relationships seem to last more than three years (she brings up an old memory of her mother, who told her, when she was 14, that she was much too assertive for her own good - "It's very unattractive for a girl..."). Recently, she split up from her struggling LA scriptwriter boyfriend. The guys on tour, she says, "have got wives at home. I don't have somebody waiting at home for me." What she has are her parents. "A lot of times when I call them I'll be worn out and down and they try to stay neutral." She pulls a touchingly anxious smile. "If everything I told them registered they would have a great fear about my life."

I've only known Crow an hour, and even I'm concerned about her. After the interview, she starts asking whether the recent photo sessions were good. "Yeah," says her manager warily. Crow turns to another stooge. "Are they any good?" she repeats. "Yeah," he intones. She turns away exasperated. "Oh, I can't believe anything you say." We look at the photographs. "They [Cosmopolitan] don't want them?" Crow asks, sounding disappointed, as a pile of rejects mounts up. She looks up at her manager. He looks away.

My mind just keeps going back to the Crow family. "It's weird," says Sheryl of her "soured" relationship with her sister. "After the record came out and I became successful, Karen called me and she was in tears - she'd been feeling bad about the way she treated me." Perhaps Sheryl Crow thinks if she waits long enough, all her TNMC cronies will make that call, and apologise for having been so mean. In the meantime, she'll just have to keep on runningn

Sheryl Crow plays Dublin Olympia on Sat and Shepherd's Bush Empire on Tue. The single `Everyday is a Winding Road' is out this week.