Sheryl the Peril
Was she Michael Jackson's secret girlfriend? Is she on heroin? Why do people keep killing themselves over her songs? Only Sheryl Crow has the answers
by Ben Mitchell
It's an intermittently bright August morning in Camden. A knot of middle-aged men in expensive jumpers are waiting nervously outside the slowly-revolving door to satellite TV's AOR stronghold, VH-1. They're waiting for Sheryl Crow, booked in to record three songs from The Globe Sessions, her third album of understatedly visceral rural rock. They're nervous because she was meant to be plugged in and playing half an hour ago.
To a round of discrete it's-about-fucking-time face-pulling from the welcoming committee, a silver Chevy van with smoked windows pulls up at the kerb. The side door slides open and Sheryl Crow steps daintily down from the running board. We've met a few days earlier, so after she's been introduced to the big hitters of VH-1 I walk over and say hello. Barely looking up, she briefly grips the top two joints of the fingers on my outstretched hand before turning and disappearing into the building without a word.
So there you have Sheryl Crow -- a looker with a few catchy tunes but no time for the little guy. Well, no. There you have Sheryl Crow, a 36-year-old woman with a cold who's been out until 2am the previous night and is really late for work. Of course, the proper celebrity thing to do would have been to grin big, nod fast, talk loud and say nothing -- there could even have been some light air-kissing. There's no doubt that Sheryl Crow is a celebrity, it's just that she doesn't seem interested in behaving like one.
Five years ago, Sheryl Crow became famous for the cheery blue-collar call to the bar "All I Wanna Do". At the same time Alanis Morissette became famous for singing about giving blow-jobs in theaters. They were both female. They both sang and so, for a while, they both became the faces of feminist America -- career women with nice hair who were unafraid to speak their minds; sisters unified by a common goal. Except, of course, they couldn't have been more different. Three years later, Sheryl Crow followed her 1993 debut album, Tuesday Night Music Club, with the stark Sheryl Crow. The beers-on-me good ol' girl hadn't shown up this time. Instead, face deadened by thick, black eyeshadow, the singer stared out from the cover through lank strands of bleached hair. The songs were heavy with tales of personal misery, unfounded rumours of heroin use circulated and the tabloid press obsessed over her now-defunct relationship with ex-smack addict Eric Clapton. "My Favorite Mistake," the first single from her darkly reflective new album, could well be about Clapton. She isn't saying. Over the last two years, Sheryl Crow has also performed at an intimate Vegas club with the Rolling Stones, been blacklisted by the Walmart chain for writing a song -- "Hard to Take A Stand" (sic), from Sheryl Crow -- about how easily kids can buy guns from their stores and recorded the theme for the last Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies. Alanis Morissette was most recently in the news disputing the authenticity of a topless picture that appeared in the internet.
When I first meet Sheryl Crow at her West London hotel earlier in the week the most immediately striking thing about her is how short she is -- she tops out at 5ft 4in. Perched on the edge of a sofa sipping a glass of heavily-iced orange juice, Sheryl Crow the scowling Amazonian rock chick, looks to be a device employed solely for selling records. Millions of them. Today she's wearing a plain green T-shirt, tan moleskin trousers and an almost indiscernible amount of make-up. "As a musician I've never put that much stock into how I look," she explains in the remnants of a Southern accent softened by 12 years living in LA. "It's been haphazard...and probably a little bit careless.
Do you like being called a rock chick?
I don't really care. I have moments of really loving being in rock 'n' roll and being identifiable.
Do you have any tattoos?
Would you like one?
I went through a long period where I thought I just had to have one. I wanted a rose on my ankle like all the models, but I had my nose pierced for a while and that was enough.
What about when you look in the mirror?
It's odd. If you have anorexia you see yourself as being overweight even though you're painfully skinny. I still see myself as I did in high school. There are some changes in my face, but because I experience them on a day-to-day level they don't seem so drastic.
Don't you think, "Well, hello!"
Some days I get up and I think "Hey, you don't look as bad as you feel!" Other days I think, "Go back to bed." (Laughs)
One of Sheryl Crow's earliest memories is of being escorted to school by an armed policeman when she was ten. Her father, a lawyer in the small town of Kennett, Missouri, had successfully prosecuted Ku Klux Klan members for attempting to rig a local election. Threats of violence inevitably followed and her father took to sitting up all night clutching a loaded shotgun. Sheryl Crow grew up to be an awkward teenage. Raised with two older sisters and a younger brother, she desperately wanted to please her parents and be popular at school. Her parents were happy with their daughter's report cards, but she always remained on the periphery of her classmates' cliques and missed the opportunity to date Brad Pitt, the blond-haired underachiever in the year below. It wasn't until she was 18, in her first year of studying classical music at the University of Missouri, that she suffered her first broken heart. "That was a toughie," she remembers. "I got dumped for a sexier girl." Graduating in 1984, she worked as a music teacher for two years, saved €7,800 ($10,000) and moved to LA. Her first proper job came after gatecrashing an audition for backing singers on Michael Jackson's Bad tour. Shortly after she was hired The National Enquirer printed a picture of her underneath the headline "Michael Jackson's Secret Girlfriend", claiming she was carrying Jackson's baby. Such was Sheryl Crow's introduction to the music business.
What went through your mind when you were singing with Michael Jackson?
There were nights when I thought he was incredible. When he'd sing "Human Nature" I'd watch him do these dances that he created, the backwards walk and all that. The guy is definitely screwed up -- there's no two ways about that.
Can you do the moonwalk?
No. But if I practised really hard I probably could.
Do you think Michael Jackson would make a good boyfriend?
(Long pause) That whole story, that I was having his baby, goes to show that whatever's written about him could be true, could be false. It's a weird thing with Michael. I worked with him for 18 months and I never really got to know him. I guess that kind of says a lot.
After the Jackson tour Sheryl Crow was much in demand as a backing singer and went on to work with Bob Dylan, Don Henley and Sinead O'Connor. Her first attempt at a solo album was scrapped at her request after €195,000 ($250,000) had been spent on it -- she thought it sounded "too mature". Her second attempt was more successful. Tuesday Night Music Club was released in October 1993 to critical, if not commercial, acclaim. It was only after two of her songs were used in, ironically, the Brad Pitt serial killer movie Kalifornia that sales leapt from thousands to millions, which is when things got really unpleasant. On 12 April 1994 she performed a song called "Leaving Las Vegas" on The David Letterman Show. The next day John O'Brien, author of the novel Leaving Las Vegas, on which the 1995 Nicolas Cage film was later based, committed suicide. He had tried to kill himself twice before, but David Baerwald -- the song's co-writer and a friend of O'Brien's -- sent a letter to the LA Times partly blaming Crow for the tragedy because the album's sleevenotes neglected to thank him for the use of the title.
Another collaborator, Kevin Gilbert -- an ex-boyfriend and a talented pianist -- was found dead, the victim of an auto-erotic asphyxiation accident. A notebook detailed his feelings from the disintegration of their relationship through to Crow's new-found success. "I don't know if I can ever forgive her" was among the final lines.
Then there were her new fans. A man she had never met before began calling her manager every day claiming he was the one who had discovered Sheryl Crow and demanded a share of the profits. Every day her manager would patiently answer. Everyday the man would manically sing his version of the singer's hit "All I Wanna Do" down the line, amending the chorus to: "All I wanna do is get my fucking money."
By the time she began writing her second album it was hard to remain up-beat.
Do you have groupies?
I suppose I do, but I don't really know who they are. People will show up at every concert and wait at the backstage door. I guess they almost qualify as stalkers in a weird way, but you could call them groupies.
Do you find that sinister?
Well, I don't know I'd call it sinister. I have had stalkers and I may have them now. It's the sort of thing I don't know about until it gets to the point where it's threatening.
What do you mean, you may have stalkers now?
My managers always know what's going on in that area but I'm kept at arm's length from all that stuff.
How are they dealt with?
I don't know if I should really get into that. The reason I say that is it can put ideas into people's minds. Like any other public person, when you have somebody who is threatening you, then private detectives enter into the picture. I don't like to think about it, because if I did I would not want to be doing what I'm doing.
When Sheryl Crow is not doing what she's doing she likes to go to movies, do crosswords and write short stories. She watches the news on TV, but prefers books. At the moment she's reading a collection of Dylan Thomas stories, and a study of reincarnation called Many Masters, Many Lives. She smokes, but not today. She drinks. but only in moderation. She used to drink a lot when she was recording her first album. It was around then that the bouts of depression she had suffered since her childhood began to seem inescapable, as did thoughts of suicide. "I had a therapist once tell me that the philosophy behind suicide is that it represents freedom rather than ending your life, which is why people think about it but don't ever do it," she says quietly. "That was the situation I was in, but I don't think about it anymore."
What comes first -- sex, death or money?
Love much more thank any of that stuff. Maybe for a woman sex is just part of that. I think love motivates everyone, even more so than death.
What about money?
Money is one of those things I've never concerned myself with, but now that I've made money it can be a worry. The more money you make the more you feel you're losing because the taxes are so high in America and you've got more people working for you, which is annoying to me. That's not to say that having money isn't nice -- I have a house now, which is something I never thought I'd be able to afford as a single woman.
Are you quite house-proud?
No, because the whole ownership thing for me has never been an issue?
Do you like cleaning?
No. I'm not into cooking or any of that stuff.
Is your voice insured?
Insured? (Laughs) No, I've never even thought about it. Can you do that?
Sure. What if you had a car crash and your vocal cords got cut by flying glass?
I guess, in a weird way, that would be what was meant to be.
Sheryl Crow is leaving VH-1's recording studio, though "flouncing out" would be a more accurate description. She hasn't recorded her songs yet, but the air conditioning is blowing directly down onto where she's sitting and she's not dressed for the cold. According to the nervous floor manager it can't be turned off, however much the talent complains, so she's off to the van to change into something warmer. As she reaches the door she looks embarrassed. Maybe it's because, having dealt with drug rumours, psychotic fans, torturous relationships, depression, death and suicide, Sheryl Crow is not about to pull some star trip over anything so minor as feeling a bit chilly. Or is she? Four steps away from the exit she slows her step and starts talking, apparently to herself. "I was really ready to play," she mutters, loud enough for everyone in the room to hear, "What a fucker."