DARK SECRETS // MUSIC:
The death of a former boyfriend and incriminating charges from
former backing musicians are clouds hanging over Sheryl Crow's
San Francisco Chronicle
black hood covered his face. He wore a black skirt. His head
was slumped against a leather strap chained to the headboard
of the king-size bed in the sparsely furnished living room.
Gilbert, 29, was dead. That much his manager could see peering
in at the front door that morning last May.
Los Angeles County coroner's office sees four or five such deaths
a year - "autoerotic asphyxiation," caused when people
go one small step too far in depriving their brains of oxygen
while they reach orgasm. It was a death without dignity, a random
fall through the cracks of a secret life.
was a musical prodigy from San Mateo who could play any instrument;
colleagues invariably called him "the most talented musician
I ever met." To the rest of the world, though, his only
real claim to fame lies in the credits to "Tuesday Night
Music Club," the 1993 debut album by Sheryl Crow.
saw something in Entertainment magazine that said Kevin Gilbert,
the piano player on Sheryl Crow's record, had died," said
songwriter David Baerwald, a member of the Tuesday club of the
album's name. He paused, sadly shaking his head. "He hated
that Sheryl Crow record and that's all he's going to be known
for. The piano player? Roll over, Kevin Gilbert."
Gilbert first brought his girlfriend Sheryl to informal Tuesday-night
songwriting sessions with his friends, he played a pivotal role
in shaping an $85 million megahit. For her, the album brought
three Grammys, stardom and an industry buzz that makes her forthcoming
album one of the most eagerly anticipated releases this fall.
But for him, it was hardly a triumph.
don't know if I can ever forgive her," he wrote in his
journal. "I don't hate her - I'm just soooo disappointed."
a way it's a classic Hollywood tale: Gifted boy artist meets
girl artist, mentors her to success and is left in the dust
- equal parts "Sunset Boulevard," "A Star Is
Born," and "All About Eve."
any measure, Gilbert's career was a fitful tumble of brilliance
and happenstance, a series of near misses and one hit that wasn't
his. And his Tuesday night cohorts describe Crow, who refused
to be interviewed for this story, as a marginally talented singer
who exploited his skills and theirs in a ruthless grab for success.
this wasn't a movie, and so the real story is inevitably messier
and more complex. As the circumstances of his death suggest,
Gilbert had a dark side, a hidden face that made him an enigma
to his friends. There was a history of anti-depressant use and
a string of journal entries registering acute self-loathing
had a promising start. As a teen-ager, Gilbert was given the
run of Sensa Sound studio in Sunnyvale after hours; there he
recorded tracks with his progressive rock group, Giraffe. In
1988 he won the U.S. and worldwide finals of a talent contest
run by the Yamaha piano company. One of the judges, Pat Leonard,
a producer for Madonna, invited Gilbert to make a record in
album, "Toy Matinee," sold nearly 200,000 copies in
1991, thanks in part to an MTV video featuring actress Rosanna
Arquette (whom Gilbert had dated). Gilbert put together a road
version that included his then girlfriend on background vocals
and second keyboard, Sheryl Crow.
that album, at age 21, Gilbert met another record producer,
Bill Bottrell, who became a kind of father figure. Bottrell
brought him to sessions for Madonna and Michael Jackson; before
long, Gilbert had sublet the space adjacent to Bottrell's Pasadena
studio, Toad Hall. From there he set about recording his solo
on all his perfectionist instincts, along with his ingrained
self-doubts, Gilbert didn't just work on his record; he suffered
over it, recording and rerecording, polishing, tweaking, rethinking,
was a long process," said Bottrell, who used to hear Gilbert
thumping away through the common wall. "He sat over there
August 1992, Bottrell convened a gathering of Gilbert and other
musicians at Toad Hall with the simple agenda of collaborating
for the fun of it every Tuesday night. "We were all good,
not to be immodest," Baerwald said. "We
were also all cynical, embittered by the process of pop music.
We were trying to find some joy in music again."
party atmosphere predominated. "Bill would sift through
(the music) the next morning while we were all nursing hangovers,"
drummer Brian MacLeod recalled. Then Bottrell introduced a project
he thought might force a little focus onto the freewheeling,
had finished an album for A&M Records, but despite the $500,000
spent on it, nobody at the label was thrilled with the results.
Hoping for a quick fix, A&M hired Gilbert to remix the album,
which was, in the immutable illogic of the record industry,
already scheduled for release. Crow's manager asked Bottrell
to step in as well.
Crow's first Tuesday night with the club, Baerwald showed up
with musical sidekick David Ricketts (from the 1986 David and
David album), both of them high on LSD, with the first verse
already written to a song, "Leaving Las Vegas." Baerwald
picked up a guitar, Ricketts the bass, and the band fell together
to pick up where it had left off.
couldn't function," Bottrell said. "Sheryl started
to get drunk. I was looking for that moment when the good take
most of that year, Bottrell and his Tuesday crew - now working
all week long - scrupulously fashioned and reshaped Crow's album.
Because everything was a collaboration, songwriting credits
were equally shared. "Everybody was equal," Baerwald
said, "except Sheryl. She wasn't one of us. We helped her
make a record."
name wound up on seven of the 11 songs; he sang and played keyboards,
guitar, bass and drums.
relationship with Crow was kept separate and even a secret from
the group. "I'd see long conversations in the parking lot,"
challenged her," MacLeod said. "He was trying to get
her to be honest and sing from her heart."
of herself, professionally in over her head, Crow went home
with Gilbert after sessions and listened to him rant about the
industry's failings. "She had Kevin filling her with doubts,"
he wasn't with Crow or the club, Gilbert struggled with his
solo album, playing most of the instruments on his supple but
powerful pop-rock tracks - polished productions that showed
the gleam of countless studio hours. A proposed deal with a
major label fell apart, so he made do with a tiny custom label.
nearly a year of working together, all for one and one for all,
the Tuesday Night musicians were shocked to learn they didn't
figure into Crow's plans. Bottrell got the news when he met
her to hand over the finished master in a Sunset Strip coffee
shop. Although there had been much talk of hitting the road
together to promote the record - bassist Dan Schwartz even
bought a new bass for the tour - "she essentially told
me to get lost," Bottrell said.
add Sheryl Crow to a long list of people in Hollywood who told
me they were my friend until they got what they wanted from
me," Schwartz said.
LIFE FALLING APART
Crow's relationship with Gilbert deteriorated - apparently she
turned her attentions to an executive at the record label, Baerwald
said - an increasingly bitter Gilbert threw himself deeper into
his own album.
think I'm a tinge jealous over her upcoming release," he
wrote in his journal. "It's probably going to be huge,
so I have to prepare myself mentally for that. If she gets what
she wants after behaving this way, she'll be absolutely intolerable."
Gilbert, the final straw came when Crow sang "Leaving Las
Vegas" on the David Letterman show. Afterward, when Letterman
asked her if the song was autobiographical, a flustered Crow
blurted out, "Yes."
never been to Las Vegas," continued Crow, who nobody remembers
having contributed greatly to the writing of the song. "I
wrote it about Los Angeles. It's really metaphorical."
next day, she and Gilbert exchanged angry words over the phone.
He wasn't the only one furious. Author John O'Brien, who wrote
the novel that inspired both Baerwald's early song lyrics and
the movie starring Nicolas Cage, was still grumbling about Crow's
gaffe to his literary agent on the day he blew his brains out,
a scant few weeks before the movie deal was
Crow's album soared on the charts (her nod to Gilbert in the
liner notes says, "I owe you big for two years of musical
and emotional support. Thanks"), Gilbert's solo album,
a masterful but underpromoted effort titled "Thud,"
disappeared almost immediately on release. At the same time,
ironically, a tape he recorded for the Led Zeppelin tribute
album, dropped from the disc at the last minute, exploded on
Los Angeles radio, leaving his label ineptly scrambling to capitalize.
its new prominence, the Tuesday Night Music Club never could
quite regroup. The members did play one guest appearance with
Crow at an out-of-town club, but the record company made it
clear they would not be included in the more prestigious Hollywood
threw himself into other projects: helping Baerwald produce
a solo album by Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, working with Bottrell
on an album by Linda Perry of 4 Non Blonds (the Tuesday Night
gang dubbed her "the anti-Sheryl"), writing and recording
scores for TV shows under a pseudonym. He even produced a movie
soundtrack song for which Crow sang vocals - a
version of Steve Miller's "The Joker" - although they
were never in the studio at the same time.
November 1994, Gilbert met playwright Cintra Wilson at a party
in San Francisco; two months later she moved to Los Angeles
to live with him. "He was massively depressed over the
whole Sheryl debacle," Wilson said. "I was a basket
case. We were perfect for each other."
the tension with Crow, most of the Tuesday Night Music Club
attended the Grammy Awards in March 1995. To show irreverence,
Wilson rented 19th-century funeral regalia for Gilbert and her
to wear: a morning coat and top hat for him, ostrich plumes
and a bustle for her. Crow sat in the row in front of them.
"They were not on good terms," Wilson. "She was
gracious. It was a furtive, tense, real glitzy night."
picked up three awards, including Record of the Year for "All
I Wanna Do," a Tuesday Night instrumental with lyrics borrowed
from verses in a little-known volume by a poet in Vermont. A
week later, Gilbert was still wearing his Grammy medallion around
his neck like a badge of valor.
there, he set out to recapture the creative anarchy he felt
was the authentic legacy of the club. He and MacLeod produced
some startling recordings, far removed from anything either
of them had ever done.
were scary, dense, pop-industrial recordings, with Gilbert whispering
ominous, almost threatening processed vocals. "They gave
me nightmares," Bottrell said. Gilbert envisioned a new
band, Kaviar, clad in fetish rubber gear. He pulled other musicians
into the plan.
the same time, Gilbert could toss off simple, beautiful, sentimental
tunes. In Baerwald's last memory of Gilbert, the pianist was
noodling around on the keyboard, plaintively singing Randy Newman's
"Marie." Baerwald had
briefly dozed off. "I woke up crying," he said.
who played perhaps the largest role in Gilbert's career, doesn't
think he ever really knew him. "There were tremendous areas
of his life I was not privy to," he said. "There were
motives I could never quite figure out."
Bottrell's wife, Elizabeth, remembers sensing a powerful mood
of peace and reconciliation in a phone conversation with Gilbert
the afternoon before he died. They talked about attending an
industry dinner together; Gilbert kidded her about wearing rubber.
They never spoke again.
afternoon this summer, several hundred of Gilbert's friends
and associates gathered for a memorial service at the Bottrells'
Glendale home. Wilson, dressed white, sat next to MacLeod as
Crow walked up to say hello. "I barked at her," Wilson
recalled. Wilson knew the titles of the album's songs well enough.
"Run, baby, run," she yelped at Crow, who fled in
Crow is reluctant to discuss Gilbert, she has been openly vocal
in interviews about the rift over the album with the Tuesday
Night Music Club.
were guys in the group who were feeling bitter about the record
doing so well," she recently told Billboard magazine. "Maybe
I should have called it something else."
Tuesday, she will release her follow-up album, called - not
insignificantly, perhaps even defiantly - "Sheryl Crow."
Clearly, this singer wants to prove that she's an act and a
talent all her own - not the smoke-and-mirrors creation of a
savvy, multitalented backup band.
did mention Gilbert to a Dutch journalist last month. "I
wasn't surprised by his death," Crow told Edwin Ammerlaan
of Orr Magazine. "Kevin was one of the most self-destructive
people I've ever met. I don't want to go into this too much,
but it wasn't a nice story."