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Adam’s Train of Ghosts

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In this vintage essay, Abigail expresses her thoughts and feelings about the songwriter and lead singer of the band the Counting Crows, who are still making music a quarter century on. She analyzes the themes in Adam Duritz’s songs from the '90's and offers her interpretation of symbolism present in them.

Adam’s Train of Ghosts

Something happens inside of me when I listen to the music of the Counting Crows. Raw, uncensored emotion pours from the mouth of lead singer Adam Duritz. His voice seems to naturally synthesize with the background music of guitars, pianos, organs, drums, and accordions.

When Adam sings, it’s as if he’s ripped open his chest and is exposing his heart and all of its contents, regardless of the cost, because that’s how much his emotions mean to him.

The words of Adam’s self-written songs (lyrics and piano music) can speak to anybody and convey a vivid mental picture of the mood present in the music. The band’s music and Adam’s lyrics are best described in the following quote:

Take autumn, with all its leaves falling off of the trees, and the green turning to gold . . . and then the sodden brown of winter, the coming chill in the air, the sudden clarity of the moon at night, the aching melancholy felt as summer rolls away behind you, and the world of winter wraps itself around you. If you could take all of this, and all that it means and suggests, and turn it into music, you would have the Counting Crows.

Adam Duritz was born in Baltimore, Maryland, but lived in Boston, Denver, and Dallas before settling down with his family in San Francisco. Before leading the Crows, Adam was an English major at the University of California at Davis and at Berkeley in the late ’80s. He quit school without turning in his thesis because he thought that it wasn’t very good. Between the time he dropped out of school and formed the band, Adam worked a wide array of jobs, getting fired from each one.

An insomniac, Adam has had plenty of idle time to be productive. He claims that his inability to sleep is due to his uneasiness about letting go of consciousness. He says he can’t allow himself to do it. During sleepless nights, Adam’s true poetic genius takes over. He just lets himself go, pouring onto paper thoughts about his past relationships and other memories.

Any avid listener will notice that a few recurring metaphors are present in Adam’s songs: that memories are ghosts and relationships are trains. The first of these two metaphors is pretty self-explanatory; however, the second needs some explanation. Adam believes that getting into a realtionship is similar to boarding a train and riding to a final destination with the other person. He feels that in order to be in a relationship, one must be willing and able to live with the other person’s ghosts.

It’s quite a beautiful concept about the trains. In his song “Ghost Train,” Adam sings, “Love is like a ghost train rumbling through the darkness. Remember everything when only memory remains.”

Another characteristic that an avid Crows listener will notice is that Adam often sings about particular women. There’s Maria, Elizabeth, Amy, Anna, Shannon, Amanda, Lisa, and Margery, just to name a few. The two who appear most frequently in Adam’s lyrics are Maria and Elizabeth. Adam has said in interviews that Maria is like the female version of himself. He uses this fictional character in his songs when he wants to express his thoughts but not make it apparent that the song is about him. (However, he has said that most of his songs are about him or his experiences because that’s all he knows.) Elizabeth is an ex-girlfriend of Adam’s. They were a couple when the Crows caught their first true glimpse of fame. Elizabeth was in college at the time that Adam was on the road touring. She was obsessed with the fear that Adam was cheating on her (which he claims he wasn’t). As in most cases, the long-distance relationship didn’t work out.

Adam comments that the breakup was for the best; however, his songs including Elizabeth indicate otherwise. The song “I Wish I Was a Girl” on the album This Desert Life is about Adam’s desire to make Elizabeth realize that he was faithful to her during the time that he was away. There’s a double standard when girls say that they were faithful and they’re generally believed, but when guys say it, nobody believes them. Another song, “Goodnight Elizabeth,” from the album Recovering the Satellites is Adam’s lullaby dedicated to Elizabeth. The lyrics basically express that Adam will always carry a piece of Elizabeth with him. The lyrics say, “I wish you were inside of me/I hope that you’re OK/I hope you’re resting quietly/I just wanted to say/Goodnight, Elizabeth, goodnight.”

He refers to himself as the king of the rain in a few songs, much like Jim Morrison is also known as the Lizard King. I’ve tried to figure out what this rain symbolism means, and my hypothesis is that rain could mean tears or just a bad situation. Possibly he feels that he inadvertently causes a lot of problems for the people he cares about. As he sings in the song “Chelsea,” “The things I do to people I love just shouldn’t be allowed.”

He is quite absorbed in his own feelings, which is sometimes interpreted as egotism, but I get the impression that he’s unsure of his true identity and doesn’t really believe in himself. Since he is very sensitive and constantly searching his soul, he’s become infatuated with his own feelings. He’s absorbed in feelings, and I think that people have interpreted that infatuation as egotism.

Adam’s poetic lyrics move me to the depths of my soul. With just a few words and the emotion in his voice, he can make me feel as if there is a starry summer night inside of me . . . or a lonely, empty hotel room. There is nostalgia behind his lyrics and a canvas painted with love, loneliness, devotion, and disappointment.

During the production of the band’s first album, Adam’s most important goal was to “make a mark upon the world.” If it’s worth anything, he’s made more than just a mark upon my world; he has painted me a sky and filled it with stars.

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