I remember sitting around with some band members way back in 1999… we were all huge fans of The Black Crowes, and couldn’t wait to hear their fifth studio album, By Your Side. We all picked up the record on it’s release day, but decided to listen to it together in order to “share in the Crowes’ experience as a band.”
After spinning the Cd, some of us praised the Crowes for going back to the basics found on their debut album, Shake Your Moneymaker, while some of us were hoping for a more experimental approach a la Amorica. Regardless of where we stood, though, we had to agree that it was a blessing to have more Crowes music in the world.
By Your Side showed that the Crowes still had the ability to write tight, concise, radio-friendly songs, spawning the hit, “Kickin’ My Heart Around.” This track reached number 3 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, and was followed up with “Only A Fool,” which peaked at number 7. The album was generally well received by critics and fans alike, and climbed up the Billboard charts to number 26.
One song that stood out for me was “Horsehead,” mainly because of the monstrous riff that was the backbone of the song. I’m a sucker for Wah-guitar as well… Rich Robinson had me at that first guitar “chicka.” I’ve posted the original version below in the Dig-It section… if you are not familiar with this song, I highly recommend hitting “play” on that track right now to hear what I’m talking about.
Man alive, when Steve Gorman comes in with the snare drums… MAN ALIVE!!!!!
“Horsehead” also features a return to the gospel-infused female backup vocals for the band, a quality that I thought was so defining in their Southern Harmony record. I love how the female vocals sing the main lines of the chorus while Chris Robinson ad libs in between… VERY cool. It all ads to the meaning of the song.
To this day, I still don’t know exactly what a “Horsehead” is, but judging from the lyrics, it can’t be good.
Horsehead, gonna take a dive
Horsehead, ain’t no good at all
Horsehead, said you’re gonna die
I once had a discussion with a fellow Crowes fan about the meaning of a “Horsehead.” He reminded me of the scene from The Godfather, where Jack Woltz wakes up to find his horse’s decapitated head laying next to him in his lush bed. My friend explained that the horse head was left there as a reminder to “play ball” with the Godfather.
So we concluded that a “Horsehead” was a symbol of deviance.
This interpretation actually makes sense when you take a look at the chorus of the song:
All you are is what’s inside
If you take, then step aside
Jesus gave until he died
These lyrics are telling me that you should always make sure that you’re contributing to society. The line “Jesus gave until he died,” isn’t necessarily saying “Live like Jesus,” but rather it’s just a reminder of what one can accomplish when one exercises generosity.
Getting back to the gospel-infused female backup vocals mentioned earlier, and how this quality ads to the meaning of the song… I guess one could argue that the song is talking about faith… it certainly fits the bill here. Chris Robinson sounds like he’s up on the pulpit, preaching to the masses, while the choir backs him up… if you hold that image in your head during the song, it definitely makes sense.
If any of you have your own interpretation of the lyrics, I’d be most interested in hearing it!
You’ll find two different acoustic versions of “Horsehead” below in the Dig-It section. One is an AWESOME acoustic studio recording that features just the two Robinson brothers. Chris’ vocals are sung through what sounds like a harmonica microphone (maybe a Green Bullet? All you gear-heads out there… what do you think?), which brings a heavier, dirtier vibe to the lyric. It’s a cool contrast to the clean slide guitar playing of brother Rich. One of my favorite parts of the song is at the end when the song takes a tangent… take a listen and if you don’t have this in your music collection, don’t forget to download it!!!!
The other version is a live performance from the Brothers of a Feather: Live at the Roxy that involves the two Robinson brothers and a couple of amazing female vocalists. Rich Robinson uses a clean electric guitar here (so I guess it’s not ACTUALLY acoustic), and plays the song more in line with the original recording.
These two versions are a great example of how versatile The Black Crowes are in their musicianship. The first version is simpler, yet retains the integrity of the song. The second is, as stated above, more in tune with the original version, and shows just how powerful the song is on its own.
Take a listen and if you haven’t already, go get some Crowes‘ music.
Your Dig-It Downloads: (right click links to download)
Horsehead (original version)
Horsehead (acoustic live)