Music

How Sheryl Crow Performing On ‘Letterman’ Was Blamed For An Author’s Suicide

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Sheryl Crow had a successful career before anyone knew of her. She wrote commercial jingles (including one for McDonald’s), toured with Michael Jackson on his Bad World Tour from 1987-1989, and sang on the Point Break and Leap of Faith soundtracks. By the early 1990s, though, she was ready to make it on her own. Crow’s planned debut album was pulled by her label at the last second, but rather than going back to writing ditties about mediocre burgers, she teamed up with a group of local Los Angeles musicians who called themselves the Tuesday Music Club.

That’s where she met Kevin Gilbert, Bill Bottrell, and David Baerwald, who helped her co-write Tuesday Night Music Club, which, thanks to its multiple chart-lingering hits and four Grammy nominations (three wins), turned Crow into a music superstar. You still hear the singles on the radio to this day: “All I Wanna Do,” “Strong Enough,” “Can’t Cry Anymore,” “Leaving Las Vegas.” It’s a performance of that last song on Late Show with David Letterman that’s often credited for catapulting Crow’s fame; it was also rumored to be the reason author John O’Brien killed himself.

The key moment in the clip is when Letterman asks her if the song is autobiographical. Crow’s response, “Uh, yes, actually. I’ve never lived there.” The second sentence is true. The first? Not so much. The name comes from O’Brien’s 1990 novel, which was also turned into a movie with an Oscar-winning performance from Nicolas Cage. O’Brien was friends with Baerwald, who asked for permission to lift it the title. O’Brien’s sister Erin said that all her brother asked for was that he “got credit somewhere down the line.” About that:

The title came from a book written by John O’Brien, a friend of David Baerwald, who helped write this. Crow did not know this and didn’t give the novelist credit for the title. O’Brien killed himself after this became popular, blaming Crow for his depression. (Via)

Except that’s according to the unsourced Song Facts. Here’s what sister Erin had to say:

John’s name never appeared in conjunction with the song, but make no mistake, the title for the song was born of the title of the novel.

Then on David Letterman one night, Crow was a guest and announced that the song was autobiographical. My brother was furious.

All sorts of rumors swirled around the story, most of them false. I’ll clarify one and say that this fiasco was by no means the reason John committed suicide. (Via)

When Crow appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1996, she was asked about what happened on Letterman. She admits that she was “doomed” the second she told him that yes, the song’s autobiographical — musicians aren’t often asked to join the host; she was probably caught off-guard — but what happened next “absolutely destroyed” her.

When O’Brien heard Crow say, “Yes,” recalls his sister Erin, “he got really torqued.” O’Brien’s father, John, drove his son through Venice, where O’Brien found Baerwald’s house and pounded on the door. The wrath rattled around – after O’Brien shot himself three weeks later, Baerwald wrote a heartbroken piece for the L.A. Weekly accusing Crow of causing him to betray his friend and, by pointedly saying he didn’t really blame anyone for O’Brien’s suicide, somehow blamed her. “That absolutely destroyed me,” says Crow. O’Brien’s family, however, absolves her. “John was just mad about it,” says his father. “I don’t think anything at all having to do with this Sheryl Crow business was even one block in the foundation of his suicide.” Says Erin: “John had a pretty jaded view of the entertainment industry, and, you know, this type of event contributed in no small part to that attitude. But the problems that drove him toward the end were – you know, that’s a long, long bloody trip.” (Via)

Baerwald was also widely quoted when Tuesday Music Club’s Kevin Gilbert, who at times had both a professional and romantic relationship with Crow, was found dead in 1996 at the age of 29, a victim of autoerotic asphyxiation. In an obituary that appeared in Entertainment Weekly, he was labeled simply as Crow’s piano player, not a talented member of Toy Matinee or an admired solo musician in his own right. “He hated that Sheryl Crow record, and that’s all he’s going to be known for,” Baerwald said. “The piano player? Roll over, Kevin Gilbert.”

Think about all that the next time your mom’s singing along to “Strong Enough.”

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