“All I Wanna Do” is one of the most unlikely breakout songs ever released. A pop confection on an album full of earnest roots rockers, it was also an outlier among the grunge and hip-hop that dominated cultural discourse during the first half of the 1990s. Were it not for a series of quirks of fate involving a used bookstore, an obscure poet, and an informal group of Los Angeles musicians who called themselves the Tuesday Music Club, “All I Wanna Do” might not even have seen the light of day. The song’s climb to the top of the charts was all but impossible, yet it made Sheryl Crow a star.
By the time Crow joined the Tuesday night sessions, she was nearly back to square one. She’d already traveled the world as a backup singer with Michael Jackson’s Bad tour, signed with A&M Records, and in 1992 recorded what could have been her debut album. Working with Sting producer Hugh Padgham, Crow ended up with a pristine, middle-of-the-road collection that sounded like, well, Sting. Crow wanted a rootsier sound, however, and after a couple of failed attempts to salvage the album, the label agreed to scrap it.
Crow had been singing and playing keyboards in the touring iteration of Toy Matinee, a short-lived L.A. band that saw minor success with its 1990 self-titled album. Players on the LP included multi-instrumentalist Kevin Gilbert, guitarist and engineer Bill Bottrell, and drummer Brian MacLeod. It was Gilbert who introduced Crow to the weekly songwriters’ collective, which met in Bottrell’s home studio in Pasadena. The group was rounded out by bassist Dan Schwartz and guitarists David Baerwald and David Ricketts. The latter two had recorded under the moniker David & David, scoring a gold record with Boomtown, released on A&M in 1986.
Crow remembers the Tuesday Music Club fondly. In a 2019 interview in the BuildNYC studio, rolling her eyes for effect, she says, “We were pretty debauched. We drank a lot… we were conspiracy theorists, we were so much smarter than everybody else, and we were so misunderstood, all of us so totally, insanely talented and so overlooked — and that’s where we found our camaraderie.”
“We were all good, not to be immodest,” Baerwald told SFGate in 1996. “We were also all cynical, embittered by the process of pop music. We were trying to find some joy in music again.”
One night the group took a break and walked around the corner to Cliff’s Books, one of many book shops lining Pasadena’s East Colorado Boulevard. There, Bottrell plucked a stack of poetry books from the dusty shelves, one of which was The Country of Here Below, a small volume by a writer named Wyn Cooper. The title had been published by an Idaho university press in 1987, with a run of only 500; how a copy ended up in a used bookstore in southern California is anyone’s guess.
The first poem in The Country of Here Below is called “Fun.” It begins:
“All I want is to have a little fun
Before I die,” says the man next to me.
Out of nowhere, apropos of nothing.
“We jammed up this track that kind of felt like Stealers Wheel,” Crow told BuildNYC, “and I started singing the poem over it thinking, ‘Well, I’ll write lyrics for it later.’ And I wrote lyric after lyric, trying to replace it. Finally I just called the poet, who was a professor in Vermont, and said, ‘Hey dude, we’re gonna give you 50 percent of the publishing because we just used your poem.’”
Before long, the Tuesday Music Club morphed into the session band for Crow’s first (technically second) solo record. With Bottrell at the helm, they recorded 11 songs for the album, titled Tuesday Night Music Club as a tribute to its inception. The CD was released in August 1993, with the songwriting credits distributed equally among the contributing musicians; Cooper was listed first on “All I Wanna Do,” the track based on his poem.
In retrospect, “All I Wanna Do” is the obvious single from the album, an effervescent earworm perfect for radio. There wasn’t much room for it on the airwaves in 1993, however. Vibe magazine declared it “the year hip-hop and R&B conquered the world.” At the same time, indie radio was ruled by the likes of Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam and the Breeders. The edgier “Run Baby Run” was chosen as the first single from Tuesday Night Music Club, but it failed to chart. Next up was “Leaving Las Vegas,” which got some traction but stalled at number 60 on the Billboard Hot 100. “All I Wanna Do” was an audience favorite at Crow’s live shows, and A&M finally released it as a single in April 1994 — seven months after the album came out. It went to number two on the Billboard charts, taking Tuesday Night Music Club with it. The song was so ubiquitous and had such staying power that it placed in Billboard’s year-end charts in both 1994 and 1995.
“All I Wanna Do” begins by conjuring the casual vocal chatter and disco noodling of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” Crow also co-opts Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime” in her tryhard opening banter before “All I Wanna Do” slides into a relaxed, airy groove reminiscent of the aforementioned Stealers Wheel. In fact, the arrangement is so derivative of the Scottish folk-rock band’s signature hit (check out Bottrell’s lap steel rhythm on the choruses), the song might as well be called “All I Wanna Do Is Get Stuck in the Middle With You.”
After “All I Wanna Do” won two Grammy Awards (Crow picked up a third for Best New Artist at the 1995 ceremony), the venues got bigger, the crowds got more enthusiastic, the tour bus became a rocket to the top, and the inevitable — and predictably sexist — backlash ensued. According to Crow, none of the Tuesday Music Club players wanted to tour; they had their own projects to attend to. So she went back to her home state of Missouri and put together a band. Once the record started to take off, resentments grew, and Crow’s concerns over authorship turned out to be prescient: claims began to surface that she hadn’t co-written the songs after all — that she was wholly the creation of the men in the room.
“Everybody was equal,” Baerwald told SFGate, “except Sheryl. She wasn’t one of us. We helped her make a record.” Gilbert, who Crow had been low-key dating during the making of Tuesday Night Music Club, lashed out after their relationship deteriorated. “I don’t know if I can ever forgive her,” he wrote in his journal. After Gilbert’s accidental death in 1996, Baerwald said “He hated that Sheryl Crow record and that’s all he’s going to be known for.”
That little book on the shelf turned out to be life-changing for Wyn Cooper, too. He went on to collaborate with other musicians as a lyricist, and even recorded his own CD with fellow writer Madison Smartt Bell. And like his benefactor, Cooper’s sudden rise from obscurity had a downside. “Fun” was inspired by a friend who uttered its famous first line at a party one night; Cooper took note, and started writing the poem the next day. The friend thought nothing of the poem until Crow’s song became a hit, at which point he tried to sue Cooper for a large sum. Even though a conversation cannot be copyrighted, Cooper’s royalties were frozen for the better part of a year while he was tied up in legal proceedings. The two men never spoke again.
A book left languishing on a shelf, a song relegated to an outtake, the road not taken on a Tuesday night: contemplating alternate realities is as dizzying as the lap steel riff in Crow’s biggest song. “All I Wanna Do” is far from her best — it’s not even the best song on Tuesday Night Music Club — but if it weren’t for the series of decisions that led to its creation, things might have turned out very differently.
“I had a love-hate relationship with ‘All I Wanna Do’ early on because it wasn’t one of my favorite songs,” Crow told Vulture in 2021. “I look at that song now, and I play it with total gratitude because it took me all over the world… That song allowed me to write the songs that no one will ever hear.”
All I Wanna Do (KORD-0004)