Interview with Marshall Crenshaw
– by Shawn Conner
Marshall Crenshaw is coming to town. And if that doesn’t mean anything to you, then I beseech you: YouTube any one of the following: “Favorite Waste of Time”, “Someday Someway”, “Cynical Girl”, “Rockin’ Around in N.Y.C.”, “I”m Sorry (But So is Brenda Lee)”, “Whenever You’re On My Mind”. Hell, just listen to the bridge on “Whenever You’re On My Mind”. If you love pop music, and you know the real thing when you hear it, this 30 seconds alone will make you a fan for life.
Born and raised near Detroit, Crenshaw has been in the music business for 30 years. He started out playing John Lennon in an off-Broadway production of Beatlemania and released his first (self-titled) album in 1982. The biggest hit off that record – and Crenshaw’s highest-charting song to date – was “Someday Someway”, a song that Robert Gordon also had a minor hit with.
Several records followed, including Field Day, Downtown, Good Evening and Miracle of Science. His last full-length was 2009’s Jaggedland, but Crenshaw is still recording and releasing new music. He know offers a subscription service on his site, and is issuing a series of EPs, in digital and vinyl formats. Each contains a new song, a cover, and a reworked original. The first is just out, and the new song, “I Don’t Hear You Laughing Now”, is another standout; the cover is a song written by Jeff Lyne and recorded by The Move. The third is a new version of “There She Goes Again”, from his debut.
Crenshaw is also on a West Coast tour with his friend, guitarist/singer/songwriter Dave Alvin. The two play Vancouver Fanclub Feb 28 2013.
Shawn Conner: You’ve just started the tour. Are you playing solo or with [sometime backing band] the Bottle Rockets?
Marshall Crenshaw: No, I’m playing a set with Dave’s band. It’s really Dave’s tour, with me just sort of glomming on. We’ve done two shows now. Last night was the Troubadour in L.A., we blew it up good. It was lovely. Also, Phil, Dave’s brother, got onstage, and that really felt like a reunion. ‘Cos I was a big Blasters fan. I got to know Dave back then, I always used to go see them when they played in New York.
SC: Just by coincidence, I was at a friend’s place and he had The Girl Can’t Help It, and he jumped to the scene of Gene Vincent doing “Be Bop a Lula” because he wanted to show me the part where Vincent and his band all lose their powder blue berets. Do you remember that scene?
MC: Yeah, definitely. There’s another movie with Gene Vincent, Hot Rod Gang, which I like a lot. His groups always had a lot going on in terms of showmanship and visual appeal. In Hot Rod Gang he’s got a big group, he’s got six or seven people in the band, with a couple of guys up front, these background singers that are kind of like his footmen or his manservants or something. He’s great, I really obsessed over his records for awhile.
SC: Would you consider doing an update of Hollywood Rock [“a guide to rock ‘n’ roll movies” Crenshaw helped put together, out-of-print since it was published in 1994]?
MC: That was just kind of a fluke. I was in kind of a down period, not really doing very much, hanging out at home. And somebody approached me with the idea of doing that. I’m not really in that line of work so much. I guess you’d call it a side-project. It was fun, though. I suppose I learned a lot. There were about 40 of us altogether, people who wrote the reviews. I was just the guiding intelligence. And my name is on the front, but it was very much a group effort.
Movie clip – Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps, “Be Bop a Lula”:
SC: Where do you live now?
MC: I live up in New York State, about two hours north of New York City. We moved to Woodstock at the beginning of 1987. Now we live in a town called Rhinebeck. It’s small-town life, surrounded by other small towns. It’s kind of pastoral and pretty. I have a wife and two kids. That’s a big part of my life.
SC: Are there a lot musicians from your peer group there?
MC: I guess the biggest local thing was Levon Helm‘s Midnight Ramble. When he died [Helm passed away April 19 2012] it really hit home for us. My wife and son were especially big fans of Levon’s. For four or five years he had these weekly things, soirees at his home slash recording studio. I used to go every now and then just to hang out, ‘cos I had friends in the band.
The events had this magical thing about them. People in the area were really proud of the Ramble. It gave me a sense of there being a scene for the first time. All the time I lived in Woodstock it felt like there was no scene, at least one that I knew about. I liked living there but it wasn’t like living in New York City, where still to this day I run into people that I know. There are clubs in New York I can go to, I can go up to the front door and say “hi” and they let me in and seat me at a table. Woodstock has none of that.
With the Ramble, it felt like there was something going on.
They still have the rambles. I played at one a week ago Saturday with Lee Rocker from the Stray Cats and [rockabilly singer] Robert Gordon.
SC: How’s Robert Gordon doing these days?
MC: He sounds great. I saw him once int he last 30 years, I ran into him about six years ago. He was someone, my crossing paths with him was a real game-changer in my life. He was the first recording artist to record any of my songs. He recorded “Someday Someway” before I did and it was huge in New York. That really opened doors for me. I was able to get my own independent single out, and pretty soon I had two big hits on New York radio. I always had a feeling of gratitude towards Robert.
I was glad I ran into him. And he was really sweet. Back in the day it was kind of hard to approach him. Now he’s very down-to-earth and friendly. He said, “Man, be sure to keep in touch with me.” The age I am now, I really value the connections I have with people I’ve known for a long time.
SC: How is the subscription service going?
MC: I really like the project a lot. The records are very cool, the art direction is excellent. They’re classy-looking objects. People are snapping them up. We sold out of the ones that we had. We’re waiting for more inventory, we don’t have any right now but we’ll have some soon.
And then there’s a second one coming out April 28 which I think is even better than the first one as far as the quality of the material. I love the whole thing, that I thought of this thing. It took awhile to get it up and running. But everyday there are more takers for it.
Video – Marshall Crenshaw, “I Don’t See You Laughing Now”:
SC: Can you say what the cover song on the next one is going to be?
MC: The Carpenters‘ “Close to You” – we copied their arrangement, with real strings and a harp and a flute. It’s kind of tongue in cheek, then at the end it blows up into this other thing. For the most part we’re paying tribute. Of all of their records, I liked a lot of their records, but that first hit of theirs was the only one that I genuinely love.
SC: What is your relationship to “No Time” [the Jeff Lynne cover on the new EP]?
MC: I always marveled at that song when I was a kid. It really intrigued me. I was just fascinated. I couldn’t understand how somebody could put a song like that together back then. It was so sophisticated musically. It’s a beautiful piece. It’s very unusual; it comes in the middle of this album [Message from the Country, 1971] that’s mostly straight rock type stuff and then there’s this strange little art piece. And the song strikes me as having a contemporary theme. It sounds like it was written about a post-apocalyptic scene, after an environmental upheaval. I think it’s just a sweet, beautiful song. The cover tune thing is a release.
SC: I’d forgotten that you covered the Grant Hart song, “2541”…
MC: Yeah. I”m playing it on this tour. That’s another song, I couldn’t have written it, not only because it’s about somebody’s really specific personal experience. There’s this kind of spareness to it, it has very few elements but it’s very effective, it draws you in. I think it’s a great song.
SC: Were you a Husker Du fan?
MC: I do like Husker Du, I wasn’t a big fan but I had a couple of their records. I saw them live once – I wanted to see the opening act, believe it or not it was Dwight Yoakam. He started out that way, as an opening act. Those two acts, I watched Dwight then I stayed for Husker Du. I’m friendly with Bob Mould now, I saw him at the funeral of a woman we both knew, Karin Berg, who was my A&R person at Warner Brothers, who signed Husker Du. I’m friendly with him and with Grant also. I see him whenever I go through Minneapolis.
Video – Marshall Crenshaw, “2541” (live):
SC: I came across something on Amazon, someone wrote in a review of one of your albums, and the review mentions that you’d gotten on the wrong side of Rolling Stone back in the ’80s?
MC: That’s true for sure, it really is.
When we got our first album out, it was after we’d just really blown up New York City and created a ton of buzz. The whole thing built to this big juggernaut. So we got signed by Warner Brothers, had interest in every label in the city. I picked the wrong one…
We hired a publicist, and it was a sneaky deal, because she was the head of publicity for a rival record label. But she just loved the band and wanted to work with us. And she got us this big piece in Rolling Stone. It was the first interview I ever did, the first press I ever got, this big-ass four-page spread in Rolling Stone and then a four-and-a-half-star record review. We basically got in bed with them. I knew that it was a mistake, that I was rolling the dice, that it could blow up in my face. But I took the chance. As soon as I read I thought, “I’m fucked. This is the worst thing I’ve ever read.”
The characterization was this real cartoon-y thing. It was the first interview I ever did and I barely knew how to form a thought. I didn’t have my rhetoric together at all. I was well-read enough to realize I didn’t come off in the piece at all. And I knew myself as a reader of rock magazines that people were going to read this article and think it was all hype and bullshit. And it wasn’t, we’d built it up from a grass-roots level in the old-fashioned way. Now all of a sudden it’s hype because it’s in this magazine known as a magazine of hype.
Anyway it did backfire. They went out on a limb for us. They would do that once in awhile, they would test their clout. Once upon a time they were a taste-making magazine, but by the ’70s it was clear they didn’t have that clout anymore.
I read it sometimes for the political journalism. But it’s no longer a taste-making magazine. Anyway, after all the dust settled, they didn’t like us anymore because we’d proven to them they didn’t have that power in the marketplace. ‘Cos our record didn’t blow up as big as everyone thought it would. Ever since then they’ve completely ignored me. Which is fine. I know people who’ve worked at that magazine, and it’s a really unhappy work-place.
I just knew we shouldn’t have gotten into bed with them.
SC: So who are the songwriters you like now?
MC: My daughter listens to Top 40 radio and she plays stuff and I go, “Yeah, that’s really kind of good.” I’m so old now, I’ve listened to so much music, I’m almost on overload. But I am always picking up on stuff. I like some contemporary jazz stuff, like this Sam Yahel record with Brian Blade and Joshua Redman from a couple of years back [Truth and Beauty, 2009].
[At this point, our connection died. But Crenshaw was gracious enough to complete the thought in an email with the following:]