Interview: Marshall Crenshaw ~

by Jim Catalano

Touted as the "next big thing" back in the early 1980s, Marshall Crenshaw has never achieved the mass popular acceptance that his critical acclaim seemed to auger. For some reason, his brand of fifties- and sixties-inflected power pop -- best exemplified by "Someday Someway" and "Cynical Girl" -- was consigned to cult status by radio and MTV programmers. After several albums for Warner Bros. and one for MCA-Paradox (Life's Too Short), Crenshaw found himself without a major-label deal in 1991.

He resurfaced last year on Razor and Tie Music, a small Manhattan label, which released Live...My Truck Is My Home. As the title might suggests, the CD contains fourteen songs recorded live between 1982 and 1994. There are some reworkings of Crenshaw favorites -- "There She Goes Again," "Girls" -- as well as some originals that never made his studio albums, including "You're My Favorite Waste of Time."

About half the album is given to covers that indicate Crenshaw's vast well of influences: Bobby Fuller's "Julie," Dave Alvin's "Wanda and Duane," and even ABBA's "Knowing Me Knowing You." One of the best songs is the soul instrumental "Twine Time," which features John Mellencamp drummer Kenny Aronoff.

Crenshaw uncorks twangy solos throughout the album, cementing his status as roots rock guitar hero. As might be expected, the sound quality varies from cut to cut, but Crenshaw's infectious spirit always shines through. Does this album presage the release of a studio album of new material sometime in the near future? Crenshaw addressed that question, as well as other parts of his career, in a February phone interview from Northampton, Mass., before a gig at the Iron Horse.

Jim Catalano: So are you touring with a group, or solo?

Marshall Crenshaw: I've been working with this fellow named Andy York; it's just me and him. We were out all through November and December, and this month we're hitting the East Coast, picking up spare change.

Catalano: Was the live CD a long time in the making?

Crenshaw: Yes, I guess so. It was an idea I'd had for a long time, but I didn't seriously commit to the idea of doing it until last year. But the way that it ended up you could say it was a long time in the making, because there are a lot of things from different time periods on the record. It almost traces my whole history. There are few points that aren't represented, but mostly it goes from shows when I first started making records up to 12 months ago.

Catalano: I like "Knowing Me Knowing You." I didn't know you were an ABBA fan.

Crenshaw: Everybody's an ABBA fan. In the early Seventies I was interested in them, because they were doing this kind of latter-day Sixties pop thing. I always liked Sixties pop; I was in my early teens when the Sixties ended, so I was disappointed to see that come to an end. I like ABBA, especially the girl group-sounding stuff they did at the beginning, particularly "Knowing Me Knowing You." It's probably my favorite ABBA song -- the lyrics are very descriptive and it's got a really hot guitar riff. The four people in ABBA used to be two married couples and then they broke up but continued to work together, so "Knowing Me Knowing You" is almost like a breakup song -- it's very heartfelt. To be honest, I probably dislike about two-thirds of what they did, but the third I like is really classic to me.

Catalano: I see you also did Dave Alvin's "Wanda and Duane." When I saw him play last year, he thanked you for performing the song on the Conan O'Brian show and "paying his rent" for a couple of months.

Crenshaw: He called me the day after the show and thanked me, because when you get a song played on a show like that, the ASCAP royalties are a couple of thousand dollars. I'm a great big fan of his; I think he's always been a great songwriter from the Blasters days onward.

Catalano: Have you been writing songs yourself lately?

Crenshaw: No, I haven't been doing much of it. I think it's good to kind of just can it sometimes. I know people that always write, all day and every day, and I think they should just stop every once in a while to take a breath. That's kind of what I'm doing, but I know I'm going to get back into it. I stopped at the end of 1992 because I was so preoccupied with business matters, and I just didn't have the enthusiasm for it. So I said "there's no way I'm going to force this," because I've done that before: written songs and made records under duress, and usually it doesn't work very well for me. Although every now and then, things arise out of unusual circumstances. But I think I'm better off chilling out until I have an undeniable urge to do it. And I'm getting close to that point, but I haven't had a chance since last Spring to spend the amount of time I need to get back into it, because I've been really busy ever since my book [Hollywood Rock] came out.

Catalano: Can you tell me about Hollywood Rock?

Crenshaw: It covers lots of music from movies of every genre. We start chronologically in 1946 with Louis Jordan movies and work up to 1993, when we finished the book. We just have everything in there, from ABBA: The Movie to G.G. Allin to psychedelic-era stuff to Russ Meyer movies. There's a whole lot of genres.

Catalano: Have you always been a movie fan?

Crenshaw: Yes, in fact when we stop in New York next week I'm going to check out retrospectives on Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan.

Catalano: You've actually been in a couple of movies yourself, right?

Crenshaw: Yeah, I acted in one, and there's another one where I just stood around in the background. In Peggy Sue Got Married, the first 20 minutes take place at a high school class reunion and we're the band playing there. That's the one with Nicolas Cage, Jim Carrey and Kathleen Turner. Nine months after that, I was in La Bamba (The Ritchie Valens Story), where I played Buddy Holly. I had a great time, I thought it was fun. The catering was really good, and being around the film-making process was eye-opening. And in Peggy Sue Got Married, the director was Francis Ford Coppola, so to watch him work was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The other thing that struck me about film-making is that there are so many tiny decisions to make about minute details. And I thought that record-making was mentally taxing!

Catalano: How did you feel about playing Buddy Holly, seeing as how many critics have compared you to him?

Crenshaw: For that reason I didn't want to do it at first. The thing about it is, one of the first pieces of press I ever got was in the New York Times, before I started making any records, and the headline of the story was "A Buddy Holly Reborn?" I thought "What the hell is this?" because I felt intimidated in the first place being compared to Buddy Holly. And at the same time, I didn't want to be compared to anybody, because I was so anxious to prove myself and be recognized. I was just really young and eager to be acknowledged, so when I got compared to someone like him, even though it was someone I admired, it still bugged me. So when I got asked to do "La Bamba" I thought it would just encourage them again. But I did it anyways, and I'm glad I did. I've gotten to be less anal-retentive about those sort of things.

Catalano: When you listen to your first album [Marshall Crenshaw], it seems really glossy and polished compared to the big sound of your second album [Field Day]. Was that a deliberate choice, or more the function of the producer, Richard Gotterher?

Crenshaw: My reaction to the first album was the same as yours: I thought it was a little slick and maybe too layered. I wanted a sound more like our live sound to come across on our records, so that's why I worked with Steve Lillywhite on Field Day. I had heard some of the things he'd done -- U2's "I Will Follow" and "Generals and Majors" -- in clubs on sound systems with really big bottom end thrust. I thought they were some of the hippest records around and I loved the fact that he seemed to get this gigantic sound with just a few instruments. I was hoping to be able to do that on our first album, but I just didn't know how to do it. I started out producing the album myself, but I flaked out after awhile and couldn't hack it so they brought in Richard Gotterher. He did a really good job and got the record made, but he was the one who was into layering, or "thickening" as he called it -- tracking an acoustic guitar six times and so on, and I just wasn't into that. So then we did Field Day, which was an attempt on my part to get something like our live sound onto a record and also to take our sound to the next step. I was really eager to have our records be played in clubs, so that was another driving force.

Catalano: I recall a lot of critics blasting you for abandoning that pure pop sound for a heavier mix.

Crenshaw: That's cool. I know how people think and I know how that stuff works. I think we should have waited longer to do our second album, because it came out only 13 months after the first album. If we had waited a little longer, maybe people would have been ready for it. The other thing was that some people just got it wrong. One reviewer -- I think it was in Rolling Stone -- called me a "rock and roll conservative," which is a totally wrong thing to say about me. It's not what I am or was or ever wanted to be. But Field Day has held up pretty well; people still refer to that as a favorite. And it really is a good record, even though it certainly has its flaws. It did get knocked unduly in its time but it's still around.

Catalano: I really like your last record for Warner Bros., Good Evening, even though it contained mostly cover songs.

Crenshaw: I think of all the albums I've done, that was the one that was the most pressured, both by record company politics and my own ambivalence and insecurity. It's half cover tunes partly as a result. I wrote some songs for the record, like "She Hates To Go Home" and "Whatever Way The Wind Blows," but when I sent the demos to the record company, the reaction was, "What are you doing? Are you going country on us now?" When I got that reaction from them, I said "screw it" and just quit writing. So I started to look for cover tunes and I tried to pick good ones, but it seemed at that time that nothing I was doing was coming across the way I wanted it to.

Catalano: As you look back on your career, do you have any regrets about anything?

Crenshaw: Yeah, I regret that in the early days I wasn't nicer to people. There was a lot going on and I just didn't know how to react at the time. But that's about my only regret. Other than that, I could complain about certain things that happened during my time at Warner Bros., but mostly I appreciate the fact they let me make so many records. I always felt I had at least some friends at the label. I did the best I could and I've done some good stuff. My records are still around, so what else can you do?

Copyright 1995 Jim Catalano

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