Marshall Crenshaw

Rave On
Variety Steers Marshall Crenshaw’s Career

Read most any reviews of Marshall Crenshaw’s work and you’ll notice the same pattern. Usually mixed among the in-awe-of accolades to his songcraft and pop sensibility will be some variation of the following: “Why isn’t this guy famous?”

Well, timing for one thing.

Detroit native Crenshaw began playing guitar at age 10 and did the requisite duty in British Invasion cover bands. He broke into the biz playing John Lennon in the touring company of Beatlemania and turned his talents to songwriting during this period, reportedly penning his most beloved tune, “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time” (covered by many including Bette Midler), while watching the Beatlemania sets being erected. Crenshaw credits this tune and its subsequent royalties with sustaining him through much of his career.

Crenshaw’s eponymous 1982 debut was christened a pop masterpiece, his acrid wit, Buddy Holly-looks and knack for a hook drawing comparisons to Elvis Costello. Trouble was, Costello had come along years earlier when all things retro were the musical rage. Crenshaw was entering the synth-happy era when new wave would rule the airwaves and MTV, with the epic productions of Michael Jackson, Prince and the Police altering the musical landscape; not exactly fertile soil for a stripped-down pop-rocker. While the release did spawn a minor hit (“Someday, Someway,” also charting for rockabilly revisionist Robert Gordon), the public mostly demurred.

His sophomore effort, Field Day, was marked by an even finer collection of songs, a booming production courtesy of Steve Lillywhite, another minor hit (“Whenever You’re on My Mind”) and more commercial apathy. Jettisoning his longtime rhythm section of brother Robert (drums) and bassist Chris Donato, Crenshaw proceeded to throw anything and everything at the wall in hopes something would stick. There followed a parade of session players, producers and co-songwriters but, while Crenshaw’s talents continued to astound, there were few takers. His last major-label release would be 1991’s Life’s Too Short.

Like a good investment portfolio, Crenshaw has survived by diversifying. He has tackled film acting (playing Buddy Holly in 1987’s La Bamba), published a book (Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Movies), written chapters for books on vintage guitar collecting and done TV and soundtrack work. That’s him singing the theme song to the short-lived TV series Men Behaving Badly. When I caught up with Crenshaw by phone in late July, he was on a train to New York City to meet with directors of the upcoming film Losers Take All, which he describes as “a comedy about an aspiring rock band.” Crenshaw will be providing the soundtrack.

He waxed lovingly about his latest indie release, Jaggedland, and the subsequent tour that will bring him to Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta on September 25th. “At this point in my career, I look at each album as a piece of sculpture,” Crenshaw said. “I’m really out to create a compelling listening experience. But the other side of it is we did it quickly; we didn’t get into that mental masturbation of endlessly laboring over tracks.” Joining him on the album are drummer-to-the-stars Jim Keltner and a boyhood idol, Wayne Kramer, guitarist for legendary Detroit rockers the MC5. “I was a huge fan of theirs as a teen,” said Crenshaw. “I tried to get him to play on my first album but there were conflicts. It was cool to finally get to know him during the early 2000 MC5 reunion [Crenshaw played guitar in place of the late Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith].” Jaggedland offers up a feast of extremes, from the languid jazz of “Sunday Blues” to the harrowing “Stormy River” which finds Crenshaw’s and Kramer’s guitars twisting and intertwining to evoke a roiling river. And Crenshaw continues to perfect the lost art of the instrumental with the gorgeous cello- and mellotron-driven title track. “I listen to a lot of jazz and electronica,” he said. “Sometimes words are an impediment; they can get in the way. I’m really into the power of words and view lyric writing as a craft. But I’m a musician first. The words have to serve the music. Sometimes the best words are that there aren’t any.”

A huge vinyl fan, Crenshaw also has plans to release a series of 45s. “I’d like to put out half a dozen over the next two years, one every four months,” he said. “One side will be original and the other a cover. I’ve got a few of the covers recorded. One is ‘Never to be Forgotten’ by Bobby Fuller. Another is ‘No Time’ by the Move. They were big in England but only about seven people, me included, were into them here.” Crenshaw has also resurrected his radio show, The Bottomless Pit, which airs on WKZE (streaming at out of Red Hook, NY on Wednesdays 9-10 p.m. “It’s me shooting my mouth off and playing records,” he said. “Mostly stuff I bring from home. I did a thing on the BP oil spill. It struck me that that plume of oil was like a giant middle finger aimed at Mother Nature. I played ‘Cuyahoga’ by R.E.M which has kind of an environmental theme.”

Speaking of R.E.M, Crenshaw also performed at their Carnegie Hall tribute concert back in March 2009 alongside artists like Patti Smith, Bob Mould and the late Vic Chesnutt. But while most dug way back in the R.E.M catalog for their selections, Crenshaw surprised by picking a brand new number, “Supernatural Superserious” from 2008’s Accelerate. “You really want to know why I picked that one?” he said with a laugh. “I went on iTunes and it was the first one that came up!” Crenshaw credits the show with giving him a newfound appreciation for the band. “Mike [Mills] and Peter [Buck] are the friendliest guys. They have real people skills,” he said. “I remember seeing them in ’82 or ’83 at the Peppermint Lounge in New York. It was a Thanksgiving Day and there were only about seven or eight people in the audience, but they rocked like it was Madison Square Garden.”

With all of that musical adventure under his belt, does Crenshaw have any unfulfilled ambitions?

“Nothing comes to mind; I’ve done a lot. A good bit of it was unplanned. The best was stuff that fell in my lap unexpectedly. I just want to continue to get better at what I do and be open to possibilities.”