Marshall Crenshaw

Rock & Roll Renaissance Man
Rock & Roll Renaissance Man

Marshall Crenshaw is nothing if not an enigma – which is ironic, since his music (whether played and sung by him or covered by other artists) is so infectious and accessible. The press invariably refers to his style as “pop,” which is an even more amorphous catch-all than “rock,” conjuring up Perry Como to some, Michael Jackson or Oasis to others. In the liner notes to This Is Easy, one of two retrospectives devoted to Crenshaw’s work, Rhino Records execs wrote, “He’s been churning out insanely catchy pop tunes that effortlessly encapsulate the best things about rock and roll.” But it would have been just as accurate to say, “Rock and roll that encapsulates the best things about pop.”

Marshall’s also got a well-deserved reputation as a bit of a rock and roll scholar, having co-authored the book Hollywood Rock & Roll, about great and not so great rock in great and not so great movies; written the forward to the MusicHound Rock album guide; recently penned the entry for Buddy Holly in the current Encyclopedia Britannica; and compiled and produced the fantastic anthology Hillbilly Music: Thank God, Vol. 1. But his music is anything but academic-sounding (thank God, indeed); it’s filled with as much passion and humor as it is melody and cool grooves. The 50-year-old’s style is rootsy without being retro, seamlessly incorporating numerous styles and elements (rockabilly, British Invasion, soul and more) without ever waxing nostalgic or sounding like a collection of spare parts.

And then there’s the “cult hero” tag. The same Rhino liner notes moaned, “How can we rationalize the continued underappreciation of Marshall Crenshaw?” – calling it a “miscarriage of justice.” Which is, again, ironic, since not that many artists with only one single cracking the Top 40 have “Best Of” CDs devoted to them.

For someone whose first semi-big break was playing John Lennon in the road company of the “Beatlemania” stage show, Marshall’s doing alright.

In The All Music Guide To Rock, the late Cub Koda said of his fellow Detroit native, “Crenshaw is a true rock and roll Renaissance man while still remaining the everyman.” Which is saying something, considering how many hats Koda wore.

In addition to the retrospectives (and other aforementioned activities), Crenshaw has released nine studio albums and a couple of live CDs since his self-titled 1982 debut, along with a concert DVD and a CD of demos and home recordings. In 1986 he performed the Buddy Holly-penned title song in the prom scene of the movie Peggy Sue Got Married, and a year later he played Holly to Lou Diamond Phillips’ Ritchie Valens in La Bamba.

His songs have been recorded by Robert Gordon, Bette Midler, the Gin Blossoms, Lou Ann Barton, Don Dixon, Was (Not Was), Ronnie Spector, Rosie Flores, Kelly Willis, the Newgrass Revival, and others. He’s done session work for Ben Vaughn, Freedy Johnston, Marti Jones, Syd Straw, Chris Stamey, the BoDeans, Bill Lloyd, astroPuppees, and former bandmate (and younger brother), singer/drummer Robert Crenshaw. He sang the theme song for the NBC series “Men Behaving Badly,” and his tunes have shown up in too many movies and TV shows to list.

He performed with the legendary Funk Brothers at the Apollo Theatre for the New York premiere of Standing In the Shadows of Motown, and last summer joined original MC5 members Wayne Kramer, Michael Davis, and Dennis Thompson (with the Lemonheads’ Evan Dando and Mudhoney’s Mark Arm sharing vocal chores with second guitarist Crenshaw) for the DKT/MC5 tour.

His latest rockin’, poppin’ CD is What’s In The Bag?, on the Razor & Tie label.

Vintage Guitar: Most articles and reviews describe you as “pop.” Are you comfortable with that term, or do you see yourself as a rock and roll guy?
Marshall Crenshaw: I don’t really know. The way a lot of people use the term “pop” is different from how I use it. To me, pop music is anything with hooks. Rosemary Clooney is pop. But a lot of people, when they use the word pop, they mean jangly guitar, Beatle-esque, white guy, suburban culture, Anglophile stuff. Sometime in the ’70s I got turned on to the stuff that preceded rock and roll. I remember hearing Louis Jordan for the first time on an 8-track tape riding around in this friend’s Chrysler, and I was really captivated by that. After that I heard Wynonie Harris and – ever hear of that songwriter Rudolph Toombs? He wrote great stuff like “One Mint Julep” and “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer” for Amos Milburn – all these songs about drinking. The R&B stuff that preceded rock and roll, I realized after a while that there was more depth in that – it was more intelligent – than a lot of early rock and roll. A lot of rock and roll, I love it more than anything; but the kind of teeny-bopper stuff – it’s like a dumbed-down version of the earlier stuff.

Did growing in Detroit have an imprint on how you were going to turn out?
I’ve been away from there a long time – whereas Cub Koda, for instance, was always in Michigan – but when I grew up there, 90 percent of what I did was soak up music. Of course, there was a real identifiable regional thing there – a lot of transplanted southern culture and black culture, a real interesting mixture of stuff. It’s just a place that’s unique unto itself. I remember a lot of local stuff that I loved. The first famous music person I ever knew about from there was a guy named Jack Scott, from across the river, in Windsor, Ontario. He had “The Way I Walk” and scored on the national scene.

What was the first music you remember really affecting you?
I had these teenage cousins I was real close to. When I was five, they were 13. They brought home 45s that I really loved. The earliest ones, I remember asking them to play over and over again, were “Black Slacks” by the Sparkletones, Buddy Holly stuff, and “Party Doll” by Buddy Knox. There’s a kind of similarity in the sound of those records; they’ve got this kind of joyful thing to it. My five-year-old son likes that stuff, and the Everly Brothers, Buck Owens – all that cheery-sounding, major-key, hillbilly stuff. I was talking to my wife about his musical taste and why he likes what he likes, and I said, “Maybe it stirs his inner hillbilly.” The stuff I really got excited about stirred my inner hillbilly.

What was your first guitar?
When you’re a kid, you don’t go through a lot of self-examination. There wasn’t any thought process to it; I just really dug guitars and always wanted to play one. My dad bought me a cheap acoustic guitar at Sears, then got me my first electric – a Gretsch Corvette single-pickup, like a Les Paul Junior. The first one I bought myself was a Mosrite Mark V. I dug the way it looked, and they were kind of considered cool at that moment, so I talked myself into wanting one. Turns out it was actually a piece of crap, so I went back to the Gretsch.

When did you start playing in bands?
The first band I was in was with these guys who were older than I was. I could play rudimentary rock lead guitar and cut it okay in a garage band by the time I was 11. We did your basic “Little Girl” by the Syndicate Of Sound, “Gloria,” “Paint It Black.” Local bands in Detroit were big, too, because they had hits on local radio. When I was a kid I didn’t know that the Rationals weren’t international super stars. If you were a garage band in the Detroit area, then you had to play “Respect,” because the Rationals did it, and “East Side Story” by Bob Seger. I love that period of rock and roll.

I’ve never really sat down and tried to learn other people’s solos. Sure, I play licks that I hear, but there wasn’t anybody that I studied that hard. When I first started, there was this record called “Wild Weekend” by the Rockin’ Rebels. I was just starting to play guitar when that record came out, when I was about 10, and I just thought, “This is it.” The pinnacle. It sounds like a guy with one broken finger, but I love it. And the other one was the solo to “Louie Louie” – the Kingsmen’s version. I thought that was so amazing, so exciting. And, obviously, I heard James Burton on Ricky Nelson records. His playing was so magical at that time; I was real moved by that. And I liked the way Buddy Holly played – again, that sense of joy in his guitar playing, just making those major chords ring like that.

Was there any one album that “changed your life?”
There was a period in the early ’70s when I got really disillusioned with contemporary rock music. It was a really awkward period of my life; I didn’t dig anything on the radio, and I was in kind of a spiritual rut. It was then that I started to rediscover stuff that I liked when I was a little kid, stuff that I liked in the ’50s. I remember being over at this guy’s house, smoking pot with some friends, and finding this big stack of his mom’s 45s in the closet. I started playing them, going, “I know that one; I know that one.” Like “Endless Sleep” by Jody Reynolds.

Then there were three records that came out in 1974, and I really focused on them and drew a lot of inspiration from them. The Sun Sessions album [by Elvis Presley] got issued out of England at that time, and then there was a Gene Vincent compilation, The Bop That Just Won’t Stop. I really loved that stuff, with Cliff Gallup on guitar. The third one was this Les Paul & Mary Ford compilation called The World Is Still Waiting For The Sunrise. I really did go to school on those three records. The one thing they all had in common was tape echo.

I’ve always used echo units, wanting to get that slapback echo on my guitar like Scotty Moore and Les Paul or Hank Marvin – all those guys who had it as part of their sound. I have a remake of an Echoplex called a Replex, and I’ve got a Memory Man. A couple of Roland ones are nice. It doesn’t really matter, as long as it’s an analog delay.

For “Beatlemania,” you must have had to learn all the specific – in your case – John Lennon parts.
Yeah, we were supposed to copy the records. It was kind of a side trip, but I think it was a good discipline. I just played Beatles music and not much else for the first year that I was involved in the show. I think I must have learned something from doing it – although I think I knew as much about their music and studied it as much before I was in the show. Again, I don’t mean I sat and picked out licks; I mean I absorbed their music. I really loved them. It was really fun to be a Beatles fan. I thought about them every day when they were around – you know what I mean? It was their world, and I lived in it. They were that big with me.

Because people know you for your songs, your guitar playing gets overlooked a lot. And obviously you’ve been playing a long time.
That’s the basis of everything I do. I’m a guitar player. I’ve always loved guitar. I do the best I can with it, and I go through phases of trying to work hard at it. I play all the time. I can’t say that I’m always on a constant learning curve, because I’m not. But anybody who really checks my stuff out is going to find out that it’s guitar dominated, and I think it’s interesting guitar music. That’s what it is.

With all of the recording options available now, what’s your favorite method?
I like all different ways, but in the last few years I’ve really fallen in love with the experience of just rounding up the guys that you trust, setting it up, counting it off, and making it happen right there in the room. Most of the records that I did in the ’80s, there was very little or no ensemble playing. The producers I worked with didn’t see any value in that. They’d spend three days doing the drums, then the bass player would come in. At the time I thought it was kind of stupid, but on the other hand, when I did stuff by myself, playing all the instruments, that’s how I would do it.

On the first record, they did bass and drums together, then I overdubbed nearly everything else. The second one, everything was done piecemeal; Steve Lillywhite even wanted the cymbals done separate from the drums! That’s just what he was into at the time; he changed his approach later on. On the T-Bone Burnette one (Downtown), there was a fair amount of ensemble playing.

I don’t want to sound critical of the producers I worked with. They’re all people with artistic credibility, in my book; that’s just what people were into then. But after I made all those records, I had to kind of unlearn ’80s record-making techniques; I had to force myself to think outside of that box and quit doing all that stuff. I made all those records in the ’80s, and it wasn’t exactly my favorite era.

For a lot of people, you were sort of a shining light amidst all that stuff.
I hope I was. That’s good.

When you moved from Detroit to New York, with the punk and new wave scene that was going on, it would seem that you’d be the odd man out – doing rootsier rock and roll.
You’ve got to remember, there was Robert Gordon, the Stray Cats, and a lot of that going around, though. I even thought that some of the “new wave” bands, quote/unquote, like Blondie and some of those groups – that was one of the things that attracted me to that. I felt there was a lot of ’60s and ’50s influence in that music.

But we were huge in New York. We were really well-accepted by the Manhattan rock bands. It was a wonderful period of my life. We played every club. The first gig we did, there were three people in the audience. A few weeks later, we played someplace else, and there were about 18 people. Then the next time after that, there were like 70 people. Eventually, we were one of the top local bands in Manhattan for a couple of years running. We’d play to 1,500 people at the Ritz on East 11th Street. Kind of a big ballroom – great club. I think we had the attendance record at CBGB at one time. My other favorite place to play was the Peppermint Lounge. I love that period of my life, when we were a Manhattan club band. Creating the big buzz in New York City.

Why have you been playing mostly acoustic for the past few years?
There’s a real freedom playing solo, and it’s easy to travel. Same thing with what I call my “acoustic rock and roll trio.” It’s portable, minimal. The other thing I love about it is it’s quiet. I’m about half deaf now, and it bothers me. A few years ago I got to a point where all of a sudden I didn’t get the purpose of loud music. I’d been doing it that way – I always wanted to saturate the room with sound – but I didn’t understand it anymore. I just did a 180 and said, “Why?” And now it’s self-preservation, because I want to be able to hear.

Does vintage versus new/off-the-shelf matter much?
Not at all. When we were in Houston; we stopped at the Robin Guitar factory. I played one that I thought was fantastic, a Metropolitan – map-shaped like an old National. Just a great instrument; rang like a bell. It was beautiful, and it felt great. Onstage my main acoustic is my Collings D-10 Deluxe. The Dana Bourgeois acoustic I have is a prototype with a cutaway – a really beautiful-sounding instrument.

The vintage guitar thing, to me, is kind of a sucker’s game, to a large extent. What I really don’t dig are those [Fender] Relic guitars. When those came out, I said, “Well, now it’s really reached a new level of stupidity.” Buy a guitar that’s already banged up. Take it off the rack in the store and throw it up and down the street – is it worth more money now? I think maybe there was a time, in the ’70s and ’80s, when you could look at the guitars being produced at that time and scoff at them. They were kind of ugly, by and large, and the quality was not what it is now. But now is a great period of guitarmaking. And just the whole thing about the high cost of vintage guitars; it’s all about people’s egos.

I think there’s something really gross and absurd about the whole vintage guitar thing. I like guitars as much as the next person, but now I think you can get a brand-new guitar that’s as good as any vintage guitar. It might cost a few bucks, but they’re out there and you can do it.

How did the DKT/MC5 tour come about?
I was flabbergasted when I got the call. It’s been a long time since I played electric guitar onstage; I hardly do it at all anymore. So I figured if you’re going to be in a rock band, you know, that’s a good one to be in – a good way to make up for lost time playing rock guitar. I’ve just always loved their music, and I’m friendly with Wayne Kramer; we’ve known each other about 20 years. Mostly casually; we only played together once. But he asked me to do it. I thought it was a strange call on his part – from a marketing standpoint. Might want to go for somebody from a grunge rock band. But after I kind of digested the idea, I knew I could get it there and make something happen.

I saw them when I was in my teens, so it was a gas and a thrill every night to get onstage and play that music with those guys, and to get to know them and interact with them on a personal level. To be part of a truly great rock and roll band is a powerful thing. I have to say, though, that my ears are still ringing, literally, from the tour. My favorite song in the set was the last one, “Starship,” which is an outer space, fantasy, free-form, ensemble-meltdown thing. I would lean into the amp and try to play the “Forbidden Planet” soundtrack on my guitar. I loved it, but I got beat up pretty good from that one. I got some earplugs about five nights in, but I would’ve needed those air-traffic controller things with that band. That music is fierce.

Are you constantly writing, so you have a bank of songs to choose from when you put together an album? Or do you write for the specific project?
Each album represents some distinct chapter in my life. One might have some ideas left over from the previous one, but there’s always a period before each one when I’m kind of ruminating, not really trying to produce much of anything – kind of letting time pass, gathering inspiration. When I put out a new album, I still want to play those songs and be involved with them; then I guess I start thinking about doing another one when I get sick of the last batch of songs I wrote.

Once I start writing, whatever experiences I’ve had, the songs just come out of what I’m going through emotionally. I get inspired by places I go. When I was writing the stuff for What’s In The Bag? we were living in Brooklyn, and I came up with stuff while I was walking down the street, so there’s sort of a jazzy influence to the record – like the soundtrack of my life when I was living in New York, with a lot of jazz coming in. There’s something really nice about driving along FDR, with this big view of Manhattan, and you’ve got WKCR on the radio, and they’re doing the Billy Strayhorn weekend because it’s [jazz composer] Billy Strayhorn’s birthday. Hearing that stuff and being in that environment. And you hear really unbelievable players in the subway station – guys just playing their asses off.

When I was going through periods of my life when I was just kind of sitting around, seeing the same **** day after day, I feel like the music I made during those time periods is dull now. The stuff I like the best is when there were periods in my life when I was really getting out in the world and felt like I had a sense of possibility about life. I make my best music in moments like that, when I really feel like I’m living.

2005 Dan Forte; all rights reserved.

Above Photo: Courtesy Marshall Crenshaw.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Mar. ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.