Making it Look Easy
Ask Marshall Crenshaw about the pop music that has his ear in the year 2000, and you’re likely to get some unexpected responses. “I hear some good stuff,” Crenshaw said in August from his home in New York. “My wife a couple of weeks ago had seen Britney Spears on the Rosie O’Donnell show or something doing “Oops I Did It Again.” There are a lot of these pop songs that are melody-driven pop songs like the ’60s but they have hip hop beats or electronic beats underneath.”
You’d never guess from listening to Crenshaw’s music that he’s a closet Britney fan. A recently released expanded edition of his 1982 eponymous debut album and a new best-of collection entitled This Is Easy reveal an unfailing song-craft and a talent for reinventing the ’50s and ’60s rock n’ roll he grew up with. In a year in which shallowness or number of tattoos seems to determine chart position, these records by this “regular guy” in the hat and the glasses are both a blast from the past and a breath of fresh air.
But Crenshaw has always had a reverence for the craft of pop songwriting in all its myriad forms. It’s just the business end of the music business that has left him a little frustrated at times. Always a critical darling, big time success has eluded him for the most part. Sure, there were the movie roles (he played his hero, Buddy Holly in La Bamba) and an occasional record that made a big splash. But for the most part, he’s just been plugging along for the better part of two decades, writing brilliant song after brilliant song and flying just under the radar of most of the record-buying public.
Crenshaw says those who choose to catch up with him now through the Rhino Records reissues will find music that has stood the test of time. “I think it holds up well,” he says. “I’m relieved and surprised, because I never listen to my own records. But when we went in to master the stuff, I was confronted with a lot of it for the first time in years… I think about all the psychodrama that I went through to make those records. But, all these years after the fact, it just struck me as really interesting work and a lot of the songs rang true emotionally and you can hear that I was always reaching and pushing.”
The consistency in quality of the music is even more impressive considering the fact that Crenshaw’s approach to songwriting has changed over the years. “That spell of songwriting that I went through in the late ’70s-early ’80s… I was into this really particular kind of very concise song structure. I had these parameters in my head as to how the song should work and it was like a formula… And after awhile, I kinda got tired of that and drifted away from it. After I’d written a few songs, I started to realize that the melodies came very naturally, like I could express emotion through the melodies.”
Recent years have found Crenshaw even putting instrumentals on his records, and he has parlayed that into scoring music for films, including a direct-to-video animated feature for Disney. But Crenshaw says much about his songwriting style hasn’t changed. “The first thing I deal with is the beat and the rhythm and then just sort of build it up from there… In one of my songs you always know where the hook is… It’s a real ’60s kind of song structure where you just start at a certain energy level and you just stay there.”
Crenshaw says he doesn’t try to aim his songwriting at a larger audience, but imagines a solitary listener taking in the music. “If I try to think about it on any larger scale than that, then I just get stumped… It’s really dangerous to start trying to tailor your work to winning somebody over.”
Still, he says, it always surprised him when his music failed to connect with a broader audience. “Early on, when my first couple records came out, I was mortified when they weren’t hits. And there was pressure on me to make hits, and that’s sort of what I was expecting. I have a really great respect for pop music and the craft of it. But early on, something that really made me nuts was I just understood at a certain point that just a hell of a lot of what happened with my stuff once I let it out there was just completely out of my control.”
Crenshaw says it felt good when he finally got off the major label treadmill in 1993. His two most recent studio albums and a 1994 live record were recorded for indie Razor and Tie. “After my second major label thing [with MCA] — the second one was really hideous and a gigantic waste of energy — I stopped after that. I think I could have gotten another major label deal. But I just said ‘fuck it.’ I’d had enough. My work had really suffered, and I just wanted to get away, cut out as many layers of bullshit as I could, and just really get back to more of a self-contained thing. And it felt great.”
In addition to his own stellar compositions, Crenshaw has always chosen cool songs to cover on his records and in his live show. “I guess a lot of times, I’m looking for some kind of sense of humor, some way of expressing something that I haven’t ever thought of myself or that I might not be capable of but that I can relate to… I play this Dave Alvin song called “Wanda and Duane.” And the thing about it is, it’s just about these two people from some kind of suburban sprawl environment and they have this relationship that starts out really hot and then turns to shit. But it’s just all expressed in this really humorous way and there’s this sense of detail in the lyrics. He just talks about how they met in a bar next to an industrial park by a freeway. I can just picture all these places because they remind me of places where I spent part of my youth.”
Crenshaw grew up in the Detroit area trying to emulate the great songs he heard on the radio. “‘Louie Louie’ came out right around the time when I started playing guitar… and of course I didn’t know what to make of it. I couldn’t understand any of the words but I loved it immediately. And I heard that guitar solo and I thought it was genius. So I really wanted to play it… And the other one was this record called “Wild Weekend” by the Rebels. The solo really sounds like it’s played by a guy with broken fingers. And then at the end of the record the drummer totally turns the beat around. I mean it’s just beautifully inept. I can’t really play that one. I can’t play like the guy on the record played it. It’s just too warped.”
Crenshaw, whose big break came in 1978 when he played John Lennon in a touring production of Beatlemania, says he still loves to listen to the ’50s and ’60s music that had an impact on him during his formative years. But he has a certain level of disdain for music that blatantly references or borrows from those sounds. “I don’t like power pop,” he says. “Most power pop I think is crap and I hate being put in that pigeonhole. It’s way too narrow a category for my stuff. A lot of it’s like suburban anglophile music, and I can’t relate to that at all, even though I once was a suburban anglophile.”
These days find Crenshaw more of a homebody than he has been for much of his career. He says he still enjoys playing live but being a family man has made him rethink traditional “touring.” “I go out for weekends and then I come home, and that’s the way I like it. I’ve got a family. I’ve got little kids. I couldn’t stand to be on the road now away from my little son and daughter… At the same time, I can’t imagine just cutting that out of my life completely. I’m really happy these days playing the gigs that I have, because I’ve got it structured so that it fits into my life in a good way.”
Crenshaw says the current reissues, if successful, may lead to reissues of other material, including some long out of print ’80s releases. “Some of the records, I’m sort of happy to have them buried,” he jokes. “But on the other hand, people that might want ’em should be able to get ’em I guess.”
And that may give more people a chance to hear the talents of an under-appreciated master of the pop music art form.