Marshall Law

Power-pop icon Marshall Crenshaw refuses to be pigeonholed as a nerdy relic of the early '80s

Marshall Crenshaw doesn't have much use for self-pity.

That's probably a good thing, since over the years he's certainly been confronted with plenty of temptation to feel sorry for himself. Inevitably, every article written about the 47-year-old pop singer-songwriter harps on what could have been, on the stardom that teased and ultimately eluded Crenshaw after he took rock critics by storm with his irresistibly sunny, eponymously titled 1982 debut album.

It's the theme of the liner notes contained in Rhino Records' Crenshaw career retrospective, This Is Easy, released last September. In the words of Rhino staffers Gary Stewart and David Gorman: "How can we rationalize the continued underappreciation of Marshall Crenshaw? Since 1981, he's been churning out insanely catchy pop tunes that effortlessly encapsulate the best things about rock 'n' roll. . . . This collection is an attempt to set things right. No justice, no pop."

"I hate crybabies, and I'm not one," says the 47-year-old singer-songwriter.
"I hate crybabies, and I'm not one," says the 47-year-old singer-songwriter.
A fresh-faced Crenshaw during his early-'80s heyday.
A fresh-faced Crenshaw during his early-'80s heyday.

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Crenshaw seems to appreciate such fan loyalty, but he chafes in the role of music-industry martyr. He rightly views his two-decade career -- a string of first-rate albums, a co-authored reference book on rock movies, documentary-film scoring and a couple of high-profile acting cameos -- as an eventful, unpredictable ride with at least a few twists and turns ahead.

He will admit, however, that the hostile critical response to his big-production 1983 sophomore album, Field Day, drove him to a mid-'80s crisis of confidence. Although now widely viewed as a power-pop classic, Field Day was attacked at the time for having a bombastic drum sound, courtesy of British producer Steve Lillywhite.

Crenshaw says the negative reaction "was hard to fathom" and led him to an extended period of writer's block. But he's quick to remind you that his creative struggles do not rank among the great tragedies of the 20th century.

"I hate crybabies, and I'm not one," says Crenshaw from his Brooklyn home, during a break in his touring schedule. "But it was tough. I just didn't know what to do. 'Cause I'd really thought through what I wanted to do on that record. And I knew that it was valid, too. It was based on my own tastes and what I was hearing around me. I was really trying to move forward in my life and do interesting work. I'd followed my instincts up to a point, and for a while it seemed to have good results. And I was confused.

"I talk about this stuff, and think someone reading this is thinking, 'Well, fuck you, I've got problems bigger than you do.' I've never been one to bellyache, and I just don't believe in it, but, yeah, it did put me in a bad position."

The sad result of Field Day's unjust savaging was that Crenshaw began to take on the appearance of a flash in the pan, a guy who made one great album and then settled into a lifetime of journeyman obscurity. To the degree that most people remember Crenshaw at all these days, they tend to view him as a footnote from MTV's infancy, the bespectacled guy on the bike in the "Whenever You're On My Mind" video, haplessly chasing the girl who was out of his league.

In a February Saturday Night Liveskit, Crenshaw was invoked by a clueless college professor (played by Will Ferrell) eager to show how hip his town was by mentioning that Crenshaw had recently performed there. The implication was that only someone out of touch with the modern world would consider such a has-been to be a paragon of hipness.

The SNL potshot was particularly unfair, because Crenshaw has actually been on something of a creative roll lately. His 1999 album for New York label Razor & Tie, #447, ranks with his best work, and demonstrates a surprising degree of musical growth for someone long pigeonholed as a retro-pop tunesmith.

The album contains three lush, ambient instrumentals which seamlessly find the middle ground between jazz and vintage surf-guitar rock. For Crenshaw, who says he rarely listens to his own work, #447represents the first record he's done that he actually enjoys hearing.

The album was the culmination of a low-pressure recording process he's followed for much of the last decade -- laying down basic tracks by himself, and bringing in ace session players to augment the songs with violin, keyboards or guitar.

"My work situation on the last record was ideal," he says. "I did a lot of it at home, but at the same time, I had a lot of help from some really great musicians, and I worked in a couple of other people's studios. So I was alone when I wanted to be alone, and I had lots of buddies around me when I wanted those.

"I love that album. I'm still wondering if I can beat it. It's put me in a little bit of a quandary. I was so psyched up for making it. I was at this real major turning point in my life. There were all kinds of things that I wanted to express and I had a lot of drive to do it. I just had this cool momentum going in my life."

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