In 1982, when up-and-coming video stars were trying to look like supermen of suave, Detroit-born singer Marshall Crenshaw came on like a mild-mannered Clark Kent, albeit one with a secret weapon--an encyclopedic knowledge of pop music past and present, which he readily applied to his own work. Shortly after his first professional gig--a two-year stint as John Lennon in a touring cast of Beatlemania--Crenshaw had a Top 40 hit with "Someday, Someway" and a debut album that pictured him with his now-signature horn-rimmed glasses and moved Rolling Stone to proclaim him, if not the Next Big Thing, then "the next necessary thing."
Last year, Crenshaw proved himself a necessity to a new generation of pop fans by collaborating with the Gin Blossoms on the No. 1 hit "Till I Hear It From You," which gave Crenshaw his highest chart ranking to date.
Crenshaw's latest outing, Miracle of Science (Razor & Tie), is his first album of new music in five years, and his first-ever self-produced studio effort. On it, Crenshaw manages to combine the joyous rapture of his earlier recordings with an anxious edginess on tracks like "Only an Hour Ago" and "Laughter," both paeans to love lost and regret for things left unsaid.
"'Laughter' is kind of personal," he begins. "I was thinking about my wife's best friend, who died of AIDS. A lot of our circle of friends from when we lived in New York were gay men who aren't around anymore. It's about nostalgia, melancholia and losing someone really close to you. But I don't get really specific in the lyrics because I didn't want to be heavy-handed about it."
Miracle of Science's offhanded title alludes to the now-taken-for-granted "modern" recording technology which enables multi-instrumentalists like Crenshaw to play nearly everything on most of the tracks. In that light, this is the closest we've come to getting a whole album from "Marshall Crenshaw and the Handsome, Ruthless and Stupid Band," the billing Crenshaw gave himself for "You're My Favorite Waste of Time," a popular home demo Crenshaw recorded in a makeshift sound laboratory in his and his wife Ione's small Pelham, New York, apartment.
"I like the sheer egomania of it," Crenshaw says of the do-it-all-yourself approach. "I always dug Les Paul and those Stevie Wonder records like Talking Book where he'd play everything."
Crenshaw says "Waste of Time," which graced the B-side of "Someday, Someway," was cut on the cheap. "That song was recorded with a $30 high-impedance microphone, no equalizer and a couple of stomp boxes for effects," says Crenshaw. "That's as primitive as you can get. The vocal sounds like it's coming over a telephone."
Prior to recording Miracle of Science, Crenshaw had occasion to rummage through boxes of early tapes, and rediscovered some important material like "Starless Summer Sky," the first radio single from the new album.
"A friend of mine asked me to make him a cassette of some of my earliest demos. And I found a lot of stuff I forgot about, like 'Starless Summer Sky,' which I wrote in 1979. And 'Theme From Flaregun' was something I wrote back around the time of my third album. I'm glad those things managed to surface."
Crenshaw's first album, Marshall Crenshaw, topped off at No. 50 on the album charts. Although it seems odd now, the critical goodwill and label support that Crenshaw amassed with his debut all but eroded with the release of his second album, Field Day. The rock pundits who saw a direct link to Buddy Holly in Crenshaw's simple, direct songwriting slammed him for using a modern English rock producer (Steve Lillywhite) who favored a loud drum sound. Suddenly, Crenshaw wasn't their Buddy anymore.
"The reviews of the album really irritated me because I hate it when people presume to know more about what you should do than you know yourself," Crenshaw remarks today. "It's like the critics had it figured out what I was about and what my objectives were or should be and it's bullshit. Because I'm the one to decide. I think that's a wrong approach for a critic to take. It's pretentious."
In hindsight, Crenshaw's choice to work with Lillywhite doesn't seem so outlandish--the producer's work on early XTC and U2 recordings constitutes the most inventive use of echo since Phil Spector's Wall of Sound.
"A lot of people at Warner [Bros.] just hated that record and thought it was some aberration, that I'd lost my mind," says Crenshaw. WEA in London even released an apologetic 12-inch of Field Day remixes in the U.K., known as the Our Town EP.
"That thing's a piece of shit," snaps Crenshaw. "I disavow that. I had no participation in that and it didn't come out anything like I wanted it to. I wanted to do remixes with a guy named Francois Kavorkian, who did a lot of remixes that were psychedelic-sounding. I wanted him to take the tracks further out than Field Day. The guy Warners ultimately got to do it was sort of pushed into taming the sound."
Crenshaw's contemporary pop stature got a long-needed boost when the song he co-wrote with the Gin Blossoms hit big last year.
Some have viewed Crenshaw's contribution to "Till I Hear It From You" wrongly as that of a "song doctor" called in by the label. But the relationship is more like a mutual admiration society that goes back seven years. In a 1994 New York Times story on Crenshaw, Gin Blossoms guitarist Jesse Valenzuela professed his band's across-the-board respect for the singer-songwriter's work. "All those guys [Blossoms members] have gone to the same rock school," he said, "and Crenshaw's one of the 101s."
"I first heard about the Gin Blossoms in 1989," says Crenshaw. "I was at this bar in Nashville watching this band called Will and the Bushmen. And the manager of the band said she also managed this band in Arizona called the Gin Blossoms and these guys are really big fans of yours. And I said, 'How about that.' Later, she sent me their album, which they did on their own and released in Arizona. I still have it. It's got some early versions of 'Hey Jealousy' and 'Found Out About You.' I thought it was great.
"A few years go by. The Sunday New York Times wrote a piece about me. Jesse Valenzuela said some nice things about me, so I sent him a postcard to thank him. A little while later, when I played at the Rockin' Horse, we finally met. A little while after that he called my booking agent and suggested we write a song together."
As it happens, both Crenshaw and the Gin Blossoms were scheduled to appear at the 1995 South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas. "We worked on the thing for a couple of hours. Robin Wilson wrote the lyrics for 'Till I Hear It From You' and about three weeks later that thing was on the radio."
No future collaborations are in the works, but Crenshaw's not ruling them out. "I don't know exactly what's happening with them. I read an article that said the Gin Blossoms are going to Bosnia to entertain the troops. That's pretty deep, so I really need to call Jesse about that."
More recently, Crenshaw has received kudos for his work on a collection of Scott Walker recordings titled It's Raining Today: The Scott Walker Story (1967-1970). Walker was barely known in this country as the lead vocalist for the Walker Brothers, a kind of Righteous Brothers knockoff. Walker's solo albums, which went unreleased in the U.S., are a completely different affair. Amid the standard MOR schlock of the day, Walker inserted his brooding, morose originals and massively orchestrated Jacques Brel tunes about contracting gonorrhea in a mobile-army whorehouse.
"I'm really proud of that CD," Crenshaw says of the Walker collection. "I think it's essential '60s music and really beautiful work. I lobbied Razor & Tie for a year and a half to do it. People either love that stuff or think it's preposterous. I put this song called 'Big Louis' up front, because if you can't get with that song, you can't get into Scott Walker."
Crenshaw's diverse listening tastes were developed by Detroit's progressive FM stations of the late '60s. "But then in the early '70s I really got turned off to FM radio because it became formulaic. The pressure to impose some kind of 'discipline' really ruined it for me. And the first thing that happened was that all the R&B and jazz, and all the Lightnin' Hopkins and Hound Dog Taylor records that all the FM stations used to play got tossed off in favor of English imitators. It's not the music I detest, but the way it was presented to me as a listener and a fan.
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"I think early rock was an antiracist phenomenon. Whenever rock music strays from that, it's shit."
The right radio stations, Crenshaw says, are still his main source for "new old stuff."
"I get turned on to a lot of stuff from WFMU [a college station in upstate New Jersey]. I feel like my IQ goes up every time I listen to that station. They'll pull stuff out of God knows where like Lubricated Goat or D.J. Spooky, and ten minutes later they'll play Hank Thompson. A lot of people don't have the space in their heads for all that stuff, or they want to hear something they've heard a million times. I'm the opposite. I'm a music lover."
Marshall Crenshaw is scheduled to perform on Monday, November 18, at the Rockin' Horse in Scottsdale, with Victor DeLorenzo. Showtime is 8:30 p.m.