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Marshall Law

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."

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 Live skit, 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, #447 represents 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."

Crenshaw's "cool momentum" centered around the birth of his son and his decision to move his family to Brooklyn after a prolonged period in Woodstock. While Woodstock is legendary for being a musician's haven -- the Band, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Todd Rundgren all did some of their best work there -- it proved stifling for Crenshaw, a Detroit native who thrives on the stimulation of an urban environment.

"I really love living in a city that works," Crenshaw says. "So much about it agrees with me. There were long stretches of time in Woodstock when I had bad cabin fever. I stayed a little too long, but it's hard to get yourself to move sometimes."

Often lost in critical discussions of Crenshaw, which tend to view him as a throwback to '50s rockers such as Buddy Holly (who he portrayed in the 1987 Richie Valens biopic La Bamba), is how infectiously Crenshaw's first two albums conveyed the energy of New York life in the early '80s. Songs like "Rockin' Around in NYC," "Monday Morning Rock" and "She Can't Dance" may have owed some musical debt to classic pop-song forms, but their lyrical content felt utterly contemporary when they were released.

To Crenshaw, who moved to New York in the late '70s, his artistic embrace of Gotham was firmly in a literary tradition he'd long admired.

"When I was a kid, my mother gave me these books by S.J. Perlman and James Thurber and Robert Benchley, and all those Algonquin round-table folks," he says. "And I always really liked James Thurber. He was a guy from Ohio who kind of got to New York and found himself. It was the same sort of thing with me when I came here. I'd barely ever been out of the Midwest and I landed here by chance and seized on it."

Crenshaw intelligently mined his love of everything from Bo Diddley to Motown to jangly guitar pop, but his songs were rarely anachronistic. Much as his 1981 Shake Records debut single, "Something's Gonna Happen," was modeled on the sound of Eddie Cochran's rollicking oldie "C'mon Everybody," the lyrics took inspiration from a more current source: Blondie's "Hanging On the Telephone." And even if the soaring "Cynical Girl" had a tune reminiscent of Holly, it's hard to imagine the hopelessly romantic Lubbock rock pioneer wrapping his hiccupy warble around a couplet like this: "I'll know right away from the look in her eyes/She harbors no illusions and she's worldly wise."

Although Crenshaw's melodic gifts -- and his underrated virtuosity on the guitar -- have never abandoned him, in the late '80s he seemed to temporarily lose the tenuous balance of musical exuberance and clear-eyed lyrical realism that made his early records so resonant. He's particularly negative about his final album for Warner Bros. Records, 1989's Good Evening, which he believes exemplifies the artificial, overly bright-sounding records that were churned out of high-dollar studios at that time.

During this period, while his songwriting muse was on sabbatical, Crenshaw got an offer to play bass for Bob Dylan. It was an odd pairing, to be sure, but one that Crenshaw, the consummate rock historian, could not refuse.

Crenshaw says Dylan had watched an episode of Saturday Night Live and impulsively decided to hire the show's rhythm section for his touring band. When bassist T-Bone Wolk was unavailable, SNL guitarist G.E. Smith called Crenshaw, a longtime friend. But after several days of auditioning with the band, a baffled Crenshaw was handed his pink slip.

"It was just one of my interesting experiences in show business," Crenshaw says, with a sarcastic laugh. "I could feel myself that it wasn't clicking musically and I just couldn't get comfortable. [Dylan] was fun to hang around with, actually. He was joking around, and it was just sort of exciting being in the room with Bob Dylan. But it didn't feel right musically, and I knew that.

"I have to say, I could not understand the shit that was coming out of Bob's amplifier. Maybe he was just goofing around or what, but I just couldn't get it. G.E. would be playing a solo and Bob would start copying the solo. Anyway, it just wasn't cool."

Part of Crenshaw's recent effort to push himself artistically has been his decision to tour as an acoustic act, without a band. The process began for Crenshaw last year when an upstate New York booking agent invited him to perform a solo show at his club.

"I'd never really done it before and I'd been kind of apprehensive about doing it for a long time, but this time, something just made me take the bait," he says. "So I spent about a week woodshedding, thinking about how to go about it, coming up with ways to play the songs. And I went and played the gig and I absolutely loved doing it, and I felt kind of victorious about it. Because it was just me up there against the world.

"Then a couple of months later, the Rhino Records best-of came out. I think I would have continued doing it anyway, but that gave me a nice boost, so I proceeded to go around the country doing it. I've found it to be really liberating, and a revelation."

In the intervening months, Crenshaw has been pleasantly surprised to hear his songs popping up on the tube. The first-year NBC sitcom Ed has used three Crenshaw songs in various episodes this season. Best of all, for someone routinely dismissed as a relic of the '80s, two of the songs -- "Eydie's Tune" and "Right There in Front of Me" -- are from Crenshaw's most recent album, #447.

When asked if he has any idea why the creators of the series -- which is produced by David Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants -- have taken such a shine to him, the relentlessly modest Crenshaw momentarily feigns arrogance.

"Because they have good taste, that's my answer," Crenshaw says, amused by his own cockiness. "It's great that they're out there, running a TV show and using my tunes. But I think the reason they're using them is they should be using them. More people should be using them."

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia