"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.