Easy does it
Marshall Crenshaw looks back and moves forward
Released last month by Rhino Records, This Is Easy: The Best of Marshall Crenshaw is an overdue tribute to one of the best American songsmiths to emerge from the fertile '80s music scene. The late Cub Koda (who composed the rock classic "Smokin' in the Boys' Room") called Marshall Crenshaw "the pure embodiment of modern day rock'n'roll," and described his music as "a marvelous amalgam of Memphis rockabilly and British power-pop, with melody lines and chord progressions that echo '70s R&B and soul." It's a bit of a surprise, then, to learn that Crenshaw — who owned his first guitar at age 6, learned to play in 1963, and toured as John Lennon in Beatlemania — did not start composing songs until 1979.
"All of a sudden, I had to get it out," explains the 46-year-old musician. "I wanted to make a personal statement as a songwriter and a musician."
During the '70s, the music most pleasing to Crenshaw's ears was the sounds of the '50s and early '60s. "I grew up in the Detroit area," he recalls, "and throughout the '70s there was a horrible decline in that community, with a very negative atmosphere. A combination of that and different things drove me to rediscover music and sounds from my childhood.
"I really loved Buddy Holly when I was young because his records made me happy. It's very positive stuff."
Crenshaw eventually portrayed Holly in the 1987 movie La Bamba, but he passed up the chance to repeat the role in a British stage production. "The British show was taking a cheap shot," he remembers, "suggesting that he was redneck. He was not like that at all. I mean, he brought Little Richard into his parents' home for dinner, and he married a Latino girl!"
Crenshaw chose instead to concentrate on his own music, polishing up a repertoire of pop gems such as "Someday, Someway," "Whenever You're On My Mind," "Cynical Girl," and "You're My Favorite Waste of Time." The latter was re-recorded by artists as diverse as Freedy Johnston and Bette Midler. Other versions of Crenshaw's songs were huge hits in England, Sweden and Taiwan.
Asked if there were any covers that Crenshaw felt surpassed his originals, he pauses and says, "No, I'm afraid I can't say that. But I liked quite a few of them. I really liked the Gin Blossoms thing that I co-wrote [the 1995 hit "Til I Hear It From You"]. I never got tired of hearing that one on the radio."
Perhaps Crenshaw's most controversial career move was hiring Steve Lillywhite to produce 1983's Field Day. Best known for the colossal sound he imposed on albums by new-wave artists, Lillywhite was generally regarded as an odd choice for the project. Crenshaw still bristles over that contention.
"Odd choice to who? That was my choice! It really burned my ass when a lot of people discussed that album like they had more of clue what I was about than I did. Field Day was actually a better representation of my own tastes than my first album. Steve was making records like `Generals and Majors' by XTC and `I Will Follow' by U2 — records that inspired me at the time. I flat-out reject 99 percent of the criticism of that second album. It really pissed me off."
Crenshaw is also annoyed by the current mania surrounding old guitars. Once an avid collector, he now dismisses the vintage guitar market as "a sucker's game" and describes its participants as "aging male groupies."
These days Crenshaw prefers to acquire his instruments from modern luthiers who build them by hand. "I find that more appealing," he observes, "supporting artisans and craftspeople."
He's bringing some of this handmade equipment — and precious little else — on his current tour. It's all the band he needs. "I'm doing solo shows," Crenshaw announces cheerfully, "just me, by myself. I really like it. It's very challenging and interesting — nuanced. I'm tired of 'entertainment' that beats me over the head."
Marshall Crenshaw performs at the Echo Lounge, Wed., Oct. 4. For more information call 404-681-3600.