You never know where you’ll encounter the music of Marshall Crenshaw. I tell the man himself that I often hear his impossibly catchy tune, “Someday Someway,” at the grocery store. Crenshaw is delighted. “My brother posted on Facebook the other day that ‘Whenever You’re On My Mind” was playing in a Wendy’s in Dallas,” the singer-songwriter says, calling from New York, where he lives with his wife, Ione. “I think that’s really cool that some song I did 35 years ago can have a second life like that.”
He grew up in Detroit and caught his big break portraying John Lennon in the West Coast and touring companies of "Beatlemania." All the while, the musician was working on songs that eventually made up his 1982 self-titled debut album on Warner Brothers, one of the best long-players of its era. The bespectacled Crenshaw has been compared to Buddy Holly both in looks and style – he portrayed the Texas rocker in the movie “La Bamba” – and his career has been filled with pop gems awaiting rediscovery – from “Cynical Girl” to “We’re Gonna Shake Up Their Minds” to “This Street.” It’s a long list.
Crenshaw, 62, has also found time to be a disc jockey, an author — his “Hollywood Rock” book is still the definitive guide to rock ‘n’ roll movies — and film soundtrack guy. While he’s only hit the Top 40 once as a solo artist, for “Someday Someway,” he cowrote a Top 10 hit in 1996, “Til I Hear It From You,” with the Gin Blossoms, and earned Grammy and Golden Globe nominations in 2007 for work on “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” His latest project is the recently released “392: The EP Collection,” a compilation of songs from short-blast vinyl EPs he’s produced over the past few years, initiated through a Kickstarter campaign. “It was a way to keep me interested,” he says of the project. “And I’ve always been more of a singles guy.” Crenshaw will bring his so-called solo troubadour persona to The Tin Pan on March 12. Read on, as he talks about some of his career highlights and frustrations.
Marshall Crenshaw plays The Tin Pan on March 12. (Photo by Richard Blondy)
Richmond magazine: What influenced you growing up?
Crenshaw: It was really my dad. I just kind of glommed on to his musical taste. He was a high-spirited guy, had a guitar, loved music. There was always a rock 'n' roll station playing in our house and in the car. It was highly unusual for a guy his age to be listening to rock ‘n’ roll. But he liked R&B, hillbilly music ...
RM: Was it a joy or a chore to play Beatles songs night after night in "Beatlemania"?
Crenshaw: I’ve kind of said over the years that I burned out on the Beatles while in "Beatlemania." But I was a fan of the group in real time. It was their world and I just lived in it while they were together. I still remember how much I dug them back them.
RM: Your debut album hit the Top 40 and the critics raved. I remember loving it when it came out.
Crenshaw: Recording the first album was kind of an ordeal, actually. We got two solid offers from record labels and I went with Warners. We started making our first album and I sort of [BS’d] my way into the producer’s chair but it didn’t work out. So Richard Gottehrer came in and he helped me make the record. It was not exactly the way I would have done it. There was a lot of layering of the instruments, I wasn’t really into that, but just sorta had to do it. But the second album [“Field Day”], that was sonically more to my taste because we just used the instruments we had, one or two guitars, lots of drums. To me, the sound of the second album was sort of hyper-real, a cooler, sort of otherworldly sound.
RM: Steve Lillywhite, the producer of “Field Day,” was criticized for that sound.
Crenshaw: I was pushing Steve Lillywhite to do what I wanted. Actually, there are times when maybe I should have listened to him a little more rather than him listening to me. We both still love the record, and so do a lot of people. I thought “Whenever You’re On My Mind” [the single] was the best thing we’d done up to that point. It was, like, "the bomb," as they say. If that had been a hit, it would have been really big for me. But things went sour quickly. My relationship with Warner Brothers went in the crapper, which was disappointing. I begged them after “Field Day” to let me off the label and they wouldn’t do it. So we all said, "OK, let’s try this again." But “Downtown” [the third album] wasn’t the same kind of music.
RM: “Downtown” was sort of like your Americana “roots” album.
Crenshaw: I suppose it was. And that was genuine because I was really obsessed with that kind of music. [Producer] T Bone Burnett is a brilliant guy. He was very focused, very serious. He was one of those people I crossed paths with back then who was super driven, super ambitious, someone who wasn’t going to be denied or thwarted. Other people like that were the guys in U2. I hung with them for half a minute. And I could just see that the four of them, plus their manager, Paul, were like a five-man army. They had more of a need for it, the drive for it, than I had. I was one of those people who wasn’t going to die if he didn’t become a rock star.
RM: In the ’90s, you hooked up with the Gin Blossoms. How did that happen?
Crenshaw: It happened on a personal level, it wasn’t business people getting us together. It all came down to Jesse Valenzuela. I’d heard from someone I knew that said, "These guys idolize you," so when they became a success, I heard from Jesse out of the blue. We talked and I said I would be at South by Southwest, he said, "Yeah, me too, and we can write this song for a movie soundtrack" ["Til I Hear It From You" in "Empire Records"]. It was really a miracle, a big hit — 45 minutes of work equals $500,000.
RM: How did you end up writing the title track to “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”?
Crenshaw: The song titles themselves were in the movie already and they would get 20 or so submissions of a particular song title. There was a competition for each song; I didn’t know that at first. When they gave me the shout out, they first asked me to write a song called “Take My Hand,” and I sent in my song and thought I nailed it. But ultimately they didn’t use my “Take My Hand.” But I thought, "This is great, I’ll take a crack at the title song.” I thought I was on a roll. I wrote "Walk Hard" really fast. It only took me about 20 minutes, which is highly unusual for me.
Marshall Crenshaw plays at The Tin Pan, 8982 Quioccasin Road, on March 12, 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door. 447-8189 or tinpanrva.com. Meanwhile, here's Crenshaw playing "Someday Someway" on "The Merv Griffin Show" back in 1982.