Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Marshall Crenshaw: A Household Name in All the Right Households

Now that my Georgia Straight article is online about Marshall Crenshaw, I'll post part two of my interview, though do look at that Straight article for more on Marshall's history with Richard Thompson and a bit more praise from David M.


Marshall Crenshaw: A Household Name in All the Right Households

David M., who kinda dominated Part One of this piece - which is kinda as it should be, because he's the guy who introduced me to Marshall Crenshaw, because he helped with my researches, and because he's the opening act - has seen Crenshaw more than once, including at an ill-fated opening slot for Tina Turner at the Pacific Coliseum, circa 1987, which M. talks about on video here. He’d gone mostly to see Crenshaw, and was stunned at the audience’s utter indifference:

“He was great, but the audience didn’t want it, and they were just silent. Indifference is kinda worse than actual hostility. At one point, he said he was going to do ‘Crying, Waiting, Hoping,’ the Buddy Holly song he does that’s part of the La Bamba soundtrack… He introduced it and said, ‘Here’s a song I did in the movie La Bamba, playing Buddy Holly’ - and, like, just silence. And then he went, ‘Which was a major gas.’ And then they did the song. I always remembered that because it was so depressing to watch!”

The story is even more depressing than M. had released, alas. When I apologize to Crenshaw on behalf of David M (and all of Vancouver) for the audience's treatment of him that night, Crenshaw informs me that in fact by the time M. was seeing Crenshaw at the Coliseum, Crenshaw had already been fired from the tour. "We got fired from the tour on the first night, but they asked us to stay until the end of the Canadian run," Crenshaw, on the phone from New York, told me. "She" - that is, Tina Turner -  "came and saw us that first night and just said, 'No, I don’t want this.' Y’know - I was wearing a cowboy suit that I bought from a successor to Nudie, and I think that one of my amplifiers died during the set; there was some fuckup that happened. That wasn’t good at all." (Crenshaw chuckles drily). "Some of the nights I felt like we were kinda getting over, that three piece band, with Graham Maby [bass] and my brother [on drums]. But no, we were kinda just dead men walking on the Canadian shows. We were already fired."

It seems just another angle on the strange neglect of Crenshaw, whose popcraft is utterly brilliant, and who has some huge supporters among music cognoscenti. It's not just David M: within short reach of my range of contacts, that includes David Bash, recently in town for theInternational Pop Overthrow, who includes Crenshaw in his “Power Pop Hall ofFame”  and says, “I love his music, that’s for sure!”

More locally, there’s Ford Pier - frontman of the Ford Pier Vengeance Trio, onetime second guitarist for DOA, and one of Red Cat Records’ resident music authorities. Pier says that I can tell anyone who wants to know that he thinks "Marshall Crenshaw is great,” and that he is excited to be going to the Rickshaw show. Rob Frith of Neptoon Records also counts himself a fan and describes Crenshaw's music as "refreshing," saying those first two albums - the canonical ones, the ones best received, though all of Crenshaw's catalogue bears exploring - were unlike anything else that was going on at the time: "in 1982, you would hear bands like Air Supply, Rick Springfield, Juice Newton, and Musical Youth. None of them were doing anything for me. Then I heard 'Someday Someway' by Marshall Crenshaw; it was like the first time I heard Dell Shannon sing 'Runaway,' or 'Whole Lotta Love' by Led Zeppelin, or the Clash doing 'Train in Vain,' or Bruce Cockburn doing 'Silver Wheels.' It sounded different but familiar, and I just couldn't hear it enough."

Geoff Barton of Audiopile talks about the "effervescence and exuberance” of Crenshaw's work and ponders why it's so hard to turn young music geeks on to power pop, beyond the obvious draw of Big Star.

China Syndrome leader and Pill Squad axeman Tim Chan echoes Barton’s sentiment. “There seems to be similar stories among other power pop artists (Flamin' Groovies, Posies, Big Star, Shoes, et cetera). Crenshaw’s formula seems to be there (great songs, talented ensemble band, super guitar playing) but it seems he never hit the right moment in the cultural zeitgeist. I remember back in the 80s he definitely had great buzz” - and a hit single with “Someday Someway” off his first album - “but it just didn't seem to elevate any further. I remember there was some controversy about the big 80s production on his Field Day album, but personally I thought it was great and the songs still shone through.”

So with fans and supporters like that - he’s a critic’s darling and a musician’s musician -  why the hell isn’t Marshall Crenshaw a household name? I ask that of David M., and he responds, “He is - in all the right households.” 

It was tricky to word, but I eventually - having spoke to him for half an hour about other - put the question to Mr. Crenshaw himself.

AM: What I’m discovering as I ask around, is that you have some HUGE fans up here, and they’re all people really in the know about music; but it seems like it’s more quality than quantity. Like, the people who love your music here own record stores, musicians, stuff like this. But a lot of people are, like, “Marshall who?” And even I hadn’t heard your music before David M. got me going. It’s really not that high profile at all. So, uh - I’m kinda puzzled by that: why aren’t you a household name? You should be huge!

MC: Yeah, right. I dunno. I did everything I could to get the system to work for me, but it didn’t very well. And I didn’t really care about strategic thinking back then. I just wanted to play in a band! Sometimes I was careless, sometimes I was clueless, and sometimes I was unlucky. And other times I was ambivalent about show business back then. It was really hard for me to schmooze people and pretend I was having a good time if I wasn’t. This, that, and the other thing, you know? But I thought about it later on: maybe I didn’t really want it bad enough, didn’t try hard enough. I don’t know. 

I did other [arena shows besides the Tina Turner one], too. I did a lot of tour dates with Daryl Hall and John Oates. I went up into Canada - that was okay, but I hated doing that anyway, so maybe some of that was manifest in the way I did it. When I was on the road with Daryl Hall and John Oates, I didn’t try to pretend that I was having a good time, because I just thought it sucked to be an opening act on an arena tour. I did want to play arenas anyway! I just hated arena rock, always, from the first time I came in contact with it. I mentioned ambivalence, before, and that was totally… any vision I had back then of us becoming a big rock group, it all had to do with hit records, the only way I figured we were ever going to get there was if we had hit records, and we just didn’t get those. My situation with Warner Brothers became a trainwreck really fast. So that was it. I wasn’t going to go out there on an arena tour and tell myself I was going to be able to conquer territory that way. I knew that it was a losing game, kinda. But that’s what you were supposed to do back then, that’s what the agents and everybody wanted you to do back then: they wanted you to go up that ladder and eventually become an arena rock band yourself, and I just didn’t really want that, you know?

My memory is that opening acts for sometimes treated terribly at arenas, back in the day. Angel City opening for Triumph, that was one I heard where people were booing. Or one I saw myself, Phil Smith and Corsage, opening for the Clash, on the Cut the Crap tour. People were practically throwing stuff, which is a shame, because they were pretty great. But that sometimes happened to opening acts. 

Yeah, well - thank God that never happened to me, I’m glad to say. I like to think that if I was ever given that level of hostility from an audience that I would have given it back to them. Anyway, I never had that experience. I’m so glad I never did.

The guy it reminds me of a little bit is Ray Davies, especially in America, because the people who love him love what he’s done, but he's nowhere as high profile as he should be. The first and only time I saw the Kinks was during his arena rock years, and... I mean, maybe that's he's been knighted, people are clueing in, but I’ve literally talked to a music journalist here - someone young, but still - where I mentioned him, and they responded, “Who’s that?”

Oh really!

Really! There are people who don’t literally recognize Ray Davies’ name. [Technically one person who has suffered enough for their error at my hands, probably, but it's useful to me to make my point. Sorry!].

All I can say is, to me that is a little bit stunning, yes. I mean, with me I can understand it, but with his, that’s baffling to me. How can somebody not know him?

Have you ever interacted with him at all? Is he someone you admire?

I do like him, of course, but there’s a ]particular] chunk of his stuff that I like. Like, the last couple of things that he did… he did choral versions of some of the Kinks tunes? [Crenshaw's tone of voice conveys his ambivalence]. But he’s brilliant for sure. I’ve never met him. I’ve met a few famous people, but I’ve never met him. Just the other day I was at a wedding, and I played “All Day and All of the Night” with the band that was at the wedding. That’s the stuff I like the best - the mid-60’s Kinks stuff, for sure.

Sure, yeah. I’m kind of a Muswell Hillbillies man but there’s great stuff earlier, too. Let me ask though, like I say, I’m finding that the people who like your music are really cool people. So who are your big supporters, people who have really stood in your corner?

Oh, y’know, I don’t want to do that - I don’t want to name drop and boost myself up that way! But, y’know, people who are peers of mine… I feel like I’ve been validated in terms of peer acceptance and things other artistic people have said to me, I feel like, “Okay, I feel like I’m getting away with this.”

Okay, fair enough. I’m gonna name drop some names around here when I write this, but they’re no one you know, just some cool people on the music scene in Vancouver who support what you do.

No, I love it. I love hearing about it, that’s great.

Another guy I wanted to ask you about was Alex Chilton. Some of your stuff, like “One Day With You” off
Field Day, has a bit of an Alex Chilton thing going on. Your voice sounds a bit like Chilton’s, and you have that Memphis Stax thing going on, though you push it further than he does. Are you a fan of his? Did you interact much with him?

I never met him once. And it’s weird, because we have about twenty mutual friends, including the woman who was my A&R person at Warner Brothers, she signed me to the label and I worked with her on all my Warner Brothers records. Her name was Karen Berg, and she was really a great person. And she knew Alex, was kind of on intimate terms with him for awhile - a girlfriend, I guess you would say - and then all the guys from the Southern pop world, the DB’s and Mitch Easter and that whole crowd, they were devotees of Alex and friendly with him. With all of that, I never met Alex. And not only that, but I never checked out Big Star until after Alex died!

Oh jeez.

Yeah! And I thought, “God” - I was really bummed out that he died. It was the early days of that kind of thing happening where somebody in my peer group dies. I’m used to it now but when he died it was kind of a new thing, and it got me down a little bit, and at that time I checked out Big Star, and I did think that it was as good as everybody always said that it is, but it wasn’t an influence on me at all, ever, y’know. But the Memphis soul thing - I’ll go with that, because I grew up in the Detroit area, and I grew up in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, and the R&B thing is really strong with me, always has been. It’s like, uh - that’s part of the mix of influences you hear in my stuff.

I can hear that more than I can hear the MC5, that's for sure. I was surprised to learn that you had toured with them. Obviously you’re a fantastic guitarist and can do it, but - how did that feel? How did that come about? it seems an odd fit, in a way!

I thought it was, too! I was taken aback when I got the call from Wayne. Wayne Kramer is a longtime friend of mine. And he just called me and asked me if I would do it. And in my head I thought, ‘I’m surprised he’s not calling this one or that one,’ but I didn’t say that to Wayne, y’know, I just said, ‘Hell yes!’” And that’s kind of how that went. But I know what you mean. Just to an outsider it might have seemed a little odd. But it felt right to me, that’s for sure. And I’ll tell you what, that was really a good fit, actually. Because I love that music, and as a body of work I just don’t think there’s anything better in rock music. I got in there and played that stuff, and could play it, and could get with the spirit of it, definitely. And I love playing that stuff - what I really would like to have, and should ask Wayne about, is, I know he recorded all the gigs, and I wish that I had some multitracks of some of the shows with his guitars and mine, because I know that we were really killing it; we play together really well.

So this is the tour with Evan Dando on vocals?

That’s right, Evan Dando and Mark Arm, both really nice people. We did a show in Los Angeles though where a woman named Lisa Kekaula got up and sang with us. She’s in a band called the Bellrays. And you might like them, they’re a pretty amazing rock ‘n’ roll band. And she should have been the lead singer on the tour that I did, if it had been the four of us and Lisa, that would have been ridiculous. And then Handsome Dick Manitoba from the Dictators was the lead singer on another one of the gigs I did. If it had been Lisa and Handsome Dick, that would have been something. 

I’m really regretting that I didn’t see that. You did the Vancouver show, at the Commodore on that tour, right? 2004, you were here?

Yeah, I remember that. We did play there. And we did Edmonton and Toronto, also; those were our Canadian dates.

There’s no chance that’s ever going to happen again? That’s never been discussed?

No, plus Michael passed away. It was Davis-Kramer-Thompson, and Davis isn’t walkin’ the earth anymore, but anyway - it was weird, I’ll tell you that, to step into their movie was a little strange. But God, the history of those guys, they really just went through hell together. Their psychic scars are still a little raw.

You saw them at least once back in the day, right?

I saw them three of four times. First time I saw them in person they were one of the opening acts for the Jimi Hendrix concert that I went to in ’68, and that was the first time I really saw them and experienced them. They were pretty good that night, I’ll tell you that. Then I saw them a couple more times after that. I loved the band back then. But later on, when I moved to New York - I moved to New York in 1978, and Wayne was living there, and that’s where I met him and got to be friends with him.

Were there other really formative experiences for you? Obviously you’re associated with Buddy Holly a bit, because of acting in La Bamba, but, I mean, you were six when he died, so - were you aware of his music when you were a little kid?

Yeah, I was!


I was well aware of it. My Dad, kind of unusually for someone of his generation, he loved rock’n’roll music, and before I was born, it was the music that predated rock’n’roll - he liked R&B, he liked black music. He was really an odd man out amongst his peers, I can tellya that. But, uh, anyway - he always had the rock’n’roll station on. And I was real close with some of my cousins, who were a little bit older than me, who were rock’n’roll fans. So I was a fan as a child. I did watch American Bandstand, and I did see Buddy Holly on the Ed Sullivan show, the first time he was on. I was a fan of his when he was alive, yes. I’m old enough to be able to say that! Heh.

How did news of his death hit you, as a kid? Was that weird?

Yeah, it was unbelievable. I didn’t even know what death was, and my parents tried to keep me from finding out about it, but they weren’t able to do that, and - yeah, it shook me up really bad: “what do you mean, what do you mean he’s dead?” It was a very early shock upon my life, put it that way.

One of the things that - coming back to Field Day - that sort of reminds me of him - is that, like with “That’ll Be the Day,” you sometimes have kind of sorrowful lyrics with kind of upbeat and kinda pretty pop - like, with “One More Reason,” is what I’m thinking of… so is that something you got from him, or… are there any influences you can trace…?

When I think of Field Day, I mean, I guess I brought all these influences that I grew up with and I was still engaged with. When I was in my teens, like high school age, I started to rediscover early rock’n’roll and kinda went back and checked out a lot of the stuff I had grown up with. Part of it was takin’ psychedelic drugs - it was after that I started listening to old rock and roll again; I don’t know how that connection works exactly. I guess that the psychedelic experience had sort of scrambled my brain a little bit, and I was looking for some sort of anchor. So I really embraced that stuff and sort of kept it with me through all these years. It’s just - I could listen to a Bo Diddley record now, and it still sounds brand new to me. Now I’m rambling, I’m sorry! So there was a lot of that stuff in my head with Field Day, and when I was making my early records, and also just the stuff that was going on around me in New York City - the stuff I was hearing at the clubs and on the radio, and I was really super-enthusiastic about a lot of contemporary stuff at the moment. That included, like, dance music, disco music, and just everything. I was an omnivore at that time. Still am, but right then I was really in the moment, had my ears open in all directions.

You mentioned early rock and roll and pre-rock and roll, and one of the things David M. wanted me to ask you was about the Orioles, and you doing a cover of “(It’s Gonna Be A) Lonely Christmas.”

Oh, yeah, yeah!

He had two questions about that, actually - if you’d ever considered doing an album of covers of pre-rock’n’roll music, and if you’d ever considered a Christmas album. David’s a big Christmas guy.

Well - the Christmas album, I never have thought of that. I guess I could do either one, but the answer is no, neither one of those things ever crossed my mind. But those are interesting suggestions.

Are the Orioles something that came from your Dad?

No, that was when I was in Beatlemania, 1978-1979. [Crenshaw was John Lennon]. It was on an album called A Rhythm and Blues Christmas, that’s where I got that one.

Okay. One last question about Field Day - I can talk forever, by the way; I have a long list of questions, so whenever you’ve got to go, just give me a hint or something - but were you tempted to remaster Field Day? This is just a reissue - there’s nothing on the album that you wanted to change? For me, it sounds very fresh and contemporary and I don’t hear anything that needs tinkering with, but you’re the artist, so is there anything you’re unsatisfied with.

No - the thing with the remastering is, all that means is they take the original master reels of the final mixes from the album and they put it through the process of mastering for vinyl. It’s something you do for every record, really. But there wasn’t any remixing. You shouldn’t confuse remastering with remixing!

All right.

But actually the mastering job on the reissue is a beautiful job. I got the test pressing on 180 gram vinyl, and the bottom is huge, and you can hear my pick hitting my guitar strings, way up top. It’s just gorgeous, sonically. Now here’s the other thing though. It comes in a 2LP set, and the second LP are these dance remixes that got cooked up back then, but mostly without my participation. I did sort of look the other way while that was happening. But the label that’s putting the 2LP set out, they were already kind of like, into it before they contacted me, y’know? So I’m letting them do their thing. The remixes, I’m ambivalent about those, but the Field Day album itself, I love the way it sounds, and the mastering job they do is really great.

We’re hearing up here that it’s going to be a pricy package, that it’s going to be a $90 album. But that's gotta be wrong...

Yeah, that is wrong! That’s quite wrong. That’s wrong by about 50%, I believe, that’s double what I think it’s gonna be.

Okay . I don’t know where that one came from. Have you changed the cover art, because there was talk about an all new cover.

Heheh. That’s funny. My wife came home from work one day, and I said, “Oh, guess what, Ione? This record label is doing this beautiful, high-class reissue of Field Day, and the first thing she said was, “Did you ask them to change the front cover?” I said “Yeah, how did you guess?”


I had said, “I love that you guys are doing this, it’s just wonderful, but could you do me one favour? Could you get rid of this shot on the front cover? I’ve just hated it, forever, it’s like a curse on me.” So I asked them to use a graphic design for the single of “Whenever You’re On My Mind” that came out back then. Use that for the front cover of the album. And they didn’t say, “Oh, jeez, you should keep the front cover like it is.” They immediately said, “oh, what a great idea, yeah, we’ll do that!” So it’s got a new front cover and everybody is happy about it, especially me.   

Is the building in the original the high school you went to or something?

Nah, that’s just a composite photo with a picture of me from a studio shot, and the building in the back. That’s an other thing - the art design for the album. After we finished the album, I went out of the country on a vacation with my wife and my brother, and when I came back, my manager showed me the mock-up for the album cover that did come out, and I looked at it and said, “you’re joking, right?” And he said - he warned me that if we changed the album cover at that point, it would delay the release of the album by two weeks. “That’ll mess up your touring schedule, and the record label is ready to go, blah-blah-blah.” Stupidly, I got talked into it. And that’s been a regret every since. I thought, how did you find out of that whole photo session - I saw the contact sheets for the photo session - how did you find a picture that bad from the photo session, and why did you put it on the front of the album? Y’know, you picked the worst one, I thought! So that’s the other great thing about the new reissue…

Final question - how did you hook up with Los Straitjackets? It sounds like it's going to be a pretty inspired show. 

Well, it all started with their manager, it was his idea. His name is Jake Guralnick, son of Peter Guralnick, and he just approached me and I said, “oh yeah, that’ll be fun.” I saw Los Straitjackets when they first started - we’re from the same tribe, and so we tried it and it worked.

You’ve done shows with them now?

A bunch. We did sixteen shows in June, and we did eight this month. Promoters really leapt at this thing, like, as soon as we stuck our sign out, we just got lots and lots of offers from all over the country, so even before we did it, people were interested in seeing what we were going to do. It’s been great, y’know? Really fun - it’s a great rock’n’roll show, I think.

Marshall Crenshaw Y Los Straitjackets play the Rickshaw Theatre on September 17th

1 comment:

Allan MacInnis said...

Oops - looks like some smart soul snagged the Field Day at Audiopile. I was just there, and it wasn't (tho they had a Bellrays album).