Sunday, September 10, 2017

Marshall Crenshaw interview part one: of Marshall Crenshaw and David M. (and Hollywood Rock and Vinyl and even Rat Pfink a Boo Boo)

Marshall Crenshaw by Marshall Crenshaw

Confession: besides some dim recognition of his name, I didn't know Marshall Crenshaw until a few months ago, when David M. got all het up about the idea of his opening for him, September 17th at the Rickshaw. He wrote me about it more than once. Why was he so excited? I wondered. This isn't normal behaviour...

Understand: with NO FUN, David M. - besides having played something like 200 shows at the Railway Club over the years - has opened for some pretty respected acts, including the Violent Femmes, John Cale, David Thomas and the Wooden Birds, and, more than once, for Robyn Hitchcock, at storied 1990’s Town Pump gigs that Hitchcock fondly referenced during his recent set at the Commodore.

But in recent years, M. has been content to play more or less off the grid, on his own terms; he’s the opposite of a joiner, whatever that is. He'll do smaller shows at the Princeton or Heritage Grill, mostly playing to friends and long-time fans - he has one such show, Hot Fascism in the Good Old Summertime, a theme show of his that I have never actually caught before, scheduled for New Westminster's Heritage Grill the night after the Rickshaw Crenshaw gig. But he's never seemed much concerned with expanding his audience. When I wrote an article a couple of years ago for the Georgia Straight about his finally making his back catalogue available on CD - after decades of it being out of print and unavailable to anyone besides cassette collectors - it was a matter of weeks before the guy declared a moratorium on production of the thing, because no one had ever done it that way before. ("For a reason, M., for a reason," I believe I replied).

That kind of perversity extends to his live performances, too: offered an opportunity to bring his (superb) Small Salute to David Bowie to the Rickshaw Bowie Tribute last year, he was told (on Facebook, by organizer Dave Bowes, in a thread I was, it happens, participating in) that all he needed to do was volunteer. Instead, he elected to busk outside the venue. (I think he did a similar thing at the Prince tribute, too, but I wasn't there for that). David M. did eventually turn up onstage at the Rickshaw, after his long time friend and NO FUN cohort Paul Leahy died of cancer, but even that took some cajoling. I don't think he's fought for an opening slot for any show in more than twenty years, such that I've occasionally accused him of hiding his light under a bushel. 

(I'm not entirely sure what that idiom means or where it comes from but I know enough to know it fits.) 

But nevermind all that: suddenly when David M. discovered Marshall Crenshaw was coming to town, he was very, very interested. Turns out he's a Crenshaw completist and has been a fan since the 1980’s. Here he is with a stack of Crenshawiana, about a third of which is presently on loan to me:

David M by David M. 

He even, as you can see above, has a book Crenshaw edited in 1993, Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock’n’Roll in the Movies, which he calls “the only worthwhile book of its kind,” in which Crenshaw, among other writers, reviews everything from The ABBA Movie to (bizarro Ray Dennis Steckler cult obscurity) Rat Pfink A Boo Boo. In some cases, Crenshaw’s reviews are more entertaining than the films he’s writing about. For instance, check his review of Abel Ferrara's first feature (not counting porn like Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy), the sleazy "vintage 70's New York" horror/ exploitation film The Driller Killer. The film itself is sleazy and depressing enough that I sold my collector's edition 2DVD set years ago (only the inclusion of the Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy trailer gave me pause). But no matter: I can read entertaining film descriptions like this any day of the week: 

The book isn't perfect - there is a bit of a diss on Alex Cox's Straight to Hell, for one thing, which I absolutely love (and spoke to Cox at length about here), and there is at least one glaring omission for a person with an interest in Vancouver punk history: Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue, shot in Vancouver and featuring the Pointed Sticks. It's a film which, it turns out, Crenshaw does not know, so if all goes to plan, I’ll be passing on a DVD of the film to him when I see him at the Rickshaw. 

Anyhow, I'm grateful to David M. for his enthusiasm in all this, since I've become a fast fan of Marshall Crenshaw's music, which is ebulliant, beautifully crafted, and at times very witty pop (check out "The Usual Thing," probably my favourite of his tunes so far, though "Cynical Girl" might be more apropos, since it is more likely to be on next Sunday's setlist). It's no wonder M. got so excited about opening for this show (which, by the way, is something he will be doing, some come early). 

Plus he's been invaluable in helping me prep for a long conversation I've had with Crenshaw, telling me where to begin listening to the man's music (which is easy: his first album, followed by his second album, Field Day, both of which are absolute classics if you like smart, savvy pop; that first LP, by the way, appears on Rolling Stone's 100 Best Albums of the '80's list, and well-deserves its place; shame on me for having needed David M. to point me towards it!).

M's knowledge so exceeds mine on this particular subject, that I asked him to help me with a few questions - not something I really needed to do, but it seemed fitting to include him in the process, since I would still have been on the "Marshall who?" page without his guidance. The following are teasers from an upcoming interview with Mr. Crenshaw, more of which later, based on questions emailed to me from David M.   

AM: Hollywood Rock is a great, great book. I had fun looking through that. David M, your opening act here in Vancouver, is a huge fan of both you and the book, and he wanted to know if there are chances of an updated edition?

MC: Naw, I don’t think there’s any likelihood of it. It’s great that somebody likes it; a lot of people love that book, and that’s really cool. But it was a one-off, kinda thing, I’m pretty sure. It was also somebody else’s idea, this guy that I used to know for a little while who was a book packager. But I don’t really hang around him anymore, haven’t seen him in about five or six years. And the last time I did see him, it didn’t come off, so I kinda think not. But it was real fun, it was a fun exercise, it was kind of a learning situation during the time that I spent on it. But no, I think it’s a done deal.

You really write wonderfully. It reminds me a bit of a book by Barry Gifford called
The Devil Thumbs A Ride, which has descriptions of film noir that are as entertaining to read, sometimes more entertaining, than the films themselves. And it was nice to see that you’re a Ray Dennis Steckler fan, too.

A lot of that stuff - the year that I worked on that book was sorta my chance to go down that road and check out that underground film world a bit more than I had, and so yeah, I really got a kick out of that whole thing.

Another question David was curious about was whether you see yourself as a city person. (Actually, M. phrased it slightly differently, writing: "The point of view in your lyrics is usually a romantically urban, downtown, citified one, rather than an idealized pastoral or bucolic one. Is the big city your paradigm for where life is best lived?" But, you know, it ain't easy to work something like that into a conversation).

Oh, boy. That’s an interesting question. I grew up in a suburban environment in the Detroit area, and then that started to go sour for me - I started to hating my surroundings as I got older. Then I finally sorta cleared out of there when I was 22, and headed west. I travelled all over the western United States for about a year and a half, with this bar band, playing, like, little towns in the west. That was really interesting - lived in Wyoming and Nevada and all these remote locations. Then in that period I wound up in New York City, and that was unplanned, y’know, because I’d headed west first. But then I wound up in New York because of Beatlemania [Crenshaw's first big break was playing John Lennon in a touring production of that show]. And the first day that I was in New York City I just fell in love with it immediately. So that really changed my whole life around. The city influenced me, it changed me, kinda like formed me… it sounds funny but it’s really true, just being in the city all of a sudden, it was like, “wow.” It crystallized a lot of things in my mind. But now I haven’t lived in the city in a long time, I moved to the Hudson Valley in 1987, and now I’ve lived in the Hudson Valley for most of my life. And it’s not an urban environment at all. But when I was in Beatlemania, I toured all over the country, and I spent like, five weeks, two weeks, three weeks in every major city in the US, and that was during this real formative time, after I’d fallen in love with New York City, and I was just kind of seeing these places up close. At that point in time, some of them were going through decline, and some of them have kept declining since then. Some of them have bounced back. But cities, yeah, definitely. There was that one period of my life where city life made a huge impression on me.


The first beautiful city that I ever saw in my life, though, was Montreal, when my family and I went to Expo 67 when I was a kid. And when we were there in Montreal, the Detroit riots happened, and the whole community was traumatized by that. But my family and I, we missed that completely, missed the trauma, and I didn’t feel it up close at all. Instead I was in this beautiful place, Montreal, and I was always grateful for that afterwards.

It’s a beautiful city for sure. It must have been tough to see the trajectory of Detroit, having grown up there.

Yeah, it was a major heartbreak in my life, for sure, to watch all that go down. It was something that I had to get away from. 

Let me ask you about the HBO series
Vinyl. You had some involvement with that, I believe? Was it a song you provided, or some writing, or…?

I did do some writing. I was just... I saw a friend of mine over the weekend at a wedding, a guy named Tony Shanahan, he’s the bass player for the Patti Smith Group. And he and I were both on the first recording sessions for that show. We did some of the music for the pilot. If you saw the pilot, there was this scene where this guy stumbles onto the New York Dolls, and it changes his life. So in the show, you hear David Johansen singing, but the band is me and Tony Shanahan and Steve Holley on drums and a guy named Andy York on guitar. We were the New York Dolls for the pilot episode, musically - we weren't in the shots or anything. Anyway, we just such a wonderful time at this session, we were just all excited about this: "oh, this is gonna be great, we'll be doing these sessions all the time for the next couple of years, because this is going to be a smash!" And (co-producer) Martin Scorsese came to the session and hung out with us, and it was really fun. And then the show came on, and I was just "whoa, no, God" - I thought the show was horrible, frankly; I couldn't believe it. "How can it be this bad?" y'know? But it was, and it failed, which is a shame, because the people I met who were part of the production, like the music supervisor and all that, they were really great people. They've done a lot of great projects. I don't know where it went wrong with Vinyl, but I just - it was dreadful, you know? I didn't like the writing, most of the acting. 


But I did some other sessions, I played guitar on a couple of things that wound up in some of the episodes, and then I wrote a Christmas song for one of the episodes, it was a thing where Robert Goulet was supposed to sing a Christmas song in this movie, so I went to school on Robert Goulet and learned what his range was, his style was. I knew of him and everything, but.... anyhow, it came out really good. 

What was hanging out with Martin Scorsese like? I can imagine him being well-familiar with your work - he seems like a real music geek, it's always struck me in his movies that he has pretty great taste in rock music. 

Yeah - it was a gas. He was really sweet, he was really positive, and of course we were all big fans. I didn't do the fanboy thing on him but a couple of the other guys did, y'know? But the funny thing is... one of the guys who I had toured with once, Andy York - every day, when we were on tour, Andy watched Goofellas; no matter how many times he saw the movie, he just wanted to see it again and again, so he sat down with Marty and started asking him questions about Goodfellas. But Marty was into it, y'know, he was ready to talk about it, got a kick out of it. I'm really happy that I met him, it was very cool. 

I bet. Another question from David: how is your brother doing? (Robert Crenshaw plays drums on the first few Marshall Crenshaw albums). 
He's doing fine. He's not really in music in more - although he might say different. He has a job where he teaches people about robotics technology. That's his field - he's in robotics technology. He's got a good thing going with that.

I've got one other question from David. He's curious about your home recording gear. He lent me The 9 Volt Years, as well (full title: The 9 Volt Years: Battery-Powered Home Demos and Curios). He wanted to know what your home recording setup was. His own, from 1976 to present, is a TEAC 3340 4-track, TEAC Model 2 mixer, Roland Space Echo (201, then 301), and Sennheiser/Shure/craptastic microphones. What do you use? What did you record "You're My Favourite Waste of Time" on? 

He's right about the tape machine - I had a TEAC 3340, and it was just old-fashioned overdubbing. I'd fill three tracks, bounce to the fourth, and start over again. I just had two high impedence mikes; I didn't have a mixer, I just had this little switch box. I had MXR stop boxes that ran on 9 volt batteries and I would just plug everything into the tape machine. Or if it was a drum, I would just record it in the room in my apartment. Like, for "You're My Favourite Waste of Time," I had this parade drum - like a field drum - and first I used it for the bass drum, just went "boom,. boom, boom" all through the track; then I used it as a snare drum. It was just so primitive, honestly - you couldn't get more primitive. But it was just a thing where I had to make it work, because that was what I had, you know? And I was able to make it work. A couple of years earlier, I was part owner of a  studio in Detroit, so I learned my recording skills on 4 track and just kind of applied the same techniques to the task at hand, but with much, much cheaper, crummier equipment, you know? I had to make it work so I did. 

I feel really privileged that I'm going to get to see you. David has been playing music since the 1970's in Vancouver, and he's had his own weird relationship with the music industry. But I haven't seen him get excited about opening for anyone until you were comin' to town. Like, in twenty years, I've seen him dozens of times on his own, but I haven't seen him WANT to be on a bill with someone. 

Hahaha. Ohmigod, that's amazing. 

I hope you dig what he does. Anything else you want to say about Vancouver, the show...?

You know, I just - I love Canada, I love Vancouver. I'm really glad we're going to be there. I pushed to make sure that there'd be a Vancouver date on our West Coast tour, and - that's all, I mean, I'm really happy as can be that we're going to play there. 


Marshall Crenshaw Y Los Straitjackets play the Rickshaw Sunday September 17th Ticket information for the event is here; Facebook page here. Thanks to Marshall Crenshaw and David M.!


David M. said...

That fake Robert Goulet Christmas is absolutely great, a real stroke of genius. Why am I not surprised that he wrote it?

Unknown said...

Great job, Allan. I look forward to part two. I'm happy David is getting to open for Marshall, he sounds like a swell guy. I especially hope they get to hang out, even if just in the green room. Those two should get together and do a Westcoast tour! I'd be tempted to see the show but I'm in Gibsons until the 20th hosting a 16 year old female Japanese exchange student. Yikes! Poor kid, having to endure my cooking.