Originally published on Speak Into My Good Eye, 3/24/14
With a pro music career that goes back more than 30 years — a career keynoted by a stint as John Lennon in the touring company of Beatlemania, and further bookmarked by his portrayal of Buddy Holly in the movie La Bamba — Marshall Crenshaw has assembled the kind of catalog that most singer-songwriters would give the right side of their brain for (“Someday Someway,” “Whenever You’re On My Mind,” “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time”); attracting interpreters that range from Ronnie Spector to Bette Midler, and writing or co-writing standout stuff for the Gin Blossoms (“Til I Hear It From You”) and the one and only John C. Reilly (“Walk Hard”). The Detroit native has done it all with a relaxed and unpretentious delivery, an understated (and underrated) rock guitar style, a self-effacing sense of humor and a fairly awesome passion for pop music — a set of skills that he’ll be bringing to the stage of the Pollak Theatre at Monmouth University this Saturday, March 29.
The latest in a series of Songwriters by the Sea events hosted by Jersey scene veterans Joe D’Urso and Joe Rapolla, the 8 p.m. concert marks another Shore encore for the guy who recorded a live DVD at The Stone Pony in 2003, who played a memorably intimate show at a neighborhood church in Atlantic Highlands a few years back, and who chose to record his contribution to the La Bamba soundtrack at a downtown Long Branch studio. It’s a natural forum for an artist whose spontaneous ear for a fun cover song (MC5! Jo Stafford! Left Banke! ABBA!), ability to rethink a familiar catalog favorite, and seemingly effortless flair for new and perfect pop songs are very much in evidence on a new series of subscription-only vinyl EPs, merched from his official website.
Crenshaw’s also found another outlet for his encyclopaedic mastery of popular music in The Bottomless Pit, the radio program he’s hosted on WFUV out of New York — a sideline gig that he shares in common with his contemporary and co-star in the March 29 Songwriters session: David Johansen, curator and caretaker of The Mansion of Fun on Sirius XM Radio. From his supercharged takes on Sonny Boy Williamson and Archie Bell during his Doll’d-up days as a proto-punk godfather, to his folk-blues field excursions into Memphis Minnie and more with The Harry Smiths, and his retro-rocketing career trajectory as alter ego Buster Poindexter (an act that he’s returned to with some highly regarded small-combo sets at NYC’s Cafe Carlyle), David Jo has always been the man with the song for every occasion. His 1980s sets at such long-gone Central Jersey joints as the Fast Lane, Royal Manor and Fountain Casino reinforced his acumen as a natural entertainer, and cut his anthemic guitar-driven originals like “Funky But Chic” and “Personality Crisis” with raucous and exhilarating whirls with oldies from The Animals, The Foundations and The Four Tops. A frequent “Evening With” attraction at the Brighton Bar and other regional rooms, the Staten Island stalwart makes an encore trip to the Songwriters circle in the company of his longtime guitarist Brian Koonin.
The two Joes and their two 60-something guests will be joined by a third singer-songwriter who’s been known to play very well with others: Allison Moorer, the NY-based alt-country vocalist whose classic voice is fortified by her covertune acumen (Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot” among others), collaborations (everyone from Buddy Miller to Kid Rock), credentials (both an Oscar and a Grammy nom), and familial connections (she’s the wife of Steve Earle, and the sister of Shelby Lynne). The 8 p.m. program is rounded out by three homegrown talents from Monmouth U — Bryan Haring, Erin Holmes and Natalie Zeller. Your upperWETside Control Voice rang up Marshall Crenshaw to talk about casual concerts, covertune conundrums, and corporate cubbyholes.
I’m at my place up in Dutchess County…in Rhinebeck. I’ve been here eight years and it’s worked out well.
Sounds idyllic…but doesn’t it get a little Hooterville, a little Green Acres, for a former city slicker such as yourself?
More like Mayberry! No, it’s not like it’s totally isolated; we get a fair amount of visitors during the season. But I do think I need this kind of a setting…the atmosphere is beneficial to my work.
Well, we’re working here on an advancer for your upcoming appearance at Monmouth University, and it’s an event that we’re especially looking forward to, not just because we’ve seen you excel in those intimate contexts, but because they’re throwing you in with David Johansen, another modern master of that sort of thing…
Really! I think I’d rather be in the audience, sitting and listening to him…he’s such a source for great songs and stories. He and I used to wind up playing a lot of the same shows, the same clubs, in the beginning of my career.
When you’re not out there doing full-on band gigs, you’ve played places like churches, college student centers, actual house parties, and, once again, these “songwriter” circles. Do you do a lot of prep for the gigs where you’re just showing up solo, or do you just kind of get a read on the crowd and draw from the bottomless pit of your musical mental Rolodex?
I only approach these things two days ahead, to keep it all fresh…it kind of evolves; songs get added or dropped, and when you tell one story too many times you get sick of it, and then you remember another one. The great thing these days is that I have a fifty-fifty balance between playing out solo and playing with a band, The Bottle Rockets. I’m really a band guy at heart; the solo thing is great, but inevitably when I’m doing one thing I miss the other.
One of the genuine delights of your live sets is the feeling that pretty much any corner of pop music is fair game for a spontaneous cover version. We keep flashing back to the first time we ever saw you, back when you were touring behind your debut album, and you interrupted your originals to perform Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” which was even a top 40 hit at the time…
I just loved that record so much…we did our own dumb, garage rock version…and we did an Al Green song too back then; I just wanted to experience what it was like to stand up there and sing a song like that.
I really dialed back the cover tunes after a while. It’s fun, but maybe I over-emphasized it…people would compliment me all the time for other people’s songs…and meanwhile I’ve got this body of work that has sustained me all this time. I’m proud of it.
Well, the interpretations of other people’s songs have manifested themselves again, as part of the new series of vinyl EPs that you’re doing as a subscription service. So how have those items been working out for you? We’re always interested in how various artists navigate what passes for the music business in the 21st century; how they continue to prosecute their careers and brainstorm new ways of connecting fans to music…
It’s gone well for me…they are selling. I’ve done three so far, with a fourth in the pipeline…right now I can say with some certainty that there will be six, and we’ll see what’s up after that. I wanted them to be cool looking objects, with a visual, sensual appeal, and some covers of crazy things like the Carpenters song “Close to You.” On that one we added a solo by Steve Bernstein, the great jazz trumpeter…for all you Steve Bernstein fans reading this…that really took it into outer space.
So yeah, it’s been an interesting experiment and, as you say, a different way of ‘prosecuting’ my recording career. Prosecute…I think I’ll use that word. The idea that you as an artist are supposed to fit into a certain box is something that I’ve just despised all my life. There were times, in my dealings with the corporate types, that I felt my intentions were not clearly understood.
We’re sure you’re not at all nostalgic for the old major label record industry model…like most other folks, you had your ups and downs with them. I recall reading about your being displeased with the way your second album (FIELD DAY, produced by Steve Lillywhite) came out…and when I look at the cover of your first album, with the pastel colors, the shades, the 50s furniture, I’m wondering how much of that came from some label consultant or stylist…
That was actually me all over! And in fact, the second album was the early one that I was cool with…when I heard the final mix I thought, ‘I nailed it…I got the world in my back pocket.’ I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the sound of the first album…the mix, the track order. I was physically sick over it, from the stress of trying to get it right, and we had to re-do the sequencing and certain other aspects of the record. The label ordered me to put on ‘She Can’t Dance,’ which was the b-side to my first single…they wanted ‘Someday Someway’ and I didn’t, because Robert Gordon had a hit with it just the year before.
Still, the song became a real calling card for you…as did the flip side of that 45 release, “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time.” For a non-LP b-side, that song really took on a life of its own. Hell, Bette Midler did it!
The label came to me looking for some non-album thing to put on the b-side of the single…I had this track that I had done in the living room of my apartment in Pelham, New York. Then when I passed it to them, Warners somehow wound up owning the track; they didn’t pay for it. Eventually the publishing reverted back to me, and right around then it became a smash hit, in England especially, with Owen Paul and a number of people taking a whack at it. It still puts nice little checks in my mailbox!
Another offbeat sort of project for you that took on a life of its own was this double album for Capitol Records (HILLBILLY MUSIC…THANK GOD!) that you compiled and wrote the liner notes for. The label just turned you loose in their dusty vaults of great old country music, and what you came up with was so great that we wish it could have been a whole series. Even now, it’s like when they say that nobody bought the Velvet Underground albums when they came out, but everyone who heard them started a band…that comp gets talked about to this day, and seems to have really sparked some inspiration in a lot of musicians.
That album did manage to have an impact beyond what anyone might have expected…I get approached by Americana type musicians every now and then, and they’ll tell me that something they heard there really inspired them to get into rootsy music. Obviously I enjoyed doing that project, and I wouldn’t mind doing a whole series.
Show business is quirky like that…it takes some interesting turns over time. I think that I’ve managed to have enough luck to keep my enthusiasm for it all this time. I’m still going forward…still thinking clearly. I haven’t lost my marbles!
Tickets for Songwriters by the Sea are priced at $25 and $35, and can be reserved through the Monmouth University Performing Arts Box Office at 732.263.6889, or online at http://www.monmouth.edu/arts.