For a guy who’s rather successfully cultivated his own voice within an often crowded singer/songwriter wilderness — a stake that boasts a reputation as a go-to crafter of universally appealing tunes, a relaxed and unpretentious delivery, an understated (and underrated) rock guitar style, a self-effacing sense of humor, and a frankly awesome passion for pop music — Marshall Crenshaw can sure make himself at ease in another performer’s skin.
It’s a phenomenon that dates back even before the Detroit native emerged as a maker of music under his own name, when Crenshaw clocked countless performances as John Lennon in the official late-70s touring troupe of Broadway’s Beatlemania. When the producers of the Richie Valens biopic La Bamba were “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” for someone who could both act and make heartbreakingly sweet sounds as Buddy Holly, they turned to the bespectacled musicologist who had previously appeared in Francis Coppola’s film Peggy Sue Got Married. And when the surviving members of the legendary 1960s Detroit countercultural rock force MC5 assembled for a tour in 2004, Crenshaw was among the trusted peers who ably stepped up and kicked out the jams, on behalf of the departed Rob Tyner and Fred “Sonic” Smith.
Of course, for more than a quarter of a century Shore audiences had embraced Crenshaw as a frequent visitor to venues that ranged from Clarence Clemons’s Big Man’s West, to Monmouth University, the House of Independents, and even a neighborhood church in Atlantic Highlands. Crenshaw returned the love in kind; penning a tune called “Bruce Is King” (retooled as “Blues Is King”), recording his La Bamba contribution at Shorefire Studio in Long Branch, and releasing a live album of a 2001 Stone Pony gig under the title I’ve Suffered For My Art…Now It’s Your Turn.
That special bond with musical fans of all things Jersey attained a new level in the latter half of 2018, when the surviving Smithereens called on Crenshaw to take over lead vocals and guitar in honor and memory of the band’s longtime frontman Pat DiNizio, the hitmaking songsmith (and onetime city councilman in Scotch Plains) who performed one of his final shows at Asbury Park’s Wonder Bar — and who, as an honorary icon of the city’s scene, was included among the most recent inductees to the Asbury Angels memorial hall of fame.
Making an acclaimed appearance at last summer’s Hoboken Arts & Music Festival — and taking their act out to California for a leg of shows in early February — Crenshaw and the Smithereens created something that they’ll be revisiting regionally on May 25, when they reconvene for a show at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia. But when Marshall Crenshaw takes the Wonder Bar stage this Saturday, March 2, he’ll be once again focusing upon his own prodigious catalog of compositions — the kind of track record (“Someday Someway,” “Whenever You’re On My Mind,” “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time,” the Gin Blossoms’ “Til I Hear It From You”) that most singer-songwriters would give the right side of their brain to be able to claim.
Curiously, this will mark the very first matchup of Crenshaw with Lance and Debbie’s Circuit landmark, even as it places him in comfortable company — longtime backing combo The Bottle Rockets.
“This will be a joyful occasion,” says Crenshaw of the Saturday night scheduling, an early entry in his current east coast jaunt with the St. Louis-based roots-rock band that he’s teamed with numerous times. “I’m settled in with these guys, and we’ve been getting there since January of 2011.”
“It’s a time-entrenched thing…we usually get together around the beginning of each year,” he adds, going on to explain that the Asbury Park tourstop will find the Bottle Rockets (Brian Henneman, Mark Ortmann, John Horton, Keith Voegle) “doing their own thing for the first part of the show,” joined for the second set of the evening by the band’s headlining field Marshall.
Just what exactly that set will consist of is a free-ranging thing that could conceivably draw from any or all of the artist’s dozen or so studio albums and EPs — with a hefty side order of passionately purveyed musical history, from a performer who’s been known to cover anyone from Elvis Presley, The Carpenters, and Marvin Gaye, to the Ramones, ABBA, and The Bobby Fuller Four.
There was never any doubt that the songwriter whose tunes have themselves been interpreted by the likes of Bette Midler, Ronnie Spector, Robert Gordon, and the one and only John C. Reilly (in the Grammy/ Golden Globe nominated title song to the film Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) navigated a career that was informed each step of the way by his own unabashed love of old records. It’s a quality that’s served him well on his handful of live releases, his curating of an acclaimed double-LP of country music treasures from the Capitol Records vaults (Hillbilly Music…Thank God!), his hosting of the Bottomless Pit radio program on New York’s WFUV — and his contributions to Vinyl, the wild and short-lived HBO series produced by Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger.
That said, Crenshaw confessed in an earlier conversation 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!”
Such simple misunderstandings can bump up against a practice that the seasoned songwriter considers “especially heinous” — the tendency by certain classic rock acts to appropriate other performers’ songs as their own credited originals. Citing Led Zeppelin’s citrusy twist on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” as “The Lemon Song” (plus “Boogie with Stu,” their in-everything-but-name-only jam on the Valens song “Ooh My Head”), Crenshaw confides that “those kind of moves really kept me from liking Zeppelin for years.”
Acknowledging the fact that “meanwhile I’ve got this body of work that has sustained me all this time,” Crenshaw brainstormed a project that combined his love for vinyl records with the newly interactive online relationship between audience and artist. The result was a series of limited edition EPs (recorded at his home studio in Rhinebeck, NY, with guest musicians that included Asbury-based fellow Beatlemania veteran Glen Burtnik) that Crenshaw viewed as “an interesting experiment…I wanted them to be cool looking objects, with a visual, sensual appeal.”
And, while it’s “a little ways off at this point,” Crenshaw has another treat for vinylphiles lined up for the Black Friday edition of Record Store Day in November: a first-ever compilation of highlights from the five albums that he released between 1994 and 2003 on the Razor & Tie label — a collection of live, studio and demo cuts that have never been pressed on vinyl, and that is slated to include “a new 45 with each one.”
“There are still some sympathetic labels out there,” observes the man who cut his first single for the indie Shake imprint in his adopted city of NYC — an effort that led to a five album contract with Warner Brothers, and a chance to work with such high profile producers as Steve Lillywhite, T-Bone Burnett, Richard Gottehrer, and Mitch Easter.
That 1980s experience with one of the biggest labels in the industry was a roller-coaster that yielded a Top 40 hit in “Someday Someway,” soundtrack placements in movies and TV shows, and a respectable amount of airplay on college and “alternative” stations like the old WHTG-FM out of Eatontown — in addition to battles over album mixes, track sequencing, and a kerfuffle in which the rights to one of his most lucrative songs (“You’re My Favorite Waste of Time”) somehow became owned by Warners for a time, when it was pressed as a non-LP b-side.
“It was a bumpy ride…but I’m glad I was in it,” says Crenshaw of his role in what will no doubt stand as the last big era of the old-school record companies. “It was amazing while it lasted.”
And, as the man pointed out to this correspondent when he took part in one of Joe D’Urso and Joe Rapolla’s Songwriters by the Sea events a few years back, “I’m still going forward…still thinking clearly. I haven’t lost my marbles!”