By: Rick Landers
Photos: Michael G. Stewart.
Power pop balladeer, actor and rock chronicler Marshall Crenshaw creates and electrifies contemporary songs from the heartbeat of vintage vinyl. He’s firmly and comfortably grounded in the roots of rock ‘n’ roll and has gathered up a strong coterie of fans with his catchy hooks and timing. Crenshaw is a craftsman who merges classic taste with new style in a manner to produce his unique and captivating sound, always reminding us of the days when rock was young and magical.
His 1982 self-titled Marshall Crenshaw release showed promise with “Someday, Someway,” “Cynical Girl,” “Mary Ann” and “There She Goes Again” that clung to rockabilly structures, pop phrasing, and catchy boy-meets-girl lyrics. Followed up in ’83 by his second album Field Day, and its opening track “Whenever You’re On My Mind,” it was evident Crenshaw had a knack for coming up with solid material.
By 1985’s more sophisticated Downtown produced by T-Bone Burnette, Marshall proved he would be around for a while. Downtown showed more confidence with “Little Wild One (Number 5)”; “Yvonne,” “The Distance Between” and the powerful backbeat of Ben Vaughn’s “I’m Sorry (But so is Brenda Lee).”
Ten albums later, Marshall Crenshaw keeps plowing the fertile soil of rock and pop without resting on his laurels. With his last album What’s in the Bag? released in 2003, it seems to be a good time for Marshall to give his loyal fans their just due with another album.
As an actor, Marshall has credits including playing Buddy Holly in the hit movie La Bamba about the life of early rocker Ritchie Valens, along with an appearance in the ‘80s film Peggy Sue Got Married and on Nickelodeon’s series Pete and Pete. He has also authored the book Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Movies and published articles on vintage guitars.
Guitar International met Marshall getting ready for a show at Jammin’ Java, Vienna, Virginia, where he talked to us about his early years discovering the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, his first break in the hit show Beatlemania and his life as one of America’s finest troubadours.
Rick Landers: What was it like growing up in the ‘60s in Detroit with groups like Bob Seger & the Last Herd, Mitch Ryder, Savage Grace and the MC5?
Marshall Crenshaw: I never saw Mitch Ryder, but I did see some of those other bands. Detroit was a place with a lot of social turbulence, but a lot of great music comes out of there too. It’s kind of a rough place. It’s a place with a lot of self-inflicted problems, like a lot of racial polarization. But musically it’s a great place and in the ‘60s it was really a lively scene. Motown was there and that was really huge.
Rick: Did you go to the old Grande Ballroom?
Marshall Crenshaw: I never went to the Grande Ballroom. The night the MC5 recorded their live album at the Grande I couldn’t go there. A couple of my friends went but I was confined to my house. My parents wouldn’t let me leave the house for the first half of that school year because I was flunking everything. So I missed that. But, I saw the MC5 a handful of times and I saw the Stooges once at a pop festival thing at a State park where pretty much every band was there that weekend.
There was a big rock scene at the end of the ‘60s, but it was short lived. By the time I was out of high school it was all gone and there was a lot of despair and a lot of negativity in the air. It was a flurry of activity, but it didn’t last long.
Rick: How’d you start up with the guitar?
Marshall Crenshaw: I always wanted to play guitar from way back, from day one. My dad had a guitar he bought when he was in the Navy. It was a no name guitar with black plastic tuners. There are pictures of me when I’m three and four years old dragging it around the yard or hanging around the porch with it and it has two or three strings missing! But I always wanted to play guitar. I fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll pretty early. My two cousins, who I was close to, Marilyn and Carol, would bring home 45s.
I’d just jump up and down when I liked a song I heard. I liked Buddy Knox and “Party Doll, “Black Slacks” by the Sparkletones, and I loved “Susie Darling’” by Robin Luke. They all have electric guitar on them. I don’t know why, but that’s the sound that grabbed me and it spoke to my inner hillbilly. They just made my blood vibrate for a reason. I still listen to those records sometimes.
My Dad got me my own guitar when I was six I think. It was similar to his. We went to Sears in Highland Park [Michigan] and it cost something like fifteen dollars. I got an electric guitar in junior high school. It was a single pickup Gretsch Corvette. I don’t have it anymore. My brother took it to a dance and somebody smashed it. By then I wasn’t really using it anymore.
I wanted a gold top Les Paul. You remember that for a while they stopped making them.
When they re-issued them I wanted one, so I got a job at a fast food place called Checker Barbeque, a really crazy place with lots of interesting people. I scrapped together enough and got this Les Paul. I went out and played at this party with a lot of bikers and it was stolen. It was one of those with a big geeky headstock, so I don’t think that I would have kept it. I didn’t think the first re-issues were that good. They were very heavy. The ones from the ‘50s were really light and sweet sounding.
That’s the thing about the vintage guitar thing. Because people in the ’60s and ’70 didn’t think the guitars were well made then. Like they thought those Stratocasters made in ‘70s with the big headstocks were shit. But those Stratocasters, now people are paying thousands of dollars for those! Hendrix played those! So, to a certain extent I think it’s a big scam.
Rick: Did your first band take over the family garage?
Marshall Crenshaw: We didn’t have a garage. I was in a basement band. My first band was when I was 12. There was myself and another 12-year old and two high school guys. Too tall guys and too little guys! We played, I don’t think we even had a name, at the local American Legion hall, and we got a dollar each or something like that. We played all the usual stuff.
Bands all played the same stuff, “96 Tears” and another Detroit area hit by the Thirteenth Floor Elevators called “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and “Open Up You’re Door” by Richard and the Young Lionhearteds. I’m proud to be from where that could be a number one hit! Things broke in Detroit before anywhere else, like The Who’s “My Generation” before it broke anywhere else. It was a fun time. I’ve looked through the music surveys and it was amazing and all the really hard edged stuff breaking into Detroit before anywhere else.
Rick: You live in Woodstock?
Marshall Crenshaw: I’m in upstate NY, I’m not in Woodstock. I was in Woodstock for about 16 years and I moved across the river to Dutch County. It’s the same general area, just over the Hudson River. During that time there weren’t many venues. There were one or two, but not for very long. It’s funny, there doesn’t seem to be a large music scene there. When we moved over there a lot of people said, “Oh, you’re going over to the dark side.” I still don’t know why.
Rick: Your music always seems to have that classic pop innocence to it, but still sounds contemporary. What influences do you recognize having guided your sound?
Marshall Crenshaw: Boy, I don’t know anymore, they just come out of me. When I was writing stuff for my first album, ‘60s pop and ‘60s R&B was very much in the forefront of my thinking. You know, I felt kind of alienated from contemporary rock music at that time. It just kinda lost me at some point, in the early ’70s I guess.
It’s a matter of taste. I just remember being at concerts at Cobo Hall [Detroit] and looking around [shakes his head], at the beginning of the ‘80s and late ‘70s. I’ve spent the last few years listening to the stuff that I liked when I was a child, like rediscovering Buddy Holly and the Sparkletones and going back to the pre-history of rock ‘n’ roll.
There was a friend I used to hang around with that I was in a band with right after high school. He was born in 1957, he’s a few years younger than me, and he refused to listen to any music made after 1962!
Rick: Most kids your age back then were into the latest thing.
Marshall Crenshaw: He had this big Chrysler with an 8-track tape player in it and he had an 8-track tape of The Best of Louis Jordan. And that really turned my head around when I heard that stuff. It had all the drive of rock ‘n’ roll but it was really musically sophisticated and lyrically really intelligent and funny. It really intrigued me!
I started listening to stuff from that period before I was born, like the Delmore Brothers. I was really obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll music and I really wanted to crawl inside it and dig deep into it to understand it and understand the roots of it. So, I did that for a few years and really didn’t listen to contemporary music.
Rick: When did you get back into what was happening?
Marshall Crenshaw: When I was making my first record I started hearing contemporary stuff that I liked, like the Clash’s “London Calling”, the B-52s, stuff that they use to call new wave and I grabbed on to that. So I was influence by the sounds. I lived in New York at the time and I was influenced by what I heard around New York. It was a mix of different things, some classic some contemporary. <,p>
And somehow or another I stumbled onto a style and a lyric writing voice. The thing about my first album is that you listen to the songs and you can sense that it’s a person with a particular point of view. So that was important to be able to capture a moment like that lyrically and that’s another thing that makes the record interesting.
Rick: Looks like you have an old Gibson ES-175 there?
Marshall Crenshaw: Yeah, it’s a ’54 ES-175.
Rick: Do you use vintage gear to get vintage sounds?
Marshall Crenshaw: Yeah, I kinda do, even though I think there’s something gross and absurd or obscene about the whole vintage guitar market. I think it’s really driven by people’s egos, but I do have a lot of old guitars that I’ve just accumulated over the years. I’ve got a couple nice Gretsch guitars. I have a ’55 Jet Firebird and an early ‘60s sparkle Jet that G.E. Smith gave me. That was nice of him! And I have a couple of Stratocasters, a 1960 Esquire, and a Mosrite that I got in the ‘80s.
Rick: What about amps?
Marshall Crenshaw: I have a single Showman with a JBL speaker. I fell in love with that speaker for a while. It has this kind of snap to it that I like that you hear a lot of on Rolling Stones records. You know, the JBL sound was really big for a while. I use the Showman as a bass amp in my studio when I record. I always play my bass through it.
I’ve got a Marshall Super Lead covered in red! I walked into a music store in Vermont sometime around 1993. I wasn’t in the market for anything that day, but I saw that amp standing there, they only wanted $400 for it, and there was no question about that I had to grab it and I did. I turn it on when I want to scare people, which is not that often. I record with it sometimes.
An AC-30 [Vox] was my main thing for a long time. Lately when I’ve been playing on stage I play this old Ampeg M-12 that I bought when I was fourteen. I’ve held on to it all this time. It’s kind of a crappy sounding amp, but I use it with a Sigmund pre-amp. There’s a guy in California, Chris Siegmund, who makes really good amps and guitars. I bought this little tube pre-amp from him and it’s really brought the little amp to life. The amp also has a great vibrato. I guess that’s why I haul it around.
Rick: Are you into home recording?
Marshall Crenshaw: God yeah, I’ve always been into that. When I was in a band in my early twenties we bought some recording gear and put together a studio. We bought this package of gear that had been owned by Sidra recording studios. They had a couple of hits like “If This Is Love.” The console was made out of these 1576 Aztec mixers and we got some Norman mics, but it was all really outdated. It was 4-track and we tried to run it as a commercial enterprise. I love gear and I became obsessed with recording and the act of playing instruments.
I started writing songs to give me a vehicle for that [recording]. I wasn’t really a songwriter until I wanted to make a record. It was in the ‘70s and early ‘80s when I got into that. I’d been getting by on playing guitar in various bands. I was in Beatlemania. I did that in a lot of cities. I was in a touring company, a west coast company.
Rick: How’d you manage to land that one?
Marshall Crenshaw: I sent in a tape and a picture. And the company sent someone to audition in Detroit, Sandy Yaguda, who had been a member in Jay and The Americans. I’m really indebted to Sandy Yaguda. It was a huge opportunity for me. I’d been traveling around the country a lot and just got temporarily back in the Detroit area. I was going to go to GIT [Guitar Institute of Technology] in L.A., it’s now called Musician’s Institute.
I was accepted into that and was going to go there, but then I got the chance to get into Beatlemania. So I went east instead of west. It was a paying gig. It was super exciting! It was unbelievable to be in New York City. And it wasn’t a great time to be in New York City, there was a garbage strike after we’d only been there a short time. But it was great, it was really a huge thing.
Rick: How’d the Beatlemania version of the Beatles breakup?
Marshall Crenshaw: I quit the show. I really got to hate it. I left the show in February 1980, by then I had some tunes and I had a game plan. I had a sound in my head and I had a lot of ambition. So, I left the show and was trying to do the right thing.
Rick: You wrote a book Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Movies – so you’re a movie buff or a rock ‘n’ roll movie buff?
Marshall Crenshaw: Both. I was much more of a film enthusiast and film obsessive back then. Now that I have kids those are two things that don’t do anymore that I use to do. I don’t go to the movies and I don’t read. I cut those things out since I had kids.
Rick: So, what was the first movie with rock ‘n’ roll in it?
Marshall Crenshaw: I think the earliest ones in our book were the Louis Jordan films. He made like four films and they’re all great and they rock! You know, I think that the stuff that comes before rock ‘n’ roll is almost more rockin’ than rock ‘n’ roll. Have you ever heard “”Flying Home” by Lionel Hampton? God damn!
Rick: You were in movie about Ritchie Valens called La Bamba.
Marshall Crenshaw: Yeah, I played Buddy Holly. I sang a song. It was lots of fun, pretty cool.
Rick: Do you feel an affinity with Holly?
Marshall Crenshaw: Yeah I do! The older I get and the more I know the more I dig him. I think his music is really beautiful. He was an interesting person too. He was just a kid. I think it took a lot of bravery. He was in west Texas in this very provincial Bible belt place. To get on stage singing “Annie Had a Baby”! That takes balls! To get out into the world like he did, I like people like that, people with a sense of adventure and that kind of drive to live life and experience life. I think that’s really admirable.
Rick: As an accomplished songwriter, do you think songwriting is an in-born talent or a craft that someone can learn from scratch?
Marshall Crenshaw: I don’t know. I think you have to have some sort of talent for it. I don’t why I do or why anyone does. It’s just a mental quirk or something. [Laughs] I’ve been musically inclined all my life, so I don’t know what it’s like for somebody to try to do it that can’t do it. I could always naturally play music.
Rick: What do you think of the ability of artists to leverage the Internet?
Marshall Crenshaw: I think it’s good. I think it’s really good. A lot of great stuff has bubbled up from the Internet and it’s definitely what’s going on now. I think it’s really interesting. I Love iTunes. You know what I found on iTunes? This old one by Porter Wagner called “The Rubber Room.” This is a boon to mankind, where I can sit at home and buy a copy of “The Rubber Room.” I needed it for my radio show.
Rick: You seem to have the level of success where you can still manage your personal privacy, where it’s not invaded all the time.
Marshall Crenshaw: No, I don’t have that problem. I have a pretty quiet life and I live in a small town. I don’t have people coming at me when I don’t want them to. I’ve always been really shy. It’s hard for me to even get out. I do it and if I didn’t do it I’d go nuts. But at the same time I like to be able to crawl in to my cul-de-sac sometimes to be able to do that when I need to.
Like my little girl asked me if I’d sing and play at the BBQ that her class is having at the end of the school year. I’m terrified out of my fucking mind at the idea of playing for a bunch of eight year old girls, third graders. I’m just freaked out about it. [Smiles]