Marshall Crenshaw is one of rock music’s most underappreciated artists. After a string of critically-acclaimed albums (beginning with his self-titled 1982 debut, right through 2003’s What’s in the Bag?), and a good bit of work in other media (books, films and more) in 2007 he was between record deals. But that didn’t slow him down. Music journalist and writer Bill Kopp sat down with him just before an August solo show. Their wide-ranging conversation dealt with songwriting, Marshall’s early albums, his stint on the traveling Broadway production of Beatlemania, touring with the MC5, and much more.
Bill Kopp: Besides the obvious advantages of being able to travel lighter, and save money in a number of ways, what are the advantages of touring solo?
Marshall Crenshaw: Well, the simplicity that you just mentioned; that’s a huge part of the appeal of it. I just happen to like the feeling of it, which is something invigorating: being able to get up there by myself. I just played a bunch of shows with my rock trio, and that was a gas. So I can’t say I favor one thing over the other. I just love to get up and play.
Do you find that the audiences for your solo shows and your rock trio gigs differ in terms of demographics?
Well, some of the gigs I played this last month were festival-type gigs, so they’d be all ages at those things. The gigs I play solo, they’re kind of the singer/songwriter circuit, the “NPR circuit.” So that’s the over-thirty types.
I realize that I’ll find out soon enough, but how much of your older (1980s) material do you play?
Usually about a half-dozen tunes a night.
Do you feel the need to reinterpret those songs to keep them interesting to yourself, or do you feel a responsibility to older fans to play them, and play them like we remember them?
Somewhere in between, I guess. I drop the keys on most of them. I sang in a high register back in the day; I still kinda do. [But] we all have to work with what we’ve got; that’s the range of my voice where I can project it best.
Well, Paul McCartney does his songs in lower keys than he used to…
Yeah, I’ve had to drop mine down a little bit, now that I’m 53 years old, but they sound better. I think my voice is better now than it was then. You know, it just really feels different. Back then, I really tried to saturate the room with sound, really get lost in the volume of it. I don’t do anything like that now; what I do now is more nuanced. I’ve had a lot of experience over the years, playing and singing.
Over the course of your career, you’ve written books (Hollywood Rock); curated compilations (Hillbilly Music, Thank God) and written liner notes; you’ve acted (portraying Buddy Holly in Peggy Sue Got Married); you’ve performed on Broadway (Beatlemania); you’ve hosted a radio show and you’ve either written for or been covered by a diverse array of artists. So are you a Renaissance Man, or do you just need to keep moving?
I just need to keep moving. Everything besides playing guitar and writing songs is a sort of side trip. The book, for example, was somebody else’s idea. I was just kind of at loose ends at that time in my life; I didn’t have anything better to do, so I wrote this book with this gang of people. And it was really fun. They’ve all been interesting experiences.
I loved being in the movie; it was a blast. It was really exciting to be on a movie set with Francis Coppola and all that stuff, y’know?
If you don’t mind going back this far, can you tell me how you found yourself in the cast of Beatlemania? What sort of preparation did you do for that show?
I grew up in the Detroit area. And in about 1976, I was 22 years old, and I decided I had to get out of there. I had to uproot myself and move on, get out in the world. Otherwise I wasn’t gonna learn anything or be anything, y’know? I just really felt that I was done with the place [in which] I’d grown up. So I was playing in an oldies band, a bar band. And when I finished that gig, for a couple months I delivered newspapers. At night. I tried to get as much cash as I could, so I could get outta there.
Eventually I drove out west with this friend of mine from high school. I was going to join this band that he was in. He was living in L.A. about half the year, and the other half of the year he was up in Alaska playing in a band. I was gonna do that! [laughs]
Not a lot of competition up there…
But I never got to see it; I wish I had. I’m still curious about what that would’ve been like.
But anyway, that didn’t work out: I sort of auditioned for his band, and the singer and I hated each other on sight. So I was sort of there, in L.A. I had sold a Fender Telecaster to a friend of mine for $400, so I had that money in my pocket. Somehow or another I heard about this opportunity to join a band that was playing all around the west–another bar band–but this was a country and western bar band. So I drove from L.A. all the way to Elko, Nevada in my yellow Volkswagen to join this band. I had never seen these people before; it was a long drive…
You’d never seen Elko before!
Nope. It was a long drive. And I was driving with this warning light blinking in my car, all the way there. And I remember driving up into the mountains; it was starting to get dark. I just thought, “God damn. If something happens to me, nobody’d ever find me!” But I got to Elko, and I joined this band. I played around with them for a few months, at all these little towns in the west.
And then one day I was reading Rolling Stone magazine. I saw a classified ad for Beatlemania, a casting call. And a light just went on in my head. Because I had wire-rimmed glasses, and I sorta sang a little bit like John Lennon. I was always told that I had a little resemblance to him. On top of that, I idolized The Beatles; I knew their music pretty well, I thought. And I really empathized with them, and with John Lennon for sure; he was like a heroic figure to me.
So anyway, I called this number–it was a 212 area code–and asked if I could send in an audition tape and a picture. And I did. That’s how I got in Beatlemania.
What happened was that my tour with this band had ended, so my intention was to go back to the Detroit area–I married my girlfriend from Detroit, and we’re still married–somehow or another I went back there, made the audition tape and sent it off. And at the same time, I made another audition tape, because I was thinking of going to this music school in L.A. I knew I was only going back to the Detroit area temporarily. So I made this audition tape for this school called Guitar Institute of Technology, which later turned into the Musicians’ Institute, which still exists. The tape I made for them was a note-for-note copy of “Lover” by Les Paul. It was a really good copy, with all the speeded-up guitar, multitracking and all that. So I sent that tape out west, and I sent the Beatlemania tape east. And I got a “yes” from both, from the music school and Beatlemania.
But I went east because Beatlemania was a paying gig. I was married. So I went to New York, and it was, boom, an instantaneous life-changer right there.
How long did you tour with the Beatlemania company?
I was in New York for six months as an understudy, and I was in the west coast company for six months. And then I was in a touring company for six months. Then I quit.
[I produce a color souvenir program from that Beatlemania tour, containing a photo of Marshall as John Lennon.] Do you have one of these?
It’s lost. I don’t know where it is. But yeah, I’m in there. That’s me [points]. How ’bout that. Did you see the show?
Yes. I saw it in Atlanta.
At the Fox Theatre? I did the show at the Fox Theatre in 1979. So there’s a fifty percent chance that you saw me, because there were two casts.
Can I share a pet theory of mine, and then ask you to confirm or deny it? On your first album you covered Arthur Alexander’s “Soldier of Love.” At the time–1982–that was considered by most a real obscurity. I was familiar with the song, though, since it was on (at the time) bootlegs of the Beatles’ BBC radio shows.
That’s where I got it from, too. I never heard the Arthur Alexander version until after I had recorded it already. And I called the publisher and asked for a lyric sheet, because I wasn’t sure if I’d got the lyrics right. It was too late if I hadn’t [laughs].
Your arrangement is pretty close to theirs. And when I heard it, this was before I knew you had been in Beatlemania. So I thought, “this guy is listening to the same bootlegs I am!”
Well, it’s true. [laughs at photo of himself in Beatle gear]
You know, in the late 70’s this was as close as we could get to the Beatles.
It was a brilliant idea on the part of the people who conceived this thing. It was a real money machine for a little while.
Now, tribute bands are a whole cottage industry, but back then…
When Marshall Crenshaw  came out, I was just blown away; it sounded to me like nothing else I’d heard.
That’s nice; I guess that’s a good thing.
How does the music you write and record today differ from your earlier material?
Well, I have a more difficult time doing it [laughs]. When I was writing the stuff for my first album, it just sort of poured out, fell out of my back pocket.
You had your entire life up to that point–theoretically–to write songs for the first album…
But I hadn’t written any songs up to that point. I sort of hadn’t been that intent on it. I just kind of reached this point–I was 25 or 26–and I figured it was time to make some kind of move. It was like everything that had welled up inside me fell out at once. And I had a very clear sense of a direction, and of a style, also. The stuff really came from my heart.
I guess from then until now is just sort of an evolution. It’s just the process of gaining experience and living life. Hopefully my skills are sharpened. I still have a lot of music left in me to make, y’know?
How did you end up performing with the guys from MC5? I know you’re from Detroit, but their music seems a pretty far stretch from any of the musical areas you’ve explored.
I understand why you’re saying that. A lot of people have that sense of it, I’m sure.
In the first place, I saw the band when they were in their prime. And I loved them. They were really pretty powerful, pretty impressive to me when I was fifteen years old. My enthusiasm for them never dissipated; I still like their stuff.
I met Wayne Kramer in New York City; the first contact I had with him was when I played with my band at CBGB’s one night–this was a really early gig of mine–and afterwards, somebody gave me a note from Wayne, just saying that he’d been in the audience, and that he liked the stuff.
I found this note recently. After I saw the movie Ray, I was looking through my old copy of David Ritz’ autobiography [coauthored with Ray Charles], and this note from Wayne Kramer fell out. I had stuck it in the book. I didn’t know I still had it.
A little while after that [CBGB’s gig], we got to know each other, because we were both living in the East Village. It was cool to meet him. And right around that time I met the “Was Brothers,” Don and David. After I had left the Detroit area, whenever I’d run into people from there, I’d always kind of find this homeboy attraction; it would always be kind of refreshing and cool to meet people [from back there].
So I got to know Wayne; he was working with Don and David a little bit at the time. We just got to be friends, and stayed friends over the years. Wayne likes my records; he’s a fan of mine. He called me and asked me to do this tour, and I was really shocked. My initial reaction was disbelief. But I thought, why not? I didn’t know what to expect; I didn’t know what it would be like.
But I did it; I toured with them for four months in the summer of 2004. And it was a gas to play their music. It’s a great body of work, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve always empathized with their stuff. The spirit of it…I was really able to fall right into it, I think. It was exciting.
There’s kind of a Detroit renaissance now; there’s the MC5, The Stooges were touring in summer 2006, Radio Birdman put out a new album not long ago…
Yeah. That’s right.
Do you feel the need to keep moving in different musical directions?
You know, I just do. I mean, I don’t consciously decide what I’m gonna do. In fact, when I’m writing–at least during the initial part of it, during the composition part–I try not to think at all. I try to have it just spurring from an emotional place. And I just turn the tape recorder on, and I start grunting and strumming. And then, as time goes on I have to edit it, make choices about it and stuff like that. But initially, I try to get a feeling going.
At this point in your life, how important are commercial considerations? For example, does Razor & Tie expect a new Marshall Crenshaw album to shift a certain number of units?
No. For one thing, I’m not with them any more. I’m not with any label right now. But I have a sort of sense of optimism about all that.
As far as the marketplace is concerned, I think there’s a certain slot I fall into. It’s like triple-A radio, maybe, and it’s whatever the channel is on the two satellite stations. I mean, I’m aware of all that, but I try not to think about it when I’m creating. At all. I don’t think I need to. I try to make my songs accessible just because that’s the way I like songs to be.
That’s been a hallmark of all of your stuff. I interviewed Tommy Keene several months ago, and he went on an on about you. He’s one of the ones that believes that Field Day  was far superior to your first album. I told him that I loved the first one, and that my problem with Field Day was with the sound Steve Lillywhite–who I love as a producer–gave the drums. I didn’t like the drum sound. How important do you think a producer’s input is?
It just depends on the producer’s style, what their orientation is. But I stood over his shoulder every second. I was on him like white on rice. He didn’t do a single thing–at any point–that I didn’t want him to do. And I wanted to make a kind of explosive-sounding record.
You know, the demos for the songs on my first album are so much rawer and sparer. But my first album has a very smoothed-over type of sound for my money. And it was really hard to make that record; I had to kind of just shove my stuff into this big machine to get it out there. I had to go through all these hurdles with the record company and shit.
The guy who produced it was the guy from The Strangeloves, right?
Richard Gottehrer. I had known him. We met on a Robert Gordon session.
But anyhow, my line that I’ve been using lately–and this is the truth–is that most of the music I really like myself has some tension, some distortion. So Field Day was a reaction on my part to what I felt was a too-polite-sounding debut album.
What happened was, I was supposed to produce my first record myself. I kind of lied my way into the job; I really did, and I actually feel kind of bad about it now. Because I cut this guy out of it, this guy named Alan Betrock. It’s one of my sins that I committed in my life. I’ll always carry some guilt about it. I really should have done my first record with Alan. I wish now that I had. [Betrock died in 2000–ed.]
Anyway, I got in the studio…the only track on the record that survives from the sessions I did myself is “Cynical Girl.” It’s one of the best ones on there.
Yes, it is.
But even then, Richard had a really good suggestion on that one: he made me change the bass line. I left everything else as it was, but he said, “the only thing that’s wrong with this is the bass line; it’s cheesy.” And he was right. So I changed that.
It’s kind of a walking bass line…
It’s got a little bit of movement to it.
Do you write songs, then road-test them and refine them before recording, or do you write in the studio?
Well, as soon as I finish [writing] a song, I put it in the set; right away. It’s really uplifting to have a new song to play, one that you know is finished. It just gives all of the other ones a lift. It makes the old ones seem new again when you have a brand-new song. I’ve got three or four new ones that I’m going to play tonight. A couple of them are recorded already. “In the can,” so to speak.
Do you approach each album as a whole (whether thematically unified or not), or is each one more a collection of your best songs at that time?
After I get a handful of tunes, I usually write the music first, and then go back and write the lyrics. Usually what happens is that I get two or three finished for some reason or another, and then as it goes on, yeah. I start to see it as a group of songs, and how they fit together. Yeah, I do think in terms of crafting an album. I guess it’s been like that for me all the way down the line.
But when I was doing the first album, I was just writing a lot of songs, recording a lot of songs.
Even though I haven’t finished enough songs–as we speak–to make another album, I [already] have a sense of the shape of it, the general atmosphere of it.
Subconsciously, that probably colors the kinds of things that you’ll write…
I guess so, yeah. I’m just chipping away at it.
I have a half-dozen or so live bootlegs of your shows. About half of them are from ’82-’83. How do you feel about fans recording your shows and swapping the recordings?
It’s just a fact. It’s just something that happens. Any sign of enthusiasm on the part of anybody, for my stuff…it’s a good thing.
In my experience, it tends to be people that have already gone out and bought everything that’s for sale anyway. I mean, somebody’s not going to have a bunch of bootlegs and then not have all your legitimate, commercially-available stuff.
Yeah, I mean, I’ve bought bootleg records myself before. But it’s always people that I have all their records anyway. So I guess that’s kinda how that works.
Oh, I should mention my movie…
Right–I read something about that–you’re doing something for Judd Apatow, the guy who did The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad.
Maybe you could put something about that in the piece.
Note: Marshall wrote the theme song to Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. The song was nominated for a Golden Globe Award, but unfortunately didn’t win.