Simple math: 12 deep x 30 years = “Marshall Crenshaw” (April 28, 1982-April 28, 2012)

Spring of 1982, a sunny Saturday April afternoon. Junior year of college, C.W. Post Campus, Long Island University, in Brookville, L.I. Headed back to campus with a friend from the Burger King where I worked that school year, a couple miles west on Northern Boulevard in Greenvale. The radio was turned to one of the only stations that mattered: “102.7, WNEW-FM in New York, where rock lives,” as the deejays’ station ID put it.

And the jock (I want to say it was Dan Neer, since it was Saturday afternoon, which is when I have my mental pictures of Danno surfing up Third Avenue at show’s end to The Ventures’ “Hawaii Five-O”) played the latest single by Robert Gordon.

Robert was my gateway to rockabilly as a 16-year-old in the summer of 1977, when he debuted with the first of his two albums with Link Wray. I heard “Red Hot,” and especially “Flying Saucers Rock’n’Roll” all summer. And the next spring, it would be their second album, “Fresh Fish Special,” which included “The Way I Walk,” “Twenty Flight Rock” and a new song written by Bruce Springsteen, called “Fire.” (This was a year before The Pointer Sisters” smash version.)

Fast-forward four years. And the jock was introducing a bouncy yet hard-driving tune, rockabilly yet classic pop at the same time, called “Someday, Someway.” He said it was a song written by a musician I had never heard of. The way he said the name, it was as if he was familiar with him and that we should be, too. And the name definitely had a cool, rock’n’roll ring to it — a guy with a name this cool should be explored.

A couple weeks later, his own version arrived in the local record stores on his self-titled debut album. Yesterday (April 28) was the 30th anniversary of the release of that album, which has stood solidly almost alongside Pet Sounds in my personal pantheon of favorite albums. And a week and a half ago, I pulled out the 2000 Rhino CD re-release of Marshall Crenshaw and popped it into my car’s disc player. Haven’t gotten sick of it yet. Sounds pretty damn good for 30.

*****

All I knew about Crenshaw then was that he was from Detroit, looked like a schoolboy (even at 28) and had played John Lennon in a road production of Beatlemania. And that Someday, Someway was a great introductory card.

I didn’t really get the full impact of the album until late that summer. I won a contest on the Wednesday-night “Top 9 at 9” show on WPLR in New Haven, which entitled me to nine LPs of my choice at Cutler’s Records in downtown New Haven. (Which is now the only record store left in a city that had at least four at that time. Sad.) These years later, the three albums of the bunch I remember picking up were The Blasters, Vacation by The Go-Go’s … and Marshall Crenshaw.

Since I wouldn’t have my own stereo until that winter, I played the records on my parents’ old Montgomery Ward stereo console from the early ’70s. Not-so-good sound quality, but I was into music that didn’t call for very high fidelity.

And as I listened to Marshall front to back for the first time, I was amazed. And I was reeled in with the thickest test line available. (Yes, a fishing reference — as if I’ve fished since high school …)

I can still recite the song list from memory: “There She Goes Again.” (Not to be confused with The Velvet Underground’s song of the same name.) “Someday, Someway.” “Girls.” “I”ll Do Anything.” “Rockin’ Around in NYC.” “The Usual Thing.” “She Can’t Dance.” “Cynical Girl.” “Mary Anne.” “Soldier of Love.”  (The album’s lone remake — his version of a 1962 B-side by Arthur Alexander that was popularized by The Beatles, with Lennon singing lead.) “Not for Me.” “Brand New Lover.”

Part of it was the production, to be sure. It was simple. It was a throwback, in all the good ways. The original band was only a trio — Marshall, brother Robert on drums, Chris Donato on bass. The already-legendary Richard Gottherer (co-writer of “My Boyfriend’s Back,”  member of The Strangeloves and co-writer of “I Want Candy,” producer of the debut albums by Blondie and The Go-Go’s) manned the board. And he delivered a clean, neatly done record through and through.

But a lot of it was the writing, seemingly a synthesis of everything that Marshall listened to on the radio from the ’50s to the ’80s. There were rockabilly and Beatles and soul and even ’70s power pop. The songs were a mix of sadness/wistfulness; joyful spirit and defiant, rebound-variety optimism. But it was the pop hooks that won me over. There’s the bounce of “Someday, Someway,” “Rockin’ Around in NYC” (I still harbor dreams of having one of those nights in the City with the right girl), “Brand New Lover,” the rockabilly-rooted “The Usual Thing” and, most especially, the uninhibited exuberance of “She Can’t Dance.” There were bent guitar notes and straight-ahead chime and churn of “Cynical Girl.” And then, there were the ache — the longing — and the arching melodies that accompanied it. “Not for Me” and “Mary Anne” wear their heartaches like a tattoo sleeve.

And above all, there was one of the best summer songs ever — “Girls,” which is essentially The Young Rascals’ “Groovin” with power chords plus a touch of Beatles; even has congas and vocal harmonies behind it. “I fall in love from my head to my feet/when I’m watching all the girls walking down the street,” Marshall longingly aches … and I fall in love with the album all over again. And yet again.

Again, 12 songs — 12 deep. I’ve always contended that rock’n’roll is the ultimate youth serum, but while I’ve never felt anywhere near my actual age (chronologically 50, spiritually about 27, 28), this album winds the clock back to 21 for me, figuratively as well as literally. There’s that sort of seeming, if not actual, innocence to it.

*****

For all but my junior year of college, I had a work-study job in the school’s public relations office: answering phones, running errands, etc.

Two of the full-time staffers there were music fiends the likes I had never seen up-close before. Bob Columbe and Peter Crescenti, both short guys with beards, were cut of the same cloth. They were avid doo-wop fiends, as well as old-school gospel; in my senior year, they brought a doo-wop show to campus, as well as a gospel program with both Five Blind Boys groups (Alabama and Mississippi) on the same program — both shows of which I got to see.

And they were the most rabid Honeymooners fans in creation. Always throwing obscure lines and references from the show across the cubicles (can’t remember how many times I heard Neapolitan knockwurst mentioned at lunch). Marvin Kitman, who was Newsday’s longtime TV columnist, ran at least a couple of their Honeymooners trivia quizzes in his column. And — spurred on by this dweeby work-study student, who made an offhand suggestion one December Friday morning — they created an international Honeymooners fan club called RALPH; it was the main reason Jackie Gleason released the show’s “lost episodes” from his vault.

But that’s another story for another time. The bottom line: The guys knew their shit.

And one day in the spring of my last year, Bob asked the weird kid at the front desk: “Hey Frannie, have you ever heard of this guy named Marshall Crenshaw?”

“Oh, yeah. He’s great. Why?”

“I was listening to a radio show over the weekend where he was interviewed, and they asked him about some of his musical influences, and he mentioned Eldon Shamblin of Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys. That impressed me.”

Cool. A neat generational crossing between budding music dweeb and a couple of crusty, older listeners. And another of Marshall’s encyclopedia of influences. A guy who played John Lennon onstage, who played Buddy Holly tunes, covered an Arthur Alexander song on his debut album and referenced Bob Wills’ guitarist. And as his career carried on, we got to hear other influences in songs he redid: The Parliaments (aka the pre-acid George Clinton). Smokey Robinson. Bobby Fuller (a splendid version of “Let Her Dance” that even outdid Fuller). As he told me in a 1991 interview for the my most evil first newspaper, the Waterbury Republican-American, the title of his new album at the time, Life’s Too Short, was taken from The Lafayettes’ 1961 song of the same name, which was included in John Waters’ original Hairspray.

And, speaking of the movies, the guy who wrote the book Hollywood Rock, a compendium of rock’n’roll in the movies, was able to reference himself a couple of times, too — both times making appearances performing Holly songs. In Peggy Sue Got Married, he and his original band played both “Peggy Sue” and the title song. In La Bamba, he got to play Holly for real, big glasses and all, doing “Crying, Waiting, Hoping.”

*****

Why Marshall never got beyond cultish status — or at least the weird space in between — is beyond me.

For whatever reason, he and Warner Bros. changed course for the follow-up album, Field Day, which came out shortly after I graduated from college in the late spring of ’83. The production went to Steve Lillywhite, who had the hottest hand in the business at the time, coming off the first three U2 albums. And his heavier sound and Marshall’s songwriting just didn’t mesh. It didn’t bury such great songs as “Whenever You’re on My Mind” and “Our Town,” but it sure didn’t help. It muddied the soundscape, is anything.

(And poor Marshall was sandwiched — buried — in the biggest concert-bill mismatch this side of Springsteen opening for Anne Murray in Central Park in ’74. Saw him that June in the New Haven Coliseum as the middle act between U2, then waving the flag literally for their War album; and The Alarm, who had just come out all guns a-blazing with their debut EP, which included “The Stand.” Marshall, ever the schoolboyish-looking guy back then, seemed so lost between the bombast of the other two acts.)

Actually, in retrospect, you can look at Field Day as a pop masterpiece in spite of the production, simply on the strength of Marshall’s writing. In 20/20 hindsight, this record went 10 deep: “Whenever You’re on My Mind,” “Our Town,” the Hollyesque “One More Reason,” the vocal harmony-driven “Try,” “One Day With You,” “For Her Love,” “Monday Morning Rock,” “All I Know Right Now,” “What Time Is It” (the disc’s lone remake, of The Jive Five’s doo-wop classic), “Hold It.” Two albums, 22 songs, 22 gems. That’s a hell of a start.

But while Marshall has continued to create great and memorable tunes — “Little Wild One (No. 5),” “Blues Is King,” “Mary Jean,” “Calling out for Love (at Crying Time),” “Somebody Crying,” “Better Back Off,” “Stop Doing That,” “You Should Have Been There,” “Starless Summer Sky,” “Television Light” — he never became a superstar. Unlike the boundless optimism of his very first single on Shake Records in 1981, “Something’s Gonna Happen,” the bigtime didn’t happen. The debut album reached No. 50 on Billboard; “Someday, Someway” would be his only top-40 hit, getting to 36. And Marshall joined the multitude of artists just too damned good for the mainstream.

As a music fan, it still breaks my heart,.

*****

In 2000, Rhino released two Crenshaw CDs as a tag team: This Is Easy: The Best of Marshall Crenshaw — and an enhanced reissue of the debut album, which includes 10 bonus songs (well, nine tracks, technically, but the last track also includes a demo version of “Brand New Lover” with sleighbells and space sounds). And it seems to be out of print now, for whatever stupid reasons record companies make stupid decisions, but it’s wonderful if you can find it.

It has some sweet gems that didn’t make the LP: a lazy Beatlesque demo called “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time” (released on one of Warner’s Killer B’s collections at the time); “Starlit Summer Sky,” a sweet 1979 demo that somehow, by the time he recorded it for his 1996 Miracle of Science album, became “Starless Summer Sky”; a neat solo electric-guitar version of Holly’s “Rave On” that he performed on Joe From Chicago’s afternoon-drive show on WPLR (the B-side of “Cynical Girl”); and live versions of some of his Detroit soul heroes: Edwin Starr’s “S.O.S. (Stop Her on Sight,” The Parliaments’ “Look at What I Almost Missed” and The Miracles’ “I’ve Been Good to You.”

And a copy of this has been what’s been playing in my car nearly two weeks now. I guess I’ll have to switch discs at some point, but I’m still having fun with this. And I still can’t believe it’s been 30 years already. Damn.

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8 Responses to “Simple math: 12 deep x 30 years = “Marshall Crenshaw” (April 28, 1982-April 28, 2012)”

  1. PaulS Says:

    After 30 years that damn thing still sounds brand new to me. He does a show on WFUV Saturday night froms 10 – 11pm called “The Bottomless Pit”. Still one of my favorite performers.

  2. Drew Cucuzza Says:

    Fran, thanks for reminding us how music is an *event* in our lives. This Friday will mark 30 years since I bought half of David Bowie’s discography at Cutlers and this Sunday will be 30 years since I bought the other half, minus the out of print live album “Stage”. Three decades later those albums are one of the great dividing lines of my teen years.

    FOUR record stores! Cutler’s, the Co-op, the downstairs Festoons and the old Rhymes, when it was on the right and had an Olivia Records section. The women there found me that copy of “Stage” that I needed. A promo, even.

    • franoramaworld Says:

      Darlin’, I forgot about the Co-Op — which is strange, considering I bought most of my pine crates to hold most of my LPs there. So that makes five: Rhymes, Cutler’s, the Co-Op (for non-New Haveners, all of them on the same block), Festoon’s and the Record Town at the Chapel Square Mall, where I bought a bunch of old-school 12-inchers when they were pre-school.

    • franoramaworld Says:

      And to go back to your first sentence: Part of the problem is that new music ceased to be an “event.” There’s not that much that holds my interest anymore, and I’d certainly like to think that it’s not because I’ve gotten older. I do like some newer things — Sharon Jones (Actually, Sharon’s older than me), New Pornographers, She & Him, Sarah Borges, our pal Jenny Dee, Amy Winehouse when we had her, Adele to a point — but the earth-shattering, make-you-stop-what-you’re-doing moments are so few and far between now. I see kids either groping for that next new thing, or just putting out the most base and unoriginal crap and then acting as if they invented the damn wheel. Saw a video of Gotye from “SNL” last week and was astounded — this easy-listening for twentysomethings was what passed for “hip” and “edgy”? “Hipster” was more like it, in every negative sense of the word.

      I might have to do something about it, if I can find the right musicians ..

      • It's Drew! Says:

        I think a huge part of it is that you don’t have to seek your music out anymore. When you had to search out radio stations,magazines and record stores to find this stuff there was a much stronger conenction,from a combination of having to work to find it and the connection you had with people who did the same. And I think it does have something to do with getting older, but not because we’re too busy telling those damn kids to get off the lawn, but because so many of our earth-shattering changes happen when we’re younger, both in discovering new culture to call our own and in discovering new identities to call our own.That huge impact that Bowie had on me? His ever-changing roles sparked the idea in me that I didn’t have to be a nervous, socially awkward teen forever. And not being a teen is the least of the changes in me since that day 30 years ago when I walked into Cutler’s with $50 and a little hope for the future.

  3. jmucci Says:

    Great article. I think I discovered this album sometime in the late 1980s. It might have been (but I no longer know for sure) because of an album review that you might have written about one of his later albums, and because you talked about how perfect that first album was, I went out and bought it. Either way, I fell in love with this album myself, from beginning to end and I also have never gotten the slightest bit tired of it. I wrote a review of it for The Beat Patrol, as well as his next couple of albums.
    Yes, Cutler’s is the only place left and it’s obviously much smaller than it used to be, but at least it’s still nice that it’s there and it’s the same people in that store after all these years. It’s nice that some things you can still count on. I used to go there from Waterbury at least once a week and blow my paycheck. Rhymes was another good store and the Yale Co-op. I don’t think I remember the other stores you’re talking about (I went to NH almost regularly from about 1989-1995) and only go a few times a year now. I do remember a Strawberries record store (4 floors) down by Yale.
    As far as newer stuff, I think there is some good music out there, it just takes a little bit more work to find it. It’s good that someone like Adele has actually made it big. Sometimes a person with actual talent really does still rise to the top.
    I have to say, I like the Gotye song. Whether it’s “hip” or “edgy” or not, I don’t know, but I like his song. There are not too many big songs out there that I actually feel are worth listening to. But I like that one. I think it sounds a bit like The Police mixed with the moodiness of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” or Eurythmics’ “Here Comes the Rain Again.” It doesn’t sound like that stuff, necessarily, as it kind of evokes some of the same atmosphere.

  4. Bob Nary Says:

    Someday, Someway. So open. Always felt like Buddy Holly was back for one more song to me. Nice article Fran. thanks!

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