He's played John Lennon in Beatlemania and Buddy Holly in "La Bamba", but Marshall Crenshaw has never seemed comfortable playing the part of a rock and roll star. His music has always been a little too hip for the masses, and playing a cult-hero seems just fine with him.
Crenshaw will be performing as part of The Sanctuary Concerts in Chatham, New Jersey on November 12th and at Joe's Pub in New York City on November 27th. You never know what you're going to get at a Crenshaw show these days as he not only rolls out material from throughout his catalog but isn't afraid to completely change course while on stage.
"I never make a setlist when I play solo," Crenshaw explained. "I always just think about what the first three or four songs are going to be. I played a show in Chicago last weekend where I did a set where it was an old one and then a more recent one and then an old one and a recent one. And then I started getting into some cover tunes. I wound up doing a little two or three song tribute to Doc Pomus, who is a friend of mine. Then I heard somebody say something about Eddie Cochran so I did about five Eddie Cochran songs. There's some margin of unpredictability in the whole thing, but I play stuff from most of my records."
His catalog is filled with hits everyone in the world knows and misses that could and probably should have been just as big. Songs like "Someday, Someway" and "Whenever You're On My Mind" not only established Crenshaw as an excellent songwriter but remain staples of radio stations over twenty years later. The mystery is why later songs like "This Is Easy", "Valerie", "Some Place Where Love Can't Find Me", and "Better Back Off" never reached that same level.
"I really can't say," said Crenshaw. "I have about 150 possible answers to that question and on any given day I might give one of those answers. They're all some part of the truth. Other days I just go I don't know, it just happened the way it happened."
Marshall's last record, "What's In The Bag", was released in 2003. He said he's got the bug again to start writing and recording so we might be able to see a new release next year or the year after.
"The thing is that for a couple of years we were living in a rented house because we didn't know where we wanted to live," he explained. "So I had all of my gear set up in a spare bedroom. I wasn't writing much during that time. I really need to have my little sanctuary - my space. For about ten years I had a studio space set up behind our house in Woodstock. I wrote a lot of songs in that room and did the bulk of three albums there."
"We just moved in August and I just got back from looking at the back part of a barn that's on our property that these guys just finished renovating for me. They're going to have everything cleaned out tomorrow or the next day and I'm all jazzed up about that. I kind of looked around and was trying to picture where I'd put my drums and this and that. I'm eager to use that room and to make music, so I think I should be starting up pretty soon. I've got the bug to do it. I'm brainstorming it now."
Even when he's not out supporting a new album Crenshaw still does about fifty shows a year. He no longer plays the punk rock clubs like he did in the early 80s, but prefers to play nicer places like performance arts centers. He lovingly calls it the "NPR circuit".
"I remember when I started out with my band we used to play a lot of places that were kind of punk rock type venues," recalled Crenshaw. "At some point about 12 years ago I kind of made a transition where I reached the point where I couldn't stand to be in a dressing room with busted up furniture and stupid crap written all over the walls. I mean, I never liked it but I came up with a never for those places. I called them /c,C Aurock toilets' and said I don't want to play rock toilets anymore. So, the NPR circuit is like the opposite of a rock toilet. A guy my age likes to keep his dignity! I try to be where I'm supposed to be."
One place Crenshaw never expected to be is in the middle of a 19th Century recording studio. It happened one day when he went to see They Might Be Giants record at the Edison Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey. While he was there somebody asked him if he wanted to do a session as well.
"I was taken aback a little bit, but I couldn't say no," he said. "I really loved it. I particularly liked meeting the guys who ran the recording sessions because they were just so into it. I remember talking with the guy who was the wax cylinder recording engineer. We talked about a recording artist named Billy Murray who was a huge star back in the teens and twenties. I just loved the quaintness of it and the humor in the lyrics. It was really entertaining stuff that sounded like it came from another world. And the guy who ran the wax cyclinder recording told me he had actually bought Billy Murray's old house on Long Island. I just dug it. I have a real fascination with popular music."
And you now you can hear what music makes Marshall tick every Wednesday nights at 9pm on http://www.wkze.com. Just as with his live sets, you never know what Marshall will be spinning next, but you're bound to dig it as well.
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.