Singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw may not be the next big thing in rock, but he's certainly the next good thing.
His lean and breezy, highly melodic, hook-laden songs vividly recall a more innocent era running from Buddy Holly to the Byrds. It's music at once intimate and universal, a '55 Chevy with a V8 engine, lovingly tuned and sparked by someone who was virtually unknown outside New York six months ago.
Rock genealogists have convincingly traced Crenshaw's musical influences to Holly (whom he vaguely resembles), the Beatles (he spent two years impersonating John Lennon in "Beatlemania") and Elvis Costello (whom he also looks like). Those musical and physical connections seem accurate but distressing to the 28-year-old Detroit native. "I don't think they're necessary," he says with a trace of exasperation. "Holly his first true influence is valid. And during the '70s, I only listened to old rock 'n' roll. But I'm not trying to bring back the '50s or '60s. All I do, what anybody who makes music does, is draw from the sounds that are around them and try to use them in an interesting way. I look at it this way--most '70s rock is forgotten and the other stuff seems to have survived. I think that's the way history is going to see it."
The qualities in Crenshaw's music that seem so fresh in 1982, of course, are little more than an updating of the spirit, a renewal of the heart of early rock. Also, he is being heard by a whole new generation of record buyers. Crenshaw sums up his feelings about the attraction to rock's roots--its innocence, simplicity and exuberance: "I've tried to analyze it, maybe too much, but there does seem to be a strong human element that runs through old rock 'n' roll, and that got lost in the '70s. The main thing I like about that stuff is that it's unself-conscious and that it generally achieves what it sets out to do."
Cluttered with ringing harmonies, compelling melodies and tensile production, "Marshall Crenshaw" achieves what it set out to do, turning into one of the brightest summer records in a decade and becoming one of the few records to be embraced by critics and radio programmers alike. Four weeks after its release, it sits tenaciously on Billboard's chart, No. 59 with double bullets. The year-old buzz from the streets of New York has turned into a nationwide roar of approval, leaving Crenshaw a bit confused as to whether this sudden acceptance is a blessing, weight or challenge.
"The smartest thing for me to do is to be happy that we've been well received and try to not take it seriously," he says. "It's better if I don't let it affect me or my work or behavior to any great extent." Which in rock 'n' roll is a bit like dreaming the impossible dream, though one suspects that Crenshaw's gleanings from the past may include some common sense to match the earnest endeavor of his revivalism.
A latecomer to songwriting, Crenshaw has been playing music since he was big enough to plunk on a guitar, with younger brother Robert pounding out rhythms on pots and pans and all available flat surfaces; that familial combination, augmented by bassist Chris Donato, appears at the 9:30 club tonight.
Growing up in Detroit provided a spirited musical backdrop for Motown pop, the British Invasion, hard-edged R&B, and the compelling echoes of an earlier era in the music of Holly, the Everly Brothers, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. High school garage bands became cover bands (mostly doing oldies when everyone else was into Uriah Heep and Deep Purple--"we were notorious").
In 1976, Crenshaw answered a newspaper ad for Lennon look-alikes for a touring company of "Beatlemania." He and his brother sent in a homemade tape with a perfect imitation of "I Should Have Known Better," accompanied by a shot of Marshall in wire-rimmed glasses; he landed the role. After two years of wigging into Lennon from mop-top to shoulder-length-hair (including a week-long stay at Merriweather Post Pavilion), Crenshaw left to become Crenshaw (keeping the wire-rimmed glasses). The early part of the show had been fun enough--classic Beatles harmonies surface in his own work--but "on their later stuff, they were so much more . . . self-conscious . . . in their approach."
The songwriting didn't start in earnest until Crenshaw left "Beatlemania." ("I don't know why. Maybe I never felt it was necessary? No, that's not right.") Shopping his homemade tapes around to record companies and producers, Crenshaw sold three songs to former Washingtonian Robert Gordon, who had a substantial hit with "Some Day, Some Way." Crenshaw still remembers the transcendent moment, hearing one of his songs being played for the first time. "I just sat there and realized that I'd just heard my song on the radio; I felt vindicated. The hilarious thing is that right after, they played Buddy Holly's 'Maybe Baby,' so it was almost like a joke."
Now of course, with his own album out, we have the last laugh, along with Crenshaw, who has the enthusiasm of a true believer, reinventing rock 'n' roll.