Marshall Crenshaw: Before the Whole Thing Crumbles to the Ground

Marshall Crenshaw at The Ark, 15 August:

Before the Whole Thing Crumbles to the Ground

“Thank God there are some people here.”

With those words, Marshall Crenshaw sat down on a stool with an acoustic guitar on the stage of The Ark. There were, oh, maybe 200 people there, many of whom paid $17.50 to hear a man whose career should have been made solely on the basis of “Cynical Girl.” But consider the number of people on-site. Consider the fact that Crenshaw was essentially playing to a home-town crowd (his mom and dad were in the audience: “My mom and dad are here tonight,” he announced during his encore [“A standing-O at The Ark. . . I’ll have to add that to my list of. . .accomplishments.”], adding, “I guess I wouldn’t be here tonight if it wasn’t for them”). Consider “Someday, Someway.” Consider “Little Wild One (No.5)” (“I recorded the demo for that in a basement in Ann Arbor.”). Consider that he stated that his forthcoming live disc, “I’ve Suffered for My Art. . .Now It’s Your Turn,” is being handled by Borders, which is headquartered a couple blocks away from The Ark, and based on the applause that the Borders reference generated, it was clear that a not-insignificant portion of the crowd probably didn’t pony up the full price of a ticket.

“Thank God there are some people here”?!?!?

If there is any indication that musical success is a matter of marketing, then the fact that a man who has been working it on vinyl since 1981 and who has crafted some of the best pop, period, is playing to that size crowd nails it. (I saw Crenshaw perform once before, in a bar in Royal Oak, in the early ’70s—and the crowd was about the same, but we were there for the drinks; the entertainment was secondary for our reason for being there, but it became a hell of a lot more memorable than the Stroh’s.)

Like probably many of you, I’ve had this sense that if a musician “makes it,” as in becoming exceedingly popular, that musician has somehow become less—sold out, or something. Which is probably asinine and is certainly elitist. Even cynical. But the only way that I can justify the lack of appreciation for Crenshaw is to cop to the notion that the taste of the masses is a mess.

The man was produced by people including Steve Lillywhite and T-Bone Burnett. He had the wit to put out a single, “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time,” accompanied by The Handsome, Ruthless & Stupid Band—he played all of the instruments. He included in his set at The Ark rockabilly curios “The Girl on Death Row” and “Endless Sleep,” both from ’59. Talking about writing “He’s a Dime a Dozen Guy,” he cracked that he had heard “Livin’ La Vita Loca” while driving and then “followed a rule of songwriters,” “When in doubt, steal from Desmond Child.” A rule of songwriters with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

The guy is far too clever for his own good.

II

Fame Is A Whore; She’s Nobody’s Mistress

In retrospect, the foregoing is wrong. Crenshaw is not too clever for his own good. He is simply clever.

Do I—or anyone else—want to go see a performer who is standing on a stage in a big auditorium such that he or she appears to be about the size of a Coke bottle, or do I want to be in a place where I grab a seat and actually see the guy?

Does Crenshaw, or any other musician, want to play in a mammoth hall with the acoustical properties of a cave?

It is unfortunate that I have fallen into the trap of believing that success for performers equates to mass popularity—if the person isn’t on the radio ad nauseum, if his or her mug isn’t on the cover of Rolling Stone or People or whatever, if the recording isn’t touted in the Best Buy supplement, then that person hasn’t arrived. Which is nonsense.

After writing the first half of this piece, I did some checking on Crenshaw’s career. He has bookings running over the next several months. Not stadia, but various clubs in the U.S. and even in Japan.

Presumably, Crenshaw is working as much as he needs to be working. He is clearly concentrating on his music (over the years, his recordings have gotten better without losing the freshness that is quintessential to his sound). He is not, evidently, worried about the trappings that are now associated with “Rock Stardom.” (Oddly enough, the start of the whole rock stardom phenomenon can be associated with the Beatles, and Crenshaw actually played as Lennon in “Beatlemania” for a couple of years before actually forming a band. Crenshaw quit what was probably a pretty lucrative, certain gig to take a flyer at his own music.)

As I think about what he is up to, I think about what goes on at this site. So at the risk of coming off as self-serving (and trust me, I am not talking about me but about the others who make this all possible and who keep me honest with their work), let me use GloNo as an example. Although it is proclaimed in the box on the upper left-hand corner of this page “If we were professionals we wouldn’t be here,” it seems to me that the level of thought and writing on this page tends to be of a quality that far surpasses what would be acceptable for so-called “professional” musical/cultural analysis. The mainstream wouldn’t accept it.

Don’t be misled. There is no correlation between popularity and what’s necessarily good. Sometimes it happens (arguably the Beatles are an example). More often than not that’s not the case. Focus on the performance, the words, the quality of the work. At the end, that’s all that matters.

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