Handy With a Hook: Marshall Crenshaw

March 2010 / Roll magazine

When it comes to the mysterious art of songwriting, Marshall Crenshaw’s innate genius has been widely and indelibly established since the release of his self-titled debut in 1982. One of power pop’s undisputed cornerstones, Marshall Crenshaw (Warner Bros. Records), with its addictive Top 40 smash “Someday, Someway” (also a hit for Robert Gordon), “There She Goes,” and other golden gems, helped to make radio much more tolerable for those of us who needed a respite from Loverboy and A Flock of Seagulls. Since then he’s continued to add to his reputation as the songwriter’s songwriter, crafting 10 further studio albums and penning hit tunes for other artists and movie soundtracks. But while Crenshaw, who is also a vastly underrated guitarist, remains a gifted composer, his growing up in Detroit during the 1960s certainly couldn’t have hindered his songwriting chops.

“Oh, sure, Detroit was a great place for music back then,” Crenshaw, says. “[During World War II] there’d been the huge influx of factory workers from the South, so you had a lot of great jazz and R&B musicians. [Local rockabilly singer] Jack Scott was a big influence. My dad took me and my brother [drummer Robert Crenshaw] to see Hendrix once, which was great. And there were a lot of great garage bands—the Stooges, the Frost, the MC5. I saw all of those bands, too.”

In a full-circle move, Crenshaw’s newest effort, the excellent Jaggedland (429 Records), features guest work by none other than MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer. The singer-songwriter’s first full-length in six years, the album houses prickly ruminations on love’s rougher spots (“Stormy River,” “Long Hard Road”) and the ever-precarious state of the world (“Eventually”), making it a much darker disc than many fans may expect. “I guess it is,” says Crenshaw. “A lot of it is about mortality, which came out of me getting older myself and dealing with my dad having an aneurysm and cancer. But it’s not all like that, there’s some joyful stuff on there, too.” Indeed there is: the Buddy Holly-infused rumba “Just Snap Your Fingers” and other upbeat cuts recall the classic Crenshaw pop of the ’80s.

Crenshaw’s first band, the Beatles-inspired ASTIGAFA (an acronym for “A splendid time is guaranteed for all,” a line from Sgt. Pepper’s “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”) no doubt prepared him for his later role as John Lennon in the Broadway musical “Beatlemania.” But instead of sticking with the theater, after his run on the Great White Way ended Crenshaw headed downtown, forming his own trio and making his name on New York’s club scene. Since 1987, however, he’s been a Hudson Valley resident, living first in Woodstock and then Rhinebeck—the latter right up the road from Red Hook’s WKZE studios, where for a time he hosted his own radio show, the wonderfully eclectic “Bottomless Pit.” “[Doing the show] was kinda like therapy for me,” Crenshaw says with a laugh. “But I got really busy with touring and family stuff, so I had to take a hiatus. I should start doing it again, though. It’s a lot of fun.”

In addition to his time with his family and being on the road, Crenshaw has been kept busy by his frequent soundtrack work. His title track for the 2007 comedy Walk Hard was nominated for both a Grammy and a Golden Globe. “It’s funny, that song only took about 20 minutes to write and it did so well,” says Crenshaw. “I’m working on some other soundtrack projects right now, but what I’m really looking forward to is touring again this fall and playing the songs from the new album.” Which definitely gives Crenshaw’s fans much to look forward to as well.