Marshall Crenshaw on songwriting, covers, and the album cover he absolutely hates

Marshall Crenshaw on songwriting, covers, and the album cover he absolutely hates

In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process.

The artist: Marshall Crenshaw, a veteran singer-songwriter who spent the late ’70s playing John Lennon in the touring company of the rock revue Beatlemania, the early ’80s as a critical favorite hailed for his sophisticated guitar pop, and the rest of his career as a beloved journeyman who pops up every few years with a new set of catchy songs. Crenshaw’s latest release is the EP I Don’t See You Laughing Now, the first of a vinyl EP series that Crenshaw is selling via subscription on his website.

“I Don’t See You Laughing Now” (from 2012’s I Don’t See You Laughing Now EP)
Marshall Crenshaw: That’s a piece of music that I wrote when I was working on my last album, Jaggedland. At the beginning I copied the drumbeat to “Billie Jean,” then I started noodling around and came up with this riff that I thought sounded like an old Steve Miller Band riff from the ’70s, and just went from there. When I was first kind of mumbling into the microphone, I was calling it “Get A Load Of Laughing Boy,” but I didn’t like that. Eventually I came around to “I Don’t See You Laughing Now,” thinking, “Huh, what’s that? Somebody getting their comeuppance.” I kept chewing on that thought for a while. At this point, the song is an expression of moral outrage. It’s directed at a composite of villains. It’s actually maybe a little more narrowly focused than that, but I’d rather just have people make of it what they will. I don’t want to get too specific of who I was thinking of when I wrote it.

Anyway, that’s kind of how that works. I like the track a lot. There’s a guitar player on there named Andy York, who’s a good friend of mine. I like the guitar playing—my own and his.

The A.V. Club: What’s behind the distribution method, the idea of doing the EP series?

MC: This idea formed in my mind a couple years ago. It’s a combination of other people’s ideas, frankly. I felt like the album-making process was something that maybe I didn’t want to go through again. I’ve been doing it all my adult life, where I stockpile a bunch of songs and dump them all out at once. Then I saw somewhere that Sam Phillips was doing some kind of subscription situation with new material, and I also read an article about Third Man Records—you know, Jack White, talking about vinyl. I just kept nodding my head, “Yes, yes, yes,” throughout that article, where he was talking about the beauty of records as an object, which I’ve always felt myself. Every male person I know has some kind of hardware that they fetishize over. With me, I got intrigued with records as a child, and I still like them. 

I’m so happy with the way the first one has turned out. I have a lot of confidence about the rest of them, too. I think it’s a good situation, that’ll be motivating and inspiring for me, and I’m hoping that other people will love it also. 

AVC: Have you already recorded everything that you’re going to be putting out?

MC: Nope, I haven’t. I’ve got the second one done. I’m midway through the third. That was the other thing: I didn’t want to do it all in advance. I want it to be as much in the moment as possible as this stuff comes along. I don’t want to get behind the curve and miss any deadlines, but at the same time, I want it to be as new and fresh as it can be when it comes out. 

“Passing Through” (from 2009’s Jaggedland)
MC: When I play that one live, I always introduce it as “a joyful song about mortality,” which is what it is, I guess. I worked on it with a woman named Kelley Ryan. She’s a songwriter and a friend of mine. I had the title, and I was a little bit stuck initially with the words, which is typical for me. She volunteered to help, so I said, “Why don’t you do me a favor? Look out your window.” She lives in the southern part of Ireland, and her house faces the ocean. I said, “Just look out your window, and write some words and send me whatever happens.” What I got back wasn’t what I expected. I don’t know why, but the couple times when she’s visited us at home, it’s been when we’ve lived in New York City, and I think in her head, we still live in New York City, even though we don’t right now. So her words seemed to have that flavor of a city, which is the opposite of what I was expecting to get.

There were some really beautiful lines in her draft, though, like the thing about the sparkling concrete. Sometimes you see that on a sidewalk at night. I don’t know what they use in the concrete, but sometimes it catches the light and sparkles. I thought all that stuff was beautiful, and I kind of wrote the rest of it around these five or six lines of hers that I cherry-picked. I wanted to make it as dreamlike as possible. That’s what it’s about. It’s about the idea of mortality: walking down the street, ghosts of old friends. I pictured my wife and I walking through the neighborhood in the East Village where we used to live. We did have friends back then who are no longer alive, so it’s all kind of true-to-life in a way.

When we did the track, I recorded it in Los Angeles. The Jaggedland sessions were really a ton of fun for me. I was in the room with the guys, with Jim Keltner and Greg Leisz and Sebastian Steinberg and Emil Richards. We just were in a circle playing these tunes. Jim Keltner, after we played it once, he got up from his drum stool, went over to his cases, and he pulled out a plastic toy snare drum and put it up on the stand. I recognized it because when I was a kid, there was a friend of mine from down the street who had an Ebony snare drum exactly like the one Keltner had. My friend’s had a drumhead on it that said “The Beatles Drum,” and it had a picture of The Beatles. Anyway, he put this plastic snare drum up there and hit it, and it sounded like an explosion. I guess you have to be Jim Keltner to make a toy snare drum sound that way, but that’s what’s on the record. I think it’s a really beautiful track. It’s one of my best songs I think.

AVC: You mentioned it being about mortality. When singer-songwriters reach a certain age, a lot of times critics assume that they’re “maturing” and becoming more reflective. Are they reading too much into these songs?

MC: Not with me. I feel like I write from my own point of view. In fact, I was talking about this with someone yesterday. They mentioned a song of mine, and I said that it was one that had fallen by the wayside for me, because in reality, it wasn’t about anything or anybody. I was just me pasting some words to a melody. Now that I’ve written a bunch of songs and have been doing this for a long time, I’ve learned that unless it’s really about something real for me, it just won’t last. That’s how it works. I’m just trying to write from my own heart and my own reality, and not by rote, just making up shit. I’m not shy about the fact that I’m the age that I am. I’m almost 60. I’m not trying to backpedal on that or dance around it. I know some people do feel compelled to do that, but I don’t. 

“Fantastic Planet Of Love” (from 1991’s Life’s Too Short)

MC: Again, with me, it’s always the music first. I was just trying to fool around with these chords. I was thinking about Louis Prima, and certain kinds of jazzy rock music. That was the idea of it. Although it doesn’t sound anything at all like Louis Prima. It’s in a minor key. Lyrically, that’s a theme that’s in a few of my songs, about somebody who feels bombarded sometimes, overloaded, and relies on a particular person to keep them sane. “It’s only by your side that I ever dream of a fantastic planet of love.” That idea is in a lot of my songs, I guess. Or at least a few.

AVC: You were talking a moment ago about making sure the songs you write express something about your own life, but also said that lyrics don’t always come easily to you. Is that why you’ve been doing more covers later in you career? Because if you can’t express something personally, you can do it through someone else’s song?

MC: No, the covers are just for fun. I’ve always liked going to gigs myself and hearing a band pull something out of left field. I remember going to see my friend Mitch Easter and his band Let’s Active many years ago, and when they came out for their encore they did “Shakin’ Street” by MC5. I was very tickled by that. I think everybody likes that. I do them for myself, and for the crowd to have fun with. That’s all it is, really. But you can get creative with it, too. For a while we were playing “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” by ABBA. People really got a kick out of it, and I love the song. It’s beautiful. 

AVC: When you pick a cover, is it based more on how it will come across in a live setting, or is there something curatorial about it? Like, “I’m going to show people these songs that I love and get them to appreciate them in a whole new way?”

MC: It does reveal something about yourself, the choice you make of a song to play. On my new EP, we do an old one by The Move, called “No Time,” which really stunned me when I heard it back in the day. I really was intrigued with this song. It’s a beautiful song, and it comes in the middle of this album of theirs that’s mostly a lot of straight rock ’n’ roll. It’s kind of an art piece. I used to marvel over this song as a kid. Lyrically, to me, it sounds like a song about the aftermath of a war, or the aftermath of an environmental upheaval or something. An end-of-the-world type song. The Move had a lot of those. They had one called “Yellow Rainbow,” and a handful of other ones that sound like they’re post-apocalyptic stories. I thought it was kind of timely for right now. [Laughs.] A song about the end of the world—it’s right on time. We had a good time doing it. We did it all in just a few hours, me and my friend Glen Burtnik, who I was in Beatlemania with. I’ve known him for 30-plus years. Him and his brother-in-law, who I’ve known for a really long time, we had a good time doing it.

“A Hundred Dollars” (from 1987’s Mary Jean & 9 Others)
MC: I haven’t played that one in a long time. I think it’s kind of nice? That’s about all I have say about it. It’s really just a nice rock ’n’ roll song. There’s this old one called, “I’ve Got Five Dollars And It’s Saturday Night,” so I figured, “Hmm, $5 in 1954, you’d need $100 in 1987 to do the same thing you could do with $5 in the earlier song.” [Laughs.] So maybe it’s kind of an update of “I’ve Got Five Dollars And It’s Saturday Night.” Really, it’s just a straightforward rock ’n’ roll song. It’s got some nice chords in it. [Laughs.] 

AVC: It’s always been one of my favorites. Does that surprise you sometimes, the songs of yours that people latch onto versus ones that you aren’t necessarily as interested in?

MC: Nobody’s mentioned that song to me in ages, but I really like that you like it. That’s great. I worked hard on it. Hey, it probably is pretty good!

“Blues Is King” (from 1985’s Downtown)
MC: Oh boy. That was in a period where I was really having trouble finishing things, and even committing to finishing things. My brain was really pretty scrambled at that point in time. That was after Field Day, and the whole fallout with that, where there was a real sense of doom about my career. It was really weird. If somebody had been able to whisper in my ear back then and tell me that everything was going to be reasonably okay… I wish somebody would’ve been able to do that. I was really worried. After my second album, I went out and had a meeting with a couple people at Warner Bros. I basically begged them to let me off the label. But they wouldn’t do it. They kind of lied to me and said, “We really have faith in you. We want you to stay.” So that was the time period, and I guess that’s why the song has a real downcast vibe to it. It’s pretty dispirited sounding, lyrically. I was really struggling to come up with an idea. I thought of this old B.B. King album title, Blues Is King. I made that the title of the song. I was never 100 percent happy with the lyrics, but I always thought the music was really beautiful, and that the track was nice, too. I don’t play that one much. I haven’t played it probably since the record was out.

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AVC: It’s different from the rest of that album, too. Sonically, it sounds more similar to the first album or Field Day than it does to the rootsier stuff you were doing on Downtown

MC: During that time, I felt like I was really moving forward as a musician and a composer. That song, musically, is quite nice, but I was having a hard time coming up with lyrics I was satisfied with. But then I wasn’t satisfied with anything anybody else would write, either. Oh, well. [Laughs.] Hey, we all have our struggles that we have to go through.

“Our Town” (from 1983’s Field Day)
MC: That’s a nice one, too. It’s just a song about being homesick for what was our home then, New York City. 

AVC: You’ve discussed this to death over the years, but that album was criticized by some at the time because of Steve Lillywhite’s production, which was much bigger-sounding than the sound of your first album. How do you feel about it now?

MC: I had lunch with Steve about a year and a half ago. Hadn’t seen him in a long time. I’d read some interviews with him over the years where he was very contrite about the whole thing. He’d say, “I feel like I really steered Marshall down the wrong path,” and all this stuff. I finally got sick of it. I said, “I’m going to track his ass down, and we’re going to talk about it.” [Laughs.] All in a very good-natured way, because I like him a whole lot. I told him, “Steve, I want to remind you that there wasn’t a single thing about that record that didn’t meet my approval. If there was anything I didn’t like about it, it would’ve gotten changed.” I had a really supportive A&R person back then, and I absolutely had my eyes open. Always.

We had a really great crew on that record. It was Steve and Scott Litt and Garry Rindfuss. All we did every day was just have fun. We were all really happy with the end result. Maybe Steve wasn’t, but he didn’t say so at the time. There were some people back then who suggested that Steve might’ve imposed something on me that shouldn’t have been imposed, but that’s absolutely not the way it was. I wanted that album to be explosive-sounding, and to have a lot of tension in the sound. That was much more to my taste than what my first album was. I’m not knocking my first album, but at the time, I thought it was a little airbrushed-sounding. Then Field Day was maybe too far in the opposite direction. But when we finished that record, I had my feet up on the console. I thought I had the world in my back pocket. When it came out, I was like, “Whoa.” People really reacted strangely.

I had to fight for it, which I did. That was maybe problematic later on. Basically, I was an East Coast signee at Warner Bros., and the people that I answered to on the East Coast all really loved it and understood what I was trying to do. But then there were people on the West Coast who didn’t, and balked at it, and I just balked right back. Then things went the way they went after that, if you know what I mean. But I liked Field Day. I thought it was great. I don’t like the cover, but I like the record. It’s not perfect, but nothing ever is perfect, really.

AVC: Do you think maybe the cover had something to do with the negative reaction? 

MC: Oh without a doubt, yeah. It’s a terrible album cover. [Sighs.] This is one of my sordid show-business stories, I guess, but when we finished the record, my wife and I went on vacation, to visit Steve for a few days in London. He was a superb host. Then she and I and my brother Robert continued on to Prague, where my brother’s girlfriend at the time was working as an assistant director on the movie Amadeus. We spent a few days there, which was pretty interesting, because Czechoslovakia was still a Soviet bloc country at the time. I’d love to go back and see it now. The place was like something out of a storybook. So I came back home from all of that, and I saw a draft of the album cover, and I said, “This is unbelievable. You’re kidding me, right?” I said this to my manager. I said, “This is not going to work.” He said, “Look, if we change it, it’s going to delay the release of the album by two weeks.” [Laughs.] We had tour dates lined up and stuff like that, so I got talked into accepting it. I was dumb at the time. Young and dumb. I’ve regretted it ever since.

“I’ll Do Anything” (from 1982’s Marshall Crenshaw)
MC: That band back then was really slick. Almost too slick. I see the tapes of that now and I think, “This is a little too polished, almost.” We just rehearsed all the time. We were just playing clubs in the city, but we would still get together twice a week and go over stuff, and I would really drill those guys: “Here’s how the bass drum goes, and put the cymbal crash here.” I was very specific all the time—probably too much so. Now I think it was too much.

We always played that song back then. Sometimes we’d start the set with it. It’s not really fleshed out that much, but it has a similar theme to “Mary Anne,” which is to try not to let your anxieties overwhelm you. It’s kind of a one-to-one conversation with somebody. It’s one person trying to comfort another person or reassure another person. I think that’s what it’s about. 

AVC: That song and “Blues Is King” are melodically interesting. They don’t really go in the direction that the listener might expect; they take these subtle turns. What’s that process like, coming up with a melody?

MC: I don’t know where it comes from, or why I can do it. I’m trying to create something beautiful, basically—something that moves me and that might stir somebody’s emotions. My own and other people’s. That’s the idea.

“You’re My Favorite Waste of Time” (B-side of 1982’s “Someday, Someway” single)
MC: That’s one that I actually remember writing. I was still in Beatlemania at the time. The show was at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh, and we were going to be there for two weeks. I got there a day early and was hanging out, watching the guys build sets. I went down to the room where all the guitars were, and I grabbed one of those Gibson J-160s. The Beatles, in the early days, used J-160 acoustics with P-90 pickups, so we had a couple of those in the show. I was noodling around, and I made that song up in my head as I was wandering around the theater. I got the title, and I was thinking a song that The Hollies might do, with a big anthemic chorus and harmonies and stuff.

The lyrics are tongue-in-cheek. “You’re my favorite waste of time.” It’s a love song. I don’t know what I was thinking of. I guess I was partly thinking about when I used to go over to [my wife] Ione’s house—this was when we were still in our teens—and we’d wait for her parents to go to bed so we could be alone. While we would do that, we were just sitting around watching TV, killing time. I really liked doing that with her, just sort of doing nothing. You could take it a lot of different ways, though. It’s a funny song, and it’s got funny words. Like, “I don’t care if being with you is meaningless and ridiculous.” That’s a funny thing to say.

Bette Midler recorded that song. I guess there must have been something in it that struck her as funny—that appealed to her sense of humor perhaps, whatever that is. [Laughs.] It was a real successful song. She did it, and then a guy in Britain picked up on her version of it and had his own smash hit, which still gets played on the radio all the time in Europe. Also, Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet have a new version coming out. I’m hoping that maybe there’ll be a second life for that song in some manner or another. I’m really glad that they’re recording it. That song has really had staying power. 

AVC: You were talking about the slickness of your first album and how you felt it might’ve been too slick. That’s a song where the most commonly heard version is your tinny-sounding demo, on the B-side of “Someday, Someway.”

MC: Well, there’s also that hit record I mentioned, by this guy from Britain, Owen Paul. [Paul’s cover of “My Favorite Waste Of Time” was a chart-topper in the U.K. in 1986. —ed.] But I’ve never been able to listen to that record all the way through. Yeah, the version I did was all done with high-impedance microphones and battery-powered stompboxes and way too much overdubbing. Having said that, it sounds pretty good. I didn’t have a mixer or anything. It was just a super-primitive recording situation. But I got really good at that. I got really good with that gear. I recorded a bunch of my early tunes that way.

AVC: Did being in Beatlemania inspire you at all back then, playing those songs night after night?

MC: No, it got to be a grind. I didn’t like being in Beatlemania very much, although I met lots of great people and had a lot of fun and saw the country. Really saw it. I’d already seen it from one angle, and with Beatlemania, I saw it from a different angle. I saw the cities. That was great. And it was a real beneficial experience for me—a real learning and growing kind of experience. But it just turned into a job. I actually got sick of The Beatles for a while after that. Of course, after about a year or so, that wore off, and I got back to listening to them again. What inspired me was that I was around other guys my own age, some of whom were ambitious and were trying to make their way in the world. I was motivated by that. I saw these other guys trying to make something out of their lives, and I thought, “Yeah, it’s about time I did the same.” That was the best part of it.

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