This is part one in a series of exclusive stories on Michigan rocker Marshall Crenshaw, who is playing The Ark in Ann Arbor on Sunday night with special guests The Bottle Rockets. Crenshaw recently talked with WLAA’s Terry Jacoby about his career, his current projects and life as a rock and roller.
Walk up to someone and say the name Marshall Crenshaw. It may take them a second to place it (although REAL music lovers will “rave on” about him instantly), but once they place the name and then his music, they will almost always smile. “Oh yeah, Marshall Crenshaw,” said with a smile.
In 1982, Crenshaw released his debut album which featured a top-40 hit in “Someday, Someway,” along with other gems such as “Cynical Girl,” “Maryanne,” and “There She Goes Again.” Reviews were positive, feet were tapping, heads were bobbing and faces were smiling. It was Paul McCartney meets Buddy Holly but it also was something new, fresh and exciting.
Crenshaw then released his second album, Field Day – and while fans didn’t have a field day with it, they also didn’t receive it as fondly as the first one. “Whenever You’re on My Mind” was the most popular track but it failed to reach the top 40.
And just like that – so it seemed – he was gone. Insert sad face.
When I talked with Crenshaw about the music industry and his past ups and downs within it, I asked him about Graham Parker. Like Crenshaw, Parker had some success in the 1970s but never reached the stardom level of the likes of Springsteen, Seger and Petty. I always felt Parker got the short end of the star and I felt the same way about Crenshaw. I certainly didn’t expect his answer would include a close encounter of the musical kind with Graham Parker.
“Speaking of him, I just ran into him the other day,” Crenshaw said. “I really did. I went into a music store near where I live to have the input jack on one of my guitars changed and Graham was in the store. I’m friends with him.”
Crenshaw, who made his TV network debut on “Late Night with David Letterman,” says there is different ways of looking at success and it’s all too complicated for him to either analyze or worry about.
“At least I got something out of being in show business,” he says. “It’s allowed me to do what I want to do and make a good living out of it. I didn’t get completely stiffed and I got to be what I wanted to be and what I am. And that’s always been the bottom line. I wanted to live my life the way I wanted to and I’ve done that so I don’t have any real complaints.”
One of Crenshaw’s early steps into the music business was filling the very big shoes of John Lennon in the popular touring production of “Beatlemania” in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He spent two years with the band you’ve known for all these years before breaking out on his own.
Crenshaw also played Buddy Holly in the popular 1986 film “La Bamba” and appeared on the movie’s very successful soundtrack. He also played the U.S. Tour dates in 2004 with the legendary Detroit band MC5 and is currently on the road playing shows with the Smithereens after the death of their singer and songwriter Pat DiNizio, who died in 2017 at the age of 62.
Crenshaw says he’s enjoyed these little escapes from his original music throughout his career.
“It’s all good,” he says. “Every once in a while there are side trips and I just like to play and express my appreciation for music anyway I can. It’s always good to have different kinds of life experiences.”
Touring as a member of the Smithereens certainly has been a powerful and positive life experience.
“I’ve known them forever,” Crenshaw said. “I knew Pat forever. We are from the same tribe. It’s great and a lot of fun to hang around with them and play in their band. They asked me to do it and I’m glad they did. They want to keep playing and it’s their legacy too. I get a real kick out of it.”
Crenshaw has been touring on a regular basis with the Bottle Rockets since 2011.
“Yeah, they play their own set and then I come out and we play my stuff,” he says. “It’s been a lot of fun.”
Crenshaw, who has lived now in the Hudson Valley, N.Y. area for most of his life, still has family in Michigan. The Berkley native says they still come out to shows and he’s always glad to hear from them but he wishes they wouldn’t buy the tickets.
“I always tell them that I will get them passes but they say that they’ve already bought tickets,” he said.
Having such a huge catalog and an even bigger appreciation for other great music, one might think that putting together a set list would be a challenge. But Crenshaw has a simple approach to the songs he plays on stage these days.
“I just play the ones that I like,” he says. “It turns out that many of the more recognizable ones to people are also the ones I like to play. I still like playing ‘Someday, Someway,’ and ‘Whenever You’re on My Mind.’ Trust me, if I didn’t like them I wouldn’t play them. It’s a nice balance between the old ones and some new ones and various points in between.”
Now that’s a win-win. But one can expect a few hidden gems and unique covers mixed in with the songs you can sing along to.
Quick hitters from Marshall Crenshaw
Favorite non-hit Beatles song: “There’s a Place”
Favorite non-hit John Lennon solo song: “I don’t want to be a Soldier”
Favorite non-hit Marshall Crenshaw song: “I like them all” – no, that’s not the name of a song (although it could be).
First guitar: “My dad bought me a guitar from Sears when I was about 8 or 9. It was a little acoustic parlor-size Silvertone.”
First electric guitar: “My dad bought me a Gretsch Corvette.”
Favorite guitar now: “I still like Gretsch guitars. My dad thought they were classy. I like playing a 1960’s Galanti Grand Prix electric. It’s easy to play. Great sound. I have a Guild Hollow Body C100D. I have a Gretsch Firebird. I’ve probably played a Fender Strat more than anything else over the years.”
Favorite venue: There are a lot of them. In the early 1980s there was a place called The Ritz at Webster Hall in NYC. I used to play there a lot and go there a lot. We were always treated well and I have fond memories of that place.”
What Bottle Rockets song should everyone listen to: “There is one called ‘The Kid Next Door,’ that is outstanding. Another one called ‘Get on the Bus,’ which is great. They have a lot of great songs.”
MARSHALL CRENSHAW & THE BOTTLE ROCKETS
Sunday, April 7, 7:30 p.m.
Michigan native Marshall Crenshaw comes to town with St. Louis alt-country band The Bottle Rockets, who will play a set of their own and then join Marshall as his backing band.