Perhaps the most gifted American songwriter of his generation, Marshall Crenshaw is known chiefly for his retro-minded, radio-friendly singles from the early 1980s—the jangly, rockabilly-influenced hit "Someday, Someway" (immortalized esoterically in performance by Robert Gordon on SCTV, of all places) and the fuzzier, anthemic "Whenever You're on My Mind." I arrived at Crenshaw's corpus through the former, a formidable power-pop polyp head that buoys the sleekly nerve-riddled, tentacular rock n' roll of his first album, which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary. Since that watershed amalgam of soul and roots rock, Crenshaw has inched beyond appropriating sounds one might have heard in Memphis or Detroit in the late '50s/early '60s to atmospheric indie ("Starless Summer Sky"), Tin Pan Alley balladry ("Will We Ever?," "Sunday Blues"), and even covers of Bootsy Collins show-stoppers. But the emotional essence of his craft remains throughout: an alternately overloaded and sympathetic voice taking desperate refuge in vague friendship, comfortingly strophic pop songs, and guitar tones so buttery and reflective one could run them through his hair.
Crenshaw has plans to release a new series of vinyl and web-only EPs and is currently touring in the New York City area. I spoke to him about his upcoming solo shows, the painstaking metaphysics of songwriting, and how three year olds occasionally come up with the best titles.
Slant: I have to say I'm an ardent fan of your music, though I seem to have only encountered two kinds of people in the world: ardent fans of Marshall Crenshaw and people who haven't heard of Marshall Crenshaw.
Marshall Crenshaw: How about that!
Slant: Your debut is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and you've got a free download available on your website right now: a live version of "Maryanne," which of course was originally recorded on that eponymous first LP. That's as good a reason as I need to ask you about writing what I think is probably one of the most emotionally resonant and compulsively listenable pop songs ever produced.
MC: I had the idea to write a song called "Maryanne," that was the first thing. Just kinda the way the word rolls out of my mouth was a good thing. I don't remember when I wrote the music, but that would have come first. I usually get the piece of music before the words. I'm guessing it was around the same time I wrote "Someday, Someway" because they both have this kind of hypnotic, mantra-like thing that I was getting into. [I was trying to] find the point where the repetition is just right, the point where it creates a hypnotic effect rather than a numbing effect.
I was actually at a rehearsal the other day with a friend of mine and we were gonna play that song and go over it, and he asked me, "What's the guitar you're using on the record, because it really just sounds like nothing else." It's probably six or eight tracks of the Vox 12-string [electric guitar] and then maybe four of this Rickenbacker 12-string that I had. It's a big, massive, buzzing wall of 12-string guitars.
[As for] the lyrics themselves, the idea is that I'm reaching out to somebody and expressing sympathy. At the time I had a friend who's girlfriend married another friend of mine. This was like 1979, 1980. In my head I was consoling that person. But the lyrics aren't specific, they're just kind of general. Sometimes you just have to laugh at life, laugh at your misery to keep yourself sane, etc. That's the only way you can go forward sometimes. I remember at the time I was trying to be very minimalistic with lyrics.
Slant: That subtlety could come across as lazy, but with you it always seems inclusive. Subject-wise, most of your songs like to juxtapose two nearly universal experiences—romantic love and a sharp dissatisfaction with culture and society…and routine, maybe. Sometimes the juxtaposition isn't obvious either: "Hold It," from your second album, Field Day, is on the face of it a very tender love song, but through the whole thing you're addressing these depressing parts of life and telling them to stop beating you down, to "hold it," while you cling to the object of your affection.
MC: My life is kinda like that. I'm a cranky person sometimes. I have a real low tolerance for a lot of stuff in mass culture and feel bombarded. I also have someone who I've been close to for most of my life who's been a strong ally. So I refer to that kind of situation sometimes, where there's this one person who keeps you from losing your fucking mind [laughs]. I write about that a lot.
Someone asked me about the song "Cynical Girl" the other weekend. I kind of spelled it out this way: The part about the girl is just kind of off-the-shelf, rock n' roll language. There really isn't any girl that I was thinking of in the song. It's really about "I hate TV." I'm saying I hate lowest-common-denominator mass-culture bullshit, and that I don't wanna hang around with people who don't. People ask me, "Did you find the cynical girl yet?" It's not about the girl. It's about the other stuff.
Sometimes I'd just use words because they created an atmosphere. Just rock n' roll words and rock n' roll images. But they weren't always specific to things in my life. I would just use them musically.
Slant: It's like rock n' roll cubism—breaking it down to its essential elements and taking away all the context. I actually read somewhere that you got the idea for "Cynical Girl" when you were waiting in line to pay a traffic ticket and watching an overhanging TV…
MC: Kind of. I was walking back to the car after paying the ticket [when I got the idea]. I guess the point of that story is that the song was just suddenly there in my head. That's how it works a lot of the time. You pound away mentally and there's nothing, and then it's time, and boom—you get it.