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Rock 'n' roll Renaissance man

Marshall Crenshaw runs music career his way

By Todd Leopold
CNN

Crenshaw
Marshall Crenshaw's 1982 debut album featured "Someday, Someway," still his biggest hit.

MARSHALL CRENSHAW FILE

Born: November 11, 1953, in Detroit, Michigan

Albums include: "Marshall Crenshaw" (1982); "Field Day" (1983); "Mary Jean & 9 Others" (1987); "Miracle of Science" (1996); "What's in the Bag" (2003)

Songs include: "Someday, Someway"; "Cynical Girl"; "You're My Favorite Waste of Time"; "Whenever You're on My Mind"; "Somebody Crying"; "Starless Summer Sky"

Tidbit: Crenshaw played John Lennon in "Beatlemania's" West Coast company, 1979-80; he co-wrote the 1995 Gin Blossoms' hit, " 'Til I Hear It from You."

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Marshall Crenshaw
Hudson Valley (New York)

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Marshall Crenshaw likes things the way they are.

He doesn't have a new record out and he's "not near wanting to make a record," he says. He performs 40 to 50 shows a year, most within driving distance of his home in New York's Hudson River Valley, so he can stay close to his two small children. He has no studio set up in his home, and he'll have to build one when he and his family move to a new house in the coming months.

He writes his songs in the same deliberate, painstaking way he always has, letting the muse take him where it will.

Is this any way for a "rock 'n' roll Renaissance man," in the words of the late rock musician and historian Cub Koda, to live?

You bet, says Crenshaw, 51.

"Right now I have a balance of both [musical career and home life]," he says in an interview in the lobby of a midtown Atlanta hotel. He talks somewhat reluctantly, as if wondering why he's being interviewed. "I have enough space when I want it. I'm busy to a healthy degree. Things are pretty good."

'The letdown was crazy'

In the early 1980s, things were very good for Crenshaw -- at least in terms of chart success.

The Detroit-born musician started the decade in a touring company for "Beatlemania," playing John Lennon, a role that took him around the country and linked him up with other musicians. In 1982, his first album, "Marshall Crenshaw," came out, and he was immediately hailed as the latest in a line of pop music saviors. One song from the record, "Someday, Someway," became a Top 40 hit, and others earned radio play on mainstream and college radio stations.

But the limelight was fickle. His next record, "Field Day," was produced by Steve Lillywhite, best known for his work with U2, and featured "Whenever You're On My Mind," another college radio hit.

But those who had hoped the record would be his big mainstream breakthrough were disappointed, and the trend-spotters moved on to someone else.

Crenshaw has mixed feelings about the time.

"After the second album, the letdown was crazy," he says. "That period was fast-paced and I got caught in the whirlwind. It was a strange transition. I was getting tons of attention. I was talking to tons of people every day, where a few months before I was living a fairly solitary, insular life, [close to just] my brother and my wife."

Crenshaw settled in to making well-crafted, often-ignored albums: "Downtown," "Mary Jean & 9 Others," "Good Evening." Each contained several songs that were shoulda-been hits, but were overlooked.

"How can we rationalize the continued underappreciation of Marshall Crenshaw?" admittedly biased Rhino Records compilers Gary Stewart and David Gorman wrote in the liner notes to Rhino's 2000 Crenshaw collection, "This Is Easy: The Best of Marshall Crenshaw." "The fact that ... [the songs] on this CD weren't pumping out of every pop radio station in these United States is not only a mystery but also a miscarriage of justice."

'Figuring out the rhythm'

Crenshaw
Crenshaw performs most shows near his upstate New York residence so he can be near his family.

Crenshaw wasn't completely underappreciated. His songs were covered by several artists and he established a dramatic career, playing a bandleader in "Peggy Sue Got Married" and Buddy Holly in "La Bamba."

In recent years, he's written the theme song for the TV series "Men Behaving Badly," written articles on rock history, played with fellow musicians (most recently a reformed MC5) and continued putting out albums: "Miracle of Science" (1996), "#447" (1999) and "What's in the Bag?" (2003). For the latter, Allmusic.com's reviewer, Mark Deming, wrote, "this is beautiful, affecting, and emotionally powerful music."

Crenshaw writes that music in deliberate fashion, he says -- even if the process starts haphazardly.

"I start from the bottom, figuring out the rhythm, and ... pick up an instrument I like and start making noise. There's no thought in advance," he says.

But then craftsmanship takes over. It doesn't take long to work out a tune, Crenshaw says -- perhaps an hour -- but it might be "two weeks for lyrics. I'm very meticulous about it," he adds. "I have pages and pages of notes. It takes a lot out of me, too."

For relaxation, there's always his family, not to mention a radio show, "The Bottomless Pit," he started doing on the Hudson Valley radio station WKZE. (The show is also available on Crenshaw's Web site, marshallcrenshaw.com.) The show's playlist is as eclectic as Crenshaw's tastes: Robert Quine, Merle Haggard, Cassandra Wilson, Bessie Smith, Buddy Holly.

"Most of the records I play mean something to me," he says.

So Crenshaw has few complaints. Family, music, a decent living, a little traveling ... it's OK with him.

Besides, there's always the occasional bolt from the blue, as when one of his songs gets picked for a soundtrack or cover version.

Indeed, recently a British newspaper put out a CD with an old hit version of Crenshaw's "You're My Favorite Waste of Time." Several hundred thousand CDs were distributed, and Crenshaw went to the mailbox one day and found a royalty check for "eight or nine times what it normally is."

"That's show business," he smiles. "Unpredictable things happen. Once in awhile I get surprised."

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