In addition to nurturing his own solo career, a number of Crenshaw's songs, including "Something's Gonna Happen" and "My Favorite Waste of Time," have been covered by some of the most respected voices in music, namely Ronnie Spector and Bette Midler. Over a decade after "Someday, Someway" stormed the chart, Crenshaw also helped to write another Top 20 hit, "Til I Hear It From You" by the Gin Blossoms, as featured in the movie Empire Records (a 1995 flik with Renée Zellweger and Liv Tyler that makes us nostalgic for the days of the local record store).
Crenshaw's relationship with the film industry did not begin, nor end, there. In 1985, he portrayed the man that he'd been so often compared to early on into his career, Buddy Holly, in the Ritchie Valens biopic, La Bamba. In 1994, he wrote a book entirely dedicated to film music, Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock 'n' Roll in the Movies; and in 2005, he was nominated for a Golden Globe after composing the title track for the Jake Kasdan-directed, John C Reilly-starring musical comedy, Walk Hard.
Crenshaw has plenty to put in the Skills & Expertise section of his CV, but it became clear in this interview that music is this polymath's one, true passion. Nowadays, he has a weekly radio show on WFUV ("New York's Rock and Roots Public Radio"), and devotes lots of time and energy to his new Kickstarter project, through which he distributes exclusive vinyls direct to those very fans who helped fund it. Crenshaw discusses this bold and adventurous project towards the end of our insightful chat, which also traverses many of the feats that I've discussed here.
Marshall Crenshaw: Great, thanks for asking.
Songfacts: I'd like to begin by discussing the song that arguably launched your career, "Someday, Someway," which was a Top 40 hit in 1982. Can you tell me more about the writing of this song, and the impetus behind it?
Crenshaw: Sure. It was kind of an early effort, and a breakthrough moment. A particular sound and style had been forming in my mind during this period and when I got that song I felt like I really nailed it. I wanted to take the beat and atmosphere of a 1950s Rock and Roll record that I loved, "Lotta Lovin'" by Gene Vincent, and build something around that. I came up with the music first for "Someday" and dug that it was kind of hypnotic, very spare and succinct. The lyrics too, I thought were spare and succinct but had some kind of depth to them.
Songfacts: Many artists with a "signature song" to their name often grow to resent that song for a number of reasons. How do you feel about "Someday, Someway" nowadays, over 30 years after you wrote it? Do you enjoy playing it still?
Crenshaw: I still like it just fine, and I especially like the record we did. The tempo and groove are just perfect, it doesn't sound dated and maybe never will, it's just good.
Songfacts: "Someday, Someway" was covered by S Club 7, an English pop group who were very popular in the late 1990s. Have you heard this cover, and if so, what do you honestly think of it?
I think that a drum machine was used on their record, so it didn't have a great feel to it. They made it sound cheery, like they were grinning for the camera while singing; they were just a bunch of kids after all. Another kid, in South Africa, a teen idol-type whose name I can't remember, covered it around the same time, probably based on their version.
Songfacts: The great Ronnie Spector of The Ronettes covered a number of your songs. Are you a fan of Ronnie's, and if so, do you have a particular favorite cover that she did of one of your songs?
Crenshaw: Alan Betrock produced those tracks; he launched my career, and I badly regret that he and I didn't do more stuff together. That was one of my bad blunders. Ronnie's versions of those songs are my favorite of any covers that I've had so far; I think they're just beautiful. I was really into everything on the Philles label, so it was exciting to cross paths with her.
Crenshaw: I've heard him speak and know that I didn't manage to sound anything like him, but am still proud of the job I did in the movie. I remember being in my hotel room the night before we shot the scene, trying to say the lines with his voice, and just giving up. But somehow, in the moment, I got into it and it worked.
Songfacts: You also portrayed John Lennon (who you have quite the resemblance to) in the touring musical, Beatlemania. Are you a big The Beatles and/or John Lennon?
Crenshaw: Indeed; I was 10 years old in early 1964, fell for them hard. Thing was, I already had a guitar and played a little bit when they came along, had already heard Rock and Roll music my whole life because of my dad and cousins, mostly knew the original versions of the songs they covered. Anyway, yeah, The Beatles really killed me. Thinking about them now, I love that they were anti-bullshit, but never negative-type people. And compared to what we think of as a Rock Star now, they were classy and together, never degraded themselves, which to me is cool.
Songfacts: Did you ever consider taking up acting and/or musical theatre full time?
Crenshaw: Acting, no, it's not really what I am. But I love that I did it when I did it. I would love to work on some kind of theatre project as a songwriter though. My mother's been telling me for years that I should do it, even pitched me a couple of ideas.
Songfacts: You co-wrote "Til I Hear It From You" with the Gin Blossoms, who scored a Top 20 hit with it in 1995. Billboard later called it "the closest thing to a perfect pop song to hit radio in recent memory." How did this collaboration with the Gin Blossoms come about, and who contributed what to the song?
Crenshaw: The great Jesse Valenzuela had started the music and asked me to help him finish it. We didn't know each other but he sought me out, that was another nice thing. I consider him a close friend now. The verse melody is from me, I helped him figure out how to do the ending, the fade. Robin Wilson wrote the lyrics, and I didn't even meet him until after I'd already heard the record on the radio. That thing just exploded when it came out.
Songfacts: In 2004, MC5 invited you to play guitar for them on their reunion tour, alongside members of The Lemonheads, Mudhoney and others. How did you get involved with MC5 in the first place, and what are your memories of the tour?
Crenshaw: Wayne Kramer and I have been friends forever; I don't know why but he really likes me (haha). Playing their music was a gas, a gratifying musical experience; it's one of the great bodies of work in all of Rock and Roll. And the tour was fun, everybody was cool. I haven't stayed in touch with Evan Dando or Mark Arm, but I really liked them both. And I'm a big fan of Mudhoney.
Songfacts: You wrote the title track for the Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan movie, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. As if that wasn't impressive enough, the song was also nominated for a Golden Globe in 2007. Did you ever get the chance to meet Judd, Jake, or leading actor, John C. Reilly? What do you think of John's vocal performance on "Walk Hard"?
Songfacts: You released some very wonderful albums later on into your career, including Jaggedland, What's In The Bag and #447. Looking back over your entire discography, is there a particular song and/or album that you are most proud of?
Crenshaw: Well, in the first place, thank you. Now that I've made a lot of records, done lots of songs, I have to say that there's a certain percentage of the stuff that hasn't stood the test of time for me, I'll admit that. But nobody hits the bullseye every time. Having said that, I do tend to like my stuff, especially on a good day. Most of it feels good, some of it's actually beautiful I think, which is usually what I'm going for. For some reason I have a tendency to really love the newest thing.
Songfacts: A successful Kickstarter campaign led to you forming a special subscription service, through which you distribute exclusive 10" vinyls, consisting entirely of newly recorded material. You unveiled a second vinyl, Stranger And Stranger, in May, and you are currently preparing to release a third. Why did you turn your back on record labels, and the album format, and instead opt for this unconventional form of music distribution?
Crenshaw: It's not that I turned my back on record labels; I did decide that making albums was a bad way to go for me, but that I still wanted to write and record, still feel a drive to do that, and came up with the EP concept. As a matter of fact, just last week we signed a distribution deal for the project; I met the head of the company last week, a guy named Bob Frank. I'm super happy about the whole thing.
Songfacts: You currently present a weekly radio show on WFUV in New York, called The Bottomless Pit. I recommend it to all fans of classic rock (and good humor to boot), but for those who are yet to tune in, can you describe the general contents of the show?
Crenshaw: Sure. I call it "a weekly roundup of items from my personal record collection." It's not a huge crazy-sized collection, but it includes everything from Billy Murray (he recorded for Thomas Edison) all the way up to right now. The show is very eclectic, because my taste is that way, so they tell me. I put a lot of thought into the shows, try and make them fun and interesting. People seem to love it, and it's great fun for me.
Songfacts: Many thanks for talking to me today, Marshall! I'd like to finish by asking you about your future plans. Is there a tour, another EP, or anything else in the works?
Crenshaw: Yes, there's EP number 3 coming out in November. The A-side is "Driving and Dreaming," a beautiful song (there's that word again) that I wrote with the great Dan Bern. I also covered an old favorite song of mine, "Never To Be Forgotten" by The Bobby Fuller Four. And I did a re-make of "Someday, Someway" where I kind of flipped the drumbeat upside down. Thanks for the great questions.
October 21, 2013. Get more from Marshall at marshallcrenshaw.com.
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