In this week's paper, Roy Kasten chatted with legendary songwriter Marshall Crenshaw, who's playing tonight at Off Broadway. The show starts at 8 p.m., tickets are $15 and it's an evening with -- meaning there are no openers and it's all Marshall, all the time. Get there on time! Here are some outtakes from their chat.
What's your fondest memory of growing up in Detroit?
It's hard to think of just one. I had a close-knit family. Everybody was sane. There were other families in my midst who were messed up, but my parents weren't. My mother's sisters lived in that town [Berkley, a suburb of Detroit], and my grandfather was one of the first to settle in that town, and built the first houses. I started playing guitar with an older cousin. He motivated me. The other thing was just music. That captured my imagination and was compelling to me. That's what I loved. There was a particular musical atmosphere. There were a lot of transplanted southerners in Detroit. My father's dad and mom came up from the south, and wound up in Flint, Michigan.
So there was a lot of earthy, soulful music around. My dad was a music enthusiast. There was a lot of social turbulence in the Detroit area, and finally, I had to leave. I got to a point in my life where I was floundering, couldn't get a foothold. There were a couple of successful suicide attempts in my peer group and other friends who where going off into self-nullification. I was lost. So I split. It was the first pragmatic decision I made and it was a good one.
Did you have a sense when you were growing up that you were at ground zero for a lot of American pop music?
I would say yeah. It was common knowledge that what you heard on the radio was local music and it would be acknowledged as such. The first rock star I remember was Jack Scott. He was big. He had more hit records than Buddy Holly or Gene Vincent put together. He was great. Then there was Motown, and that was a real source of pride to people in Detroit. It was such a blow to the psyche when they left. It really hurt. And there were a lot of local rock bands too. I'd be riding my bike around and I'd hear a band playing at a back yard party or practicing in a garage.
I think some people might think your songs are simple, that you could just pick up a guitar and play them. But you use a lot of interesting chord progressions. Who influenced you as a guitar player?
I've just been playing guitar all my life, but I almost feel I haven't worked hard enough at it. I always had a good ear. When I was starting, most of the songs on the radio were three chords, maybe four. I had a good sense of pitch and I could play along with the radio. I also had good recall about the details of records. I could play them in my head and remember all the lyrics and harmonies. What I do now is the sum total of banging away at it all my life and being a pretty good listener.
So no guitar player turned a light bulb on for you?
No, there's just a long list of stuff that I've absorbed. I did learn a lot from this Danny Gatton video tape. I knew Danny and was around him a fair amount for a couple of years. I learned how to Travis pick from that tape, where you use your fingers instead of just a flat pick. That opened up a lot.
A record that was important for me was one you put together, Hillbilly Music...Thank God! That country anthology was really influential for me and for a lot of people.
The one regret I have is the title and the package. It seemed a little glib, a little flippant. I think you can tell from the record that I was completely in love with the music. It's really perfect, the way it flows together. Every song is a jaw dropper. That one, "I'll change your name from Mrs. Johnson to Mrs. Jones," by the Milo Twins. You just say, "Wow." I was really digging deeply into that music for the first time. I was making a study of it and loving it. All those great players, like Ralph Mooney and Jimmy Bryant. I agree that the record struck a nerve with a lot of people. There's this guy Whit Smith, with the Hot Club of Cowtown. He told me he was in a metal band, and he heard that record and it utterly changed his life.