It can be pretty tough on a singer/ songwriter to have written a perfect song twenty years ago. You can be pigeonholed as a nostalgia trip, a has-been, a staple on oldies radio stuck playing that same damn song at state fairs and widget conventions for the rest of your days. Your belly expands (they fry Twinkies at state fairs now), your hair goes, your spirit drains out your toenails, all to the soundtrack of that damn song. Yes, it can be pretty tough on a man to have written a perfect song more than twenty years ago.
Marshall Crenshaw wrote two.
Crenshaw mined plenty of gems on his eponymous 1982 debut, but two still stand out: the sunny pop of "Someday, Someway" and the ringing clarion call of the disaffected "Cynical Girl." Both were catchy and clever, enjoyable as mindless pop until you dug into the lyrics and caught the darker undertones and wit that propelled the songs to a higher plane.
Crenshaw had toured with Beatlemania!, where he played John Lennon over and over again onstage, and he had learned from that sly agitator. Take "Cynical Girl," which is a love song and an anti-love song all at the same time. In it, Crenshaw lists his qualifications for a lover that read more like an indictment of the culture at large: "Well, I hate TV/ There has to be somebody other than me/ Who's willing to write it off immediately/I'm looking for a cynical girl."
"It was never really a song about meeting a girl," agrees Crenshaw. "It was supposed to be humorous, too. When I wrote the song I despised about 70 percent of mass culture, and I hate about 90 percent of it now. It was healthy cynicism I was talking about."
In some alternate universe, Crenshaw scored two giant hits with the songs and went down the well-trod road to state-fair Hell. But here in this dimension, Crenshaw was spared the overexposure that has killed so many careers and instead was allowed to hone his craft and sustain himself as an artist. He did some acting, in everything from La Bamba (he played Buddy Holly) to Nickelodeon's cult hit The Adventures of Pete and Pete. He learned the ins and outs of a career that is work and play at the same time.
"I don't really tour. Basically, I just work," says Crenshaw. "I play about 50 shows a year, and they're spread out over the year."
This same work ethic, the appreciation of not just art but also craft, has kept Crenshaw afloat and kept him producing albums long after another artist would have released a best-of and quit writing (Crenshaw did release a best-of in 2000 as the follow-up to his 1999 studio album, #447). His latest release, 2003's What's in the Bag?, is clearly the work of a man much different from the confused, ebullient one who wrote "Someday, Someway."
"I'm just a lot older now," says Crenshaw. "It was twenty years ago. I was a really young person when I did that record. I do the same thing now that I did then. Just be real, and use unfiltered self-expression. I'm a little more experienced now. I've got a good understanding of the process and how it works for me. I'm more patient with it, and more savvy."
This helps explain the long lag times between his studio albums. For What's in the Bag?, Crenshaw says, "I was really meticulous with the writing. I do it as quick as I can, but I'm not particularly fast."
At least not at writing lyrics, but the low-slung and jazzy instrumentals that Crenshaw has featured on his last few albums come a little bit easier.
"First I just want to get down something that just feels right emotionally," Crenshaw explains. "Sometimes I write the lyrics a long time after the fact. It takes me forever, too. I can put together a piece of music in 45 minutes, but I'll take 10 days for the lyrics."
Crenshaw has learned to play with his music as well. How else to explain a 40-year-old white man doing a straight-faced cover of Prince's "Take Me With U" (from the legendary Purple Rain), or a noodly instrumental album-closer called "AKA 'A Big Heavy Hot Dog'"? (Well, Crenshaw explains covering Prince pretty simply: "I just figured it'd be fun to do, and lo and behold, we had a great time doing it."). Maturation hasn't boxed Crenshaw in; it's freed him.
"It was almost like I had a set of rules in my mind [when recording Marshall Crenshaw]. I just abandoned it after a while. But at the same time, I've always just tried to do stuff that would be honest and would communicate something."