Writer's block

Marshall Crenshaw struggles to recapture his inspiration

In 1991, with a new batch of songs written a year earlier, Crenshaw left Warner Bros. Records and signed with MCA Records, which released Life's Too Short. It was both more of the same ("Don't Disappear Now," "Better Back Off") and wider-reaching ("Fantastic Planet of Love")--punchy where there was once pretty, wisdom where there was once naivete. But as happened with each release since Field Day, the record bombed. Crenshaw this time fell victim to a corporate shakeup at MCA. One minute the label was sending him out on promotional tours and sending him to South by Southwest in Austin (he performed a brief, smashing "unannounced" two-song set with Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple); the next, he was being reassigned to a myriad of marketing and publicity people, each more ambivalent about the project than the next.

Crenshaw found the experience humiliating and infuriating--"I could give a flying fuck about MCA," says the normally congenial musician--though he dismisses any notion that the experience helped erect the songwriting barrier he now faces.

"I'd hate to think I would let any sort of outside forces control my behavior like that," he says. "The reason you're supposed to write songs is for your own satisfaction. There was a time in 1992 when I was trying to come up with songs, but there were business matters that were preying on my thoughts. So I just thought I should stop and wait for all that to go away. I want to do the stuff to get off on myself for myself."

Last year, during the recording of the remarkable tribute to the late Arthur Alexander (Adios, Amigo, which also features Elvis Costello and Frank Black), Crenshaw met with the owners of the small New York-based label Razor and Tie. A few months ago, he released his first album for them--the live ...My Truck is My Home, containing performances dating back as far as February 1982.

If nothing else, the album works as proof that Crenshaw works extremely well in the live setting--what Holly and the Crickets might have sounded like if they had stayed in Lubbock and worked as a bar band, rough around edges softened by the sterile atmosphere of a studio. "Fantastic Planet of Love," for instance, sounds less like a stiff novelty toss-off and more subtle now; "Vague Memory" from Downtown has been chopped almost in half, whole verses deleted to make room for a honky-tonk solo. But the highlights are the covers: "Wanda and Duane" shoots for lowdown country where Dave Alvin aimed for highbrow rockabilly, and he all but redeems "Knowing Me" from schlock nobility.

"I never wanted to limit myself to songs I wrote myself," Crenshaw says. "I think that would be constricting. I think my songs just have this sort of handful of subjects I write about over and over again. I try to bust out of that but it doesn't seem to happen all that often. Most of my songs are pronoun songs--he, you, I, she, we, they. Nothing wrong with that as long as they're good songs.

"I mean, my enthusiasm for rock music is as strong as it's ever been, and I'm always busy working on that. I play guitar every day and do stuff in my home studio. To do that and not fuck around in the record business over the last couple of years has been great. Let's just see how long that happens."

Marshall Crenshaw performs December 2 at the 21st Amendment.

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