Writer's block

Marshall Crenshaw struggles to recapture his inspiration

It has been a year and a half since Marshall Crenshaw has written a song--18 months since the man sat down with his guitar and completed the dozens of unfinished thoughts that rattle around inside his head. He has run smack into writer's block, that often impenetrable barrier created by the fear that whatever comes out will be no good, and by the lack of inspiration that once allowed Crenshaw to elevate cliche into classic.

So now he calls from a friend's empty apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, a place he hopes he will find less distracting than his home in Woodstock. He has had trouble finding the motivation to write, but, until now, he didn't much worry about it; Crenshaw figured that, at some point, he'd just "get around to it." But that did not happen: the man who used to write dozens of songs a year--some of which, like "Cynical Girl" and "Someday, Someway," were pop gems that belonged to another era--finds himself in "a rut," tapped out of ideas, left to release a 14-song live album that features six covers (from the MC5's "Tonight" to ABBA's "Knowing Me, Knowing You").

"I was interested in music for quite a long time before I started writing songs," says Crenshaw (whose brother Mitchell is the Hank of local band Hank and Patsy). "I got to this point where I felt I needed to do it. I had this burst of productivity and wrote a batch of them, like 20 or 25 songs in the space of a few months. That was in 1980, and then I started making records. Then at the beginning of 1990 I had another one of those flurries of activity period. The beginning of a decade is the beginning of me. In the year 2000 I'll have another stockpile. I've never really been that diligent about songwriting. When the feeling is right I do it, and when it's not I figure I need to back off."

When Crenshaw released his self-titled debut 12 years ago, he stood out like a genius among so many dunces. Consider the time: Human League, A Flock of Seagulls, Duran Duran, Culture Club, and the Fixx reigned as pop's pretty boys, new-wave Brits who gutted music of its emotion and complexity and reduced it to single, cloying notes emitted from keyboards and computers. The crowd pogoed as the band played on, and no one noticed the ship was sinking.

And yet, like an apparition hovering above it all, Crenshaw resurrected the classicism of Buddy Holly and Bobby Fuller and a dozen other '50s rockers--a man so far out of time, but no anachronism or ghost. Then, as now, "Cynical Girl" and "Someday, Someway" sounded like lost nuggets of pop perfection, these small pronouncements of simple moments and simple pleasures retooled till they sounded new. He was Freedy Johnston a decade earlier, the critical favorite who cried over, waited on, and hoped for women who could love a poor shlub like him. "I'm going out looking for a cynical girl, who's got no use for the real world," he proclaimed, guitars and bells chiming in the background.

But as Village Voice rock critic Robert Christgau pointed out, Crenshaw wasn't close to retro: "He loves the music of the '50s just the way '60s rockers did before they fell victim to hippie condescension--not as living tradition but as living music." Indeed, he's no more derivative of Buddy Holly (or John Lennon, for that matter, who he played in Beatlemania) than Johnston is of, say, heroes Elton John or Donald Fagan; Crenshaw, like Holly, just believes in the aesthetic of economy, saying as much as possible as quickly and as simply as possible. And if Marshall Crenshaw and its near-flawless follow-up Field Day in 1983 sounded like albums filled with tunes you might hear between "I Fought the Law" and "Peggy Sue" on oldies-radio, Crenshaw was just luring in his audience using a method more time-tested than happy hour at a topless bar.

"When I was writing the songs for my first album, I was really intent on being concise and having the structures of the songs being as compact and as simple as possible," he says now. "You could almost say I had a formula in mind as to how to write a song--just as few elements as possible, this repetitive thing. I sort of did as many as I could using this kind of formula I had, and eventually I kind of wore it out for myself, anyway.

"The songs on my first two albums are intended to be pop music and accessible, easy to get into. I abandoned that after my first two albums. After that I was interested in...I got into...aw, fuck, what did I get into? I just wanted to branch out and do something more challenging for myself."

Three albums followed Field Day, and Crenshaw increasingly tried to keep pace with a music world that had actually passed him up three decades before he began recording. By the time he got to Good Evening in 1989, he was reduced to covering the material of others (Richard Thompson, John Hiatt, and Bobby Fuller's "Let Her Dance") and relying on other writers to prop him up; where his debut and Field Day sound timeless even today, among the most literate and catchy albums recorded in the '80s, Good Evening comes off slick and vague--not horrible by any stretch, but a pause from a man who'd run out of breath.

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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