How do you label Marshall Crenshaw's musical spectrum?
New York — First of all there's the name. Marshall Crenshaw. Sounds more like a melon magnate or the new lawman in Dodge City than a rock-and-roll singer/songwriter/guitarist. Then there's the way he looks. Not New Wave, all red and black and vinyl. Not Punk - no safety pins. More as if someone handed the well-dressed CPA a guitar by mistake and he's too obliging not to play.
Finally, there's his music, a spectrum of sounds ranging from rockabilly to wall-of-sound, from early Dave Clark Five to late Elvis - Costello that is. No, Marshall Crenshaw is definitely in a class by himself, proving once and for all that the smart-mouthed kid with glasses (every high school has one) can grow up to be a rock star.
Last year his debut album came on like proverbial gang busters, winning among other rave notices the Best New Artist nod from Rolling Stone magazine. His new album, ''Field Day,'' has a hit single, ''Whenever You're on My Mind'' and has launched a successful concert tour. Overnight success? Let's look at the facts.
Crenshaw grew up in Detroit, where, he says, ''If you've got your radio on, you're going to hear black music, lucky for you,'' and ''the list of R&B and jazz musicians that came out of [there] is miles and miles long, days long.'' The music has influenced at least his selection of the songs he sings that aren't his own, if not his style. ''You don't have to copy something to be influenced by it,'' he says. In concert as well as on his albums he likes to play forgotten favorites by Smokey Robinson, Al Green, and the Jive Five.
But as Crenshaw says, ''I don't deliberately try to sound like anything other than what I am, which is a white kid from the suburbs.'' Since Crenshaw admits that ''playing music is easier than describing it to someone else later,'' and since the printed word knows no intonation, only adverbs, it is difficult putting him to words. His own words, the ones he puts to music, are unusually literate. What other songwriters sing of reveries and tundra?
Crenshaw toured with the musical ''Beatlemania'' (''not the Beatles but an amazing simulation,'' the ads advised) for 18 months, playing the role of John Lennon. He got the job by sending the show's producers a note-perfect rendition a la Lennon of the Beatles classic ''I Should Have Known Better.''
Touring with the show was a good experience for him. ''It was my college education,'' he says. ''In high school I was the worst student in the history of education.'' He still likes traveling, which is fortunate, since touring keeps him on the road almost constantly.
''Being on the road is abusive physically,'' he explains, ''because you're moving around all the time. It's like being at sea. You've got to really want to be there. I do.'' On stage, Crenshaw has an awkward charm. He's also strangely riveting, perhaps because what he projects is an enormous love of music, rather than the usual love of attention found on a lot of stages.
After Beatlemania, Marshall Crenshaw moved to New York City with his brother Robert, a drummer. Marshall had started writing songs, and after the Crenshaw brothers had auditioned enough bass players they came up with Chris Donato. The three of them are still the band, although occasionally another Crenshaw brother , John, will put in a cameo appearance in concert or on record. The fourth Crenshaw sibling, Mitchell, has yet to make his musical debut. ''Mitchell got a college education,'' is Marshall's explanation.
Crenshaw and his band - they're always billed as Marshall Crenshaw - started playing small clubs and put out their first record, a single, on a friend's label. It was prophetically titled ''Something's Gonna Happen.'' Gradually they got better club dates and a loyal following. The turning point, however, was when other artists, most notably Bette Midler and Robert Gordon, started recording his songs. This finally led to a recording contract with Warner Bros.
''We weren't sitting around waiting for the industry to discover us,'' Crenshaw says. ''We also had a manager from the beginning.'' So much for the overnight-success theory.
What Crenshaw has done so far is a lot of touring, doing two albums, singing a song in ''Superman III,'' and making two videotapes shown on MTV (cable TV's Music Television station), which will probably also show up on the ''free'' TV video shows currently cropping up on the airwaves. He's even done a photo spread for Gentleman's Quarterly. So what's next?
''More music, that's all,'' Crenshaw says. ''I'm not interested in writing or directing videos. I'm interested in making records and in making people aware of the value and continuing power of the music that's been around for a while. The idea of throwing things away just because they're 15 minutes old just doesn't cut it anymore. People in America sometimes act like they don't have any culture , and that's weird to me. Our music is our culture. To see something and say, ooh, that's old, it's no good, really upsets me.''
The last song on Crenshaw's new ''Field Day'' album (''We called it 'Field Day' because it's a romp, like a day off from school'') is called ''Hold It.'' In it, Crenshaw sings,
And whenever somebody tells you
that all the good times are through
look into their eyes and tell them
I'm surely glad I'm not you.m
Marshall Crenshaw is glad he's Marshall Crenshaw. As his popularity grows, a lot of people are going to feel the same way. But be warned: To like Marshall Crenshaw is to be like him, at least in certain ways. Or, as he says in another one of his songs, ''If I didn't think you were a little bit out there too, I just wouldn't bother with you.''