Ask Marshall Crenshaw a question about his career, and he likely will formulate a response in much the same way he writes lyrics: choosing his words carefully and deliberately, but ultimately finding a few that allow him to express a whole lot.
Crenshaw’s heartfelt songs — and answers — were on display during this intimate Jersey Shore solo performance whose centerpiece was a Q&A session in which he fielded questions from a local radio personality as well as audience members.
The unique format provided a window into the 59-year-old singer/songwriter’s career, as he shared his recollections on topics such as his Top 40 hit “Someday, Someway” (Warner Bros. Records forced him to record it against his wishes even after Robert Gordon had recently released his own version of the Crenshaw-penned tune); his big break in landing a part in the 1970s Broadway musical Beatlemania (Crenshaw’s castmate and friend Glen Burtnik was in the crowd); and even his two memorable movie roles from that decade (La Bamba and Peggy Sue Got Married).
The highlight of the interview segment came when he drew laughs in saying that he feared Nicolas Cage was going to ruin Peggy Sue Got Married with over-the-top acting: “I felt like Uncle Francis [Ford Coppola, the director] should have stepped in.” Crenshaw’s most telling comment, however, was when he shed light on his songwriting process: He always writes the music before the lyrics, which he sometimes labors over for months because he takes “the power of words very seriously,” and that “writing the music comes more naturally.”
That might have come as a surprise to many in the audience, given that on Crenshaw’s best songs, his lyrics seem to fit seamlessly within his tuneful arrangements. During the performance portion of the evening, he offered up plenty of examples of that very dynamic, whether revisiting beloved classics from his ’80s major-label heyday (“Cynical Girl,” which, he revealed, is not actually about a girl at all, but a “protest song about culture”) or worthy under-the-radar cuts from the ’90s (the sweetly rendered “What Do You Dream Of?”).
On a night heavy with reflection, Crenshaw also scored with much newer material. He unveiled what he called his most recently written number, the contemplative “Driving and Dreaming,” for its first public airing, and sounded as relevant as ever on his 2012 single “I Don’t See You Laughing Now,” an anti-Wall Street screed that hits its target with verbal grenades (“It must be hell to realize that you fell for your own lies”) set to Crenshaw’s typically warm, jangly guitar.
Underscoring how much has changed in his 30-plus years in the music business, Crenshaw pointed out that “I Don’t See You Laughing Now” is available only as part of an ongoing series of 10-inch vinyl EPs and downloads; there are no full-length albums in the offing these days (Crenshaw has released only four of those since 1991’s Life’s Too Short). More than 20 years removed from the major-label machine, Crenshaw clearly works at a much different pace now, but as he proved both with his performance and insights on this night, he remains wholly committed to his craft — and he still only deems a song a keeper once he finally gets those words right.
— By George Henn