From Marshall Crenshaw looking spiffy in a powder gray suit with matching fedora to ... Carnival Cruise ship reggae?
Crenshaw Brought Us to Life
You may remember Marshall Crenshaw. In 1982, at the late-in-pop-years age of 28, he released his self-titled debut, an absolute pop masterpiece. The album did not reach the top of the pop charts as it deserved, but it did earn Marshall a loyal following. For the rest of the '80s, he continued to release respectable pop albums but never broke through the old-fashioned radio and MTV airplay ceiling.
Marshall intermittently released albums over the last two decades. He returned to prominence a few years back when he wrote some of the music for the John C. Reilly vehicle, Walk Hard.
A few months back Marshall released his tenth studio album, Jaggedland, on the 429 label. Jaggedland does not contain the kind of hooky pop songs once Marshall's stock and trade. It's indeed a more spacious album than his early work, with songs told from the perspective of a man lucky enough to do what he's always wanted- make music. Jaggedland will not convert the uninitiated, but it should please the veteran Crenshaw fan.
Marshall Crenshaw visited Skokie, Illinois at the Centre East last weekend and I chatted him up.
Marshall and I talked in the Centre's green room surrounded by photos of older show-biz veterans who, like Marshall, trod the boards here when their celebrity diminished. The one word which comes to mind after meeting the man: gentleman. He gave each of my questions careful thought and was forthcoming, if slightly reserved. Standing around five and a half feet tall, he looked spiffy in a powder gray suit with matching fedora.
I started out with questions about the current situation in Detroit. “I don't want to say anything which might hurt people there,” he says. “It's important to continue to think positively and hope for the best.” The answer sums up Marshall's current mindset well. He admits to being “Seventy-five percent happy. I don't want to say a larger number and come across as a jerk. Your sense of well-being is always up and down.” He recalled performing at the Apollo Theater a few years back for the New York premiere of the Motown film Standing in the Shadows of Motown. On stage with so many of his idols, he thought to himself, “I've really made the right choice in life.”
Marshall's older cousins turned him on to rock music. “I grew up with rock and roll in real time. My older cousins were like mentors to me and they introduced me to Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard- all the great '50s stuff.”
Like most Detroit pop fans, he took immense pride in the accomplishments of Motown's roster. Wherever you heard them, wherever they performed, they represented the best of the city. Marshall sneaked out as a teenager and joyrode his folks' car into downtown Detroit, always ending up at Motown's headquarters, the Donovan Building. Parked off to the side of Interstate 75, Marshall knew inside that building magic happened. And he just hoped one day he could be a part of it.
He saw the MC5 (with whom he would later tour) open for Jimi Hendrix and the Soft Machine at the Detroit Masonic Auditorium in 1968. “[Rob] Tyner and those four guys scared the shit out of me. It was a crowd of about 2,000 and they just projected such power from the stage.”
And then there was the day the music died. Still reeling from the after effects of the '67 riots, no one in Detroit thought Berry and Motown would ever leave. Until they did, in 1972. “Unbelievable blow to our psyche,” Marshall recalls. “I felt so bad. I remember how upset it would make me when I saw that Los Angeles address on the back of Stevie Wonder albums.”
Marshall was not long for Detroit, either. He joined the production of Beatlemania and moved to New York City. “I really hated it [Beatlemania]”, he said. “I would have recurring nightmares that I was constantly missing my cue.” After Apple Corp. shut down the production, Marshall returned to New York City, where his brother now worked at a rehearsal studio. He and his brother formed a band and began preparing the material that would make up his debut.
“Artists really need to get out there and perform,” Marshall said. “My brother worked at this rehearsal studio, and there would always be bands who would book time to prepare for a label showcase. After the label showcase if they didn't get signed, the bands would break up.” Takeaway advice for you wannabe troubadours: perform, perform, perform. Hone your craft.
About three hundred paid to see Marshall that evening. The Center East has plush, firm seats- necessary for the older audience Marshall attracts. No one here was looking to push or make a scene.
They heard most of the new album. Marshall and his band started off slow. 'Someday Someway' in particular suffered from a lukewarm delivery. Things started to heat up with a cover of Richard Thompson's 'Valerie'. After that, you could really feel the audience get into it, and their energy drove the band to a more fiery performance.
Marshall is a better guitar player than I imagined. The songs off the new album allowed the band to generate some real volume and get their rock on. The show ended with the crowd helping Marshall through 'Cynical Girl'. If you want to hear a polished veteran rocker, you will get your money's worth when Marshall comes to town.
But Then We Died
You may not remember Death. The hard rock band consisting of brothers Bobby, David, and Dannis, Death recorded seven songs in 1975. They released two on a 7” for their own label, Tryangle. By the '90s, that 7” became a much sought after prize for collectors.
All seven songs finally saw release this year with the album For The Whole World To See and caused a bit of a sensation within the indie community. Songs like 'Politicians In My Eyes' sounded like some mutant partnership between Bootsy Collins, Iggy Pop, and Black Sabbath. The album has been in heavy rotation on my hi-fi since I bought it a few months back.
Sensing a golden opportunity to make some bank, Death announced they would reform with the son of the deceased David. The band announced four dates, with Chicago one of the lucky sites. I quickly scooped up tickets for the show at Empty Bottle.
The show would be either an immense disaster or a runaway success, and I couldn't wait to see and hear the result.
Show time finally arrived Saturday night. My friend Hoops and I finished our college football viewing and walked over to the Bottle shortly after midnight. We knew the Bottle would be wall-to-wall hipsters, and both of us wanted as little exposure to them as possible.
There they stood outside, smoking cigarettes and showing off their fall wardrobes for the first time. Inside the sold-out Bottle, I was surprised to see quite a few rockers of my generation or older. We bought drinks and headed over towards the soundboard.
When the band came to the stage, we came under hipster fire. A few pushed their way to the front. One drunkenly collided right into me. Mind you, we were away from the stage. The band strode passed us to cheers. The band looked like, well, what you would think aging black rockers would look like. All three dressed in black and sported long dreads. As they took the stage, two hipsters planted themselves directly upon my right and left thigh.
Hipster, you don't want to see my angry!
The band tore through three songs from their resurrected release. I looked at Hoops. Maybe this won't end up being a disaster, after all.
I spoke too soon.
The lights went out on stage and musicians began to shuffle on and off the stage. Meanwhile, the blitzed hipsters at the front of the stage were getting restless. They screamed expletives at each other. It reminded you of the worst coward fight you've ever seen.
“No, you are.”
“No, you are.”
Finally, from the scrum came some balls.
“Play something we like!”
Wow! Here's a band who hasn't performed this material live in maybe ever. And the hipsters greet them with such open arms. Nice warm welcome. One of the hipsters adhered to me decided now was drink time and rubbed all over me without the faintest courtesy. I held my position and he stumbled across. His partner decided to leave after this, and pushed me after he dismounted.
I was about to push my way to the front and break out some rough justice when the band returned to the stage. With two new members, not in black.
What followed was reggae. Middle-of-the-road, Carnival Cruise ship reggae. It was like Sabbath returned for an encore and played 10cc covers.
“We left Detroit in the late seventies and moved to Vermont,” explained the lead singer Bobby. Vermont? That immediately increased Vermont's black population by 300 percent, I thought to myself. “We met and fell under the sway of Sly & Robbie. This is the music we make now. Ladies and gentlemen, we are Lambsbread!”
The next song was worse. The hipsters lurched about, not knowing how they should react to this. Cheer? Jeer? Where were the cues provided by their social media?
I'd seen enough. Death and the hipsters deserved each other. I said good-bye to this most awkward performance stand-off I've ever seen and headed home.