Marshall Crenshaw Mary Jean and 9 Others

Marshall Crenshaw’s Romantic Pop Marvel ‘Mary Jean & 9 Others’ at 35

Hard to find and largely overlooked, Mary Jean & 9 Others‘ romantic pop innocence outshines some of Marshall Crenshaw’s best-known work. Crenshaw discusses the record.

Mary Jean & 9 Others
Marshall Crenshaw
Warner Bros.
October 1987

Ah, the vexing life of a contrarian. Always swimming against the tide! Breakfast at midnight; a lonely beach in the rain; desert highways at four in the morning: Where everyone else is, we don’t want to be. Yet show us a cool spot off-hours, and the mere fact nobody else wants something makes it all the more desirable.

So it goes with an established artist’s music catalog. History is rife with underappreciated efforts by popular bands, especially compared to their more celebrated works. Styx’s bizarre, prog-inflected 1973 time capsule The Serpent Is Rising has been utterly forgotten by humanity, yet today sounds more ghostly and haunting than plenty of its art-rock contemporaries. Although far outside their area of expertise and often reviled by mainstream Rolling Stones fans, 1967’s trippy Beatles knockoff Their Satanic Majesties Request remains a fascinating detour into psychedelia’s heyday. Call them the Three-Star Masterpieces: less esteemed than other acknowledged classics; thoroughly overlooked in their day; yet all the more rewarding with time, thanks partly to their second-tier status.

Firmly ensconced in the ‘acknowledged’ category, Marshall Crenshaw‘s eponymous 1982 debut is considered a jaunty guitar-rock touchstone: well-received upon its release and still a sparkling example of new-wave singer-songwriter craft. Every self-respecting music aficionado has a copy of Marshall Crenshaw somewhere in their closet.

However, ask a bona fide contrarian, and you might find 1987’s impossibly romantic Mary Jean & 9 Others occupying his turntable instead. Because for many of us, even 35 years later, it seems the darn thing never really left.

After his debut, Crenshaw had lots of expectations built up. Critics adored the record, while the inescapably charming “Someday, Someway” reached #36 on the Billboard pop chart, proving that plenty of fans did too. Interestingly, during a 2013 interview, Crenshaw criticized that album’s glossy production. “That band back then was really slick. Almost too slick. I see the tapes of that now, and I think, ‘This is a little too polished, almost.'” Forgive a talentless hack for saying so, but the man has a point. Crenshaw disdains the term ‘power pop’, but his debut incorporated enough of that genre’s elements to be held to its strict longevity standards. So truth be told, some portions of Marshall Crenshaw are indeed too straightforward and sugary for their own good. For every shimmery riff like “I’ll Do Anything” or “Cynical Girl”, there’s a stripped-down 1950s tribute such as “Girls” or “The Usual Thing” that one needs to hear only a few times before moving on.

1983’s sophomore effort Field Day kicks off with two of the best songs Crenshaw ever wrote, “Whenever You’re on My Mind” and personal favorite “Our Town”. After a rootsy detour on 1985’s Downtown, he decided he wanted to return to that poppier sound – unquestionably his core strength.

“One thing I was bingeing on leading up to [Mary Jean] was the Bobby Fuller Four,” he says today. “The dream-like, other-worldly aspect to it.” No kidding: Cue up BFF’s 1966 “Love’s Made a Fool of You” and be dazzled. “I did want to try and pick up where I’d left off with Field Day. My third album [Downtown] was a bit of a weird departure for me in that it wasn’t the work of a self-contained band like the first two. I set out to get back to that approach.” Along the way, Crenshaw switched bassists from Chris Donato to Graham Maby, keeping brother Robert Crenshaw on drums.

Before delving into specifics, how about an overall, from-the-top, honest appraisal of Mary Jean 35 years later?

“I haven’t listened to it in decades and didn’t go back and listen to it in advance of this interview,” Crenshaw admits. “I can’t name all the songs on it, and I don’t remember all the words to the ones I can name.” Oh boy – even the artist himself keeps this one locked up. Cue a laugh track for your poor misguided critic! Crenshaw does recall those exhilarating days pretty clearly, however. “We did that album right after I’d worked on La Bamba (as the doomed Buddy Holly). I took a train ride back from the West Coast and wrote a lot of the words on Amtrak stationery, looking out the train window at the passing landscape.” Like many artists, there were ubiquitous label headaches to deal with as well. “My relationship with [Warner Brothers] had crashed and burned by about 1984, but they wouldn’t let me go. So my last three albums for them, including this one, have sort of a cloud over them in my mind.”

Those clouds don’t translate, however. In terms of music (if not always lyrics), Mary Jean is a joyous, ebullient record. Polished yet not overly slick, it just seems to breathe so well – symmetrical and consistent while retaining that blind romantic innocence. The opener, “This Is Easy”, is a drawling, deceptively simple ode to carpe diem, with lines like “It’s not a good time all the time / Baby, let’s grab hold while it’s here.” “Calling Out For Love (At Crying Time)” has the distinction of being the lone Mary Jean track Crenshaw still plays on tour. And why not, given those trademark raised-pitch choruses? “Crying Time” also boasts a (very) minor punkish element and some fantastic harmonies, lending its tale of busted love that much more prominence.

For an old fogey weaned on vinyl, some classic LPs feel like they ‘reboot’ on Side Two with an exceptional track that could just as easily open the entire record. One might even go completely bananas and flip the order, listening to Side Two first — Genesis’ 1976 Wind and Wuthering manages this feat, as does the Moody Blues’ Seventh Sojourn from 1972. “This Street” wraps up Side One so well on Mary Jean that “Somebody Crying” feels like the start of a brand new album on Side Two. How did Crenshaw delineate such a captivating song sequence?

“[Mary Jean] was the first of mine to come out on CD (as well as LP and cassette). But we were definitely still thinking in terms of Side One and Side Two,” he says today. “That was still reality to us, and of course, it was crucial to try and get the perfect sequence, perfect flow.” How about that one-two turnaround punch of “This Street” and “Somebody Crying”? “If I remember correctly [on “Street”], there are live drums on one side of the stereo mix and a Casio loop on the other side. I asked Graham to play bass like Larry Graham did on [Sly Stone’s] ‘Everyday People’. Interesting track, right?”

It sure is. So is the title song, “Mary Jean”, whose bouncy “Hey Now, Hey Now!” refrain is thoroughly irresistible, leading into a fabulous guitar bridge. Who was this Mary Jean? “Nobody. And I was always disappointed I couldn’t think of a more interesting title and concept for that song,” laments Crenshaw. “Like I said, there was a cloud over me during [those] albums; I just had to grind it out sometimes, and that song was one of those times.” Well then! Always sobering when an artist has to ‘grind out’ one of the decade’s most cherished yet underappreciated albums.

Peter Case’s “Steel Strings” is the lone cover song on Mary Jean, which raises an intriguing producer connection. “[Peter] did the song on his first solo album. I loved that album, and that song stayed on my mind. T-Bone Burnett produced [that] and my third album simultaneously, mostly at Sunset Sound in Hollywood, where Prince was also working at the same time. T-Bone was in pre-production with the BoDeans and Elvis Costello and working on a play with Sam Shepard. He was a hard-charging, workaholic kinda guy.” As for Crenshaw’s 1950s/1960s influences, sock-hop follow-up “Til That Moment” is a perfect distillation of his love for the singles of that period.

Scanning the Mary Jean guest/contributor list, one name jumps out – legendary R.E.M. producer and Let’s Active mastermind Mitch Easter, who plays guitar on “Steel Strings”. Details? “Mitch and I were in each other’s orbit a lot back then, mostly because I wanted to hang out with him. I could be kind of a bombastic loudmouth type, which is drastically the opposite of Mitch. But he must’ve liked me because he always said yes when I asked him to do stuff. I just thought of him as a nice person, a peer I could learn from.”

Final name drop: revered producer Don Dixon, who co-wrote “Crying Time” and also contributed assorted vocals. “We did the whole thing in Studio B at Bearsville, less than a mile from where [my wife] Ione and I were living. On this one album, I tried hard to come in under budget; I wanted to be able to put something in the bank after we were done, and I think that did happen this one time. We did the whole record in four weeks, [then remixed it] at Ardent in Memphis. Dixon and I are still great friends; we stay in touch.”

These days Crenshaw has 40th Anniversary reissues of Marshall Crenshaw and Field Day in the works, plus some commemorative shows this year and next. “I’ll be milking the 40th Anniversary thing as much as I can,” he says with refreshing candor. “I also appear with the Smithereens as a guest vocalist, which is great fun.” A film project about producer Tom Wilson is on the horizon as well.

“I’m grateful to be alive and well, grateful that I still have the ability to get on stage and play with a rock and roll band,” says Crenshaw in conclusion. “I was doing work [on Mary Jean] that didn’t sound like anybody else’s stuff. I took my sound to some new places on this record, and some of the songs are gems.

“I wouldn’t change anything about it now at all.”