By WALLACE BAINE
The day Buddy Holly died was a day of sorrow and anxiety for Marshall Crenshaw’s family. The head of the household, unlike most other dads in Eisenhower-era America, was a big fan of this massively popular new artform called “rock & roll” and some of the Crenshaw cousins were also devoted rockers.
But the real worry was for young Marshall himself who, on that February day in 1959, was just 5 years old. It was shortly
after his fourth birthday that the boy witnessed Holly’s first live performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and ever since that moment, he had become precociously entranced by Holly and his music.
“People made a real effort to hide that news from me when he died,” remembered Crenshaw, now 59, who would go on to a have the long and fruitful career as a musician that fate denied to Buddy Holly.
Eventually, from another of the TV shows that he watched devotedly, the boy learned of the plane crash popularly immortalized as “the day the music died,” and it was, he said, a turning point in his young life.
“It was my first experience with death,” he said. “I mean, I had never heard of death before then. I didn’t really understand it at all.”
Many years later, Crenshaw – who performs Saturday at Moe’s Alley with Dave Alvin – played Buddy Holly in the film “La Bamba,” the biopic of Ritchie Valens who died in the same plane crash.
But the most lasting parallels with Holly come in Crenshaw’s own work. In 1982, he released his debut album, a self-titled pop masterwork that still sparkles with a timeless rock & roll energy and exquisite adolescent longing, producing what was to become Crenshaw’s signature songs – “Someday, Someway,” “There She Goes Again” and “Cynical Girl.”
Critics tripped over themselves in praise of the album, but Crenshaw’s sly nod to the post-Elvis pop of old was out of place amidst the new-wave, MTV-friendly music of the time and he never reached Holly-like mass popularity. With subsequent recordings such as “Field Day” and “Downtown,” Crenshaw established himself as a dependably ear-friendly pop songsmith.
As a Baby Boomer, Crenshaw lived through the various evolutions of the rock style and, as an aspiring musician, absorbed them all from underground-radio eclecticism to Top 40. But it wasn’t until his late adolescense that he turned back to what would be become his strongest inspiration.
“I was over at a friend’s house and we found a stack of old 45s that belonged to his dad or something,” said Crenshaw. “And they were all people like Jody Reynolds and the Sparkletones. And I was like, ‘Hey, let’s play these.’”
At the time, the early ’70s, that late ’50s sound was deeply out of style, but as a young musician, he adopted it as his orientation to his music.
“I guess you could go from 1957 to about 1966, and the pop records coming out at that time. That’s the core stuff that’s really wrapped up in my musical DNA.”
Today, Crenshaw is still making music but in a very contemporary way, given that the music industry in which he built a career as largely imploded. He has started a subscription-based service, in lieu of releasing a new album, in which he is recording and releasing new songs both in digital form, and as vinyl EPs. (Details here) The first release is called “I Don’t See You Laughing Now,” a song that he calls “a raised middle finger to greed-driven people of low moral character.”
On the vinyl record’s B-side he has recorded a cover of “No Time,” a 1971 hit for The Move, and a new version of what may be his famous song “There She Goes Again (With Another Guy).”
“It’s sort of been made to fit me better these days,” said Crenshaw of the new version of “There She Goes Again.” “When I listen back to that old record now, it sounds like me on helium.”