Sunday, November 30, 2008

"Till I Hear It From You" /
The Gin Blossoms / Marshall Crenshaw

You know what? I love Marshall Crenshaw. Love the music; love the man too. I don't write about him often here, but I tell you, every time a song of his cycles up on my iTunes, it makes me happy. I was just reading about him in the paper today, in an article about an annual John Lennon tribute he often performs in (besides being a lifelong Beatle fan, Marshall got his show-biz start playing Lennon in Beatlemania). That inspired me to dial up my Marshallmania playlist, and it's been a beautiful day ever since.

But I have to apologize -- I can't post a sample of Marshall's version of this song. This one he co-wrote with the Gin Blossoms' Jesse Valenzuela and Robin Wilson, and while it became a hit for them -- it appears on their 1996 EP Follow You Down, on the the soundtrack of the movie Empire Records, and on both their "greatest hits" compilations -- Marshall's recording of it is more or less a rarity. I can't even remember how I got hold of that track; some illegal swap with another Crenshaw fan, I suspect. But to my ears, that soaring melodic line is quintessential Marshall Crenshaw, so I'm really sorry you'll have to make do with the Gin Blossoms' version.

Wait, that sounds snotty. The Gin Blossoms' version rocks! It's just that Marshall's is so much simpler and sweeter. First of all, he does it just with acoustic guitar and a contrapuntal fiddle (or is it a cello?) -- that homemade quality is perfect, like it's just a kid sitting in his bedroom feeling miserable. Then there's the matter of Marshall's voice, which after all these years still conveys adolescent bewilderment better than anyone, save Colin Blunstone of the Zombies (I mean, c'mon, "She's Not There" is the purest expression of adolescent yearning ever).

This is, after all, a song about trembling on the verge of heartbreak. The guy is singing it to his girlfriend -- although she isn't even there -- and stubbornly insisting that their relationship is not over. The more he protests, though, the more you know it's doomed. Apparently someone, or several someones, have been filling his ears with stories about her, which of course -- loyal sweetheart that he is -- he refuses to believe. "I didn't ask," he starts out, and "they shouldn't have told me," he adds. (He's got the teen code of ethics down just right, hasn't he?)

So what did she do? I can't help it, I'm dying to know. But he never tells us what they've told him (now there's a cagey bit of songwriting -- what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a McGuffin), maybe because he just can't face it. It's pretty clear that, whatever it is, it should kill the relationship. But he doesn't want to believe it, so he just digs in and shuts it out. "I don't want to take advice from fools," he tells us in the chorus, "I'll just figure everything is cool / Until I hear it from you / Until I hear it from you." He's either a total sap, or a glorious romantic -- I opt for the latter.

That melody is so plaintive, you just know what's gonna happen. The stories will be true; she's already ditched him. The quaver in Marshall's voice tell us that he knows this all perfectly well; he's just hanging on for the last few days, hours, minutes, forestalling heartbreak. The whole past, present, and future of this teenage love affair is telescoped into this one simple little plangent tune. It's heartrending, really.

The thing is, when you know Marshall Crenshaw's catalog, this is the kind of magic he works in song after song. Whatever the Gin Blossoms' input may have been (yeah, yeah, someday I really mean to listen to that band's music, I know I should), this is classic Crenshaw in all the ways that matter. The man's a treasure.

Till I Hear It From You sample


Natsthename said...

Great song and HEY, I was just watching Empire Records last night. Man, there were some future stars in that flick!

Crenshaw is an underrated talent, and I wish he would have made it bigger.

Holly A Hughes said...

I definitely have to get hold of Empire Records at some point. Is the movie itself as inane as it sounds?