Wednesday, January 08, 2014

"Mary Anne" / Marshall Crenshaw

I heard this on the grocery store musak the other day. What?!! Either grocery store musak is getting hipper, or I've evolved into the middle-aged, Hush-Puppy-wearing, easy-listening person that grocery store musak has always catered to.

No, that just can't be. I categorically reject the idea that Marshall Crenshaw does easy-listening music. Is it easy to listen to? Well, yeah . . . but that's soooo deceptive.

It is true that this song is now, what, more than 30 years old?  It appeared on Marshall's 1982 debut album, which I did own in 1982 (one of the few times I've actually been current with the music).  Even at the time, this record had a retro feel, harking back to the classic early rock-'n'-roll of Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, and Ricky Nelson. (Play this next to Ricky's "Hello Mary Lou" and you'll see.) Still, there's a modern jangle to this album that places it firmly in its own time.

Ah, the 80s. The decade when music scurried into its niche caves and refused to come out. Marshall Crenshaw, for better or worse, got filed into Power Pop. He was not angry enough for punk, not high-concept enough for New Wave, too subtle for metal, not corny enough for country rock. The power pop mantle never quite fit, though. It ignores the sneaky musical sophistication of Crenshaw's records, and the soulful earnestness that raises them above pop clich├ęs.

When I posted this grocery store sighting (hearing?) on Facebook, a friend of mine, who happens to be named Mary Ann, knew the song immediately. (Naturellement. Do I not sit up whenever I hear "Holly Holy," "Holly Up on Poppy," or even "Holly Jolly Christmas"?)  Classic pop songwriting gambit: Name a song after a girl, and every girl with that name will make it "her" song. The Beatles, of course, went one further and put a "you" in their song titles, so every girl could make it "her" song. But I digress....

My friend Mary Ann's memory of this record is that the only lyrics are her name over and over, with an occasional "I really want to tell you." True, that is the chorus, and the chorus gets repeated a lot. But she's missing some great stuff in the verses.

It starts out, provocatively, in medias res: "It isn't such a crime / It isn't such a shame / It happens all the time / You shouldn't take the blame." Immediately we're curious -- what has happened? What's the crisis? We're plunged right away into their relationship. Let's say he forgot to call her, in those pre-cellphone days, or I suppose it could have been an amatory mishap in bed, a failure to perform ("it happens all the time" ranks right up there with "size doesn't matter" as a sextime excuse). I have to admit, though, my first thought is of Paul McCartney singing "Martha My Dear" to his English sheepdog who ruined the carpet ("Hold your head up, you silly girl / Look what you've done.")  Did MC ever have a dog named Mary Anne?
But I think the heart of this song is the repeated second half of the verse, as he sweetly urges her to lighten up: "Go on and have a laugh / Go have a laugh on me / Go on and have a laugh / At all your misery." What a great boyfriend, coaxing her out of her black mood, giving her permission to relax. (Love the generosity of "have a laugh on me.") And yes, getting himself off the hook, quite possibly, but in the best way. Because these are the relationships that last, the ones where partners are willing to be caretakers of each other's moods and well-being. 

The second (and third) verse delicately hints at this tendency of hers: "You take a look around / And all you seem to see / Is bringing you down / As down as you can be." (Followed again, both times by the "Have a laugh" exhortation.) Think about this in tandem with "Cynical Girl," on the same album, and a picture starts to evolve. We don't expect to see such psychological acuteness in a simple pop song, or such wisdom about relationships, but this has always been Marshall Crenshaw's secret weapon.

The important thing is that it's all underlaid with love, which he reiterates in the chorus:  "Mary Anne, Mary Anne / I really wanna tell you, Mary Anne, Mary Anne / I'm thinking of you / Mary Anne, Mary Anne / I really wanna tell you / Mary Anne, Mary Anne, Mary Anne." Okay, that is a lot of Mary Annes. But it's lovely, isn't it? It's as if his heart is too full of her to think of anything else.

I often wonder, when I listen to a song, whether the words came first or the music. In this case, I'd guess it was the music.  That's not just because the lyrics are so simple -- the basic rhymes, the repeated line openings -- because as we've seen those deceptively simple lyrics do carry some deft psychological twists and turns. But this tender, heart-lifting song already says it all in the music.

Notice how the verses set up a neat pattern, lines one and three walking down the scale only to be scooped back up the scale by lines two and four, as if refusing to stay down in the dumps. And in the chorus, I love how the "I really wanna tell you's" and "I'm thinking of you" curl tenderly around the ends of the lines, riffs more than phrases, while the "Mary Anne's" sing forth, proclaiming his joy in her. The uplift, the stubborn optimism, is all there in the melody, and that backbeat syncopation, with its whispers of samba and jazz, is irresistibly energizing.

And catchy, of course -- undeniably catchy. Which is why my friend Mary Ann remembered it all these years, and most likely why the grocery store muzak-makers picked this song. It sure had the shoppers dancing in the aisles the other day. Maybe even made them so happy, they bought more pork chops, Charmin, and Cheerios. Who knows?  Now if we could just get them to buy more Marshall Crenshaw records. . . .


wwolfe said...

Great write-up on one of so many "shoulda-been-a-hits" from Marshall. It's been a pleasure getting an EP every few months in the mail via his recent Kickstarter campaign - I recommend "Driving and Dreaming," for starters.

Phillip said...

Very intelligent analysis in an engaging style. Thanks for an excellent read. Good thoughts!

Holly A Hughes said...


Will Warren said...

This was a great read as I wrote my review of his debut today; a forgotten great record. I pray one day he'll get his due love.

Holly A Hughes said...

You'd be surprised how many people know that record, even though they think they don't. And I frequently hear "Mary Anne" on the public address system at my grocery store. It always makes me smile.