Sunday, April 12, 2015

"Whenever You're On My Mind" /
Marshall Crenshaw

Oh, my brothers and sisters, I wish I could post here more often. I promise I will do so, hopefully after, oh, let's say June 15th. And in the meantime . . . well, today I was grocery shopping for my mother (90 years old, broken hip, let's not get started) and who did I hear on the muzak?  Yes, Marshall Crenshaw.

Now, Marshall Crenshaw is definitely one of My Guys -- the musicians I love so much, and listen to so much, that I feel like they are my friends. Old boyfriends, even.  And (with the exception of Paul McCartney, who needs no more fans, but I could no more abandon him than stop breathing), My Guys are inexplicably artists who just don't get the attention I feel they deserve. I never hear Graham Parker or John Hiatt on muzak, and I certainly never hear Robyn Hitchcock. Once or twice maybe Nick Lowe, and if so, only "Cruel to Be Kind.*" (*Note: a song co-written with Ian Gomm).

But this isn't the first time I've heard Marshall Crenshaw on muzak. I'm sure there are business marketing reasons why MC has gotten his product into the proper lucrative channels, and I note that it's usually his earlier power-pop-ish stuff (not the magnificent 2009 Jaggedland or even my current favorite, 1999's dark and delicious #447). This particular track is from Marshall's sophomore effort, Field Day, which some haters people trash, and I personally love. But it is more power-pop than his later stuff, and it sounds perfectly plausible coming out of the PA system.

So I asked my sister, with whom I was shopping (I said DON'T get me started), "Do you know who this is?"

Well, she didn't, even though she lived in New York with me in 1982 when my buddies and I were all ga-ga over Marshall Crenshaw. Guess she wasn't listening. And by the time Field Day had come out, she'd decamped to Connecticut.

So what's your excuse?

 Jangly? You betcha. And yet, there's a wistfulness, a yearning to this song that a lot of power pop completely missed out on.  Those hooky guitar riffs spangle in the foreground, while Marshall's earnest and youthful vocals puzzle over his dilemma.  The very thought of this girl sends him into an existential dither -- everything is foggy, he's disoriented in a crowd, he loses track of time -- it's a "reverie," a "fantasy." The jangliness adds a certain star-crossed quality that totally works here.

What really hit me in the grocery aisle today, though, is the rhythmic sophistication of this track. (Yes, I'll admit: I danced with my shopping cart.) We start out in Buddy Holly-ish straight time, but with a sinuous melodic line. Then we shift into that bridge full of syncopated modulations (hey, the guy's confused!), resurfacing in a samba-like chorus of bright and sunny harmonic resolutions. 

We're always driving towards the major key, the 4/4 time. The kid's an uncertain mess, but the song itself lets us know that in the end, he's gonna be all right. And not just all right; better, because he's given in to the copacetic flow. The very thought of this girl will make him better than himself, if he can only give it time. And we're witnesses to his faithful surrender

Did Marshall Crenshaw and his cowriter, the great Bill Teeley, think this all out when they wrote this song?  Nah, probably not. They just wrote it. But that's the mark of real songwriters; their instincts tell them where to go.

And me, dancing in the grocery aisle?  Well, I felt the fug of my mother's illness magically lift, and I felt grateful for my sister's solidarity (even if she didn't know who Marshall Crenshaw is), and I felt just this teensy bit lighter in my heart.

Which is, let's admit it, the whole reason we listen to music.


Richard Goldman said...

fabulous as usual - i'm imagining a shopping cart in heels doing what you're doing...backwards and in heels - had a similar moment recently with "days" in a chi chi burger joint in east village - in mid conversation... i'm talking at a table of say 6 and suddenly i'm hearing ray - i had an out of body experience - i remember being but happy but unable to talk - my wife said "I think it's a kinks thing" which made me feel better because it proved that she was hearing it too... anyway...days is like a reset button with me... all data is removed and i start up again - clearly your piece is inspirational ms hughes... have to say i am down with Lowe Hiatt & Parker but not so much with marshall. it might seem like a love of marshall is required to love your piece... but no!

Dave said...

I am a lover of Marshall and am still trying to figure out why "Field Day" is so unjustifiably maligned. It is almost the equal of MC's debut, which puts it within healing distance of the pantheon. Thanks for this!

Brian said...

Holly, The masses remember the debut, but Field Day will always be my favorite. I also place Miracle of Science way up there.

Holly A Hughes said...

Miracle of Science, yes! And what about . . . wait, I love them all. (Currently on a Jaggedland jag.) Ah, Richard, we will win you over to the Marshall Crenshaw camp eventually. You do know he's a Kinks fan, right?

wwolfe said...

I think if "Field Day" had been produced by the debut's Richard Gottehrer, instead of Steve Lillywhite, it may have duplicated the first record's commercial success. The extremely '80s-sound of "Field Day" turned off fans of the first album, while Crenshaw's classic style of songwriting did not appeal to fans of the 1980s music that used Lillywhite's production sound. So instead of broadening his fan base by appealing to two musical camps, he alienated both. For me, though, it's his finest album. I'd nominate "Good Evening" as my choice for Best Overlooked Marsh album: good originals and excellent re-makes. Even the Diane Warren song is enjoyable.