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Marshall Crenshaw Runs Mild : The Singer Says He’s Not Looking for a Change in His Unassuming Performing Style

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Judging from some of the adjectives that have been used to describe Marshall Crenshaw’s performing style, you’d think he was Clark Kent on a block without phone booths.

“Unassuming,” “low-key,” “understated,” “self-effacing” and, of course, “mild-mannered” are the sorts of tags that have cropped up in reviews of Crenshaw’s concerts over the years.

Maybe it’s the eyeglasses. They have been a Crenshaw trademark since the slender singer-guitarist hit the pop scene in 1982 with spirited, catchy songs that updated such vibrant influences as Buddy Holly and the early Beatles.

The odds are that Crenshaw will be more or less low-key Monday night at the Coach House, if only because he will be playing in an “unplugged” format, backed by a single accompanist, bassist Graham Maby (a longtime Joe Jackson sidekick).

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Still, in a recent phone interview from Nashville, where he was visiting songwriting buddy Bill Lloyd (formerly of Foster & Lloyd) before heading off on tour, Crenshaw said that not all beholders see him as the mild-mannered sort.

“People say different things about me,” Crenshaw said. “I can’t say I’ve gotten much of a handle on it. A guy in this (new) issue of Rolling Stone said I’m ‘charismatic,’ ” a description Crenshaw said he can live with.

During the ‘80s, pop’s biggest stars, from Michael Jackson to Bono, seemed intent on living out caped-crusader fantasies. Crenshaw said he is content sticking to the basics instead of trying to cultivate a flamboyant image.

“I’m very comfortable on stage,” he said. “I like being up there. I’m trying to be myself. I try to wear nice clothes and stay slim and pretty for my fans. What else can I do? I’m not really searching for anything as far as my presentation goes. I’m happy to be cool and do a good job. People still come to see me, so I must be doing all right.”

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Crenshaw, 38, has also resisted cloaking himself in trendy musical trappings. His six albums are all steeped in straightforward, melodic guitar-rock songs that center on romance and relationships.

“My strongest influences were, and are, ‘60s Top 40" songs, said Crenshaw, who played John Lennon in a touring company of “Beatlemania” before emerging on the New York City rock scene a decade ago. “I hold that music and that kind of pop approach in really high regard. I have those records in my head. They really won’t go away.

“There are certainly other contemporary records that have influenced me. I’ve always got my antenna out for what’s on the radio. I’m always looking and listening. On (his 1989 album, ‘Good Evening’) I was way in love with the Traveling Wilburys record and I was trying to rip off elements of their sound.” The Wilburys’ sources, of course, are close to Crenshaw’s own.

Crenshaw’s latest album, “Life’s Too Short,” brought a brawny, toughened sound to bear on his usual assortment of well-crafted songs.

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His reedy voice conveys a natural empathy for his characters, who often face crisis points in precarious relationships. Rather than settling for rote observations about love, Crenshaw freshens his variations on familiar themes by creating dramatic situations or striving for psychological insights.

In “Walkin’ Around,” for instance, he achieves poignancy by having the man in a crumbling relationship yearn for one last lovers’ walk through familiar haunts, one last warm afternoon before he and his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend get down to the final reckoning that they know awaits them.

Crenshaw’s songs occasionally acknowledge that there is an outside world of politics, economics and social issues.

“I feel something closing in around me, it’s in the headlines of the tabloids, and I heard it on TV,” Crenshaw sings on “Fantastic Planet of Love.”

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But no sooner has he acknowledged that world of troubles than he turns inward to the more alluring--and perhaps more comprehensible--world of relationships, where the Earth can seem, at least for a while, like a “fantastic planet of love.”

“I haven’t ever sought to write about a specific public event or political situation,” he said. “That doesn’t really appeal to me. It might just be outside my realm of interest. I like it when other people do it well--I heard this great song yesterday by Dave Alvin called ‘Andersonville,’ about an incident in the Civil War. But a lot of other times it’s self-serving or gratuitous, and I think that’s a crime. I hear songs about social issues where they take on something gigantic, but they’re missing the mark. You’ve really got to watch your step. I’m afraid to fall into that trap. I like to concentrate on my strengths.”

That said, Crenshaw quipped that maybe he would change his mind. “Maybe today I’ll write a song about John Sununu resigning. I think he’s a pig.”

Crenshaw’s career began promisingly. His debut album, “Marshall Crenshaw,” won wide critical acclaim and yielded a Top 40 hit, “Someday, Someway.” But he hasn’t come close to repeating that early taste of commercial success, despite continuing good reviews.

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“I really just try to keep my focus away from all that stuff,” he said of the music business’s commercial stakes. “I didn’t have any grandiose expectations when I started. I was trying to make a living in the music business. Actually, I think I’ve done really well.”

One odd move that seemed commercially motivated was Crenshaw’s decision in 1989 to record a song by Diane Warren, a steady supplier of overblown, cliche-ridden but enormously successful pop-rock ballads for the likes of Tiffany and Michael Bolton. The song, “Some Hearts,” appeared on “Good Evening,” his last release on Warner Bros.

Crenshaw said he knew the album would be his last for the label. “I wasn’t writing many songs back then. I didn’t want to write any songs for the album, because I had very little faith and I couldn’t get myself to make that kind of commitment to the record. I decided to save my energy” by devoting half the album to songs by outside writers.

Doing a Warren song was “a little bit strange, but I was really charmed by it,” he said. “We did sort of sabotage it, turned it into a hillbilly song” featuring David Lindley on fiddle. “I made a couple of changes in the lyrics, and she was really angry at me for doing it. I was on Diane Warren’s (bad) list. I figure you have a license to do that when you record a song.”

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Marshall Crenshaw and the Wild Ones play Monday at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $15. Information: (714) 496-8930.


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