I’ll Be Stronger When She’s Off My Mind

This is the first of a three-part series. I hope to get around to the second and third installments later this month, but we’ll have to see…

In November 1983 I learned that Billy Joel would be playing Rupp Arena in downtown Lexington on his An Innocent Man tour the following February. Even though I was almost 20, I’d yet to attend a rock concert; it was time to change that. The day that tickets went on sale, I walked the few blocks from campus to the Rupp box office and after a short wait in line I secured three seats on the floor, about halfway back and maybe slightly right of center as you look at the stage. My memory is that they cost $15 apiece—those certainly were the days, right?

The other two tickets were Christmas gifts, one for James and the other for my girlfriend. I passed them along before we all parted ways for the break.

My girlfriend broke up with me as soon as we got back on campus in January.

This wasn’t exactly out of the blue. We had both been miserable more often than happy as a couple for a good while (and it’s fair to say that I was responsible for a sizable majority of the misery). Ending the relationship was 100% the correct decision, and to be honest, one didn’t need hindsight to judge that.

But that doesn’t mean that I handled it well. At all. It took a day or two to absorb what was happening, and even then, I perhaps thought it might just be a pause. When it became clear that things really were over, I quickly descended into a deep funk, alternately moping, sulking, and crying. As much as I wish I could say otherwise, I was in a state for multiple weeks, usually sitting alone in the cafeteria at meals, staying in my room most of the rest of the time (it didn’t help that she and I had two classes—differential equations and Western Lit—together that term). I’m still not one to do a good job of trying to hide emotions; my behavior then, however, was well over the line into obvious immaturity. I later learned that my fantasy role-playing gamer friends created a non-playing character based on this excessively hangdog version of me for one of their adventures during this period.

By early February, I think I was behaving—and maybe feeling—more like a normal person. I had been able to concentrate on coursework throughout and not let things slip away there. The day of the concert was fast approaching, though.

I hadn’t asked for the ticket back, and my recollection now is that I insisted she go. I don’t believe I harbored hopes that something might get rekindled—instead, my position was it had been a gift, and it seemed wrong to rescind that.

So when the evening of Friday, February 10, rolled around, the three of us walked downtown together; I suspect conversation was a tad slow and/or awkward. James of course sat in the middle once we got down on the floor. Joel was great, a very good choice for my first concert. Unfortunately, as the night progressed, I became more emotional (“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” was especially hard—I imagine she and I had listened to my copy of The Stranger some during our year-plus of dating). I wasn’t yet ready to spend an evening like this in her company. I should have bowed out instead of going.

I may be wrong about this, but I believe I returned to campus by myself.

The concert, a hiccup on the path to getting past the past, was the beginning of a memorable few days. The next evening, I drove to Cut Corner Records, on the second floor of a dumpy building near the intersection of Limestone and Euclid Avenues, on the periphery of UK’s campus. I bought two albums that night, and it’s not an overstatement to say that my relationship with record-collecting underwent a profound change because of those purchases (along with an LP I received as a gift from James a couple of days later). At that point, I had around two dozen albums—I’d largely stuck with 45s over the years. The size of my collection would explode over the final 2.5 years of college. I’m pretty sure money I was no longer spending on dating wound up going toward obtaining mass quantities of vinyl and cassettes.

This is the first of a series in which I take a close look at those three vital albums entering my life in mid-February 1984; you get the interesting-to-only-a-few-if-that-many personal history as a freebie. Today it’s the scintillating, self-titled debut album from Marshall Crenshaw. Those who’ve been around these parts a while may recall that I learned of Crenshaw from Steve Simels’s rave write-up in the June 1982 issue of Stereo Review. While I don’t know now that I went to Cut Corner that evening with specific LPs in mind to buy, Marshall Crenshaw would have definitely been on my “must seek out someday” list. I’ve continued to give it regular attention across the decades; like the other two I’ll be covering soon, it’s almost certainly in my personal Top 10 albums of all time. Here’s how its twelve tracks rank today:

12. “Girls…”
I would’ve rated this much higher back in the 80s. Maybe one reason it’s slipped is that there’s not a specific ‘girl’ in mind here? It also gets knocked down for being the least rockin’ cut on the album.

11. “Brand New Lover”
I’ve always felt that MC was just a little whiny on this one. This past fall I discovered via my pal The UnCola that Texas rocker Lou Ann Barton recorded it around the same time and included it on her album Old Enough. Barton’s version is true to Crenshaw’s, but the vocals are more muscular.

10. “Soldier of Love”
Speaking of covers… Wikipedia says that Crenshaw chose to record this after hearing the Fab Four version while touring with Beatlemania, unaware that they had discovered it by listening to Arthur Alexander.

9. “Rockin’ Around in NYC”
Crenshaw had landed in the Big Apple from his native Michigan a few years earlier to make his rock-and-roll dreams come true. The influence shows in ways both small and overt, such as in this song title and shouting out “right here in New York” toward the end of #4 below.

8. “Not for Me”
For years I thought of this and “Brand New Lover,” the last two songs on side two, as just not quite as good as the rest of the album; times change. Today I’m hearing echoes of what my ex could have been thinking at the time of our breakup: “If I follow your direction, where would I be?”

7. “I’ll Do Anything”
James and I never saw eye to eye about Crenshaw. I don’t know any specific reason he didn’t cotton to Marshall’s songs, but it almost became a running joke, me trying to convince James that this and later albums were quality stuff. The conversation usually ended with a derisive snort. This has nothing to do whatsoever with “I’ll Do Anything,” a romp that belongs on that mixtape you’d make for your sweetie soon after you start dating. But I’d give a lot to have another musical conversation, even about stuff on which we disagreed, with James right now.

6. “Mary Anne”
One of the many nice touches on this one is how the backup voices alternate between “Don’t cry Mary Anne” and “You’ll be alright.”

5. “The Usual Thing”
It starts with a bang-bang chorus, and I love the way Crenshaw’s voice is double-tracked here.

4. “She Can’t Dance”
I don’t think it’s accidental that the first two tracks from each side comprise my top four—they’d picked the most arresting pieces for those slots. The kickoff for side two is a near-perfect distillation of the power pop/new wave zeitgeist of the moment, about a young woman totally into those very sounds.

3. “There She Goes Again”
I was familiar with only one song when I purchased Marshall Crenshaw, so I couldn’t know exactly what to expect as the needle dropped on side one upon my return to the dorm. The opening bars of “There She Goes Again” led me to quickly understand I’d made the right call.

2. “Cynical Girl”
A favorite from the first time I heard it, another of those songs that just leaps from the speakers and takes me someplace magical. My guess is that it’s producer Richard Gottehrer hammering away on the glockenspiel.

1. “Someday, Someway”
Simels’s review meant I was primed for this one when it reached AT40 in August 1982. The song continued bouncing around my head after I started college; whistling it during chemistry lab one Tuesday afternoon in the opening weeks of the semester may have caught my lab partner/then-future girlfriend’s ear? Yes, this album goes all the way back to the beginning of the story, too.

2 thoughts on “I’ll Be Stronger When She’s Off My Mind”

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