This article was published in The Guardian, on April 13, 2009.
Photographs courtesy of Andrew Testa – www.andrewtesta.co.uk
A few years ago, Jeffrey Lewis wrote a song called Sal’s Pizza Has Sold Out To The Yuppie Scum, complaining about the rising cost of a takeaway in the East Village. New York’s anti-folk scene had grown too big for squat parties and moved to the Sidewalk Cafe on Avenue A, and although Lewis was the main draw at open mic nights there, alongside the Moldy Peaches, the extra fifty cents for a cheese slice next door was more than he could stand.
The anti-folk crowd saw themselves as heirs to Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith, in an outsider art lineage best summed up by The History Of Punk On The Lower East Side, 1950-75. Lewis sang this nine minute lesson live, punctuated with spot on cover versions that acknowledged forgotten bands like The Fugs and the Holy Modal Rounders as the link between Greenwich Village folk and the punk explosion at CBGBs a decade later.
Lewis made mixtapes and live sets, advertised in the comics that he drew, stapled by hand and sold in Washington Square park, but until he signed to Rough Trade, he was unknown outside New York. His first two albums for the label – The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane and It’s The Ones Who’ve Cracked That The Light Shines Through – established him as one of the funniest, most sincere songwriters in America. Jarvis Cocker calls him “the best lyricist working in the US today.”
At thirty-three, his profile has never been higher. Last year’s album of Crass covers, presenting anarcho-punk in a pastoral setting, was universally praised by critics. When the movie adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen was released, he dusted off his college thesis for a series of lectures at the ICA and an appearance on Newsnight Review, sharing some of the insights gained in a lifetime reading and writing comics. He has a regular backing band now, but he still sleeps on he sofa when he tours.
Em Are I is his slickest record yet. His technique is better, arrangements are more intricate and recording quality has improved beyond recognition. “I never thought there was an album someone could put on and listen to without explaining to their friends ‘we’re listening to this because he’s good live.’ I wanted to make an album that I wouldn’t have to make excuses about,” he says.
As always, Lewis unpacks his insecurities, hopes and failures with bracing candour. Over a misleadingly jaunty backing track, he analyses the break-up of a relationship, takes sleeping pills to quiet voices in his head and tells himself “everyone you meet is not better than you.” On If Life Exists, he concludes “it’s all easier said than done. And it’s not even easy to say.”
Lewis doesn’t live in the East Village anymore, but he has keys to the council flat where he grew up. It’s in a concrete tower block, untouched by the tide of stainless steel kitchens and renovated hardwood floors that has swept across the neighbourhood, bringing New York University students, foreign investors and trust fund babies. The press release for his new album, Em Are I, describes Lewis as an “indigenous New Yorker” – the last of the Mohicans.
His parents have lived on Avenue A since the mid eighties, when the A stood for “alright,” B was “be careful,” C was “you’re crazy,” and D meant “dead.” Before that, they had a one bedroom flat by Tompkins Square Park, a notorious drug spot that witnessed some of the worst Rudy Giuliani era repression when police cracked down on dealers, addicts and anyone else who got in the way.
“I never felt that sense of danger,” Lewis recalls. “You knew the people hanging out in the street, whether they were homeless or not. It felt more like a Sesame Street neighbourhood, with all its funky characters. And that feeling no longer exists.”
His father is “a general hustler type” who goes to Mexico for three months every winter and brings back trinkets to sell. On this rainy afternoon, his mother is either teaching English or at a union meeting. There are ancient strands of al dente spaghetti stuck to the wall above the cooker and Brooklyn Dodgers memorabilia everywhere.
In the bathroom, there are pictures of Jack Kerouac, Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata and activist poet Joe Hill, an icon to Pete Seeger and Joan Baez who was hanged for a murder he didn’t commit. Lewis rarely writes political lyrics, but the inspiration for his illustrated four part history of Communism is plain to see. He performed it using crayon drawings of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao until the pad fell to bits.
The back bedroom looks as if Jeffrey and his brother Jack moved out last week. In the corner, there are boxes of his comics – Fuff issues one to seven – that he sells at gigs. Disappointingly, he doesn’t have any of his childhood efforts to hand. The Humanoid Atomic Samurai Squirrels must be here somewhere, buried along with the pamphlets of Grateful Dead lyrics he drew when he was sixteen so he could follow the band on tour.
His most recent comic strip, published in the New York Times in lieu of his occasional column about songwriting and the creative process, showed him with a fist-sized hole blown in his chest and his eyes sewn shut, grief-stricken at the end of a long term relationship. One of the most upbeat numbers on his new album, Broken Broken Broken Heart, tells the same story with added handclaps. Last summer he performed it most nights on tour. The ex-girlfriend in question was on keyboards.
“If there’s some place where it feels a little uncomfortable to go in a song, that’s where I have to go, where the powerful emotions are,” he says. “Maybe it’s not even healthy, but it’s a way of stepping outside something. Turning it into something creative means that at the very worst you got a song out of it. You go through a break-up and at the end of the day, well, I have this song and that’s not so bad.”
There’s something reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut in the way Lewis writes, lacing his bleakest songs with a streak of optimism and maintaining absolute faith in the redemptive power of creativity. On standout track It’s Not Impossible he decides that “as long as failure’s only ninety nine percent” he’ll be alright.
“I feel like a lot of my songs are trying to find the quirk, find the ray of hope, find the perspective that makes it not so bad,” he says. “Even if they’re describing the darker side of things, most of them have some kind of moral, some kind of twist, some kind of message to myself.”
Vonnegut often said he was “whistling past the graveyard,” meaning life was so cruel, so hard to bear that the only sane reaction was to make jokes and enjoy its passing pleasures. On Em Are I, the same saying becomes a meditation on eternity and a literal defence mechanism. Ever the horror fan, Lewis whistles because he’s scared the corpses want to eat his brain.
When New York gets too much for him, he jumps on the midnight bus service to Maine, where he has a shack in the woods. He once spent whole summers there drawing comics, free from distractions, but as his musical career has taken off, visits have become sporadic, arbitrary escapes.
Lewis is as neurotic about success as he is about rejection. He sometimes feels like he’s becoming gentrified, like his old neighbourhood, both gaining and losing something in the process. A fortnight ago, he went into his friend’s studio and recorded a batch of songs the way he used to: “one take, solo acoustic, roll the tape and you get what you get.” It felt good.
Naturally, he sees the bright side of recession. The posh high rises which would block his view of the Chrysler Building have been put on hold. The pizza is cheaper, too. “There’s all these one dollar slices in the neighbourhood now,” he says. “That’s been the best part of the faltering economy.”