I discovered the songs of Jeffery Lewis while burrowed way down a YouTube rabbit hole one day in 2008. There he was: a nerdy-looking guy playing a battered Epiphone acoustic guitar with stickers all over it. He was singing the entire history and pre-history of punk rock in New York City — beginning with the beatniks, moving through the folkies, and ending with punk pioneers Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Television, Patti Smith and The Ramones. Miraculously, Lewis managed to recount all of this history in the course of an eight-minute song. I was mesmerized. I found more Lewis videos, similar in scope and ambition, and became a rabid fan. As it turns out, he was a product of the NYC antifolk scene, a group of punk-inspired folk musicians I’d written about two decades earlier in 1988 — years before Lewis arrived on the scene. When an editor at eMusic.com asked if I’d be interested in doing a Q&A with Lewis — in more of a conversational format than just straight question and answer — I jumped at the chance. The conversation rambled all over the place — just like a Jeffery Lewis song.
Talking Lower East Side Blues
By Mark Kemp, eMusic.com, 2009
Renaissance Man may be an overused label, but it fits Jeffrey Lewis — snug but comfortable, like those old T-shirts he wears in Youtube videos that have him singing the histories of Chinese Communism and New York punk. Lewis drifted out of the Lower East Side antifolk scene in the early 2000s, putting out collections of raw, lo-fi recordings with names like The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane and It’s the Ones Who’ve Cracked That the Light Shines Through. If those titles read like comics, that’s because Lewis’ other job is writing and drawing his underground comic-book series, Fuff.
Born to bohemian parents in New York City’s East Village in 1975, Lewis grew up surrounded by the neighborhood’s strange and creative characters, from poet Allen Ginsberg and Fugs member Tuli Kupferberg to lo-fi punk legend Jad Fair and members of Sonic Youth. Lewis was a comic-book artist as a kid who morphed into a Deadhead as a teenager. After discovering the Velvet Underground and punk rock, and then graduating with an English degree from the State University of New York at Purchase in 1997, he started writing songs to go along with his drawings. Some were uncomfortably confessional, others were more surrealistic, and still others — like the aforementioned “histories” — found him cramming entire college semesters into 10-minute songs.
Lewis and I had a pair of phone dialogues in April, one while he was in Australia touring in support of his latest album, ’Em Are I, and a second after he returned home to New York.
Mark Kemp: I discovered your music and art a bit late — through your Youtube histories of punk, The Fall, Chinese Communism, and all that — and I immediately became a fan. In those little 5- to 10-minute videos, you manage to incorporate almost everything that’s important to geeky rock fans like me: music, music history, politics, art, mentions of unsung heroes like Phil Ochs and the Fugs. As far as I know, there isn’t much precedent for fusing visual art with music and social theory and history, and then putting it all up on Youtube for kids in Bumfuck, Iowa, to discover. It kind of takes the whole idea of Phil Ochs’ “singing journalist” thing to a new level. You’re more like a singing Greil Marcus — telescoping the whole of modern civilization in 10-minute songs with illustrations.
Jeffrey Lewis: A lot of what I do comes more from Alan Moore (the writer/artist responsible for the Watchmen comic series), who’s just this genius. He has a lot of interesting theories on art and reality — the artist-as-magician, changing reality, preserving things you think are worthy of preservation and ignoring other things. What’s best preserved in art is what’s remembered. Of course, Moore said this a lot more interestingly and mystically and brilliantly than I could in a quick paraphrasing, but that’s kind of been a big influence on me over the past few years — you know, trying to incorporate histories that aren’t often told, or just my own perspective on the world, my own facts about things.
MK: Getting people to actually read history these days is a real task. I wrote a book a few years ago giving context to the civil rights era and the music of the South, and how it’s all intertwined. But we don’t seem to read old-style books nowadays the way we used to, because there’s just so much thrown at us all at once — sound bites and images on TV and the internet; the ability to listen to music, watch it, and read about it all at once on multiple screens. Your Youtube videos — like “The History of Punk on the Lower East Side, 1950-1975” — offer all of that at the same time. I mean, you go from Harry Smith to Richard Hell and the Voidoids in just over eight minutes.
JL: I really love finding out about all this stuff and writing and playing the material, and I love talking about it. With the “History of Punk” thing — I had never heard anybody connect the dots like that, even though it seemed to me like a very obvious pattern.
Part of it grew out of constantly being asked what antifolk is. To me, it’s just part of a clear lineage in New York City that goes back all these decades, and yet nobody (on the antifolk scene) seemed to have any awareness of the Fugs or of David Peel, even though they’re obviously continuing that tradition. Nobody seemed to be conscious of the fact that in that exact same neighborhood, people have been doing that exact same kind of thing for decades. But I had never seen anything that talked about it in terms of: OK, here’s this band, the Holy Modal Rounders, and here’s David Peel and the Fugs, and then over there is the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls. All these people must have all been aware of each other and inspired by each other to some extent, but it seemed very mysterious. I’d never found anything that talked about them ever knowing each other. So it seemed to me like an easily traceable thing that would be fun to point out in a song.
MK: You once wrote in an essay that, “All aspects of creativity are basically reconstituted bits and pieces of things we’ve seen, heard and experienced, finely or not-so-finely chopped and served in a form that hopefully blends the ingredients into something ‘new.’” I love that. It reminds me of something Tom Waits once told me an interview — only he used the analogy of digging through a trash pile and he probably made bizarre references to stuff like albino moles. But the point is the same.
JL: Yeah, I think there’s no such thing as pure imagination. All creativity is surrealism in the sense of being new juxtapositions of things that already exist. I feel like that’s inevitable. Nobody can think of something that’s completely removed from what they’ve already experienced. Like whenever you see a space alien in movies, there’s nothing really all that imaginative or different from stuff that’s already on earth — they either look like an insect or they look like a fish or an octopus. It’s just that in a different context these things take on new meanings.
MK: You mentioned the antifolk scene you came out of. I did an early story for Option magazine on that scene — about ringleader Lach and other artists, like Roger Manning and Cindy Lee Berryhill — in 1988. Back then, I never dreamed that this scene would still be going today, or that it would produce Billboard-charting artists like Beck, Regina Spektor, and the Moldy Peaches. You must have been, like, 10 or 11 years old when Lach started putting on those anti-hootenannies. But when I did my story on it, he wasn’t doing it at the current location at the Sidewalk Café on Avenue A — he was doing it at a place called the Chameleon around the corner on 6th Street between A and B. You must have passed by all those black-clad troubadours at some point in your childhood.
JL: Ironically, even though my family lived right there, I wasn’t really aware of the antifolk scene until I got to college. It was pretty rare for me to venture east of Avenue A. In those days, it was still pretty dangerous to do that, so it wasn’t an area that I was supposed to be walking around in. By the time I became a pot-smoking teenager, there was a place I would go to on Avenue C to buy pot, but that always seemed to be a pretty dangerous mission. So I never remembered the Chameleon even existing. I don’t even remember when Sidewalk opened up, even though it was right there in the middle of things. You have to understand: There were so many funky, weird places in that area at that time.
But at some point — I think it was when I’d come home from college in the summers — I started wandering into Sidewalk to see what was going on. I didn’t know any of the performers, and I didn’t really know there was any kind of scene of people who knew each other. I just knew it was free and there was stuff that I ended up liking. All those earlier people you mentioned were long gone, but they would be talked about in reverent tones — you know, the legendary old days of people like Major Matt Mason and Paleface and Beck and Roger Manning and Cindy Lee Berryhill and John S. Hall. And sometimes those people would come in. Then later on, after I started playing there, some of them, like Paleface and Matt Mason, sort of became regulars again. They were these legendary figures and everybody was, like, “Whoa, they’re back.”
MK: Lach is responsible for creating an environment that nurtured so many good artists at those antifolk venues. That’s a rare thing these days — someone willing to let artists grow and develop. He’s kind of the figurehead for a whole secret history of music.
JL: Yeah, you know, the percentage of interesting, creative stuff that goes on at the average open-mike night is normally pretty low. But being on the Lower East Side and the East Village, there’s going to be more interesting characters coming around, especially at that time, when the neighborhood was still weird and creative and a lot less expensive to live in. But the thing that made that scene great is that Lach was always able to keep things interesting and fun, even when there wasn’t much interesting going on. He always infused things with this sense of community, kind of inventing the idea that, even though we were just playing an open mike, we were actually part of a group and we should all be hanging out with each other. And he’d invent all these games we could play together — things to create conversations among the people who were there just to listen. It wasn’t just performers on stage playing to an audience. He’d get everybody involved, answering trivia questions and doing Q&A’s from the stage. He just kept things unpredictable, doing things to kind of see what social effect it would have on the room.
You have to understand — this was a really self-contained world. You were seeing shows by people you knew and they were coming to your shows. There was even a little fanzine called Anti-Matters, run by a guy named Jon Berger, that really cemented it as a community. As a newcomer, if you got interviewed in Anti-Matters, or if your album or show got reviewed, it was a big deal. It was always really exciting to get the next issue and flip through it and see if you were mentioned and see what friends of yours were mentioned. There weren’t really any thoughts of making it outside of that world.
MK: It sounds really similar to the way it was in the ‘80s, right down to the fanzine — during that period there was one called Exposure that would put people like Lach and Roger Manning and performance artist Heather Woodbury on the cover naked, with their private parts covered by their guitars. It was always interesting seeing what anti-hero would appear in the raw on the next cover.
During that period — ’80s, early ’90s — I’d see kids like you wandering around the East Village; I may even have seen you scurry by. So my image of you as a child is this kid whose parents were these New York bohemians who raised you around all this colorful downtown bohemia. I get the idea that you grew up constantly surrounded by people like Allen Ginsberg and Tuli Kupferberg. This may be totally wrong, but that’s the sense I get. And then I saw Tuli in one of your videos and it seemed to confirm my suspicions.
JL: All those people were around the neighborhood. I mean, David Peel — if there was a squat being closed down by the police or something, we’d be at a rally protesting it and David Peel would be there with his guitar having everyone sing along to his outrageous little “fuck the police” songs that are just so stupid but also so brilliant and catchy. You know, and the Fugs and Ginsberg and all these people were always wandering around the East Village. But they were just a few among millions — well, maybe not millions, but hundreds — of interesting, creative, weird people in the neighborhood, some of them more famous than others. I remember people in our building — our next-door neighbors — they were these hippie magicians who were actually pretty successful. And then there were various interesting poets and artists and tai chi meditation people — just this weird and interesting gang of counterculture sorts who were in the neighborhood or were my parents’ friends when I was growing up.
I wasn’t consciously aware of Tuli or the Fugs until I was in high school and found their First Album in my dad or mom’s collection — it was a rare first edition and pretty beat up. But it opened up a whole new thing for me. And then I started noticing Tuli around at some of the events I’d go to. I’d say, “That guy over there, I think he’s Tuli.” So I started talking to him and over the years got to know him, especially when I did my “History of Punk on the Lower East Side” piece. It was ironic — I had just written that piece when someone at the Bowery Poetry Club invited me to do a performance at (Fugs member) Ed Sanders’ birthday party. I was like, “Well, I just wrote this thing that would be perfect.” So, it’s just a weird coincidence that pretty much the first time I ever performed it was at an event where half the people in the song were in the audience.
MK: So you’ve kind of brought this old East Village bohemia into a very contemporary sort of bohemia. It’s interesting, back the early ’90s, when I edited Option, we once did a big feature story called “The New Bohemia,” which pretty much posed the question, “Where is bohemia today?” Tuli was part of that story, and as I recall he predicted, way back then, before the internet had become such a big thing in our lives, that bohemia would no longer be a geographical place, but more of a cyberspace-type place. Seems like he was right.
JL: Well, I guess it depends on your definition of bohemia. But I think a lot of what defined bohemia was “a cheap place to live,” so I guess you could think of the internet as a cheap place to put your art and your ideas out there.
MK: I think the idea, at least in that article, was that, instead of kids having to pack their bags and run off to New York or San Francisco or wherever to find a community of likeminded creative people, they can just log on and find their little bohemian enclaves on the internet. That’s something you couldn’t do when I was a kid growing up in a small North Carolina mill town — I had to run to New York.
JL: That’s true — the access to ideas and to music and art and research and other stuff is amazing. So, yeah, it’s pretty phenomenal that you can find out about so much stuff wherever you are. Of course, you still need to WANT to find out about that stuff in the first place, which usually requires somebody to inspire you or turn you on to things. But who knows — people may just stumble on to things accidentally the same way you stumble on to a book accidentally in a library or book store that sets you off on a new path of learning.
MK: Right. I mean, theoretically, some kid could be looking up something on Youtube and stumble on to your “History of Punk Rock” and his or her whole world is opened up to new ways of doing things or of looking at life or art.
JL: Right, and that’s one of the really cool things about doing the “History of Punk” piece. At a certain point in the past, people might hear it and go, “Oh, I have these names in my head: David Peel and Silver Apples — how am I going to find out more about them or find their records?” And nowadays you can hear the music and you can buy the music and learn all about the histories of these different people just by just typing it in and seeing what comes up.
MK: And you can find other groups of people who are interested in the same thing and interact with them. Speaking of new paths of learning — in addition to your music and comics, you’ve done actual academic stuff, like formal lectures on Watchmen at places like the Institute of Contemporary Art in London.
JL: I’ve done those Watchmen lectures all over — Belgium, New York, other places. It was originally my undergrad thesis in college, an 80-page paper. You know, Watchmen has been such a popular comic for the last 20 years, and it’s in an interesting position, because on the one hand, it’s something you can present an analysis of, the same way you could present a critical interpretation of Ulysses or Moby Dick or any other great novel; and on the other hand, it’s popular culture. Being a superhero comic book, it has the outreach and popularity of pop culture, but it’s also the most complex and most worthy of critical analysis of any comic that’s ever been done, superhero or non-superhero. So you can do a critical piece on it the same way you would Virginia Wolf or D.H. Lawrence, but still be connected to something that people are actually really excited about and interested in. Maybe there will be more of that kind of thing in the future. Maybe people will be doing literary analyses of video games or who knows what.
MK: You’ve also done journalism — essays for The New York Times. I read an essay you wrote for the Times fairly recently about political songwriting in which you said you don’t feel that you have the authority to sing about the things that, say, Phil Ochs sang about, but that you’re comfortable doing it in your art. To me, you certainly have as much authority as Ochs — maybe more, with the range of your knowledge.
JL: For me, though, comic books make more sense as journalism than music does — at least with regard to the abilities that I personally have. My comic books kind of lean in that political direction, whereas I always had a harder time presenting that kind of thing in my songs. I feel like it takes a certain amount of personal authority on a topic to really convincingly put it across in a song — although to a certain extent, I guess that’s true for either: You do have to sort of be able to walk the walk to talk the talk in any artistic medium to really be as powerful and convincing as possible.
But not many people can do what somebody like Phil Ochs did. And there’s a lot of people who are turned off by that kind of thing and don’t even like Phil Ochs. Even Dylan lambasted Phil Ochs, saying that he wasn’t a songwriter, he was just a journalist. Dylan was kind of famously insulting of Phil, and that was part of the reason some people don’t like listening to that kind of stuff. Personally, I think it’s amazing.
MK: It does carry that baggage of being preachy. And that’s what’s so beautiful about the Fugs — they could do politics but make it fun and funny. I love Phil Ochs, too — he’s among my very favorite artists of all time — but you’re right, a lot of people don’t like that kind of thing.
JL: And then, of course, you have bands like Crass and even the Clash. And then… well, Woody Guthrie. I mean, he’s just such an incredible example of somebody who was able to make songs that are, on the one hand, very political, and on the other hand, fun. And all of them are incredibly powerful. But none of them leave the realm of real communication between people. At every step of the way, Woody Guthrie’s songs always related to day-to-day life — both the life of the person making the art and the lives of the people he’s singing about.
MK: It all goes back to Woody Guthrie. Thanks for talking to us, Jeff.