Outsider anti-folk songwriter grapples with sad, screaming old men, communism and the mystery of the human condition
Jeffrey Lewis lives in a Manhattan apartment not far from where he grew up. The walls are thin, and from time to time he can hear noises coming from the neighboring units. But in the folk-punk song “Sad Screaming Old Man,” off Lewis' 2015 album, Manhattan, the singer and songwriter recounts a particularly harrowing experience of unwanted eavesdropping.
“Picture me lying there alone in my bed/When this old man just lets out these shrieks near my head,” Lewis deadpans. “And now every night at like 3 in the a.m./I get woken up by this miserable mayhem/Who's being dismembered? What the hell is wrong?/I'm scared that he'll send me insane before long.”
As the song continues, though, Lewis admits the lonely old man's nocturnal moaning isn't the scariest part of this whole ordeal. The musician's true fear is that he'll end up just like his neighbor: “Tell me what did he do in his youth for this torture?/And what if I'm him, and it's true that he's me in the future?”
“I think that sense of loneliness or hopelessness or faded-ness, I guess you could say, has been a part of me for as long as I can remember,” said Lewis, reached by phone in his apartment, which functions as the guitarist's songwriting space and a studio for his visual art. “That sense of alienation was part of why I drew comic books my whole life in the first place. But the comic books didn't necessarily give voice to that feeling. It wasn't until I started writing songs in my early-to-mid-20s that I found a voice to express those feelings specifically — that idea of being on the outside of humanity.”
As a songwriter, that outsider feeling drew Lewis to music being made on the margins. “Daniel Johnston has always been a really powerful guiding light,” Lewis said. “He's voicing a different aspect of what it's like to be part of the human race.”
In the late '90s, while writing literate songs inspired by musical heroes Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs and Mark E. Smith of the Fall, Lewis found a home in New York's anti-folk scene alongside the Moldy Peaches and other likeminded acts. In 2002, Rough Trade issued The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane and Other Favorites, and since then Lewis has continued to release albums on the UK label (most recently Manhattan, under the name Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts). A new, finished album is still awaiting release, much to Lewis' frustration.
“I would like to figure out a better situation for myself in terms of having better label representation on both sides of the Atlantic,” Lewis said. “I always have a big leg up in England, which is where my biggest fan base is because of all my stuff coming out on Rough Trade first. That gave me a foothold in the music world in England in a way that it's taken me a lot longer to really catch up to in the U.S.”
Lewis has played the opening slot on countless tours (a fact he drolly documents on Manhattan track “Support Tours”), including one for the Fall in 2004. Before that tour, Lewis decided to write a song called “The History of the Fall” and perform it at the shows with accompanying illustrations. He went on to write more illustrated musical histories of bands and record labels (K Records, Rough Trade).
“After I had done a few of those, I started thinking, ‘Wait a minute. Why is my thinking so narrow on this? I could tackle any topic whatsoever,''' Lewis said. “And I was like, ‘What's the biggest, most important, craziest topic? What's the biggest thing I can think of to tackle?' And the thing that came to mind was the history of communism.”
Communism proved to be tough to cover in the span of one song, so Lewis now has about nine volumes, most recently about Cuba. “The one about North Korea is an older one, and I hadn't performed it in a number of years, but North Korea is in the news so much that I kind of felt like, well, maybe I should dust that one off and start performing it again,” Lewis said. “It's obviously something to come kind of completely out of left field in the context of a rock performance to suddenly be like, ‘OK, for this next song, I'll show you some drawings and tell you the history of North Korea.' On one hand it's completely ridiculous and quirky, but on the other hand, it's actually educational and satisfying in a way that appeals to me.”
The History Channel even took note of Lewis' knack for putting history to music alongside his comic book-style illustrations and hired him to create segments about the Renaissance, the Peloponnesian War and other topics.
On this tour, which will stop at the Summit on Sunday, April 21, Lewis will size up the room to see whether he should use a projector for the drawings or mount his giant paper pad of illustrations onstage and turn the pages manually. “On a night-by-night basis I just decide which ones to show and how to show them,” he said.
Of all the songs in his discography, Lewis is most proud of the work that incorporates equal parts comedy and tragedy. “It feels more true to the mystery of the human condition — the balance of humor and horror … where you're not sure whether you should laugh or cry,” he said. “It's like holding onto the electric current wires and having all of those emotions kind of frying out as a part of just the weirdness of being alive.”