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Huey Lewis’s Old, Weird America

A trip into the heartland — and the past — with the indefatigable '80s pop star.

Huey Lewis arrives backstage at a 2,000-seat theater in Wisconsin Dells and takes one look at his dressing room. Pausing, he dryly utters a one-word assessment: “Intimate.”

I had seen him in the flesh once before, back when Huey Lewis and the News was touring in support of the album Hard at Play in 1991. I was 13 years old and Lewis was my first favorite rock star. He played at the not-intimate Marcus Amphitheater in Milwaukee, which seats approximately 12 times more people than Wisconsin Dells’s Crystal Grand Music Theatre, and was built in the aftermath of a dangerously overcrowded concert that Lewis performed on the grounds in the summer of 1984 — about the time his most popular record, Sports, rose to the top of the Billboard album charts. That concert drew 30,000 people to a space suited for 15,000. (The Marcus Amphitheater could accurately be described as “The House That Huey Built,” though I’ve never heard it actually described that way.)

Wisconsin Dells doesn’t have close to 30,000 people in the entire town, which is situated in the south-central part of the state, about a two-hour drive west of Milwaukee. As Wisconsin’s tourism hub, its population swells in the summer months depending on the weather — an area dense with woodlands, lakes, water parks, and wax museums, Wisconsin Dells is a relatively cheap place to take the kids on vacation, though omnipresent storm clouds chased away visitors in early June like a great white shark stalking a beach community. Still, all but 100 or so tickets were sold for the night’s Huey Lewis and the News concert several hours before showtime. Towns like this are Huey’s bread and butter these days.

Many of those ticket buyers were coming to hear the songs from Sports played from front to back. While Sports isn’t usually mentioned among the most popular musical blockbusters of the ’80s, it belongs in that company. Of the album’s nine tracks, five charted in the Top 20: “I Want a New Drug,” “The Heart of Rock & Roll,” “Heart and Soul,” “If This Is It,” and “Walking on a Thin Line.” (One of those songs might be playing on the “cool FM” oldies radio station in your town at this very second.) Sports was one of only five no. 1 albums during all of 1984, the fewest number in history. The others were Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the Footloose soundtrack, Prince’s Purple Rain, and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. Huey Lewis held the summit for only one week, but Sports sold 6 million records in ’84 alone (on the way to topping 10 million), good for second on the year-end sales list behind Thriller.

“We were opening for .38 Special when Sports was out,1 and the crowds were finally coming to see us.” Lewis says. He sits on a small love seat opposite a wall lined with mirrors and partially concealed by a rack of stage clothes, and relaxes his right hand after hurriedly autographing 50 CD booklets from the recent Sports reissue. “We went out on an arena and coliseum tour, and we were killing them every night because our record was growing by the day. We would show up at the hall at seven and eat the crew meal, put on our clothes at 7:45, go out from eight to nine o’clock and just tear it up, and get as many encores as we want. To their credit, if .38 Special were super-mad about it, they would suck it up and play their show real hard.”

Lewis recalls telling his bandmates at the time, “‘This is as good as it gets, man. Just have fun with this right here.’ And I’ve been in the business for long enough to know that that’s true.”

Lewis does not sound bitter when he says this. He’s a little older than you remember — the lines on his forehead are deeper, his voice more sandpapery, and he untucks his almond brown button-up shirt to hide his 62-year-old paunch. (He also apparently keeps his collection of Skittles-colored, proto-Arsenio suit jackets in mothballs. They are nowhere in sight in his dressing room.) But for the most part, in appearance and demeanor, Lewis is unchanged from the handsome, confidently smirking cool-dad figure on the cover of Sports. For much of his life, Lewis has been cursed with a face that looks eternally 41, but he’s now reached the point where this is a good thing. In person, he’s friendly, though not particularly gregarious — he prefers not to do interviews on show days, which is difficult because nearly every day is a show day. After tonight’s concert, the band will shower, the crew will load out, and Lewis’s 25-person caravan (which he refers to as his “small business”) will hop back on their buses and drive 403 miles to Anderson, Indiana, for tomorrow night’s gig at a horse track and casino. In the next seven days, Lewis will play five shows in places like Paducah, Kentucky, and Quapaw, Oklahoma, along with bigger cities like Dallas and Cincinnati. Even with the gaudy 1980s sales statistics, Huey Lewis and the News has the work ethic of a 2010s indie band. 

As Doc Brown explains in Back to the Future, not long after Marty McFly skateboards to school on the back of a Jeep while Lewis’s “The Power of Love” blares on the soundtrack, there’s no discernible difference between experiencing the present, past, or future when you’re moving freely in the space-time continuum. No matter where (or when) you go, the trip appears to be instantaneous. Talking with Huey Lewis replicates this sensation, and it also doesn’t. I can measure the passage of time by my emotional state; I’m not nearly as ecstatic about meeting Huey Lewis at age 35 as I would’ve been at age 8. But for Lewis, who consciously or not makes his living by constructing a public version of himself that hasn’t existed since the original Knight Rider was canceled, the present might as well be interchangeable with the past and future. It’s all one big jumble that somehow makes sense, like songs from different albums recontextualized into a concert set list. Perhaps that’s why when I ask Lewis about Sports — the album he’s ostensibly promoting by talking to me, even if, like most of his fans, I’ve already owned it for 30 years — he’d rather go back to the future. Lewis tells me about the one song the band’s playing tonight that doesn’t originate from the 20th century — a pleasantly poppy love song called “While We’re Young.” He’s excited about the track, though he’s not sure if it will end up on a record.

“I don’t know what a new record is anymore,” Lewis says. “I think what we have to do is record it, and video the recording and make a YouTube clip. I think YouTube is what matters. Records don’t matter.”

As a prolific seller of records once upon a time, Lewis is naturally perturbed by this. “American popular music is our only art form. It’s our most important export, period. And since time began, it’s been handled not as an art form but as a commodity. I mean, all records are the same price. Books are different prices, paintings are different prices, wine is different prices, but all music is the same fucking price. And why? Because the executives in charge of the business are not real businesspeople. They didn’t go to business school, they don’t have a business vision. ‘He just managed a band that sold 8 million records. So let’s put him in charge.'”

Here’s one thing the record business is definitely no longer good at: selling rock albums made by thirtysomething white men who are into sax solos and doo-wop. MJ, Prince, Springsteen — you can point to contemporary artists attempting to follow their commercial examples. But Huey Lewis represents an archetype that is not only absent from the pop charts, it’s one that is nearly impossible for a young person to imagine ever being popular. Sports is the epitome of old-world musical broadness — it touches on new wave, ’60s soul, beer-commercial blues, and classic honky-tonk. One of the album’s most recognizable tracks, “I Want a New Drug,” topped the dance charts. That’s right — the clubs of ’84 banged to Huey Lewis and the News. It’s inconceivable that any album today could (or would even attempt to) cover so many bases in such a deliberate “one size fits all” manner.

“I think everybody’s screwed by that,” Lewis says. “[In the past] music was integrated, but society was segregated. Today, society is integrated, but music is segregated. And that’s not a good thing. Information is segregated. If you’re a right-winger, you know there’s a bunch of shows you can watch where nobody disagrees with you. If you’re a left-winger, there are other shows, nobody disagrees with you. Not healthy. Not good.”

Again, I want to emphasize that Lewis doesn’t say any of this with anger or resentment. Later, he’ll jokingly (I think) ask that I tone down his mildly critical (and sensible) comments about the record industry lest he offend someone powerful. Lewis hasn’t been a fixture on pop radio for nearly 25 years, but he remains a reflexively mainstream artist. It’s not in his nature to upset the applecart, or to appear desirous of approaching applecart-upsetting status. He’s still wired to give the public what it wants, however the public wants it, many years after the public has moved on. Besides, Lewis knows his career was altered by larger cultural forces no record label could possibly control.

“You can’t be a pop writer today,” he says. “Because as a pop writer, you’re informed by your audience. And with people our age, there’s no audience. So you go on TV — well, what TV? Letterman is the best. So suppose you do Letterman. Well, he’s going to tack you on at the end. He’s not going to talk to you. Snooki is going to get better coverage than you are.”

Lewis I‘d like to dispute the assertion that Huey Lewis doesn’t have an audience. In fact, Huey Lewis’s audience is coming at me like a battalion of doughy zombies. Lewis and I are attempting to traverse the short 100-foot jog from the theater’s back door to Lewis’s tour bus, but his fans are on us as soon as we step outside. One after another they walk up to ask for a photo. Lewis is patient and accommodating, though he also seems vaguely annoyed — he’s generously agreed to extend our interview after the sound check, even though showtime is less than 45 minutes away, and this is prolonging the inconvenience. A middle-aged woman sweetly asks for a photo after telling Lewis that she’s following the tour to Cincinnati next week. A burly guy suggests that Lewis sign the Blues Brothers T-shirt he’s wearing, but a Sharpie is nowhere to be found. By the time we get inside the bus, a walk that should’ve taken a few seconds has eaten up several minutes.

“Let’s face it, anybody who does what I do has got to like the attention a little bit or else he wouldn’t have done it in the first place,” Lewis says after grabbing a seat on the bus. Based on my limited experience hanging out on tour buses, this one seems nice enough. There’s a PGA tournament playing on the flat-screen television, and a tray of tasty chocolate chip cookies sits to the left of our table. (Lewis offers me one at the end of the interview.) Year in and year out, during good times and less good times, this is Lewis’s home away from home. In 2013, Huey Lewis and the News will perform about 80 concerts, a typical annual workload even as Lewis approaches his retirement years.

“There’s a period of time where it’s actually kind of fun,” he says, reflecting on the regularly-stopped-on-the-street superstar period of his career back in the ’80s. “There’s another period of time when you just kind of grin and bear it. And hopefully there’s a minuscule period of time where it drives you crazy.”

How big was Huey Lewis in the ’80s? Album sales don’t tell the whole story; in this day and age, they barely seem meaningful. It might be helpful to illustrate Lewis’s hugeness via his proximity to other institutions whose hugeness is beyond reproach. For instance, in the iconic (and retrospectively hilarious) video for the 1985 anti-hunger benefit track “We Are the World,” you can see Lewis (outfitted with the requisite headphones and soulfully “serious” facial expression) belting out the song’s bridge with none other than Michael Jackson. Or in this clip from the 1986 American Music Awards, there’s a tuxedoed and mysteriously amused-looking Prince presenting Huey Lewis and the News with the award for favorite pop/rock single for “The Power of Love.” I’d be derelict in my duty as a chronicler of Huey Lewis’s legacy if I didn’t mention the book and film versions of American Psycho — parodied earlier this year by both Lewis and Kanye West — which either elevated Sports and its nearly-as-successful sequel, 1986’s Fore!, into emblems of their era (as Lewis himself has suggested)2 or reduced Lewis’s music to a caricature of plastic inanity that only a sociopath could love. Either way, Huey Lewis, for a few years anyway, had as much stature in pop music as anybody in his time.

“It was as big as anything ever was,” Lol Halsey, Lewis’s manager, tells me during sound check.3 “We’d have 2,000 fans mob the hotel after the show.”

Huey Lewis Lewis doesn’t really pine for that anymore. A half-dozen fans asking for a picture is a minor irritant; 2,000 fans screaming for you when you just want to go to bed can seriously disrupt your life. “It was over the top. You couldn’t go to a shopping mall, airports were a problem. Any place with a lot of people was a problem,” he says. “That’s why my hobbies are outdoor hobbies — fly-fishing, golf, horseback riding. Where there’s no cell phones and no people.”

Because of the all-consuming nature of pop celebrity in the ’80s, when monolithic corporate media reiterated the same set of artists over and over again on multiple platforms in pursuit of maximum market penetration, Lewis is arguably still more famous today than all but a small handful of contemporary music stars. He remains part of a select fraternity of musicians who can draw a couple thousand people in dozens (if not hundreds) of middle-American towns like Wisconsin Dells scattered throughout the country. He can’t play the sorts of rooms that Springsteen or Prince play, but those guys don’t rely any less on what they accomplished in 1984 for their livelihoods than Lewis does. The difference is that Springsteen and Prince transcended their eras and became universal touchstones; Lewis will probably always be associated with Marty McFly and Patrick Bateman. This has made moving on creatively a seemingly insurmountable challenge.

“When you’ve written a bunch of songs, it’s hard. I mean, we wrote ‘The Heart of Rock & Roll.’ Now can I write ‘The Soul of Rock & Roll’? No. Or ‘The Brains of Rock & Roll’? I mean, we really almost can’t write a song with rock and roll in the title,” he says resignedly.

It’s an odd though not irrelevant point — “The Brains of Rock & Roll” truly is a terrible concept for a song. But Huey Lewis has lived a pretty amazing life. While making the Sports promotional rounds — the album was rereleased in May with a bonus disc of live versions of each track — Lewis has regaled journalists and podcasters with his greatest exploits. Some are more well-worn anecdotes. As a kid growing up in the Bay Area, Lewis was primed for a career in music by a physician father who moonlighted as a jazz drummer and an artist mother who started out as a ’50s beatnik and evolved into a ’60s hippie. Through his mother, young Huey (then known as Hugh Anthony Cregg III) encountered Allen Ginsberg and Charles Mingus. His mother took in Billy Roberts, the guy who wrote “Hey Joe,” as a boarder. After graduating high school a year early — he was a math whiz who scored a perfect 800 on the SAT — Lewis hitchhiked across America, sneaked onto a transatlantic flight without paying, and played harp in pickup bands while exploring Europe. He saw early gigs by the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore, and — a decade later, when his band Clover was encamped in London under the tutelage of Elvis Costello cohort Jake Riviera — the Clash at the Round House. He was best pals with Phil Lynott and played harmonica on Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous. And this is just stuff that happened to Lewis before he was famous. Surely he’s accrued enough interesting experiences to have something new to say about his life now?

“The story of a 62-year-old — nobody wants to hear that,” Lewis says dismissively. “That’s not going to relate. That’s not timeless. That’s why people write love songs. What’s her name — Taylor Swift said all of her songs are love songs because that’s what people want. That’s what young girls think about 24/7. That’s what young guys think about — the gal, the guy.” Lewis’s pop instincts remain perceptive, even as they’re telling him that he’s finished as a pop artist.

Lewis talks about the conception of Sports matter-of-factly — he needed to write hit songs in order to stay in the business, so that’s what he did. Huey Lewis and the News’ self-titled 1980 debut didn’t chart, and while 1982’s Picture This spawned future concert staples like “Do You Believe in Love” and “Workin’ for a Livin’,” it established only a temporary beachhead. Lewis convinced his label, Chrysalis, to let the band produce their third album themselves and to otherwise stay out of the way. “They were in London, we were in California. It was 6,000 miles away, so they couldn’t keep their hands on us. And they were going through turmoil at the time, too. So fortunately, we were with the right label. If we were with CBS, it doesn’t happen; with Warner Bros., it doesn’t happen. But they were Chrysalis Records — they were a mess and we were a long ways away, so they said, ‘What the hell?'”

With this freedom, Huey Lewis created an album that would’ve exceeded any early-’80s record executive’s wildest commercial expectations. Sports was the product of a new technological age in pop music — the competition to create the most pristine-sounding and perfectly sculpted earworms was as fierce as it’s ever been. Survival for an anachronistic pop-rock band like Huey Lewis and the News required submission to the machine (as well as the machines).

“The first record, I was very, very headstrong,” Lewis says. “We wanted it to sound ‘live,’ so I reckoned that if we went into a studio and cut the record real fast, and just did a maximum of three takes on everything, that it would sound live. Well, it didn’t. It sounded small.” On Sports, “although it looks like a bar band, every single thing is overdubbed on there. ‘Bad Is Bad’ is cut to a drum machine. ‘New Drug’ is sequenced. Once we had the hits, we threw the machines in the wastebasket and we started playing. Flaws are fun to embrace in a song, as long as there aren’t too many of them and you’re not making it to be played on the radio every 20 minutes.”

The primary songwriters on Sports were Lewis, guitarist Chris Hayes (who departed the News in 2000), and guitarist/saxophonist Johnny Colla, who remains Lewis’s musical copilot. A laid-back, unassuming type, Colla wanders up to me in the hospitality room a half-hour before showtime. While snacking on a plate of watery broccoli and cauliflower, he explains how he finished off “The Power of Love,” the group’s first no. 1 single and another high point between the peaks of Sports and Fore!, after it was mostly written by Lewis and Hayes.

“I demoed the tune for Chris and I came up with [imitates the synth-based hook of “The Power of Love”] duh duh, duh duh. And what do you know? It became the intro, the chorus, and the outro,” he says. “Chris had written it as lots of moving notes, and I thought it’s gotta be a bit more pop. Something’s gotta make it snap. That was my contribution. I thought it was worth a couple bucks, a couple points.” While Colla is telling this story, I’m trying to remember anything about “The Power of Love” that isn’t duh duh, duh duh. It’s really only a small part of the song, and yet it is the song.

Colla’s most valuable contribution to Sports was the supremely corny and totally irresistible sock-hop ballad “If This Is It.” The song is indicative of Sports‘s appeal: It immediately conjures nostalgia for a warm, fuzzy, and romantically fabricated past. It sounds simultaneously like the early ’60s and the early ’80s, two pop-music periods that will probably always be reassuring in their resolute squareness. It was Colla’s goal to write a summer song, and that’s what “If This Is It” became in ’84, hitting the radio in July and showing up in the Top 10 not long after. And the song has had legs, even subliminally on people who have never heard of Sports.

“I’m in the gym today and this guy knows I’m somebody but he can’t figure it out,” Colla says. “This fella, he’s much younger — I come to find out he’s 35 years old — this black fella, and we start talking. He’s here on a conference, and I finally got around to what I do, and I said, ‘Huey Lewis and the News. You ever heard of us?’ ‘Nah, man. Are you still together?’ And I said, ‘Well, over 30 years.’ ‘Whoa, name a song.’ So I started naming ‘Heart of Rock & Roll,’ ‘Power of Love,’ ‘I Want a New Drug,’ and he goes, ‘Nah, nah, nah.’ I said, ‘If This Is It,’ and he goes, ‘Oh, yeah! Man, that’s the one!'” Colla smiles like the song just reappeared in the Top 10.

Huey Lewis Along with the 30th anniversary of Sports, 2013 marks the 25th anniversary of a record that did as much to derail Huey Lewis’s pop-star career as Sports did to put it on track. On 1988’s Small World, Lewis consciously ignored his pop instincts and attempted to make his Random Access Memories — an expansive yacht rock–cum–jazz fusion fantasia rich with reggae rhythms, dubby blues, and florid Stan Getz sax wails. “We’d made four records, and they’d all been stylistically pretty much in the same ballpark,” Lewis told Rolling Stone before the record’s release. “I felt it was time for a change: more international, more challenging, more musical. We needed to do something that we’d feel proud of.” Lewis was emphatic about what was already obvious: “I didn’t aim to make it commercial. If the record doesn’t sell, we can still go out and play live.”

Call it an act of artistic bravery or hubris, but Small World did not sell, at least not by the multi-platinum standards of Sports and Fore!. It did go platinum, and the first single, “Perfect World,” peaked at no. 3 on the pop charts. But Huey Lewis and the News would never again have another Top 10 hit.4 The follow-up to “Perfect World” was the ambitious, socially conscious “Small World,” which was edited down for radio from the two-part, eight-minute album version featuring Getz’s virtuosic soloing; Part 1 petered out at no. 25. Public indifference for Small World soon gave way to critical hostility. “Rolling Stone‘s worst album of the year. Worst album of the year,” Lewis says. “I’ve done a lot worse work than that. If that was the worst one, I should have the worst five.”

With the next album, Hard at Play, the edict was to get back to making radio hits — only Huey Lewis was now inherently non-commercial in a new era of grunge and gangster rap. “The record company said, ‘You have to rock. You have to rock.’ So we wrote ‘Couple Days Off’ and then when they released it, all the big-time rock stations said, ‘We can’t play this. This is Huey Lewis and the News.’ So our image was in the way. The rock stations wouldn’t play our rock stuff because it was already ’91 and we couldn’t be less cool. It was over for us no matter what we did.”

This changeover in radio formats was “disappointing — and it’s hurt us,” Lewis says, and not just in terms of airplay. Lewis sees the splintering of radio and pop culture in general, which essentially made general-interest rock bands like Huey Lewis and the News obsolete, as damaging to his overall legacy. “You know, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we’re never going to be in there. Which is kind of a shame when you sell 20 million records or however many we sold. I don’t let myself think in those terms, because we’re patently uncool, I think. But, you know, whatever.”

Story time: During a break in the “We Are the World” sessions, Lewis found himself in conversation with Willie Nelson about their respective golf games. Eventually, Bob Dylan wandered over. It was the first time Lewis had met him. Later, Dylan sent Lewis a song for him to consider recording (Lewis didn’t record it, to his later chagrin) along with a note expressing his admiration of Sports. “He pays attention to the music biz, he really does,” Lewis says. “He’s up-to-the-minute, man — well, he was then, I don’t know about now. I suspect he still is. I mean, he’s on the road all the time, that’s what he does. There was a very revealing thing in the 60 Minutes piece he did — they said, ‘You’re like a messiah, really. You became a messiah for a generation. Is that what you set out to be, to be a messiah? Did you want to be the Messiah?’ He says, ‘The Messiah? No. Elvis Presley, maybe.’ He’s a pop star! He likes being a pop star. He’s on the road, he’s dressed to the teeth — he’s a fucking pop star! Why? It’s a wonderful gig. What person doesn’t want that job?”

Even after Huey Lewis records stopped selling, he and the News never stopped touring. Aside from what Colla calls a “dark period” toward the end of the ’80s, “when the whole thing was kind of on the ropes,” the group has never really considered stopping. “I have crew guys who go back with me 30 years, who have kids in college and need to make money and they only get paid by the gig,” Lewis says. “And I have a horn section. I employ people to play one note at a time. That’s pretty rare nowadays. If you want a live horn section, you’ve got to give them enough gigs. You gotta work. You have to work to keep your band alive. Plus, you gotta work to keep your chops up. You don’t want to quit for longer than a few weeks; your chops start to go down.”

His pop star days behind him, Lewis follows the credo of the working musician: “We’ll play anywhere,” he says. “I mean, the frightening thing is, we get hired to play a birthday party or a corporate incentive party in Hawaii that’s set up next to a swimming pool and there’s 120 people. And they’re kind of nonplussed. They had Dylan last year, they got you this year; they had Earth, Wind & Fire, and now you. It’s probably not prudent to say, but the audience figures very little into the equation, actually. It’s mainly about us, you know? If a place sounds good, it’s a gas. That’s the thing with big venues or small venues — it doesn’t matter.”

Tonight, in Wisconsin Dells, where the Huey Lewis concert is the hottest ticket in town, it seems like a gas. I planned to maintain a safe critical distance from my first Huey Lewis concert in 22 years, but that all disappears like a speeding DeLorean from the Twin Pines Mall parking lot by the time Huey inserts “Wisconsin Dells!” into the roll call of cities in “The Heart of Rock & Roll.” I am powerless against this man’s crowd-pleasing capabilities — Huey Lewis has got me, and he’s hardly broken a sweat yet. I’m suddenly gripped by a ravenous craving for Sports deep cuts. Like the rest of the audience, I find myself mouthing the words to “Bad Is Bad” in spite of not singing along to “Bad Is Bad” in decades. I’m eagerly anticipating hearing “You Crack Me Up” live for the first time, and I don’t even like “You Crack Me Up.” And at the end of every song I cheer along with 2,000 other Huey Lewis fans. The cheering is so loud you can almost imagine it being 30,000.

Filed Under: Magazines, Star

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Steven Hyden is a staff writer at Grantland. He is currently writing a book on pop-music rivalries.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden