Lower East aside
Jeffrey Lewis's songs are drenched in his native LES-but does he belong in its current rock scene?
Thu Sep 21 2006
Photograph: Cristy Kurtz
Jeffrey Lewis sits against a wood-paneled wall in Cake Shop, the Ludlow Street caf, record store and rock club that performs a juggling act he can relate to as a singer, songwriter and comic-book artist. The club has become a hot spot for the city's rock scene; no doubt, much of Cake Shop's appeal lies in its suburban rec-room splendor. After all, the denizens of today's Lower East Side are veterans of minimalls and tree-lined cul-de-sacs, the children of baby boomers who fled the city to provide their spawn with new and exciting opportunities.
Jeffrey Lewis sits against a wood-paneled wall in Cake Shop, the Ludlow Street caf, record store and rock club that performs a juggling act he can relate to as a singer, songwriter and comic-book artist. The club has become a hot spot for the city's rock scene; no doubt, much of Cake Shop's appeal lies in its suburban rec-room splendor. After all, the denizens of today's Lower East Side are veterans of minimalls and tree-lined cul-de-sacs, the children of baby boomers who fled the city to provide their spawn with new and exciting opportunities. Like moving to the city.
Lewis, who spent his childhood on Avenue A, is unlikely to find such nostalgic comfort in the space's Brady Bunch decor. If anything, it underscores the artist's self-professed disconnect from local audiences. "I grew up a couple of blocks from here," says Lewis, 30, who has since been priced into Williamsburg. "But ironically, I'm not the actual culture of New York. The popular bands and their audiences moved here after college, and they share that common experience."
Although overseas Lewis is trumpeted by critics and musicians—"I'm massively shy around him," gushes the British Art Brut singer Eddie Argos—at home he is relegated to the fringes. Yet there are few contemporary songwriters as unaffectedly steeped in New York as Lewis. His new album, City & Eastern Songs—the guitarist shares billing with his bassist brother, Jack—is a masterful collection of neurotic, ramshackle folk spiked with the bursts of punk that have become increasingly prevalent in his performances. "I love being considered a quiet, wordy singer-songwriter," says Lewis. "And then when you see my show, there's a huge level of noise, feedback and stepping on keyboards."
Nonetheless, it's as a quiet, wordy singer-songwriter that Lewis has made his biggest impact. He practices a direct form of lyricism that flourishes in the antifolk scene from which the singer emerged in the early '00s, wherein traditional song structure is jettisoned in favor of stream-of-consciousness confessionals. His best numbers reach back to the Holy Modal Rounders and Shel Silverstein—children's music made for grown-ups in which, according to Argos, "you're laughing but it's not a joke." On the new album's tour de force, "Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror," Lewis uses an L-train sighting of the indie star to explore his own anxieties: Does Oldham fret that he will never reach the heights of Dylan? Does Dylan, too, stay "up some nights wishing he was as good as Ginsberg or Camus"? Most pointedly, Lewis wonders what must be on the minds of all Williamsburg musicians: Wouldn't it be less self-indulgent to ditch art and work to better humanity?
This final question seems of particular interest to Lewis. He was born to a clan that epitomized a now-fading Manhattan archetype: the socialist-atheist Jew who arrived downtown via the Red Army. "I feel kind of ashamed being one of the few members of the family that hasn't been in jail for some political offense," the musician says. "I had this upbringing that said if you get a regular job, you've failed, and the whole American system is an evil rip-off." That background becomes most visible in Lewis's work as a cartoonist. Fuff, his self-published comic book, features a running segment about the adventures of his hippie father. In concert, Lewis regularly accompanies songs by holding up a flip book of illustrations, including a multipart piece recounting the history of communism. Typically, it's at once funny, poignant, and rife with questions and doubt.
The artist views his old neighborhood's gentrification with similar skepticism. "It's heartbreaking when people put so much love into something like making community gardens out of vacant lots and it's snatched away from them," he says. "But if people couldn't move here, then most of the artists I love wouldn't have been here to change the culture. That's the New York tradition: People come to the city and reinvent themselves. The truth is, they belong here more than I do."
Jeffrey Lewis plays Bowery Ballroom Friday 22 and September 30, Other Music Monday 25 and Pete's Candy Store October 16. City & Eastern Songs comes out Tuesday 26 on Rough Trade.