Around a decade has passed since the start of the Great Migration, when New York’s artists and musicians took a look at the spiralling rents in Manhattan and decided a leap across the East River to Brooklyn – or worse still, out west into the no-man’s-land of New Jersey – might be a bit easier on the pocket. But if New York’s cultural centre of gravity has shifted, for Jeffrey Lewis, this small island borough still exerts considerable pull. Lewis was born here, raised by beatnik parents on the tumbledown Lower East Side of the 1970s, and found his voice here too, playing his droll, touching acoustic songs at Lach’s Antifolk nights in the East Village – a scene superficially similar to the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s, albeit more influenced by the knock-kneed love songs of Jonathan Richman or anarchic mischief-makers like The Fugs than anything more strident or worthy. For many transplants to the city, Manhattan is so over. But what if you were born here? And what if it’s still home?
Lewis’ seventh album for Rough Trade, Manhattan, considers a changing New York, sorta kinda, but never head on. Like all his work, it’s thoughtful, humble, introspective, funny and endlessly digressive – perhaps appropriately, given the fine penmanship of his Robert Crumb-ish comic book illustrations, more about the fine detail than the broad strokes. By illustration, the record kicks off with a track called “Scowling Crackhead Ian”, a wistfully performed paean to an old almost-acquaintance and “foul human being” that doubles up as a sort of hymn to an old 1980s Manhattan, where one might get held up with a switchblade on a street corner and robbed of the nickels and dimes you were planning to pour into a Space Harrier arcade machine. Today, Lewis and his unlovely muse still live mere blocks apart – but they’ve still never had a conversation, and Lewis observes him from afar as the traffic hums and the city slowly revolves around them. “How long until we’re old man neighbours,” he sings, “Last tribesmen of the vanished land?”
Lewis is not the shy and faltering troubadour that cut his teeth playing solo songs at the Sidewalk Café back in the late ’90s. Here he fronts Los Bolts, a tin-pot not-quite-band of revolving membership, with producer Brian Speaker, drummer/singer Heather Wagner, bassist/keyboardist Caitlin Grey and guitarist Turner Cody – who played Will Oldham in the memorable video to Lewis’ 2005 single “Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror” – passing through. In places, they whip up quite a fuss, a bristly punk-rock crammed with words and anxiety. “Sad Screaming Old Man” begins as a tale of insalubrious renting, but thin walls and a neighbour prone to the night terrors ratchets up the fear until Lewis – in hammy B-movie voiceover – decides this might be a glimpse of his terrible future. “Have A Baby”, meanwhile, noisily lists the futile pastimes, hobbies and “bullshit” with which the childless fill their time – before a twist in which Lewis reconfirms his pledge to the geek way of life.
If Los Bolts occasionally shamble, they also have a subtle, playful command. “Thunderstorm” is a soft, dazed bossa nova; “Outta Town”, a beat group jangle with handclaps exploring the sense of inertia when your lover is away; Caitlin Grey sings lead vocal on “Avenue A, Shanghai, Hollywood”, a deadpan tale of city living that recalls ’80s new-wavers The Waitresses; and “The Pigeon”, a take on Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven set to driving, spy-movie funk that Lewis tells with much kvetching and the occasional lapse into Yiddish.
Still, it’s hard to dispute that Lewis’ finest songs are the most simply arranged, where fingerpicking and storytelling take the fore. The wry “Support Tours”, an examination of the life of the support band, told first from the perspective of a band on the way up, feeling screwed – and then as the headliner, being the boss and trying to balance the books. Sings Lewis: “I’m in it for the money, is that funny/I’m a working class musician with no funding in my country…” It winds up with a breathless outro where Lewis takes on the persona of a booking agent, spieling off fees and dates and clauses until the poor musician capitulates.
Then there’s “Back To Manhattan”. A cotton-wool Velvets chug tugged out to eight minutes, it finds Lewis walking with his girlfriend, a Brooklynite, over the Williamsburg Bridge as the sun sets. He’s about to end the relationship – “We’re gonna break up/But I haven’t told you/’Cos the walk’s 40 minutes” – and the song circles and spools, rolls favourite lines around in its palm, considers the future and observes the scenery. Sad and beautiful, it’s like Lewis is trying hold on to the moment for as long as possible – but if you’re waiting for drama, it never comes, and as the two silently drift apart for the last time, you can feel Jeffrey Lewis again melt into the streets of Manhattan; home again.
By the sounds of this album your connection to Manhattan holds strong. As someone born there, how do you reflect on how the way the place has changed?
At this point, the way I see it, the only neighbourhood in the world not in danger of becoming the next East Village is the East Village – it’s sort of safely dead and unhip, like the wave of gentrification has passed. It’s not even really trendy, it’s too passe. No hipster could afford to live here. So there’s a sort of calm in that, for those few of us still holding on here in whatever weird little ways.
Is “Scowling Crackhead Ian” a way of looking back without succumbing to nostalgia?
I hate nostalgia, I hate sentimentality, probably because I’m too susceptible to it. I don’t take photographs. I throw out or burn every letter I ever get, otherwise I might find it years later and get moony over it. I can’t stand nostalgic art that tries to tug at my heart-strings; it’s like I feel it groping into my chest trying to grab my heart-strings. So I’d like to think that I don’t write songs about looking back, I think this one is just as much about present and future.
“The Pigeon” is, presumably, with apologies to Edgar Allen Poe – but is there a true story or real-life experience in here?
Really it’s more like apologies to Lou Reed. Lou did his modern reinterpreted version of The Raven in 2003. This is my own version of Lou’s version, keeping it real for the East Side. It’s also very indebted to Tuli Kupferberg of The Fugs. when Tuli died I ended up with some of his books, including his Yiddish dictionary, so I wrote this with help from Tuli from beyond the grave.
INTERVIEW: LOUIS PATTISON
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