Jeffrey Lewis brought his tragic pathos and absurdist humour all the way from Manhattan to Manchester for a set of devastating rants, punk rackets and a brief history of 20th century Vietnam
Wednesday 9th December 2015
After years of binding himself to non-materialistic ideals and purist values via lo-fi records and homemade comics, Jeffrey Lewis is finally selling out. But fear not, die hards—your DIY antihero isn’t selling out in any spiritual sense; he is literally selling out his shows.
His Deaf Institute show was so sold out, in fact, that as I was loitering outside, waiting for a friend, none other than Marc Riley of 6Music appeared next to me, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “are you looking for a ticket mate? I have a plus one if you need it”, to which I replied, “no thanks, I’m on the guestlist”, followed by, “are you Marc Riley?!”, by which point he was out of earshot. Lewis had been on Riley’s show earlier for a 6Music session following the release of his latest album (and one of his most consistent), Manhattan. It was nice to know that when Riley signs off on his hosted live sessions with “I look forward to your show later!”, he does actually mean that he’ll be attending—I’d always assumed he just said that for effect.
So Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts are the latest in the line of modest Lewis-fronted groups—this one consisting of former Mouldy Peaches drummer Brent, regular bassist Caitlin Gray, and a trusty Casio SK1 for the synth lines, which provided a distorted psychedelic counterpunch to Lewis’ hyper-lucid lyrics. There isn’t a synthesiser in this world, however, that can take the edge off of those stark lyrics, wrapped in absurdist humour yet revealing of a despairing and/or embracive (depending on your interpretation) worldview in which everything is dying from the day of its birth onwards and no one can do a thing about it.
Take Lewis’ crowning achievement, ‘Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror’, for example. It recounts a long-winded fable about Lewis seeing alt-folk chieftain Will Oldham on a train in Williamsburg, proceeding to question his own inferior existence as an artist, before confronting Oldham for answers, then getting sexually assaulted by Oldham, and finally realising that it probably wasn’t Will Oldham after all, rendering the whole exercise futile beside its trail of horrific epiphanies: “While us minions in our millions tumble into history’s chasm/ We might have a couple of laughs but we’re still wastes of protoplasm”. It’s always a highlight at a Jeffrey Lewis gig, and it’s always delivered with an exquisite amount of broken-voiced pathos.
On a warmer note, ‘I Saw A Hippie Girl On 8th Ave’ was delivered a cappella, accompanied with a slideshow of illustrations. As always, there was a simple, good-natured, yet slightly nihilistic message—this time it was for the “hippies and the punks and the skinheads and the skaters”, and it was that “you don’t need clothes for an identity crutch.”
The next slideshow presentation, this time with a full band punk instrumental to push it along, was entitled ‘Communism Chapter Six’ , and it pretty much summed up the history of 20th century Vietnam. I’d wager that most of us learnt more about Vietnam than we’d known before or could ever learn from a Hollywood movie. Lewis succinctly laid out the geopolitical map of Southeast Asia and the corrupt power struggle for the country’s resources, guiding us through to its integration into the world economy…all over a slick bassline.
Post-gig, the merch table was a veritable feast of personal Jeffrey Lewis touches. For £5.50, I bought two issues of FUFF, Lewis’ amusing and thoughtful comic book series, and a small pamphlet entitled ‘Sonnet Youth’ which contained an entire reworking of lyrics from Sonic Youth’s album Goo into Shakespearian sonnets.
There are few people you feel like you can truly know via their art, but Jeffrey Lewis is one of them, so resonant is the intensely personal detail that dominates everything he produces. Still, Lewis is 40 now, an age by which most men seem to have curled up into stoic, emotionless balls. How reassuring it was, then, that when I got home and opened up the latest issue of FUFF, I found a mortifying and graphically illustrated story about the time a young Lewis lost his virginity. Never change, Jeffrey.