The Holy Modal Rounders/Bottlecaps' Peter Stampfel - former amphetamine-crazed psychedelic New York folk impurist and oldtimey lover turned respectable (but still musical) family man, editor, and parrotkeep - turned me on to Jeffrey Lewis when I interviewed him for the last ever Nerve Magazine (the complete text appeared in Bixobal #3). Excerpting the Lewis' material and slightly scramblin' it around for greater coherency, like, here's what Peter had to say about the young singer:
Peter: Do you know Jeffrey Lewis? Besides writing songs, he’s a brilliant cartoonist, and he does a whole bunch of songs that have full-page cartoons, and he’ll sing the songs while turning the pages. Some are funny, some are just whacked, and he has a four-part history of Communism set to music.
Allan: In cartoon form?
Peter: Yeah, in musical and cartoon form. He’s amazing. He’s in his 20’s, and he’s always travelling around Europe - where he’s gotten an audience - and he talked to the Berlin people about having me come over there representing the New York folkie 60’s deal... I met Lewis at Ed Sanders’ birthday party, and there’s two kids onstage, and one of them says, “We’re going to do a history of punk rock on the Lower East Side which is a history of punk rock, 1959 to 1975,” and I thought (skeptically), “Yeah, kid - yeah, right. This is gonna be good.” And he proceeded to do this twelve minute thing starting with Harry Smith, going to the Holy Modal Rounders, and then the Fugs, and basically namechecking every single punkish influence, and then in 1975 the Ramones get to England and people believe that punk rock is invented. And he would sing a little snippet of every single group he was going through, and he nailed it! I mean, he did a brilliant job of exposition - he remembers things that I’d forgotten, you know? And I went up to the guy - “Man, that was fucking great - you nailed it!” And subsequently he asked me to record on an album behind him called City and Eastern Music, that Kramer recorded.
Allan: Called what?
Peter: City and Eastern Music - as opposed to country and western!
...Okay. So, with an introduction like that, I'm definitely curious, right? Among other things, as I said in the Nerve article, Stampfel - along with Eugene Chadbourne, Charley Patton, and Chris D. of the Flesheaters - is one of my favourite American singers of all time, so expressive and unique is his voice; and, I mean, he's on the fucking Fugs' first album, right? Plus it's through him that I came to the Harry Smith Anthology and to real American roots music of the 1920's and '30s, and I utterly love many of the Holy Modal Rounders' albums. (I was jes' listening to Alleged in Their Own Time tonight, matter of fact). So his suggestions carry a bit of weight with me. But the Nerve comes out, Christmas follows, the Nerve folds, and my mind turns to other things. I forget completely about Lewis until I'm actually organzing the piece for Bixobal, which involves finishing the transcription - so I get to hear Stampfel talk about Lewis again. "Oh yeah... something about cartoons and songs!" Around the same time, it becomes apparent that this same guy Stampfel had told me about has put out an album of Crass covers: but melodic, pretty, folky Crass covers (!!!), packaging the richness of Crass' lyrics and their songwriting skills in a very pleasant-to-digest little giftwrapped container, which indeed features some brilliant cartoonin' (and indeed, *I* think he got the tigers in). Do you have those moments where you discover an artist and within a few months you own everything of theirs that you can find? From not knowing Jeff Lewis at all in November, I now own four of his CDs: City and Eastern Songs, It's the One's Who've Cracked That the Light Shines Through, The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane and Other Favorites, and 12 Crass Songs. (Lewis has far more recordings out there than that, but these are the ones a devoted music geek can FIND in Vancouver... in fact, with CD distribution blowing like it does, I had to order a couple from Amazon).
But maybe I'll be able to pick some up off the merch table next month, because (fanfare, please!) Jeffrey Lewis is playing on October 23rd at the Media Club in Vancouver, and I will be there. With luck, I will be interviewing him beforehand. And thanks to Youtube, I can give you a half-dozen good reasons why you should check him out, too:
The "History of Punk on the Lower East Side" that Peter mentioned.
His video for Crass' "End Result."
Some of his cartoons in action, for his "Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song."
"The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane." (Isn't that the point?)
"Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror" - a lot to contemplate, and a clever video.
More Crass: "Systematic Death," with a great video.
And finally: "Anxiety Attack."
Lots else to be seen on Youtube, including some articulate and engaging interviews and several clips featuring Tuli Kupferberg. I'm assuming that after all this, either you don't NEED further convincing, or it will do no good. I find this guy delightful, and am stunned and a little saddened that tickets are only $12; plus the venue's even a step smaller from Richards on Richards, where, I believe, he last played. Why isn't he filling the Commodore by now? What's wrong with people?
Anyhow: note to Jeff: bring merch.