In order to tell you about Jeffrey Lewis, I must first admit I'm not one of his quiet super fans. Mr. Lewis is a fringe artist for me, one that operates in the blurry wash of my peripherals. The name is significant. He wrote a Friends With Benefits editorial for us once and it was a big deal, so I was told. I knew the song-writing style was mercurial, akin to Moldy Peaches. It took a free vinyl copy of Lewis' 2001 debut The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane resting against my door step to truly introduce me to Jeffrey Lewis. This was a month ago.
Today, I know the word “anti-folk”. I know that Jeffrey Lewis wrote editorials for The New York Times and it truly was a big deal for us. In addition to having albums out on Rough Trade, he's an accomplished comic artist and lecturer. On this very day, I feel privileged to have a re-issue of The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane courtesy of Don Giovanni. See, I had a moment with Jeffrey Lewis when I put the needle to his record. It was a vision I had in college, of advances arriving at my door and I spend a night in, neglecting calls to watch basketball in a nearby bar with another writer. I'd lie on the carpet with a beer or whiskey in arm's reach, my head placed evenly between the left and right speakers to maximize the sound, and I'd hear a great record for the first time. I'd hear it, know it, and be flushed with fantastic words to organize on page. Me at 20, saw my future as simply that. I've never been a big dreamer.
My first listen brought a vision to life, even if the record was 11-years old. Near the end of Side A came “The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song”. I was not reading the song titles or I might have anticipated this particular track. I was prostrate on my back with my hands tucked behind my head for support and my eyes closed. “The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song” took me by surprise.
A soft and modest tale of relating over a mutual appreciation for Leonard Cohen, Lewis touched on all those regretful thoughts that come with hindsight, reaching the painful summation “If I was Leonard Cohen or some other song-writing master / I'd know to first get the oral sex, and then write the song after”. It's one of several couplets in “The Chelsea Hotel…” that will put a grin on your face. It's not just Lewis's tale of missing a chance to live alongside his Chelsea Hotel idols that makes “The Chelsea Hotel…” a special song, it's the discovery he arrives at once the story is over. Rather than linger on regret, he pushes into a “writing about the song I'm singing” space, to ponder the possibilities that come from writing about strangers. Will they ever hear this song? Probably not. But maybe – just maybe – they write songs too, songs about a strange boy they met in the Chelsea Hotel who liked Leonard Cohen too.
So as I live out my small visions of music journo, I feel grateful that I can tell you about Jeffrey Lewis and “The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song”. He seems like the sort of fellow who knows about being too sheepish for the big risks, but takes comfort in the little quirks of life that will happen just by being there. You don't always have to be the mack, but have enough courage to whimper out “Leonard Cohen” and good things will come.
Jeffrey Lewis' The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane is out now on Don Giovanni. This is the first time Lewis's debut is available on vinyl. The record comes with a download card that includes 4 bonus tracks including, “Complete History of Jeff's Sexual Conquests Pt.1”.