It’s December 2018, and I’m waiting, as I have for the seven previous nights, for the doors to the Bowery Ballroom to open. After 12 years at Hoboken’s beloved Maxwell’s, Yo La Tengo’s annual Hanukkah benefit shows relaunched the previous year at the Bowery in Manhattan, and I’ve taken advantage of the straight shot on the F train to be in attendance for the entire run, the better not to miss any special guests, as invariably happened when I only went two or three nights across the river. (Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan always used to promise, “If there’s someone you really want to see, we guarantee they’ll play the night after you go.”)
Since tickets went on sale months earlier, and there’s no way of knowing who the opening acts, comedians, and encore guests will be until you get to the show, I’ve ended up with stray tickets for some nights, and this is one of them. So when a guy comes up to the line and asks if anyone has any extras, I’m happy to oblige.
“Thanks,” he says. “I actually may be playing with them tonight, I’m not sure.”
This is not the response I expected, though random people off the street performing as special guests isn’t exactly foreign to the Yo La Tengo Hanukkah spirit. “And who,” I ask, “are you?”
“Jeffrey Lewis,” he says. “I’m a musician and I also make comic books.”
Lewis, it turns out, does end up playing during the night’s set, accompanying primordial weirdo-folkie Peter Stampfel on a Fugs song. It is decidedly odd, but given that Stampfel later duets with Ira’s mom on his song “Griselda,” not anywhere near the oddest moment of the evening.
I wouldn’t say that I forgot all about Lewis after that, but he wasn’t exactly at the forefront of my mind. Until, that is, I stumbled across his song “LPs,” I no longer remember how. (WFMU compilation? Best-of mp3 mixtape from Brandon? Either is a reasonable guess.) The song is an equal parts hilarious and poignant travelogue of the evolution of record collecting, all delivered in Lewis’s patented torrent-of-words-falling-down-the-tenement-stairs East Village yelp. (My spouse would eventually come to refer to Lewis as “the guy with the songs with all the words in them.”)
And then. And then! When I bought the Jeffrey Lewis and the Voltage album with “LPs” on it, it also turned out to be a treasure trove of equally hilarious and poignant songs, including “Take It for Granted,” a testimonial to the importance of the cherished mundane, and “Exactly What Nobody Wanted,” which is practically a how-to guide for the kind of anti-success that I’ve valued all my life:
You had a vision that was clear and directedAnd the way the words were all unexpected You were unbelievable and you were undaunted You were exactly just what nobody wanted
But to me, it was so awesome, so awesome, so awesomeSo awesome, so awesome, just awesome
Thus launched my surprisingly arduous mission to try to see a Jeffrey Lewis live show — surprisingly because, as noted, he lives just a subway ride away from me, and he plays locally all the damn time. Unfortunately, I always seemed to find out about his shows right after they happened, or before they’d happened but after they’d sold out. (Discovering him right before the COVID lockdown didn’t help.)
Finally, in late 2022, I was able to catch Lewis’s band at a tiny, cramped club in Bushwick; a few months later, I caught him again in more comfortable confines at Union Pool after racing there from another show earlier in the evening. Between the two, I got to hear some of my favorites — including “LPs” — and see him play musical accompaniments to some of his comic books — his multi-part “The Complete History of Communism” is especially memorable, at least the two segments I’ve caught so far (Chile and Cuba). Plus at the second show he played “The Complete History of the Development of Punk on the Lower East Side of New York City (1950-1975),” which fortunately someone has captured in its full glory on YouTube.
If you’ve clicked through on one of the links above, you probably have already come to love Lewis as much as I do; either that, or you have no idea what I’m going on about and can’t wait for the next installment in this series. And that, I have to say, is just awesome.