PHOTO: Matt Kalasky

Jeffrey Lewis narrating as he flips through a portfolio of his drawings.
(Johny Brendas, Philadelphia, PA April 8, 2012)
Jeffrey Lewis, Show Me the Way.
Posted: 5/13/12

“There is always suicide.”

If you don’t know Jeffrey Lewis’s work, you’ve probably never been melancholy. For the past ten years he has been making an underground name for himself singing, writing songs, and creating comic books.  His work renders an intensely personal universe of frustration, anxiety, rain clouds, silver linings, and general Eeyoreian plateaus.  The New York Times called him “something like the indie-rock Woody Allen.”  Sure, I’ll go with that.  To show you what I mean, here are two verses from his song “Broken Broken Broken Heart”

“But it breaks breaks breaks and it never stops
Though I know that somehow it has to
And every time I feel that I just can't feel worse
I find out that it isn't true

Broken broken broken glass
Rattling inside my chest
What am I to do with every empty day?
I can't eat and I can't rest”

These lyrics are so bare and ham-fisted that you know somewhere there is a middle schooler scrawling a similar sentiment on a personal blog.  This is emoting on a direct level, a one to one equation: “This is how I feel → I tell you how I feel.”  The lack of sophistication in his words is fueled by drama, overripe with emotion. If you are the well-adjusted perennially happy sophisticated music listener then this music probably annoys you.  But then again you, the well-adjusted perennially happy sophisticated music listener, do not exist. 

We ALL got issues.
We ALL at one point hunger for those soggy achy songs.

Especially when someone in your life leaves. When my relationship with my partner fell apart it was Lewis’s music that resonated with a sort of Euclidian logic. If you have ever experienced a break up you know that it creates a big empty space and it’s those bloated ballads that some how make so much sense—a giant circle peg in a giant circle hole.  Naturally, when I had the opportunity to actually meet Lewis, I pounced.  Feeling lost, alone, and lousy I was about to sit down with the maestro troubadour of feeling lost, alone, and lousy.  I wanted to learn from his wealth of experience.  I wanted him to show me the path through this twisted and dark post-break up jungle. I wanted Jeffrey Lewis to help me get over my old girlfriend.


“All the past is knives that can poke you and hurt you.”

My interview with Lewis lasted about as long as a Friends episode and was only slightly less depressing.  I began by telling him about my recent breakup, suggesting that we use our conversation to help me get over her, a sort-of live-action Dear Amy session.  Lewis’s began by suggesting I kill myself.  I made a pickled half-squeal half-laugh noise because I wasn’t sure if he was being funny or simply stating options.   My gut says the latter, because when it comes to your own psychology, your own pain, Lewis is very up front: It’s kill or be killed.  There is no negotiating, no compromising.  Your mind is an emotional hijacker that must be dealt with swiftly and firmly, or it will engulf your heart in agony.  When I prompted Lewis to talk about controlling your own emotions he used a metaphor:

“I think of my mind like a bad puppy that needs to be trained and it’s always walking into places that it shouldn’t and getting itself in trouble. Sometimes it goes there without me noticing and gets in some trouble and causes a mess that I have to deal with.  Every time I notice it I have to say, “Stop! No! Bad!” And just pick it up and take it and put it back to where it’s supposed to be.”

There is an astounding amount of distrust and alienation when he speaks about his own mind. If his psyche is indeed a puppy, I get the feeling that it has been an extremely bad puppy, a feral animal prone to freewheeling behavior and destructive binges.   And although to some using the Scooby Doo model of psychoanalysis might seem dubious, I have to admit, I can’t think of a better analogy.  At one point after my relationship ended it did seem that my impulses were operating on their own disconnected logic: 

“Sending this text message at 1:00AM is a great idea.”

I have a St. Bernard inside of me and it needs to be told “no.”


“There is no shortcut around that pain.  Its just a stupid way to waste otherwise useable days of your life.”

But Jeffrey Lewis what do you do with this misbehaving puppy?  What do you with these knives?  I wanted to know if there was a connection between art making and the release of internal turmoil.  When Lewis writes about his ex-girlfriends is it gasoline or water for that pain?  Could making something (maybe an essay for a magazine) help me move on or just wallow in emotional toxins?  As it turns out the formula for cathartic creativity is complicated.  According to Lewis, it breaks down like this:

On the one hand, creating a single entity like a painting, a film, or a comic book can be a release; a one-and-done purge of all those gremlins.

On the other hand, as a performer, a song derived from a well of pain will only ceaselessly conjure that hurt with each performance. 

On the other hand, performing that hurtful song over and over could also have a numbing effect:

“Like a joke that if you tell it 20 times or hear it 20 times its not funny anymore. The same thing with that pain.  It’s like once you tell that story over and over again it just becomes a story.”

I think this is the hand that Lewis is the most convinced of.  He advocates for that initial impulse to capture emotions and lock them into words.  It’s a crystallization that adds firm definition to emotions that, at the time, can be so amorphous, blobulous, and independent, harboring infinite potential for malice and terror.  Encapsulating that experience in song and then hitting repeat offers separation from the painful source.  More importantly, what is regained is a small degree of precious control---the one element that seems to evaporate in tandem with every relationship.


“This is all advice I should give myself.”

So what did I learn from Jeffrey Lewis?  Did he lead me out of the jungle?  Am I cured?  Am I totally over her? The short answer is no.  And to be honest, I really didn’t expect for that to happen.  He is not Doctor Phil.  What I really wanted was context for my feelings.  I could already relate to Jeffrey Lewis’s music but could Jeffrey Lewis relate to me?

In the short time we spent with each other Lewis unconditionally convinced me of his honesty, charity, and here is a word: purity. What I wrote earlier about a one to one equation is emphatically true. After speaking with him I know that every lyric Lewis writes and sings comes unfiltered from a deep emotional reservoir.  Every atom of pain, every smear of confusion, every spasm of anxiety is shared openly for those who care to listen.  If you pay attention, when Lewis describes these grim psychologies you can understand it is the elocution of a native.  This place, this jungle; Jeffrey Lewis lives here.  All I can do is hope that I am just passing through.

An edited audio recording of my interview with Jeffrey Lewis can be found here at the MIDNIGHT TALKS section of the The St.Claire.

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