WELCOME BACK to Debate Club, the printed equivalent of overhearing two loudmouths argue about music in a bar. This week, current Music Editor Ned Lannamann sat down with former Music Editor Ezra Ace Caraeff over drinks in a North Portland bar to talk about Huey Lewis and the News' 1983 album Sports. They commandeered the bar's stereo to play the album during their conversation. When "Bad Is Bad" came on, half the clientele walked out of the establishment. The album eventually got vetoed by the bartender, who switched it off before they had finished their discussion.
Huey Lewis and the News are currently touring to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Sports, and they perform at the Oregon Zoo on Saturday, July 6.
NED: So Sports is his best album in a catalog that's not all that strong, right?
EZRA: Or a catalog that had a hard time leaving a decade. As a musician, Huey Lewis had not quite a pedigree, but the '70s were pretty awesome for him—without the hits. He was in Clover, who played on Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True, and he hung out with Phil Lynott from Thin Lizzy. He's on that live album Live and Dangerous. He was able to go to the UK and be part of the two best acts of that era.
NED: So with Thin Lizzy, what did he do, just play harmonica?
EZRA: What did you do with Thin Lizzy? The fact that he's playing harmonica makes it even better. I mean playing guitar with Thin Lizzy is one thing, but to play an instrument like harmonica, which Thin Lizzy in no way needs...
NED: But he was just there. He wasn't responsible for any of this music, he was just hanging out.
EZRA: History is full of so many people who were just there. He's the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington of rock 'n' roll. Think about who else was big in 1984: Prince, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson—and Huey Lewis. He's a man among deities. Prince and Michael Jackson are barely human. And Huey Lewis is just a normal guy. He's Forrest Gump.
NED: But that doesn't make his music good, though. It makes him approachable and down homey, and "Aw, shucks, what a great guy." But compared to Thriller or Purple Rain or even She's So Unusual, Sports does not stand up.
EZRA: Yet you have this band that makes relatively mediocre pub rock, and they got to be one of the biggest bands of the era. It's an important story.
NED: There was that recent piece about him on Grantland that was really good, and it said that he always looked 40 even when he was 20, and when he grew into his face, he was ready for it. He always looked like your friend's sorta cool dad who was in a band.
EZRA: That was always Bruce Springsteen's rap, that he was an everyman. But by that time, god, Springsteen was so big. Huey Lewis and the News were more of an accurate bar band than the E Street Band. I mean, even the sax player in the E Street Band was famous.
NED: And Springsteen and the E Street Band were always like, "We're gonna save the world with rock 'n' roll, one note at a time." Whereas Huey Lewis and the News were like, "It's Friday night! Grab a Bacardi Breezer and let's party!"
EZRA: And the album's called Sports! They named it something so generic that almost everyone likes. They might as well have called it Food.
NED: It's as if they named the album to trick people who don't like music into buying the album. "Hmm, I like sports, I watch them on TV all the time. Maybe I'll give this newfangled record album a try."
[The song "Heart and Soul" comes on.]
EZRA: You have to admit, this song is great. This is one of the few songs on the album that has a really big riff. A lot of the other ones are light and have a sax melody, but this has that big guitar in the chorus.
NED: It has that stadium handclap in the bridge, too, which John Fogerty stole for "Centerfield." I guess the only songs I really like on the album are this song, "I Want a New Drug," and that song "Walking on a Thin Line."
EZRA: Sure. Anytime he goes kinda bluesy, it's pretty rough. "Bad Is Bad" is... bad.
NED: Oh god, it's awful.
EZRA: But "The Heart of Rock 'n' Roll" is great. It's a great setup to the album.
NED: It's so obvious, though. It's like "Comedy Tonight" or "let's put on a show!" or something.
EZRA: They name-check all the cities.
NED: Isn't there a stand-up comedian who does a routine about how "The Heart of Rock 'n' Roll" is the most pandering song of all time? If you're in DC, or Seattle, or San Francisco, he name-checks them all.
EZRA: So what are all the cities he names?
NED: The first verse is all about New York, the second is LA, and on the third verse he shakes it up for a safari tour of the US. He names a whole bunch.
EZRA: [looking at the lyrics on his phone] "DC, San Antone, and the Liberty Town"? Is that Philadelphia? "Boston and Baton Rouge." Okay, you're kind of fishing with "Baton Rouge." "Tulsa, Austin, Oklahoma City." Wow, both Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
NED: Wow, Oklahoma gets two mentions, and there's no St. Louis. There's no Chicago, even.
EZRA: Huey Lewis was just such an unlikely figure. He was the guy in the bar band that made it big. And it's genuine. For example, he covers "Honky Tonk Blues" on this album, which is one of the most inappropriate Hank Williams songs for him to cover. But it's totally genuine. If this album came out either a year before or after, it wouldn't have done nearly as well. Two years, less so. Five years, god forbid. He never leaves the bar.
NED: So what's that quality that people connected with, at the time? Is it that piercing, sultry harmonica?
EZRA: It's that everyman quality. He was just there at the right time.
["I Want a New Drug" comes on.]
NED: Oh, we need to talk about "Ghostbusters."
EZRA: The weird thing about Ray Parker Jr. stealing this song and rewriting it as "Ghostbusters," it's not like this was some obscure song. This was a really big hit, and it was probably on the radio at the time. Sports still had to be in the top 50 when "Ghostbusters" came out. The other weird thing about this song is that it was like, "Oh my god, Huey Lewis does drugs." Because he's so straitlaced and conventional. He's the guy next door who'll mow your lawn when you're out of town.
NED: But I feel like the drugs he's talking about aren't the awesome magical rock-star drugs, but they're, like, shitty bar drugs. Like, the bad cocaine you take a bump off of the toilet in the bar bathroom at 1 am.
EZRA: It's rare that someone both cops to drugs and doesn't talk about getting clean. Because drug songs are either like, "Drugs are awesome" or, "Drugs are bad, never do 'em, but ohhh, the shit I did on drugs." Rarely does someone acknowledge drugs this matter-of-factly. And then he says, I need something better. He's basically asking for ecstasy.
NED: And then he says, "I want a drug that makes me feel like I am with you." She's better than a drug. It's impressive that he can express that sentiment without turning it into a super-corny love song. Like, "Honey, I love you so much, I'm giving up my drugs for you." At no point does he talk about giving up drugs.
EZRA: He wants to get high and laid. The other weird thing is that Huey Lewis is the most conventional guy, but unlike Springsteen or Prince or whoever, he's the one who's talking about drugs. Those other guys never even mention it. Not even Michael Jackson, who died of drugs.
NED: Have there been others on the pop landscape who have filled that role before and after him? At any other time, was there that super approachable rock star who was like, "Hey, let's all be buds and party and have a good time"?
EZRA: I don't think so. Unfortunately, at that point it becomes either a Bret Michaels or a Jimmy Buffett. Or Kid Rock, god forbid.
["If This Is It" comes on.]
NED: So what is it, then? What is that Huey Lewis magic that makes him Huey Lewis?
EZRA: It really is that everyman quality, that accessibility. Most people don't want to dig deep into the Stax catalog, they want this [gesturing to the speakers]. Even if Huey Lewis is the Two and a Half Men of rock 'n' roll, he gave the people what they want, and he was able to have that moment where he was among gods.
NED: Okay. That makes sense.
EZRA: Yeah. It's either that or his giant penis.