Monday, 3 May 2021

Lew Lewis 1953 - 2021


The following piece isn't meant as an obituary or a tribute, it’s a piece about Lew Lewis, about my intersection with Lew, and about the times in general.


I first met Lew Lewis in 1976. I knew about him - he played the harmonica with Eddie & The Hot Rods, except when I saw them in Hull in February 1976 there were only four of them and none of them was Lew.

I met Lew in the bar of the Victoria Theatre in London at a Graham Parker & The Rumour show. I’d just recorded Whole Wide World for Stiff Records. I'd just met Lee Brilleaux of Dr Feelgood and that was a big deal - Lee had funded Stiff Records start-up with £400 and a camera so he was obviously interested in what what was going on. He walked up to me, said: ‘Hello Eric, my name’s Lee Brilleaux, I’ve heard a lot of good things about you and I’m very pleased to meet you.’ He was forthright and gentlemanly. I nearly fell through the floor because I’d been a fan since the day their first album came out - Dr Feelgood were gods to me. 


Lew was Lee’s designated driver for the evening. He’d made a record for Stiff too - Boogie On The Street / Caravan Man. It was already out and I’d been playing it to death for weeks. It was apparently recorded straight to two track on a Revox tape machine in the Feelgoods headquarters and rehearsal place. Boogie On The Street sounded like Canned Heat reinvented as a garage band. I’ve always been puzzled as to why it was the A side because the B side, Caravan Man is utterly groovy and there’s enough of it for Caravan Man Parts 1 & 2. It’s a crazy record - frenetic and vaguely formless, r n b meets uptown dub in a downtown Canvey Island setting with one ranted verse that I’ve never even begun to decipher in forty four years.


Lew was scary (at least to me he was, but I was scared of everyone back then). He was wiry, tense and twitchy and spoke in frenetic and violent bursts that echoed his harmonica playing. He vibrated with an unseen electrical energy, looking this way and that in all directions at once. There was a suggestion of flick knives, knuckle dusters, the seemy side of the race track, and dodgy deals done late at night at all-night card games. A dark and frightening but tantalizing world that I was not privy too. And yet he was an absolute gentleman and we somehow hit it off.

I asked him why he was no longer a member of Eddie & The Hot Rods. He stopped vibrating for a moment, snarled, said: ‘Barrie Masters can’t do this’ and proceeded to backflip his way down the length of the bar and back.


I didn’t see Lew again for a while - things got busy and he didn’t last long on Stiff Records. When Jake Riviera left Stiff Records it ceased to be the renegade label of old even though it traded on that reputation for quite a while. But the truth is the new semi-corporate Stiff didn’t like artists that were a problem, and Lew was definitely one of those.

At some point I heard he was back at his old job working as a roofer.


Then there was the Lew Lewis Reformer. They made an album and were back on Stiff: Save The Wail - raw and exciting, everything that most Stiff Records weren’t by that time. Lew used the advance money to buy a long wheel base Transit van which he fitted out for touring. It had luxury seats and a special bracket above the windscreen to hold the biggest boombox I’d ever seen. They’d come by the Stiff office sometimes - zip in and out in Harrington jackets, Sta-Prest trousers and monkey boots, on their way to a gig in Harlow or Exeter or somewhere, always on the move, Caravan Man. The Lew Lewis Reformer appeared to have complete autonomy and I envied them that, but the sad truth is I don’t think anyone at the label really cared. 


Early in 1980 I did a show in France with the Lew Lewis Reformer, a TV special filmed at Olympia in Paris. It was a strange bill - Don Cherry was the headliner, I was in the middle and the Reformer opened the show. We flew in and our flight was delayed. Lew and his gang got there before us and hijacked my limousine - I was at the flashpoint of my brief pop star career at the time but I had to get a taxi from the airport. The Reformer had apparently flown from Southend in a privately owned plane. I was already completely outclassed.

Later we were in the backstage getting ready while Lew was on. There was a TV monitor and I was keeping one eye on the show. Lew stood at the microphone between songs: ‘This one’s called Do Just What You Want.’ He disappeared and his feet sailed across the screen. He arrived back in the shot blowing up a storm on the harmonica and I knew we lost the night before we’d even started. They were on that night and we weren’t - we’d had a week off so we were out of practice. Lew’s set was astonishing as it so often was. After the show he disappeared into the night. He arrived  back at the hotel at breakfast time, bedraggled, having slept under the Eiffel Tower after a night of unimaginable capers in the City Of Lights. 


We played another time in Paris with Lew, at a big festival somewhere in the suburbs - ZZ Top, Madness, Lene Lovich... I took a lower billing rather than follow him, and it seemed for a moment that I’d shot myself in the foot - they seemed tired and road weary. It just didn’t seem to be happening until Lee Brilleaux joined them for a monumental dual harmonica breakdown. That gave them the kick they needed - they were unbeatable and I knew I’d made the right decision.


Lew dropped out of sight and I heard he was back in the roofing game. His guitar player, Rick Taylor, asked me if I needed a band. If I’m honest I needed a band like I needed a hole in the head at the time - I had no record deal and the prospects weren’t looking good. But it was fun hanging out with Rick and then Lew's drummer, Buzz Barwell, came around and I had a bass player, and suddenly we were a band and we rehearsed and then we were out playing every night on a seemingly endless round of scuzzy gigs for diminishing returns - on the road to absolutely nowhere with no record deal and a suited idiot for a manager.

We were unstoppable of course but I couldn’t help sometimes thinking they’d be better with Lew at the front rather than me. We all had horrific and hilarious tales of life on the road. I loved hearing Rick and Buzz talking about life with Lew. It sounded like a waking nightmare but they only ever spoke of him with deep and abiding affection.

And then we dropped out of sight, and I dropped out of sight and the bottom dropped out of it all and I became a sound engineer and then I decided to give up the music business for good as we all do from time to time (that lasted for five minutes). And sometime in the middle of all that Lew had joined forces with Wilko Johnson. I saw them at Maidstone Technical College and it was like watching a pop-up lunatic asylum. When they started the audience - a collection of post-adolescent moustache growers - took a step back and stood transfixed. They were one of the most menacing outfits I’ve ever seen.

Time went on and Lew wasn’t playing with Wilko anymore which didn’t surprise me - backstage at Maidstone Technical College had been almost as entertaining as the show itself. The dressing room was a large empty classroom with chairs and benches lining the walls, and a vast expanse of parquet floor. The bass player lay sleeping on a bench in one corner, the drummer in the opposite corner. I sat with Lew in the third corner, with Wilko diagonally opposite. Wilko was at his most scary - it’s hard to align the funny, charming and garrulous Game Of Thrones Wilko of today with the Wilko from back then, imperious, unpredictable, eyes blazing… I was terrified of him.

That night in Maidstone could have served as a masterclass in why being in a band is not always a good idea, and what sometimes makes bands so great: Four people who can barely tolerate being in each other’s presence, some with fairly substantial personal issues and habits, forced to share the confines of a fast moving Transit van for hours at a stretch, shovelled into mundane and often squalid backstage rooms and overnight accommodations, and then, for an hour or so every night let loose onstage to do the business. The results are often spectacular but the cost can be very high indeed.


Lew fell off the map - or at least he fell off the map that I was busy falling off myself. I heard tales that may have been embellished as these things so often are: Lew burning the furniture to keep his family warm…answering the door to his piano player to find he was visiting in his official capacity as a VAT inspector…

The slope is slippery and once you’re on it there’s no telling how far you’re going fall or where you’re going to land. In my own case I was lucky enough to land on a ledge, and once rescue arrived the recovery was slow but fairly successful. I don’t really want to go into what happened to Lew because it’s not the way he should be remembered. He was driven to a most desperate edge and I think the system failed him. He needed help, he needed compassion. The system didn’t give him either.

To his enduring credit he came back from it. The last time I met Lew he was quieter - not subdued - but older and wiser with a gentleness that had never been immediately apparent. He got himself together - he even went and played in Japan (which is something I’ve never managed). I’m sad to see him gone but I’m glad that he made it through. I hope he found some inner peace.

20 comments:

  1. Wow. Thanks Eric. Your ability to whisk me into your world never ceases to astound.

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  2. Great job Eric, you have a way with words, for sure. It was a great eulogy and a 'read'.

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  3. Thanks for this remembrance.

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  4. Thanks for this - it hurt to hear that he is gone, we all gotta keep the records spinning to remember the greatness.

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  5. An excellent tribute, Eric.

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  6. Great piece about an under appreciated great. Written with feeling too.

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  7. Nice passing reference to my former work colleague John Denton. Lovely appreciation of Lew.

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  8. I heard of Lew due to his and George Melly's contribution to The Stranglers' "Old Codger". I think he also featured on JJ Burnel's version of "Pretty Face". Sad to learn of his passing.

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  9. Very well written that man. Lew certainly was a character.......

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  10. Great reading. The first I saw Lew live he blew my mind. Only 50 persons in the audience in Le Havre but all became bigfans. He came back twice including once with Wilko when I spent the afternoon backstage with them and treated me like a friend even inviting us to the restaurant telling the promoter we were his cousin. The guy knew us being from the same town so... That day filmed that super 8 film with Wilko in the article. I met him again in Paris. I'll always remember him fondly and he had a big influence on my life. What a guy. Wild, talented and a great human being. Thanks

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  11. I think this is both a tribute and as fine an obituary as a man could ask for - beautifully done. And there were a couple of us Stiffs who loved Lew. Sitting next to Conroy as I did for a couple of years he was always trying to help out Lew and get him gigs and I was very proud to have loaned the band my battered 50 quid Les Paul Copy for a couple of gigs when the guitar player's instrument was stuck in hock. Safe travels Lew.

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  12. I'm sure you did, and that was very nice of you.

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  13. Philip Barwell5 May 2021 at 05:56

    Very well written Eric. I'll definitely be playing my Boogie on The Street record a bit in remembrance of Lew.

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  14. I remember seeing Eric at a Lew Lewis Reformer gig at the Hope n Anchor. Leather Jacket and vodka and tonic. Many of the stiff label mates would attend at the Marquee Lemmy and Madness. I would put that up there with the Muddy Waters Band and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Not rose tinted memories Lew was a nice guy friendly and would put me on the guest list. The music scene did become a supermarket dash to see all those names before it all ended.

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  15. This is a Great Read Eric I work for Canned Heat but Canvey Island and ALL that Great Music was my Life late70's early 1980's - Lew Lewis was Born April 1953 -

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    1. Thank you. I love Canned Heat - I saw them in 1970 at the Brighton Dome. The opening band was Rennaisance who were billed as Keith Relf's Rennaisance, presumably to cash in on the Yardbirds connection and keep everything blues-themed. Rennaisance sounded nothing like the Yardbirds of course so it was a beautifully mismatched bill, much like when I saw Sandy Denny with Fotheringay opening for Jon Hiseman's Colosseum. The Canned Heat / Rennaisance bill was a hell of a night for bass players - Louis Cennamo and Larry Taylor, two of the best! Canned Heat blew my mind that night. I still have the ticket for that show.
      1953 makes more sense for the year Lew was born - I always had it in my mind that he was slightly older than me but I went with the Wikipadia version because it seemed to be the only one. But a friend just confirmed it's 1953 so I'm changing it now.

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  16. That was a great piece on Lew - any idea what the cause of death was? I read that he'd been in hospital.

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  17. Thanks for putting this out there. Sadly he never got the exposure he deserved. Got to seem him at the Lyceum back in 79 and he and Reformer (with Rick) were brilliant. Lew flipped a harp after a section, dropped it, pulled another out of his pocket and kept on riffin'. Somethin' else.

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