For the prosecution: Jon Cummings
Dudes and dudettes of the jury,
Before I wrap up my case against the defendant – that man over there with the plaid sportcoat, golf pants and bad haircut, the one who has refused to wipe that shit-eating grin off his face at any point during these proceedings (or, indeed, during his entire career) – I’d like to congratulate each of you for being selected to pass judgment on the serial crimes committed against rock ‘n’ roll by this defendant, Mr. … Lewis? (Actually, his given name is Hugh Cregg the Third.)
Take a look around you. You, my friends, are the soul of Popdose’s vast readership, the very backbone of music-blog culture! And that makes you – let’s face it – cool. Hip. Happenin’. You are steeped in music history and well-versed in the loose morals and bad attitudes that make rock ‘n’ roll what it is and always has been, at its best: Cutting-edge. Rebellious. Dangerous. You know perfectly well which music lives up to those standards, and which does not. You know which artists have provided major contributions, and you know – perhaps more than anyone – that with a fat recording contract and a complacent rubber-stamp from radio, a swill merchant like Mr. Lewis can do enormous damage to this music, this culture, this … industry of cool in which we are all invested.
And make no mistake – the crimes we’re discussing here are not trivial ones. The defense has tried to convince you that Mr. Lewis was just making “good-time music,” having fun, giving the people what they want. But the fact is that Mr. Lewis and his band, having built their career by stringing together a nice series of hits while presenting themselves as a bunch of regular Joes – a run-of-the-mill bar band made good – proceeded to engage in years of shameless, chart-topping hackery.
They repeated themselves with ever more tired and poorly written paeans to beach music (“If This Is It,” “Stuck with You” [download], “Doing It All for My Baby”); they interpreted a ponderous Bruce Hornsby song with the brain-dead quality of a George Bush speech (“Jacob’s Ladder”); and, eventually, they drained every last bit of soul out of a series of R&B classics (“It’s Alright,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Cruisin’”) in a fashion reminiscent of a latter-day Pat Boone (or an only slightly more authentic Bruce Willis).
You have heard the prosecution witness Mojo Flucke, who so succinctly summarized Mr. Lewis’ historical context that I will repeat his exact words: “James Brown launched a thousand rappers and funky, dance-mixing DJs. Elvis inspired an even greater number of rock and country acts. The Beatles still are being imitated, half a century later. But Huey Lewis is so lame, so far only Ray Parker Jr. has bothered to rip him off.” Questions about the creative lineage of “I Want a New Drug” and “Ghostbusters” aside, there is little dispute that Mr. Lewis’ tangible legacy has failed to extend much beyond the occasional corporate holiday-party gig, his continued presence on oldies radio, and infrequent appearances of his aforementioned shit-eating grin on our TV screens in bad movies (Duets) and Reba McEntire videos.
However, the psychic scars engendered by Mr. Lewis’ offenses are deeper and longer-lasting. Indeed, Mr. Lewis’ most profound transgression – the one for which The People are requesting lifetime banishment from the rock pantheon – was his unforgiveable betrayal of the one principle that true fans of rock ‘n’ roll hold most dear: that our beloved music is superior, more important … cooler than the music preferred by lesser mortals, and that the music in turn makes us cooler because we listen to it. Mr. Lewis – or is it Mr. Cregg the Third? – spat in our faces when he wrote, performed and climbed to the top of the charts with a “rock” song, replete with crunchy, garage-band guitar chords, that advised us it is somehow “Hip to be Square” (download). Here is what he wrote:
“Now I’m playin’ it real straight and yes, I cut my hair / You might think I’m crazy but I don’t even care … I like my bands in business suits, I watch them on TV / I’m working out most every day and watching what I eat … It’s not too hard to figure out, you see it every day / And those that were the farthest out have gone the other way / You see them on the freeway, it don’t look like a lot of fun / But don’t you try and fight it, an idea whose time has come…”
With every word … every putrid, establishment-hugging phrase … Mr. Lewis attempted to sap the lifeblood from our rock ‘n’ roll hearts, to strike at the very essence of what makes our music so powerful. “Hip to be Square” was music for the accountant in the back room at that so-called “music club” in which you never would have been caught dead during the ’80s, the one that still booked the Lettermen and Bobby Vinton and Bobby Goldsboro. It was music for Marilyn Quayle, who would later say of her generation, “Not everyone demonstrated, dropped out, took drugs, joined in the sexual revolution or dodged the draft.” Worst of all, “Hip to be Square” was wildly popular, forcing all of us to question the sturdiness of our most cherished attitudes and requiring us to wonder – not for the last time – Is This What Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Coming To?
Lads and ladettes of the jury, I am now a 43-year-old man. My hair is no longer as long as it once was, nor as thick. My hearing is half shot from too many occasions in which I stood in too close a proximity to amplifiers that emitted too many decibels. I live in a nice suburban home with an amazing wife and a couple of kids, and I don’t lack for much of anything. And yes, I frequently find myself on those freeways Mr. Lewis mentioned.
I am 43 – which means that, at the time Mr. Lewis was perpetrating these crimes against rock music and its fans, I was a 20-year-old college music critic who blew every bit of my discretionary cash at the record store and frequently ditched my studies to head into the city and see one more show. With all of my own heart and soul, I rejected Mr. Lewis’ betrayals of our value system when I was a young man. And we must – all of us, no matter what our ages – still reject it today.
We may get older, and many of us may come to live “establishment” lives, but we must never give up our white-knuckle grasp on the coolness of youth. We must not go gently into that good night of dull conversation and Branson visits and Il Divo fandom, and we must never say to our spouses anything so simultaneously self-loathing and insulting as “Yes, it’s true – I’m so happy to be stuck with you.” And we must never – ever – concede the possibility that it might be “Hip to be Square.”
You can stop this travesty right here, right now. Look within yourself, find your own inner cool, and convict this defendant for his crimes against your music, your self-image, your very being. The prosecution rests.
For the defendant: Anthony Kuzminski
Ladies and gents of the jury:
I’d like to start my rebuttal with four words: “The industry of cool.” Let me repeat that — “the industry of cool.” Your prosecutor likes throwing phrases like this around when, in reality, what he deems cool and what actually is are vastly dissimilar. Music has never been about fads or fashions, but how it makes you feel. The prosecution is trying to poison your mind against your true inner feelings. Hey, I like feeling cool too, but can you honestly say you don’t have a single bone in your body that shivers and shakes when an absolute pop tune comes on the radio? I know many of you want to love TV on the Radio — but in reality, you listen to Huey Lewis far more often.
Huey Lewis and the News was a band that, for a lot of reasons, should never have become a thriving machine of pop hits. They didn’t fit in with any fad or fashion, and were playing music that went out of vogue two decades before their first Top 40 hits. They didn’t have a look others imitated, and their sound was inimitably unpretentious. For this, they deserve immeasurably more acclaim than your prosecutor would ever dream of giving them. Make no mistake; they were one of the biggest bands of the 1980s for a reason. They simply played to their strengths and fashioned music that wouldn’t have been out of place in the 1950s. In fact, I see them as the descendents of Bill Haley and His Comets. Ultimately, what makes the music of Huey Lewis (& the News) so endearing is that they were true to themselves.
If you listen to “Workin’ for a Livin’,” you won’t hear any out of date synthesizers. There’s nothing on that recording except tenacious rock n’ roll with a concentration on nostalgic guitars, an ever-steady rhythm section, a riotous harmonica solo and an organ that flourishes but never dominates the song. Does this sound like a recipe for success in 1982? If you go to their 2001 release, Plan B, specifically “The Rhythm Ranch,” you’ll hear the same exact band. Like most of their recorded output, the strength of the songs came through in a combative drive where the group never let anyone outshine another. They weren’t going to let anyone tell them what was hip or cool, they merely created the music they wanted to create. Each and every one of the members are all integral pieces to the overall success of the band.
Their Sports and Fore! albums had 10 Top 40 hits between them (nine of them Top 10 hits, no less) and while people may not deem these records cool today, can you really find anything wrong with them? As mentioned previously, here is a band that took a simple rhythm, blues and rock template and expanded on it. They weren’t chasing Michael Jackson’s success and weren’t trying to be like Bruce Springsteen. They were simply, then and today, a damn good little rock n’ roll band who wrote some darn good tunes and had a bit of good fortune along the way. The fact that they became as commercially triumphant as they did is an afterthought and partly pure chance. I remember hearing these songs on the radio before I was even interested in music, and when I did eventually get around to buying these albums, songs like “The Heart of Rock N’ Roll,” “I Want A New Drug,” “Stuck With You,” and yes, the aforementioned “Hip to Be Square” sound like you have always known them. Why is this? Their influence comes from the Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Les Paul and other godfathers of rock. As for the prosecution’s claims of repeating themselves, I don’t agree with it, but if you’re going to throw Mr. Lewis under the bus, why don’t we throw the Ramones and every other blues artist while we’re at it? A guilty verdict against Huey Lewis and the News may as well be one for the ones who created, forged and brought this art form to the masses.
I love danger as much as the next guy. I love it when rock n’ roll creeps around the fringes of society, but in the beginning were the Beatles all that dangerous? No. Was Buddy Holly? No. Does that take away from their infinite talent? No way. Allmusic sums up Huey Lewis and the News perfectly: “Huey Lewis & the News were a bar band that made good with their simple, straightforward rock & roll.” They never tried to be the biggest band on the planet, or even the best. They simply made music they loved and you can’t blame them if people followed. Look at Small World from 1988. I’ll be the first to admit it isn’t their strongest album, but they simply did what they wanted. Even if you detest the album, I dare you to listen to “Old Antone’s” (download) and not be entranced by their four-chord rock n’ roll spell. There is homage in the track, joy in the performance and the very spirit of rock n’ roll in the performances. For further examples of their nostalgic rhythm and pop sensibilities on display, listen to “Don’t Look Back” (download), from 1991’s underrated Hard at Play. The shuffle beat sounds vociferous, the band is firm and a chorus readymade for the radio. Is it full of clichÃ©s? Sure it is, but that is exactly what makes the song so damn irresistible. If this song proves to be too much, check out the honky tonk goodiness of “Time Ain’t Money,” from the same record. This is a band following their own muse, not being concerned with being cool or hip and because of this defiant attitude, it makes them cool in their own right. Pretending or thinking you’re cool is one thing, but not giving a rat’s ass about what people think about you? That’s truly cool.
Huey Lewis and the News enjoyed tremendous success over a handful of years, and when the sun stopped shining as brightly, they didn’t chase it, they didn’t conform and they didn’t try to be something they weren’t. They released a covers collection in 1994 (Four Chords & Several Years Ago), the height of the grunge explosion. Not exactly something that screams commercialism. This is a band that has continued to tour and enjoy their lives. If there’s anything that the defendant is guilty of, it’s not being more active musically. However, I admire them for not turning into a miserable cash-in band that charges $100 for nosebleed seats, selling their music to commercials and pretending they’re still at the top of the musical heap. In fact, in the 1980s, the Coca-Cola company approached them about using some of their music in commercials. This would have brought the band an eight-figure payday — but they walked away from it. The only other major artist to turn down that kind of money is Bruce Springsteen — and the last time I checked, the Boss was still pretty damn cool.
In a day and age where artists maybe have a handful of songs they can play their entire career, we’re seriously putting someone on trial for having a dozen Top 10 hits, and another dozen tracks that charted in some form or fashion on the Billboard charts? I ask you to put all labeling to the side and let me ask you one simple question: Does the music of Huey Lewis and the News make you feel good? I know the answer to that question, and so do you. The only question left is if you’ll be brave enough to admit it.
The defense rests.