Unhiply square 

Huey Lewis, Sports and hitting it big

Last month, Huey Lewis recreated the iconic scene from American Psycho in which Wall Street sociopath Patrick Bateman, played by Christian Bale, speaks rapturously about the musical genius of Huey Lewis. In a parody video for Funny Or Die, Lewis mimics Bale's original facial expressions with uncanny accuracy, praising the consummate professionalism of Sports before he hits Weird Al Yankovic with an ax.

It's funny. Imagine, though, that you are Huey Lewis. Thirty years ago, you recorded an album you now describe as "aimed right at radio," and it worked. Sports generated four top-10 singles and went platinum 10 times. You are a superstar. Then, in 1999, you watch a movie in which the murderous yuppie who symbolizes the emptiness of the 1980s announces that he loves your band. How do you feel?

"Somebody told me that [Bret Easton Ellis] had written about us in the book, and I read his little dissertation on us," Lewis says when I ask him that question during a recent interview. "He hit it right on the head. Clearly, he was a fan."

Huey Lewis has always been a man of his time. He was that man in 1983, when Sports gave American radio listeners the combination of synthesizer arrangements and Anglo doo-wop they didn't know they were ready for. And, perhaps paradoxically, he is still that man now, playing songs from Sports at casinos and county fairs around the country to celebrate its 30th anniversary this year.

"I realize it was an album of its time," he says, "in that it's a collection of singles, for the most part. We didn't know we were gonna have five hits. We knew we needed one."

Here is the portion of the legend that uncharitable listeners tend to forget. In 1983, Lewis was staring at the most terrifying possibility a 33-year-old man could face: He might have to get a job. His band was two commercially unsuccessful albums into a three-record deal. If Sports tanked, their label likely wouldn't give them another chance.

"That could have been the end of our recording career," Lewis says. "In those days, it was a radio-driven world. There was only one avenue to success, and that was a hit single."

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Sports yielded those hit singles"I Want a New Drug" and "The Heart of Rock and Roll" are on there, as are "Walking on a Thin Line" and "If This Is It." Along with "Hip to Be Square," these songs would come to define both Lewis and 1980s pop rock for the next three decades.

They would also make him a metonym for an older, possibly more evil approach to popular culture. They would make him the kind of musician that fictional ax-murdering stockbrokers get into just before they realize they've lost their essential humanity.

"Interestingly, the film is making the same point that 'Hip to Be Square' makes," Lewis says. "I wrote it in the third person, you know'he used to be a renegade.' It was meant to articulate a phenomenon that was better explained in a book called Bobos In Paradise: bohemians becoming bourgeois."

It's not the kind of thing you want to hear Lewis say. You don't want him to cite David Brooks and use "bourgeois" in conversation. You want him to say that "Hip to Be Square" was an expression of his secret heart, because that would justify the last decade you spent making fun of him.

Instead, Lewis is a smart guy who figured out how to win pop music. He didn't make Sports in the grip of a malevolent zeitgeist that wanted to eat Americans' souls and force them to wear pink sports jackets. He made it because he wanted to be in a band forever.

Over the course of our interview, he spoke most passionately about how his touring apparatus employs 25 people. His guitar tech has kids in college now, and Lewis is proud of that. He didn't quite make Sports for the money. He made it so that he could do pretty much what he wanted for the next 30 years.

"The trouble is the tendency to pretend that it's brain surgery or torture, music and pop. It's very seductive to fall into that trap," he says. "The reveal for us is that we were unabashedly trying to make a pop record, but I'm unapologetic for that, because we actually did it ourselves. We figured out how to do it."

If Sports inspired a generation of yuppies to drive to work a little faster, so be it. If it inspired a subsequent generation to sneer at how unhiply square those yuppies were, that's all right, too. Huey Lewis may symbolize a popular culture beloved by homicidal finance executives, but he never actually worked in the office. Huey Lewis has spent the last 30 years playing in a band.


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