Huey Lewis on Ménière’s Disease, Jamming with the Dead, Writing for Willie Nelson

Dean Budnick on April 17, 2020
Huey Lewis on Ménière’s Disease, Jamming with the Dead, Writing for Willie Nelson

“As a storyteller, you need a new story every now and then. So, over the past few years, whenever we’d get an idea, we’d write a song and record it,” Huey Lewis says of the process that yielded Weather, the first new album of original music from Huey Lewis and the News since 2001. Weather consists of seven tracks that were recorded before Lewis began experiencing the debilitating symptoms of Ménière’s disease.

“I lost 80% of my right ear thirty-five years ago, so I existed on my left ear for a long while,” he recalls. “Then, my left ear collapsed two years ago on Jan. 27, and I couldn’t hear anything. I was virtually deaf for two months. It was unbelievable, horrible. We had seven things done when my hearing collapsed, so we waited to see if I could sing again and, so far, no good. The upshot was that we had these seven songs done. We don’t know when I’ll be able to record or even sing again, and we’re particularly proud of these seven, so we thought, ‘Why not share them with our fans?’”

Is it possible that, in conjunction with the release of your new album, you might be able to do a one-off show or even a TV appearance?

When my hearing collapsed, I was virtually deaf for two months and then, suddenly, it popped back a little bit. On a scale of one to 10, it came back to a six for a week, but then it went down to a two. If I’m below a three, I can’t hear the phone. I can hardly communicate at all—I’m in a cocoon. But if I get up to a six, I’m really good for communication, TV and maybe even music. We’d have to be careful, but maybe I could do a show. The problem is that I haven’t been able to stabilize at a six. I was once at a six for nine weeks. After two months, I called a rehearsal thinking, “I might be able to do this.” Then, four days before the rehearsal, my hearing crashed. So, I don’t know. Yesterday, I was at one and a half. I couldn’t hear anything.

Ménière’s disease is really a syndrome based on symptoms. Because this thing is so mysterious and fluctuates, people try everything. Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t have a cure for me. You try everything and then, suddenly, your hearing pops back and you say, “It must’ve been that cranial massage I had or the pomegranate juice or whatever.” But the fact is: Nobody really knows. It’s just very frustrating.

Umphrey’s McGee keyboard player Joel Cummins interviewed you for his recent book, in which you suggested that your band has many affinities with his.

We really came from the tradition of ‘60s bands, like the Sons of Champlin—that was our favorite band. We would have been happy to be the Sons of Champlin but, when we started out, we needed a hit. [Before co-founding Huey Lewis and the News, he played in the Mill Valley, Calif. country rock outfit Clover.]

In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, radio was everything and, FM radio—which started in the ‘60s as an alternative to Top 40—had become completely programmed. Contemporary Hit Radio, CHR, was the defining format on FM and if you didn’t have a hit, then you didn’t exist. You couldn’t make records. Studios were expensive. There were no home studios, so you needed to have a hit record. Our task was to get that hit single, which, for our band, was the hardest thing possible. My voice was not considered a radio-friendly voice until we came around. But we aimed every song on Sports right at the radio.

We felt it was a question of survival, in many respects. But left to our own devices, we would have been more of a jamband.

In 1993, you performed with the Grateful Dead in Eugene, Ore. at Autzen Stadium. Had you crossed paths with them in the Bay Area back in your Clover days?

Just in the hallways—we had played on a couple of Winterland bills early on but not really so much. My mother was a really good pal of Danny Rifkin [former Grateful Dead manager]. So she actually had more connections with the Dead than I did.

What are your memories of that Autzen Stadium show?

It was the first time that I had ever witnessed in-ear monitors. The Dead had them before almost anybody. And they also had this situation where they could push a button, defeat the microphone and just speak to each other through the microphone. Then they could get rid of that feature and the microphone would broadcast to the rest of the crowd. So this was highly sophisticated.

They handed me these two earbuds and the microphone, and I had my harmonica. Then they just said, “Go!” I couldn’t hear myself at first, then I heard myself too loud. I realized that the harmonica was feeding back but we were on a huge stage, and I couldn’t see where the amp was. Then, suddenly, it cleared up. I looked over, and Jerry had left his position at the front of the stage and gone all the way to the back to get me sound on my amp. For half of the song, he fiddled with my amp until my harmonica was good. I thought that was so sweet of him. [Lewis was in town to perform in the world premiere of Ken Kesey’s play, Twister.]

What are the origins of “One of the Boys” on Weather? It has a different feel to it.

Through a mutual friend, I had lunch with Dave Cobb, who’s a great record producer. [Cobb has worked Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and The Highwomen, among others.] Dave thought he would be producing a new Willie Nelson record and asked me to write a song for Willie. That was from left field—I couldn’t believe it. But curiously enough, three weeks later, I woke up with this complete song in my head. We did a demo on the road but Dave didn’t get the gig. So I had the song and our drummer, Bill Gibson, said, “I think we should do it.” That’s when I listened to it, as if it was one of our songs, and I realized that, even though I had written this thing imagining myself to be Willie Nelson, it’s actually my life story, word for word. My old man was a Dixieland player and all that. It’s exactly true.

Over the years, have you written songs for other artists in comparable situations?

I’ve got a couple that I’ve sent to people. That’s how to get rid of somebody in Nashville. If there’s a big music star in Nashville that you really want to get rid of, who is bugging you with emails, then send them a song. You’ll never hear from them again. [Laughs.]