I graduated from prep school in New Jersey when I was 16 in June of 1967. I was going to go straight to college – I was accepted at Cornell University [in New York State] – but my dad, who was an interesting fellow, said, “Look, you’re young and there’s only one more thing I’m going to make you do. As far as I’m concerned, you’re educated.” I’d been to an aggressive prep school and he felt that education occurs at the high school level so that was all I needed. He said, “Look, here’s what I want to do. Don’t go to college, not yet. Take a year off and bum around Europe.” In July I turned 17 and in August, at my father’s direction, I took my harmonica and busked my way throughout Europe and north Africa for a year.
I wouldn’t advise my younger self to do anything differently. It was a really great idea. I don’t know that you could do it now, I’m not sure I’d want my 16-year-old kid to go hitchhiking through Europe, but it worked out for me.
After that I came back and went to Cornell University, for like five minutes over a two-year period. It was a particularly turbulent time at Cornell, when the African-American students had taken over the student union, all this kind of stuff. It disrupted classes so bad you were able to take pass/fail courses, which I took and passed. So I really just joined and played in bands for a year-and-a-half. Then the work started to catch up with me. I called my old man, I said, “Pops I’m dropping out, I want to be a musician.” And he went, “Well, you either know what you’re doing or you don’t. Good luck.” And it looked like a very bad decision for a long time.
My hearing fluctuates episodically. It’ll be terrible for a day or for six weeks, then it’ll get better for a day to six weeks
When I was nine or 10 I remember falling for music. My old man was a Dixieland drummer. He used to play with Ralph Sutton, a great stride piano player from a band called the World’s Greatest Jazz Band. I had [legendary saxophonist] Ben Webster in my living room at one point. On a Sunday my old man would have these jam sessions at a place called The Outdoor Art Club in Mill Valley. My mom would make spaghetti and the kids would run around as the bands played. I remember going, “Wow, I gotta figure out how to get up on that stage.”
My advice to my 16-year-old self would be: relax. I was pushing so hard and was so ambitious in those days. Maybe I would rather have just appreciated it a little more. All I cared about was being able to make a living playing music. That’s all I wanted to do. So I would tell my younger self it’s going to be OK.
There are so many moments that my younger self would be impressed by. We Are The World, winning a Grammy. We had some memorable concerts in Japan and one night in Paris I jammed with Bruce Springsteen and Bob Geldof. We did a version of Barefootin’ by Robert Parker who just died in January, actually. Robert Parker, 89 years old from New Orleans, a great R&B singer.
If I was to have one last conversation with somebody I think it would probably be Phil Lynott [‘Bluesey Huey Lewis’, as he was known at the time, played harmonica with Thin Lizzy]. I never got to know Philip as well as I wanted to. He was like a mentor to me, I figured he was a wealth of information. We had much more stuff to do, we were producing a record that could have been great. He was an incredible talent.
To me, the power of love is family. Family, family family
My younger self was definitely hip. Hip To Be Square [1986 single] was meant to articulate a comment on the phenomenon of bourgeois bohemians, kind of like the movie American Psycho really. I originally wrote it in the third person: “He used to be a renegade, he used to fool around”, and I thought it would be funnier if I turned it on myself. My only regret is that a lot of people didn’t get the joke and thought it was an anthem for square people. But yeah, I was definitely hip as a kid. And it’s really not hip to be square. It really isn’t.
My parents were bohemians. My mother was wild. She was born in Poland and escaped during the war. When my grandparents came to America they had a real tough time. They were wealthy in Poland and here they were discriminated against and not very rich. They committed suicide together and in that moment my mom became a bohemian. She was probably, if not the first hippie in San Francisco, one of the very first hippies, took LSD and hung out with Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg – all these people in this blossoming beatnik hippie scene in Sausalito. My dad didn’t like all the drugs so he convinced me that I should go away to prep school at the ripe old age of 12.
My parenting ended in any real sense at 13 and so I’ve endeavoured to be a much more hands-on parent than my parents. My father never said I love you, even though I know he loved me. And I loved him. We talked every day, but I would never say I love you, pop. That would just freak him out. He was a hard ass and he just didn’t do that. But my kids and I say I love you every phone call. We’re different.
To me, the power of love is family. Family, family family. I have two wonderful children who have supported me and helped me through this illness [in 2018 Lewis was diagnosed with Ménière’s disease which causes hearing loss, meaning he can no longer sing or even listen to music]. My son has become my best friend. He has turned into this wonderful person who looks after his father. And I need some looking after. So I’m very pleased.
It is tough. It’s tough but I’m not dead. You have to be grateful, I’m still a lucky guy. There’s lots of people out there worse off than I am. It’s important to remember that and the support I’ve had from my fans is overwhelming. You don’t realise that your music can have such impact and that part is really gratifying.
I’m a three out of ten today. Six is as high as I’ve been in two years. Six is pretty good though. Three is just barely passable. When I’m below three I can’t hear anything. I’m still hoping to get better. My hearing fluctuates episodically. It’ll be terrible for a day or for six weeks, and you never know. Then it’ll get better for a day to six weeks, and you never know. There’s still hope there.
One of the new songs, While We’re Young, absolutely sums up my philosophy. “Do you remember not so long ago, all we had was time and the future was the last thing on our mind? Now here we are getting older, wondering what will be. Life is short. Let’s take advantage of every opportunity.”
Huey Lewis and the News’ latest album Weather, their first new music since 2001 (and probably final record) is out now.