Huey Lewis on life as a deaf rock star: 'It’s like listening to the world on a blown speaker'

Huey Lewis and The News, in 1984 - rex
Huey Lewis and The News, in 1984 - rex

Huey Lewis is not finding lockdown particularly hard. Of course, it helps that he is a rich rock star who lives on a ranch in Montana. “I’ve got 500 acres, so I’m not too cooped up.” But the real reason is that the singer, songwriter, harmonica player and band leader has already been forced to adjust to a very different way of living. For the genial rocker who extolled The Power of Love in his 1980s glory days has gone deaf.

“It’s horrible,” he admits. “It fluctuates, but when my hearing is really bad, I’m better by myself, because there’s nothing not to hear. So I read a lot of books, I do stuff outdoors. I go fly fishing. I have horses. There’s just me and my ranch manager as far as the eye can see. I was self-isolating before self-isolating became a thing.”

Lewis is a charmer, and a joker, and is keen to make light of something that has clearly been extremely challenging for him. I originally spoke with him in a London hotel in February, before it was apparent just how much life was about to change for all of us. Lewis was visiting the UK to promote a new album with his much-loved band, Huey Lewis and the News.

Titled Weather (a joke in honour of their multi-million selling 1983 breakthrough album, Sports - “think of things that follow the News”), it is their 10th album, and almost certainly their last. A bright, witty, blues pop confection as good as any of their earlier albums, they had been working on it, sporadically, for several years, between regular American tours. “We were in no hurry. We play a lot of shows, and we’d just wait ‘til we had a good song, cut it, and put in the can. And then my hearing collapsed.”

That was in January, 2018. Lewis was about to take the stage in Dallas, when he heard what sounded like a jet engine starting up. “I knew something was wrong. I couldn’t find pitch. Everything distorted. Every note out of tune with itself. Cacophony.”

The tour was cancelled, and the band patiently waited, whilst Lewis saw specialists and struggled to come to terms with his condition. Sometimes he can’t hear at all. Sometimes its all noise. When it became clear Lewis was unlikely to get better any time soon, they decided to put the album out unfinished. Weather is 26 minutes long and features just seven songs. “That’s all she wrote,” shrugs Lewis.

He has been diagnosed with Ménière's disease (MD), a condition of the inner ear, characterised by tinnitus, vertigo and hearing loss. “It’s not really a disease, it’s a syndrome based on symptoms. And they don’t really know what causes it. But playing loud music for 52 years probably hasn’t helped.”

He has state-of-the-art hearing aids, and on a good day, in a quiet room, he can hear well enough to follow a one-on-one conversation. “Today is not a particularly good day,” the 69-year-old admits. “I’ve been to Halcyon Institute, Stanford Institute, Mayo Clinic, Harvard Medical School. UCSF, UCLA. I’ve had steroid shots in my ear drums, done chiropractic, acupuncture, cranial massage, essential oils, low salt organic diet, no caffeine, no chocolate, all kinds of holistic supplements and ... nothing. It still fluctuates and nobody knows anything.”

Huey Lewis in 2020
Huey Lewis in 2020

Lewis jokes that his generation of rock stars used to compare designer sunglasses but these days are more likely to swap tips on hearing aids. “I got a nice note from Pete Townshend. He was very sweet and just said, you know, chill and embrace it, man. Nothing you can do.” Lewis is a particularly severe case and is unable to listen to or perform music. “I’ve never met anyone as bad as me. It’s like listening to the world on a blown speaker.”

Lewis has played music his whole life and found it hard to adjust. Speaking to the Whitefish Review, a Montana based literary journal, he admitted to being suicidal at first. “I can honestly share that with you. I contemplated my demise. I figured pills were the easiest way to go. I mean, would I have? I don’t know."

“The first two months were horrible,” Lewis told me, frankly. “I mean, I stayed in bed for really pretty much the whole time.” Yet he seems genuinely cheerful, two years down the line. “It turns out you can get used to anything. My kids just dragged me out of bed, basically.”

Lewis has two adult children, a son and daughter, from a marriage that ended in divorce in 1989. “They sort of forced me to realise that there's lots of people out there much worse off than I am. I have a lot to be grateful for, and it’s important that I remember that. So I try to stay busy, stay creative and keep my mind off of my f______ hearing.”

Lewis has quite a straight-laced image, with his spectacles, check shirts and sports jackets, the leader of a band who played old-fashioned roots rock and soul in the big hair synthpop 1980s. He had a cameo in Back To The Future as an uptight, bespectacled judge of a battle of the bands competition, complaining that Marty McFly’s band The Pinheads were “just too darn loud!”

Huey Lewis with Cyndi Lauper, in 2001 - AP
Huey Lewis with Cyndi Lauper, in 2001 - AP

They were performing Lewis’s own song, The Power of Love, which brought Huey Lewis and the News their first US number one in 1985, and remains a radio staple worldwide. That buttoned up image was reinforced by 1986 smash, Hip To Be Square.

“It was meant to articulate a phenomenon of these bohemians in the 1980s, dropping back in to become bourgeois. I thought it would be funnier if I sang it in the first person, and it sort of backfired and became an anthem for square people. Well, I may not be the hippest guy in the world, but I’ve never been a square.”

Lewis describes his parents as “suburban bohemians.” His father was a doctor who played in Dixieland jazz bands. “It looked like the coolest thing in the world. I just thought that’s the life for me.”

His mother was “the first hippie in Sausalito,” who hung out with the Grateful Dead and had a second marriage to beat poet Lew Welch. In the late 1960s, aged 17, Lewis spent a year hitchhiking and busking harmonica around Europe and North Africa. “That’s where I really learned to play. It was get good or starve.”

He joined country rock band Clover in San Francisco in 1971, relocating to London in 1976 just as punk exploded. Clover backed Elvis Costello on his debut album, My Aim Is True, and Lewis played harmonica on Thin Lizzy’s classic Live & Dangerous album in 1978.

“Phil Lynott became my mentor, he literally taught me how to run a rock ‘n’ roll band, he dressed me out of his closet and encouraged me to become a singer. Phil had a huge heart, he wasn’t afraid to smile and to love, he just gave it away.”

Lewis formed the News in 1979. “I just wanted to chisel out a career. To play music for a living, that was my goal. We’re really just a roots rock and roll band who got lucky.”

The News had two huge multi-million selling albums and a clutch of major hit singles and kept on touring arenas in the US even when the hits started to dry up. He says he never particularly enjoyed fame. “Let’s face it, anybody who does what I do has got to like the attention a little but when it happens 24/7 it starts to drive you a little bit crazy. Being out and about became a problem.”

Whilst other bands have lost their moral compass on the road, Huey Lewis and the News took up golf, even naming their 1986 album Fore! “I was never very good but it’s great for touring, because you can walk around outside and nobody’s gonna bother you.”

He is at pains not to seem ungrateful. “I had amazing experiences. I met my heroes, I made music, I got to sing on We Are The World with Ray Charles. I mean, that alone is more than I could have ever hoped for.” Lewis was originally just part of the chorus for America’s superstar charity single in 1985. “Quincy (Jones) and Michael (Jackson) called me over. They gave me Prince’s line, ‘cause he didn’t show up.”

Lewis recalls feeling in awe of many of the other performers. “At a break, Willie Nelson comes over and says, ‘Hey, I hear you're playing golf.’ I said, ‘Yeah, we’re kind of hacking around. We just started. It’s something to do on the road.’ ‘We do the same thing.’ Willie says. ‘Put the clubs in the bottom of the tour bus, we play everywhere.’ And Bob Dylan walks by, he looks at us both and says ‘Are you guys talking about golf? That's outrageous.’ I said ‘No, Bob. Blonde on Blonde was outrageous. This is just golf.’"

I spoke to Lewis again in April, by telephone, to find out how he was coping in Montana. “I miss socialising,” he said. “I do like people. I go to the grocery store once or twice a week and dart in and out as fast as possible. That’s my social life now.

"I miss my friends and my family. But there is a silver lining. I’ve been trying to find my way back to music in the quiet. Cos level is the devil, if it gets too loud, its all cacophony. But I can hear enough to play if I keep it quiet and small. I tuned my guitar the other day, which was a challenge, but I got there. So I’m hopeful. I’m not giving up yet.”

Weather by Huey Lewis & The News is out now on BMG