The September 13, 1984 cover of Rolling Stone features a smirking Huey Lewis holding up one index finger, indicating the premier status of his band’s album Sports on the Billboard charts. Huey Lewis and the News rocketed to international fame because of Sports, and established the band’s long lasting legacy as new age dad rock. Like most musical acts, however, “making it” was never a sure thing. Lewis bounced around from band to band early in his career, lending his harmonica skills to Bay Area groups whenever he could. His first real band, Clover, went to England for a time, but after some backup work and a failed album returned home. Even after forming Huey Lewis and the News and grabbing a record deal, widespread success was not on anyone’s mind. Only with Sports did everything coalesce at the right time.
The cover article from that Rolling Stone issue starts out with an anecdote about Lewis golfing and displays the singer’s high level of confidence. The next section begins with the statement “Huey Lewis never lacked confidence,” followed by a quote from singer and former roommate of Lewis Alex Call saying that Lewis was always “successful at that.” After ten years of struggling to make a name for himself in the music industry, I would think Lewis would have to have confidence built into his DNA to keep at his dream.
However, wouldn’t struggling for that long also leave you paranoid about losing any kind of success? You know how hard the struggle can be, and the fame could end at any time. At least when you’re struggling you have nothing to lose. Once the record deal was signed, and Lewis began writing for the band’s debut album, isn’t it possible that his self-assuredness wavered? That all the work he put in to get a real chance at success would have been in vain if he failed once more? These questions came to me inductively after listening to many hours of Huey Lewis and the News, and noticing a pattern of insecurity. The narrator of these songs harbors conflicted feelings about love and the relationships he sings about. Below are ten songs that appear on Huey Lewis and the News (debut), Picture This (sophomore effort), Sports (hit), and Fore (follow up), chosen because they all appear on the band’s greatest hits album. Each song is accompanied by one interpretation that casts Huey Lewis as frightened, needy or not in control on his own happiness in an attempt to show that outward confidence might not always transfer to one’s innermost feelings.
“Trouble in Paradise” off Huey Lewis and the News
Lewis describes “Billy” not fulfilling his dreams in L.A., coming home dejected and much less like himself than before the trip. Billy “used to be cool, he used to laugh a lot,” but now is “sick and… scared.” Lewis states that he has “seen this movie and it don’t end nice,” and later that “you see, I’ve been there myself once or twice.” Could Billy be a stand-in for Lewis himself as a young musician? Perhaps his jaunt in London is akin to Billy’s trip to Los Angeles. Lewis could be taking all of his frustrations from before the record deal and funneling them into this song through Billy.
“Hope You Love Me Like You Say You Do” off Picture This
The name of the song says it all, really. Lewis is clearly insecure in his current relationship, wondering whether his partner is telling the truth about the extent of their love for him. He needs validation for the affection he is receiving and has to ask a direct question. The first line of the song points further to his insecurity- “What does a girl like you see in a man like me?” He concedes that he’s both “stubborn” and “hard-headed,” qualities that make him wonder why this woman would want to be with him at all. Lewis isn’t seeing any of his good traits, the things that attracted this woman to begin with. Almost every line of this song points to a lack of confidence, but the bridge is the most poignant after the opener- “If you do [love me like you say you do], let me here you say ‘Yeah’ (yeah)…” Here Lewis puts in a call and response to try an illicit direct confirmation about the amount of love the woman has for him.
“Do You Believe In Love” off Picture This
In this song, Lewis clearly believes in love but is left questioning whether his latest romantic partner does so likewise. Over the course of the song, they meet and fall in love (“Now the feeling is beginning to grow”), and asks her to “take my hand” as if he’s already all-in and she’s not sure yet. Lewis is convincing her to be in a relationship because he can’t be without someone in his life. It’s as if Lewis can’t afford to let this woman look at other options because he believes she will run off with anyone else. He has to lock her up immediately or he’ll lose her, pointing again to his insecurity. This vulnerability is expressed in a call-back response by the chorus at two points during the song- “I don’t wanna be lonely.” The desperation rings out even without hearing the music.
“The Heart of Rock & Roll” off Sports
The only song having nothing to do with romantic love still fits with this list because it directly addresses Lewis’ profession. Music is his life, and this song comes from a need to justify his own brand of “likeable, unadventurous” rock music. Lewis is a regular guy playing regular rock music, and he’s insecure about all the hip new stuff over the airwaves. He has to say that “modern music…it’s still that same old back beat rhythm.” His brand of rock is still cool because it’s got the same heart as new stuff that might at first sound different. Billy Joel has “It’s Still Rock & Roll to Me,” a song very much akin in spirit to this one. However, whereas Joel is saying all the new stuff is just like rock and that he’s not doing anything wrong, Lewis has to validate his music by saying the heart of rock and roll is still beating. In this song “they say” that the heart is still beating, but if anything, wouldn’t “they” be saying that rock (at least the kind Lewis is producing) is dying in the face of all the new kinds of music? Moreover, Lewis ends the song with a list of cities that ostensibly still have rock music as if to say “Hey, what we’re doing isn’t antiquated! Please listen to us!”
“Heart and Soul” off Sports
Here Lewis sings about a woman who uses him for sex and leaves him hanging by morning. Lewis clearly wants this to be more of a relationship, but can’t bring himself to confront her about his displeasure with her behavior. He says that he “couldn’t dream of turning her away,” and lets “her take advantage of me.” He can’t stand up for himself, so “she gets what she wants.” I’m not trying to say that this woman’s behavior is wrong in any way, only that Lewis can do nothing to stop it, and complains about how “cold” she can be after a night being “hot and hectic.” If he has a problem with what’s happening, he should say something and not let her walk all over him.
“I Want a New Drug” off Sports
This song takes on the opposite side of the emotional spectrum as “Heart and Soul.” Lewis is madly in love, and rests all of his happiness on the partner. He needs a drug to “feel like I feel when I’m with you.” Essentially, his love for this partner has gone so far that he is incapable of being happy without this person. He needs to start using just to survive being apart. If there was ever a healthy relationship in which drug use was necessary for it to continue, that’s News to me.
“If This Is It” off Sports
Lewis at first appears assertive about and comfortable with an imminent breakup in this song. However, the lyrics tell a slightly different story- “If this is it, please let me know. If this ain’t love, baby, just say so.” Lewis needs the partner to break off the relationship to feel closure. For some reason, Lewis can’t just leave this person, even though he obviously knows that the relationship is going nowhere. By asking the partner to end things, it implies that Lewis would be fine staying together if she was content with prolonging their relationship. He knows things aren’t going well (“We both know that it’s just not right”), but he can’t bring himself to end the relationship. He can’t take action because his insecurity makes it so he cares more about not being alone than the quality of his relationships.
“Stuck with You” off Fore
After the overwhelming success of Sports, I thought Lewis move would away from the insecure tone documented in the songs above. Fore does offer a new perspective, but this song is right in line with what has come before. “Stuck with You” is about being unable to breakup with a long time partner simply because they’ve been together for too long. The two have “the same phone number, all the same friends, and the same address,” so it’s just too much of a hassle to end the relationship. Lewis is aware that he’s stuck in a rut, but feels helpless to do anything about it to make his life better. They both “thought about breaking up, but now we know it’s much too late,” as if they’re scared to try any other type of life, even though they’re both clearly unhappy. I get that the “stuck with you” mantra is a roundabout way of indicating that they’re soul-mates, but why say it this way, with the word “stuck” so prominently featured?
“I Know What I Like” off Fore
Once again, the title says it all for this song. Unlike the rest of this list, however, we actually see Lewis taking charge of his own life with what he wants. This song shows the change in attitude with Fore that had to be cultivated over three years of fame and fortune stemming from Sports. How different does this line sound after seeing everything that preceded it: “I like believing, in what I want to. Don’t like no one to tell me what to do.”
“Hip to Be Square” off Fore
Now we reach the pinnacle of Lewis’ confidence with the most recognizable song off Fore. This song is all about Lewis eschewing everything “cool” and doing what he wants to do, not caring at all about how it will make him look. Others might see his type of music and lifestyle as “square” but he’s doing what he loves, and he sees himself as “hip” even in the face of criticism. Most of all, he just doesn’t care what others think- “You might think I’m crazy, but I don’t even care.” Lewis sings about dieting and exercising to make himself feel better, not to appease anyone else or look a certain way for the cameras. He’s just being true to himself and that’s all that matters.
After Fore, Huey Lewis and the News started their inevitable pop culture decline. Songs like “Small World” and “Perfect World” were moderate hits, and the tracks made for the first two Back to the Future movies had their moment. The silver lining of this decline is that none of these songs feature any more Lewis insecurity. By the conclusion of Fore, Lewis finally became self-assure. It only took millions of dollars and four years of radio airplay, but Lewis got there. Outrageous fame can clearly solve any problem.