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The news about Huey Lewis

The veteran rocker discusses middle age, possible war with Iraq and the state of the music industry, among other things.

By TOM ZUCCO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 5, 2003

Just when we think we have somebody pegged . . .

A few things you may not know about Huey Lewis.

Real name: Hugh Anthony Cregg III (Hugh Cregg & the News?). After high school, hitchhiked around Europe for a year. Learned to play the harmonica while waiting for rides along the highway.

Scored a perfect 800 on his math SAT and was accepted into the engineering program at Cornell University. In December 1969, dropped out, moved to San Francisco and started playing in bar bands.

To pay the bills, also worked as a carpenter, landscaper and health food salesman.

Huey Lewis & the News, the band's first LP, released in 1980. Was the tree that fell in the forest. Nobody heard it. Two years later, Picture This, band's second LP, was a hit, largely because of single Do You Believe in Love, written by Robert "Mutt" Lange. Who is married to Shania Twain, a talented singer who did not score a perfect 800 on the math SAT.

Band sued Ray Parker Jr. in 1984, claiming his song Ghostbusters was actually Lewis' I Want a New Drug in disguise. Suit settled out of court.

Until recently, Lewis, 52, suffered from chronic back problems. Muscle spasms mostly. But he found a cure that doesn't involve pills, gels, needles, electrodes or chiropractors. More on that later.

There hasn't been much news from Huey Lewis & the News since its last LP, Plan B, met with moderate success in 2001. Its biggest hits apparently behind it, the band plays on, performing about 70 concerts a year.

Its music is punchy, good-natured rock 'n' roll, and Lewis is like a toned-down George Thorogood. It has been said that Huey Lewis & the News is the only Behind the Music story that has a happy beginning, middle and end. Gasp! They're normal!

But Lewis doesn't apologize. They never tried to be more than they are, he said recently from his home in Northern California, and perhaps more importantly, they never took themselves too seriously.

Question: I don't want to start off on a sad note, but Joe Strummer, the front man for the Clash, died recently at his home of a heart attack. He was only 50. Did you know him?

Answer: Oh, man, yeah. In 1976, I was in a band called Clover, this vintage pub rock band, and we went to England and the first gig we saw there was the Clash at the Roundhouse. I watched Strummer spit and curse . . . this was something we had never seen before. I'll never forget it. I met him afterward, and he was a really good guy.

Q. Which brings us to the mortality issue. John Entwistle -- in his mid 50s when he died earlier this year. Same with George Harrison and Dee Dee Ramone. Not a good year for middle-aged rockers.

A. Well, they weren't the healthiest bunch. George (Harrison) smoked endless cigarettes, and Entwistle was found with blow (cocaine) in his system. So there were reasons why they died fairly young.

Q. Seems like you've managed to steer around most of those temptations.

A. It's not like I haven't abused myself pretty good, but I don't now. I look after myself rather responsibly. I kind of have a bad back, though. I went into real bad spasms. Went to a chiropractor, and he pulled out a back brace and had me on a pill. But I'd get frozen in certain positions.

So I called an orthopedic surgeon, and he told me to put heat on it and lay in bed for a few days until it gets better. When it does, go to the gym. That's what I did. Since that time, my back is always sore, but I can exercise through it. It has never been in spasms. Hard work cured me.

Q. Why do I want to tell you about my gall bladder operation?

A. Middle age does that to you.

Q. Is there a finite amount of music someone has in them? Sort of a bank account of songs that one day is empty?

A. Maybe. As a pop writer, you're informed by the audience. And when the audience disappears, it's harder to write for them. But yeah, I think there is just so much you can do. For instance, everybody has a song with rock 'n' roll in the title. And you're sort of allowed one of those. I can't write another song with rock 'n' roll in the title.

Q. Even if you did, it might be tough getting radio play. That seems to be a common complaint, especially when the top four radio companies, including Clear Channel and Infinity, control as much as 95 percent of some local markets.

A. Randy Newman did some of his best work ever on Bad Love (1999), and it sells 40,000 copies. But he wins an Oscar for spending 15 minutes to write a song for an animated film (Monsters, Inc.).

Audio is not enough anymore.

Q. What do you mean?

A. It's more sizzle now and less steak. And arguably, Elvis is the one who started it. Before television, music was how we learned about our culture. What was hip. What was not. But now, it's far more visual. It's about how you look, how you dance, how you pose. And that will probably continue. But real music played by a band, where you can hear the interplay between musicians, although there will be less of it around, it will never die. But it will become more expensive.

Right now, nobody is selling any records. And we're in wonderful company: Don Henley, Mark Knopfler and Bruce Springsteen. You name it. It's just over. Because it's a TV world out there.

Q. So what do you do?

A. I think Randy Newman ought to charge $30 for a CD. People will buy it. I'd buy it.

Q. But wouldn't that drive even more people to file-sharing Web sites like Kazaa and WinMX, where they download music and burn CDs? Why buy a CD for $17 when you can burn your own for 50 cents?

A. Then why does country still sell? Maybe they (country fans) don't know how (to burn CDs) or they have some moral thing.

I'm kidding. But when Napster first started, the record companies had a chance to get involved with Internet music sales. They didn't. They fought it. The record companies right now are trying to sue Kazaa. So what we have now are accountants and agents in control of our culture, and they're selling it down the river. The chickens have come home to roost.

Q. You're an avid baseball fan. What about Pete Rose? Back in baseball?

A. He's obviously a Hall of Fame ballplayer. But we get inklings that he bet on baseball. That he bet on the Reds to lose. We don't know the full story, but he's also obviously not getting the message that all he has to do is fess up and it's over. But he won't do that.

I sang the national anthem at a playoff game last fall, and I met him in the tunnel just before the game. He's as solid as a rock. I bet he could still play.

Q. How about another hall? The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Is that even worth the effort?

A. What a bunch of bull--. Bob Seger isn't in. Chicago isn't in. The Doobie Brothers aren't and never will be. Meanwhile, Lou Reed is in there three times. And there are critics around the country who know this and are afraid to even mention it. It's almost like there's a conspiracy. The fix is in.

Well, Chicago you can understand. They were too popular. Had way too many hits.

Q. You grew up smack in the middle of the Vietnam War. Any feelings about war with Iraq?

A. What we know is more a comment on television and media integrity. We're going to murder 12,000 people with guns this year, 2,000 alone in L.A. And car accidents will kill way more. Now, on our national news, which is really 23 minutes of actual news, we're going to hear about some lady who has been ripped off in some insurance scam. She's in tears and it's compelling footage and people are going to tune in. Which means high ratings and lots of money. But where's the depth? The substance? The real news? We get press releases and sound bites.

As for Iraq, we do have this superior attitude about them. This whole shock that they may have WMDs (weapons of mass destruction). We have millions of WMDs. Why is it that we can have millions of them, but only a few other selected countries can? Where do we come off?

I'm not trying to say that Saddam Hussein isn't a tyrant, but it is a little troublesome. Why do we get this sense of entitlement?

Q. How come you weren't drafted during Vietnam?

A. Huge draft number.

Q. The loose ends need to be tied. You're married, you live just north of San Francisco, and you have two teenagers, ages 17 and 18?

A. Right. My daughter is a freshman at Penn, and she's doing great. She told me about a sociology class she had where they discussed Tupac and Eminem and Elvis. And I thought, "I'm paying $35,000 a year for that?"

But we got into a good discussion about talent and ambition, so maybe it is worth it.

* * *

PREVIEW: Huey Lewis & the News, 8 p.m. Thursday, Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater. $34.50-$39.50. Call (727) 791-7400.

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