I’m at that age where your interest in new music plateaus, where your interest in any music plateaus except when you need to make doing the dishes seem meaningful. That age where, if you’re not a music critic, the ability to engage with an album depends less on the actual music than the story behind it. It’s that age where ambient music starts to get listenable and anything you don’t like is being played too loud.
There were a lot of albums this year that I enjoyed and wish I could have found at 18, when music is an adventure in personality creation. But those records didn’t squirm into my subconscious past my critical faculties. I’ll never associate them with 2014, because there was no work on my end, no breakup or road trip narrative to hang them on. I just listened to them and put them on rotation in the car. I didn’t seek them out. I didn’t get to unpack them and go down an internet rabbit hole to learn about them. I didn’t discover them.
But there was a guy named Randall Wulff, who went by the name Lewis and made an album called L’Amour, and I did get to discover him.
After I discovered him, I immediately wanted to mythologize him and use mountains of prose to force him on people, to make them feel what I felt. I wanted to write sentences like “we all have ghosts and they creep around corners and follow us to our beds and whisper to us on street corners and we all have to pretend they’re not there, but Lewis is there and we have proof” and make a complete jackass out of myself. But it’s been long enough that I don’t have the luxury of meaning it anymore.
L’amour is 90% backstory and 10% music. It was recorded in 1983. Crate diggers found it a few years ago. Light in the Attic reissued it in 2014. I consider it a 2014 album because that’s the only year anybody except a select few tastemakers would have heard it. Lewis is a 2014 artist in the same way Robert Johnson was a ‘60s artist. Sure, they verifiably existed a few decades earlier, but they were around without any myth or campfire stories or PR curation, and nobody really knew about the records.
What’s the campfire story? The campfire story is right there in the album cover. An archetypal private press album cover. The kind of album cover that makes you want to go out and play detective. You’ve got a picture, but it’s not talking. You want to make it talk. What’s it saying? I figured it said “this guy is buried in an unmarked grave.”
I saw the cover before I knew anything about the music. It was 2 a.m. when I saw it, and it scared me because it’s the sort of thing people just don’t own. It’s a vanity album. Bygone ephemera. The only reason to dig up its grave now, 31 years later, would be as evidence in a murder trial or something equally unpleasant. Maybe an estranged relative searching for a last known address.
Then I heard the story. A perfect ghost story. A ghost story so on-the-nose it seemed like an exercise in mythmaking for its own sake, a performance art project with a “disruption budget.” I won’t burden you by dressing it up. A good-looking guy with a model girlfriend, presumably wealthy, materializes in Los Angeles in a white Mercedes in 1983. He looks a bit like the, you know, son of an Alzheimer’s ridden oil executive who has a tennis club membership and wants to murder his rival on a major Beverly Hills land deal, but Columbo catches him when he drops a poison capsule in North Hollywood. He looks like he wears a suit with a vest and has a sinister briefcase.
And there’s nothing spookier than a man with a sinister briefcase who wants to make music, of all things. There can’t be a good reason for that. It must involve coded messages or money laundering or inventing an alibi, because people who look like this don’t record music in stories like this.
This is the first act. Before Columbo shows up. The album gets recorded, and then the rich guy with the Mercedes pays the photographer with a bad check and leaves town, destination unknown. There was white noise around these bullet points. His wealth was an elaborate fiction. He was a con artist. He moved around too much. His relatives hadn’t seen him in awhile. His real name was gleaned through copyright information. The record didn’t sell, wasn’t designed to sell.
I found the story at 2 a.m., the only time when you’re willing to entertain ghost stories, and lost two nights’ sleep tracking it. I savored every incidental what if – maybe he’s in Asia, maybe he’s in jail, he definitely talked into a phony ear piece to intimidate people, maybe he died 10 years ago – before I ever heard the album.
It didn’t matter what was on it at this point, because I had already decided the guy was a wayfaring assassin, a high-ranking drug dealer, or selling surplus Soviet weapons and laundering the money in Latin America. He couldn’t just be evil to me. He had to be evil with scope and ambition. Then I heard the record and the story got fifty times better. It was the perfect companion piece to the narrative.
The story got better because the record was from space. It fit on no aesthetic continuum I could devise. It was from 1983 but Lewis wasn’t listening to the 1983 canon I got secondhand from my uncle who went to the Roxy a lot. Lewis wasn’t listening to anything that I could figure out. It sounded like soft, romantic music that got broken somewhere. Something that was conceived as a mood record and mutated beyond all recognition through lack of criticism or the prism of drugs people who make mood records don’t take. (It played into my theory that the most alienating music in the world could be made by a rich guy who wanted to record an album but was so divorced from art that all he knew was an adult-contemporary song he heard at a cocktail party twenty years ago.)
Each song felt like it was falling apart. The vocals were incomprehensible, almost deliberately obscured. The piano and synth seemed like they were playing different songs. It’s like it was designed as accompaniment to a scary story decades down the line. Like the incidental music to a European gothic romance movie that nobody’s ever seen, where the girl only knows the phonetics of English. Something that went straight to VHS and you saw it when you were on Vicodin and maybe you dreamed it all up and you definitely can’t share it with people. It was the perfect private press record. The thing crate diggers look for. Jandek if he wasn’t doing it on purpose.
And to me, it was what I imagined ‘80s music to be when ‘80s music scared me as a 5 year old. It put my stomach in knots like Laura Branigan and the library music on my mom’s exercise tapes. Who makes this, and why? It’s music of a completely alien moral landscape. I couldn’t even imagine where you’d find an album like this, except at the estate sale of a sociopathic insurance adjuster or a record collection that got buried in an avalanche outside Aspen and was unthawed with the body of James Spader.
That was what the story did to my perception of an album I would never, ever listen to otherwise. Private press records are the void. They’re unlistenable unless you’ve got Stockholm Syndrome, or you’re looking for something specific. This just happened to be the one that fell to earth with a press kit tucked in the sleeve.
It was an album that could be whatever you wanted it to be. The performer could be whatever you wanted him to be. When there was mystery, he could be dead and alive simultaneously. Maybe Lewis got out of California and made it to another country. Maybe he had to enter the witness-protection program and lived in a duplex on the outskirts of Madera and had no friends and no internet connection, and only a few gas station attendants knew he played music.
Each new tidbit of information added verisimilitude to the story, made the inevitable crime seem closer to revealing itself. Ex-girlfriends and business associates and a PR video for a studio in Canada featuring ten seconds of a completely anonymous guy who might be Lewis, but his hat is pulled too low on his face to be sure. Burned bridges and dead ends. But it’d all come together. The ephemera all meant something.
Then another twist. A second Lewis album was found in a warehouse. There was no trace of it on Google. Somebody pulled another Lewis album out of space and gave it to us to keep the campfire burning. It was called Romantic Times and he had a cigarillo and a private jet in 1985. It was scarier. Druggier. One of the songs had a synth bass line that could only be described as dripping with evil. But the orchestration was more professional and the songs a little less broken.
And then it was all ruined. The last musician with the decency to lack a social media presence was alive in Canada, looked like an older version of the guy on the LPs, and got coffee like anybody else. No more ghost story. No more asking what happens to the bad guy on Columbo after he skips town.
There was another album after that, a CD that looked like any other amateur CD with homemade artwork. Recorded in 2001. But we remember 2001. We can get back there if we get a bit nostalgic and are reminded that we got broadband that year. But getting back to 1983 involves pulling up sense memories and remembering what’s in the old boxes on the highest shelves of our garages. We can’t touch 1983 anymore. Nobody cared about a 2001 album from Lewis. You could, if you psyched yourself into it, but it wasn’t organic anymore.
I’ll never realistically listen to Lewis again, mind you. I shoveled the dirt on that fire. It’s not the best music from 2014. It doesn’t even rank without the press kit. If you want to be scared by Bigfoot in a studio, Jandek has a more interesting body of work. But it’s my favorite music story of 2014, and that matters to me more, now that I spend more time flipping through my records than listening to them. It opens a door to a headspace that’s hard to access. And late at night, when you’ve given up on sleep, it’s a potent reminder that your past comes back to haunt you.