Songs We Wish We Could Forget: Huey Lewis and the News' "The Heart of Rock and Roll"

When did Oklahoma become the heart of rock and roll?
  |   Comments

There have been a litany of songs written about, well, how music is still going strong. I am a fan of that as a subject of a song, because, after all, I enjoy music and am well aware that every year excellent new music comes out and will continue to do so until the dystopian future that Styx’s “Mr. Roboto” predicted comes to fruition. As such, musicians writing odes to their craft tend to be songs I like, though of course, as with everything, execution is important. In the minds of many, the execution of Huey Lewis and the News’ “The Heart of Rock and Roll” manages to fail.

Huey Lewis & THe News - The Heart Of Rock & RollThough the heyday of Mr. Lewis and his News (by the way, I’m a fan of the band’s name for the record) was long ago, they still live on in televised showings of Back to the Future movies and as the preferred band of Patrick Bateman. The main character from American Psycho, not the star of Teen Wolf Too Jason Bateman, though he might like them as well. Also, there’s that episode of The Office where Michael mistakes “The Heart of Rock and Roll” for a Bruce Springsteen song. Part of the joke, of course, is that it sounds nothing like a Springsteen song. Springsteen’s music always has a raw energy and emotion to it. Even his more polished sounding songs, such as “Dancing in the Dark,” which is an awesome song, are still emotive. Meanwhile, in this song Huey Lewis sounds like he’s having a good time. He sounds like it’s a lark. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. If a singer sounds like they are enjoying themselves, it can be infectious. Of course, the song has to be good for that to happen, and many people would not consider that the case here.

The song begins with a literal heartbeat. A bit on the nose, but I could abide it… if it didn’t last for 20 seconds. Then, the music kicks in, and the first thing that strikes me is how it reminds me of the song that The Joker and his gang play when they trash the art museum in Batman. I actually preferred Jack Nicholson’s performance as The Joker to Heath Ledger’s. I also thought The Dark Knight sucked. I know both of those things put me in the minority. Nicholson’s Joker was formidable and monstrous but with an anarchistic flair and even a dash of humor. Ledger’s Joker was just creepy and disturbing to the point of being unpleasant. Now, back to the task at hand. Lewis begins by singing about how there is no place he’d rather be than New York City. However, he sings the words “New York, New York” in this odd sort of yelping way. Lewis definitely doesn’t put on a particularly good singing performance in this song. It’s not bad, and I certainly prefer the organic nature of it to the sound of autotune, but when vocals lack both emotion and skill it becomes a detriment to the song.

Lewis then asks, “Where else can you do a half a million things/All at a quarter to three?” Oh, the questions I have to answer that question. First off, is he talking about a quarter to three in the morning or the afternoon? Obviously, it seems likely he’s talking about 2:45 AM (years before Elliott Smith!) since he’s talking about the uniqueness of being able to do “half a million things” at that time. The vast majority of cities offer many things to do in the afternoon. Also, unless you are separating things in particular detail, are there even a half a million things a human being can do? Hell, even if you throw in things like breathing and blinking it seems a stretch. Granted, Lewis could just be being hyperbolic in order to sell his point. Plus, “half a million” has a rhythm to it that many other numbers lack. He could have said “a couple hundred things” however, but now I’m just getting bogged down in the minutiae.

Lewis then intones, “When they play their music, oooh, their modern music/They like it with a lot of style/But it’s still that some old back beat rhythm/That really, really drives them wild.” First off, I have no idea what “modern music” means and I’d reckon Lewis doesn’t either. Even in the 80’s I don’t know what I would have been. Rap music, perhaps? Is it supposed to be some sort of rock and roll music? You know, the focal point of this song and the thing that hasn’t been mentioned yet? So far, we’ve just heard some nonsense about the amount of things a person can do in New York at 2:45 in the AM or maybe the PM and now this. Maybe he’s trying to say that, much like his contemporary Billy Joel, it’s still rock and roll to him. The music may be “modern” now and have “a lot of style” but after all it’s still that same old back beat rhythm and all that.

Then, we get our first chorus, “They say the heart of rock and roll is still beating/And from what I’ve seen I believe ‘em/Now the old boy may be barely breathing/But the heart of rock and roll, the heart of rock and roll is still beating.” To which I say: Huh? When you listen to that second verse and the first couple lines from this chorus, it seems like this is clearly a song espousing how rock and roll is awesome and it will never die. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that’s what this song is supposed to be. If so, where the blue hell did, “Now the old boy may be barely breathing” come from? That literally figuratively appears to be saying that rock music is almost dead. When something is barely breathing, that means it is close to dying. When you are watching a movie or television show and somebody finds an unconscious person and says “They’re barely breathing” they tend to say it with quite a bit of concern and the situation is quickly dealt with.

It would appear Huey Lewis (and, perhaps, the News) have come to both praise rock music and bury it. Did Lewis think rock music was on the verge of obsolescence? Was he imploring us to enjoy it while we can because it is going to be gone soon? This song is clearly an ode to rock music, but is it also an elegy? Obviously, if Lewis thought that rock music was going to die soon he was clearly wrong and foolhardy, because rock music shall never die because musical styles never die. Somewhere, somebody is still making big band music. I just find that line baffling and it really doesn’t fit into the tone of the song, or really even into everything else Lewis says in this song. Plus, it really takes the fun, happy tone out of the song, which was really the only thing it had going for it up to this point. Also, the chorus ends with the drummer mimicking a heartbeat. Again with the heartbeat, guys. Maybe give that a rest?

In the next verse, Lewis sings an ode to Los Angeles now, although technically it is an ode to, “LA, Hollywood, and the Sunset Strip” which is, you know, redundant and/or poorly worded. I’m starting to feel like Huey Lewis didn’t put much work into this song. Maybe that’s why he thought rock music would die soon. He thought every rock musician was as lazy as he was. In regards to LA, which he says, “everyone should see” the things he singles out are, “Neon lights and pretty, pretty girls/All dressed so scantily.” Which, interestingly enough, you can find in New York. Hell, if you are in any town with a liquor store you can probably find neon lights and skanky women. Also, I feel that “neon lights” doesn’t need to be on anybody’s bucket list. Sure, it is kind of interesting how noble gases illuminate like that, but if you don’t get a chance to see it you aren’t missing out.

Next, we find out that while New York has their “modern” music, Los Angeles has “hard rock music” which they like “with a lot of flash.” Well, at least hard rock is actually a thing. Also, a café, or rather a series of cafes. However, it is still, “that same old back beat rhythm/That really kicks ‘em in the.” Now, I know what you are thinking. “Hey, you forgot the word ‘ass’ at the end of that lyric,” you are saying to yourself. Well, dear reader, let me assure you I forgot nothing. The word ass is not actually said in the song. Lewis just ends the lyrics there and makes us fill in the blank, even if it ruins the pseudo rhyme of “flash” and “ass.” You are now likely thinking, “That’s stupid. Incredibly stupid.” Well, you are right. Did he need to use the word ass in this song? No, of course not. It could have been a mighty fine song without any swear words. I mean, it hasn’t been but in theory it could have been. However, if you are going to go that far, just say ass. It isn’t a big deal. Nobody would have given a shit, Huey. I’d like to think that Huey Lewis was just feeling so lazy (He’s like a rug on valium!) he didn’t bother finishing his own sentence. Hey, that might have even been what happened. Alas, the likely course of action was that he intentionally left out the word “ass” for whatever dumb reason.

We are then treated to that perplexing chorus again, but then a most glorious thing happens. As if though the heavens have parted and a spark of the divine has blessed this shithole planet we call home, Huey Lewis yells, “Johnny!” and then somebody, presumably Johnny, bursts into a saxophone solo. This very moment in and of itself proves the heart of rock and roll is indeed still beating. Anytime a person in a band yells somebody else’s name and then a rocking solo happens, it is thoroughly enjoyable. Even if the solo isn’t that good, just that brief moment where the song is thrown to them is fantastic. A friend of mine back in the day once opined that the best part of Late Night with Conan O’Brien was when Conan would yell “Max!” and Max Weinberg would then yell “Conan!” and the band would start playing. There is something about such moments in songs. I don’t want to call them exciting per say, but there is an uplifting enthusiasm in them that can boost the enjoyment level of any song. Yes, “The Heart of Rock and Roll” may very well be saying that rock music is soon to die and the lyrics might be cheesy at times, but for a few seconds the song is great. It’s even a good sax solo.

That wonderful moment then ends, though the song manages to pull off another usually fun trick; the inexplicable naming of cities. The next verse states, “DC, San Antone, and the Liberty Town/Boston and Baton Rouge/Tulsa, Austin, Oklahoma City/Seattle, San Francisco too.” Why is Lewis naming these cities? Well, he doesn’t say, but we can presume it is because the heart of rock and roll is still beating in all of them. I find this part of the song amusingly perplexing as well. His city choice is odd to say the least. Granted, I’m sure he probably chose them because of how they sounded, but still there are some unlikely cities on that list. We get two cities in Texas, but neither of them is Houston or Dallas, but strangely we also get two cities from Oklahoma. When I think rock and roll, I don’t necessarily think Oklahoma, and certainly not enough to name it twice.

Huey Lewis & The NewsStill, the name dropping of Baton Rouge is the best moment, precisely because it is the least likely. Why did he use Baton Rouge of all cities? It currently has a population just above 220,000, and it certainly was less back in the mid-80’s. Plus, when has it ever been notable for anything other than the fact it is the capital of Louisiana and LSU is there? Why, New Orleans is in the same state and is considered one of the largest hubs of music in the United States. Instead, Lewis went with Baton Rouge. Is it a detriment to the song? No, not really, but I do find it amusing and I certainly can’t make much sense of it. It does have a nice ring to it, but not enough to justify its usage ahead of, you know, thousands of American cities.

To be fair, what seems like a collection of arbitrary cities being named for unknown reasons might actually be a lead-in to the next verse where Lewis states, “Everywhere there’s music, real live music/Bands with a million styles/But it’s still that same old rock and roll music/That really drives them wild.” You see, those cities named might be those very same cities with music, real live music. While the notion of “a million” styles of music is obviously hyperbolic, the point remains the same and valid. Rock and roll is going strong across this nation, even in Baton Rouge! Of course, considering the fact that Lewis also seems to think rock music is close to dying, his enthusiasm is probably tempered a bit. It has more of an “enjoy it while it lasts” vibe that it should.

We get another chorus and then, truly inexplicably, Lewis decides to name two more cities. Why didn’t he put them in with the others? I have no idea, it is truly an odd decision. First, he says, “In Cleveland” then he yells, “Detroit!” Granted, that was a moment I enjoyed, but that is because I am from the Detroit area. I’m sure people from Baton Rouge or San Antone get the same kick when there cities get mentioned as well. It is the same principle that leads to them always playing “Don’t Stop Believing” at Red Wings games. The crowd always sings along, and they sing “South Detroit” with the fervor of an ancient army defending its homeland. Or, you know, drunk sports fans and other assorted folks. Still, it’s always a great moment, and even if the song gets cut off before the “South Detroit!” part, the fans make sure to sing it anyway. Of course, most Red Wings fans aren’t actually from the literal city of Detroit, but the passion is still there. So, while this scores points from me for “The Heart of Rock and Roll” it might not for you.

We then get an “Uh!” and a “Heart of rock and roll” that goes nowhere. Well, technically it goes somewhere, and that’s a harmonica jam from Lewis himself. There’s actually about a minute of song left after those final words, and it is mostly filled with some more rocking with a dash of rolling, and then that heartbeat thing again. Then, the heartbeat stops, which ends things on a somber note. Is rock and roll dead when that song ends!? No, but for a song that features both the word Johnny and Detroit being yelled, plus a sax solo, that’s a grim note to end on.

Even though the only two Huey Lewis and the News songs I’ve heard are this one and “I Want a New Drug,”  this song symbolizes the band to me. Which, you know, they probably wouldn’t want, and it might not even be fair. I don’t think this is one of the worst songs of all time, though it certainly isn’t good. Those lyrics are ridiculous and occasionally stupid. He doesn’t say “ass” when he should just say it. The song appears to be saying that rock and roll is almost dead, and since it was written in 1984, unless he’s talking on a geological timescale obviously that sentiment would be incorrect. However, the song does have spirit and enthusiasm. It has that heart of rock and roll that Lewis spoke of. It was a living embodiment to the fact that rock music was still alive and kicking. Also, it has that great moment where he yells “Johnny!” and a sax solo begins. For that, I could never consider this a bad song.