Big Hassle Media
Before there was “indie” rock, before there was “alternative” anything, there was Peter Lewis. If the name doesn’t leap out at you — it might not, unless you’re Beck, or Robert Plant, or Steven Van Zandt for that matter — just wait. No, don’t wait. Just listen.
To The Road to Zion, the product of an introspective journey by Peter Lewis to “find his own worth as an artist”. A no frills, no filler affair that pulls no punches with poignancy, it’s driven by a voice that resonates and lyrics that have been there and back via some surrealistic highways. Listen to the title track, a plea and a promise delivered over bare-bones guitar. The jaunty “Down by the Water,” an endless summer of a song. The slowly flowing reflection of “When I Think of Me,” the woozy psychedelia of “In This Place,” the darkly dreamy, strangely jazzy “Nobody’s Love.” And then there’s the country blues ballad “Only a Fool,” heightened by keyboard and harmonica and fierce enough to avow: “I’m staying to fight till it batters me blind.”
One spin and you’ll be wracking your brain: Who is this guy? Here’s a hint: Back in the day, out of the same San Francisco scene that spawned the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, Peter Lewis founded a band poised to be the American Beatles. “We were five great singers, all songwriters, doing a mix of blues, jazz, folk and country delivered in precise, three-and-a-half-minute songs that whipped fans into a frenzy,” Lewis recalls. “Every record company in the country was after us.”
But their music was maybe too good to be true. And their luck? Rotten. Managerial malevolence and industry greed screwed the quintet out of the rights to its songs and even its name. The legal battle that ensued went on for decades while the members went off in different directions — including some dives off the deep end — only to regroup and go separate ways again and again.
Lewis himself had some hard times. The son of Hollywood royalty (his mother was movie star Loretta Young; his father, Tom Lewis, a pioneering TV producer), by the mid ‘70s he was homeless, sofa surfing and soul searching, working day jobs, attending night school, racking up a marriage, a divorce and a bit more than dabble in drugs. “It left me on the verge of insanity,” Lewis says. “Through it all my love for music never wavered.”
Lewis hunkered down for a self-titled solo album that was released in 1995. “It was my attempt to re-surface after years of recovery from the ‘rock wars,’” Lewis says. “The producer and I both saw it as a document of redemption, but I think he saw me as a victorious soldier while I saw myself as a humble survivor,” he explains.
Moving on yet again, Lewis toured and recorded with various other artists, including a live acoustic album with David West, and, remarkably, far-and-few-between gigs with his ex-band. Then, in 2014, singer-songwriter Arwen Lewis decided that her debut album would be comprised of covers made not-quite-famous by her father’s ill-fated band. Lewis sent his daughter’s demos to his friend and long-time fan, producer John DeNicola, who was all too eager to help these great tunes get a new life on Omad, his boutique label. “After I worked on Arwen, Peter said to me, ‘Why haven’t I made a record like this?’” DeNicola recalls. “And we were just like, ‘Let’s do it!’”
The Road to Zion was crafted to let the music speak for itself — you don’t hear the production, you’re simply and immediately taken in by the songs. It’s propulsive in places, with soaring harmonies and twining guitars, somber and bittersweet in spots, hopeful and heartfelt throughout. “I wanted the mood to be more in line with how I see myself today and produced in a way that will let me recreate the songs for a live audience,” Lewis says. “That has always seemed the best way of sharing my journey through life as a performer.”
So be on the lookout for Peter Lewis to come to your town and share the The Road to Zion with you. “My aspirations have always been to speak as an artist with a voice from the subculture,” he says. “That’s what this record is about, more than an attempt to get the what I ‘deserve’ after being in a band that had some bad luck.”
Oh, yeah. That band. The one obsessive fans and fellow artists continue to venerate, coveting on vinyl and turning friends onto, a magical musical treasure. Have you guessed that they were called Moby Grape? “I feel lucky to have been a part of something wonderful, writing and playing with the caliber of musicians in Moby Grape — that was my dream come true.” Lewis says, adding, “I’m still just trying to find that freedom I’ve been looking for all my life.”
Sounds like Peter Lewis still on The Road to Zion. Join him…