Immortal Songs: Jeffrey Lewis’ “Scowling Crackhead Ian”

As a former kid who got the shit kicked out of him a few times,
As a friend and as a teacher of some pretty tough and some pretty puny kids,
As someone who’s feeling his age a little and has a high sensitivity to the passage of time,
As someone with an attachment to places,
As an admirer of writers with an eye for detail and a heart for compassion,
As a citizen who is fatigued by long-nurtured division and scorn–

This song just destroys me.

I return to it again and again, and can play it over and over at a sitting. I labored pretty intensively to correct the horrible “MetroLyrics” transcription and bring the text to you (I may have misheard a word or two, but not many), so, though it is a bit long, I ask you, if you share some of the states of being I’ve catalogued above, to read it, then listen to it. It might destroy you, too. To Mr. Lewis: thanks for writing such a great song–this one’s immortal.

“Scowling Crackhead Ian:

I can’t forget your face.
You were a foul human being
Way back on Saint Mark’s Place.
A white thug when we were both poor,
A life struggling for one quarter more.
In sixth grade, that’s what you’d mug me for,
A switchblade pressed up to my jugular.
So I feared for my neck,
Safe streets were few.
My nerves grew wrecked near to Second Avenue.
I soon learned how to steer clear of a crook or a crew,
And now I’m still here,
And, look! So are you.
Forever you’ve been Crackhead Ian.
It was your kid-nickname if we spoke it.
You were an insane human being,
Whether you ever did or didn’t really smoke it.

I know that tall, thin, bent-over stroll,
All sunburned and grim since ten or twelve years old.
I guess yesterday is gone,
Faces still indent our soul,
And I guess both our moms’ places still on rent control.
I was a twig-small, sad-sack, punier guy;
You were big, tall and bad back in junior high.
No sight of someone’s face has ever been scarier–
You’d come chase me from Streetfighter 1 or Space Harrier.
Hello again, Crackhead Ian:
I still can’t forget your foul face.
My fellow human being–
I know we’re both still planted on Saint Mark’s Place.
We’ve lived our poor lives in close parallel
Within these four or five blocks we both know so well.
You must have grew up near the former theater or the old gross hotel;
I’m sure you’re aware of me here
But, oh, I can’t tell.
It seems you never outgrew your little pre-teen rage.
I still see you look so mean, though now we are middle-aged.
I was eavesdropping last year at you laughing to tell
About bashing some dude with a chair till he fell.
I slipped fast by you talking, fearing our eyes would touch,
Drifting past, by new awnings that had all changed so much.
I’ve never known your life story, I’m sure it’s rotten and tough,
But how long before these roles for us have gotten old enough?
You must’ve had it so rough, kid.
Well, I wonder:
Forged by a tiny portion of love or fortune
Goes lightning or goes thunder.

You’re a bad one, Crackhead Ian:
A sad son and sunburned pink.
But, of all the best kids seen downtown in our pre-teens,
It’s just you and me left, I think.
How long till you notice?
How long until you shake my hand?
How long until we’re old-man neighbors,
Last tribesmen of the vanished land?
We never even did exchange names.
You were an evil kid from Hades.
When we played these arcade games,
That made life great in the ‘80s.
Me and Ian.
Me and Ian
Ride into the night of an East Village dream with these games in the street and the heat….”

Addendum: I love the sound effects that give the song context, too.

Advertisements