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Jeffrey Lewis' 'Sad Screaming Old Man' Could Be You

Jeffrey Lewis is a storyteller, in both the comic books he makes and his style of speak-singing seemingly stream-of-consciousness observations on life while holding a guitar. Manhattanis just his latest record — there are twenty or so albums and EPs under his name over the past twenty years. This song and video is about a thin-walled apartment and the "sad screaming old man upstairs."

Jeffrey sings:

If it was a dog-bark, or a screaming infant
I'd prob'ly be fine, back asleep in an instant
But picture me lying alone in my bed
when this old man just lets out these shrieks near my head
And now every night like at 3 in the a.m.
I get woken up by this miserable mayhem
Who's being dismembered, what the hell's wrong
I'm scared that he'll send me insane before long

All of that is wonderfully descriptive and as a listener I'd think it was a pretty good tale, but then the song pivots. All you budding songwriters take note — all that just happened was the set up for this:

And it makes me afraid just to be me like I am
Becuz it could be my fate, a lonely screaming old man
Tell me what did he do
in his youth for this torture?
What if I'm him and it's true
that he's me in the future?

The fear that this may be Jeffrey's fate — that this old man who was once young, now old and insane might be any of our futures — is what makes this song so provocative, thoughtful and memorable.

To cap it off, Jeffrey Lewis worked with video creator Nicholas Clark and the result captures both the youth and humor of the song along with its frightful conclusion. This video came about after Lewis got an email from Clark and some claymation samples and an offer to do something together. As it happened, Lewis was heading to Clark's hometown of Nashville. (I love that they're Lewis and Clark.) Clark filmed the show and Lewis and his band stayed at his place that night.

Jeffrey Lewis described the scene at Clark's house in an email:

"Nick had a real ramshackle little pad, packed with weird cool junk, and his incredible home-made claymation studio jammed into one corner of this messy wreck of a living room, and gig-posters on the wall from his side-project as a member of a Ween cover-band, stacks of LPs and stuff, so needless to say we hit it off. I was totally worn out and tired, my drummer had a cold and was sleeping wrapped in a million clothing-layers in the one bed, I was gonna sleep on this funky couch in my sleeping bag, my bass player was gonna sleep on the floor but there wasn't even enough room so she slept in the kitchen I think. Nick filmed the gig, and filmed some other singing/strumming footage at the house that night, then my band got back on the road in the morning, and waited for Nick to do all his crazy claymation ideas and smush it together with the other footage to make this insane home-made psychedelic music video that sort of looks like the way it felt to sleep at his house, it must have taken him many hours of work."

That mix of claymation and real footage makes this memorable tale a little funnier and a little scarier.

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In 1988, a determined Bob Boilen started showing up on NPR's doorstep every day, looking for a way to contribute his skills in music and broadcasting to the network. His persistence paid off, and within a few weeks he was hired, on a temporary basis, to work for All Things Considered. Less than a year later, Boilen was directing the show and continued to do so for the next 18 years.