Things Just Happen That Way: The Search For Lewis

Things Just Happen That Way: The Strange Search For Lewis

After decades of searching, the enigmatic Canadian artist has been found. But the story doesn't end there.

- Aug 21, 2014

There's an uncanny trick to the songs on L’Amour, a 1983 private press record credited to an artist named Lewis. The misty warbling and hazy production suggest a bracing vulnerability without ever explicitly expressing much of anything at all. It's incredibly personal, individual, detached, spectral and indistinct, somehow all at once. The identity of the debonair man who made it, staring confidently from the record sleeve, is at once strongly stated and yet totally inscrutable. It draws you in, but there's nothing to grasp onto.

Perhaps that's what's driven the fascination with the long lost artist Lewis (or as he was born, Randall Wulff), who, following the reissue of L’Amour on Light In The Attic records, has captured the imagination of a significant segment of the music press, earning plaudits from The Guardian, Pitchfork and The LA Review of Books, among others. Since the record was first rediscovered by collector Jon Murphy in an Edmonton flea market in 2008, the identity of Lewis has been a subject of fevered speculation, Lewis' missing biography garnering at least as much interest as the music itself.

On August 8 of this year, Light In The Attic briefly tracked him down, confirming that, yes, Lewis is real and, yes, despite many reports and rumours, he's alive. If anything, though, the brief encounter with the real life Lewis has only deepened the mystery, never quite exposing the details of his life and career that still remain vague. Both on record and in the scattered elements of his biography, Lewis only steps out of the haze for moments at a time. Our picture of him is made up of a series of brief glimpses, but each glimpse is stranger than the last, the uncommonness of his existence only feeding the peculiar romance of his art.

My own fascination with Lewis began relatively late, amidst the furor surrounding the discovery of the second Lewis record last month, 1985’s Romantic Times. The cover of the record, displaying the imperiously quaffed Lewis, in a white suit backdropped by a white Mercedes and a Leer jet, is an irresistibly absurd if oddly poignant image, and listening to the ghostly strains of L’Amour (at this point Romantic Times was only available for sale on eBay, where the one available copy sold for $1,825) only strengthened Lewis' strange allure.

lewis romantic times

The music itself hooked me in, but what really fuelled my obsession were the liner notes for the Light In The Attic reissue of L’Amour written by Jack Fleischer, thoroughly researched and reported with the help of his friend Mark Armstrong. The history of the record detailed in the notes, by now familiar in some circles, is like so many elements of the Lewis story, both too good to be true and too weird to make up.

The history of the record is like so many elements of the Lewis story, both too good to be true and too weird to make up.

There's the white suit and the white Mercedes that appear on the cover of the later record, the prolonged stay in the Beverly Hills Hotel during the recording process, the photo session with renowned L.A. punk photographer Edward Colver (paid for with a $250 cheque that bounced), the relationship with Christie Brinkley implied by a dedication to her on the back of the L’Amour sleeve and later confirmed (for what it’s worth) by the man himself, the all night recording sessions at a bargain basement studio in Silverlake, the apparently extreme and unexplained wealth.

All of it contributes a larger than life myth of Lewis, positioning him as an almost comic exaggeration of an ‘80s stockbroker stereotype entirely at odds with the strange and intensely personal music he recorded.

Given Wulff’s purported disinterest in stepping into the public eye, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever develop a real understanding of his personality or his motivations. Every time I turned a corner in the search for the man behind the music, there were several accounts of Lewis that emerged to complicated my view of him.

One of the earliest known firsthand accounts of Wulff appeared in an inconspicuous corner of the internet: the comments section of a small Scottish site called Derek’s Music Blog, where a woman going by the name Donna claimed to have had a romantic relationship with Lewis in the late-'70s.

My requests for an interview with Donna were declined, but the proprietor of the blog, Derek Anderson, got in touch with the woman to provide a brief account of their time together. According to Fleischer, her account contains confirmed details about the Wulff family that have never been published, which leads him to believe it’s genuine.

Donna recalls meeting Randall in 1975 or '76 while he was on a motorcycle trip down the Oregon coast, following him back to Calgary, where they lived with his parents, and painting houses in order to earn money to move to Hawaii. Their move to Maui lasted only a month before the money ran out. They lived in Calgary and Victoria before eventual parting ways in 1978. Donna describes Randall during this time as “an attractive, sweet, artistic soul but uninterested in pursuing an income through the construction trades and unable to make any money softly singing his original songs and playing his guitar.”'

Around 1980 he got in touch with her again, and, now suddenly flush with cash, he and his brother picked her up in a limousine for dinner. Later in the ‘80s he sent her a copy of L’Amour, which she subsequently lost. She has not heard from him since.

Fleischer believes this version of Lewis is closer to the personality who made L’Amour, and thinks the slick image he presented was potentially a ploy for this “real artist” to find his way into the image-heavy ‘80s music industry. “The image is a set up,” he theorizes. “It’s like his brother saying, ‘look man, maybe if you present yourself [as this smooth guy], then what you’re doing musically will make sense to people’.”

“I feel like what the people respond to in the music is this really incredibly sincere thing. The back story and the image is like a ruse that got tagged onto him.”

While his brother certainly may have influenced the conception of Lewis’ image, Wulff’s identity has remained in flux even as he continued to pursue his music. And the scattered facts that we know about him, though outlandish, are likely only a small fraction of a long and eventful musical pursuit.

"Heartbreak" - aka Lewis - aka Randy Duke

When Fleischer and Sullivan informed him they were re-pressing his record he was initially confused as to which, he remarked that he has made “50 or 60” albums since L’Amour. A handful of these, he said, were recorded by engineer Len Osanic at Fiasco Brothers Studio outside of Vancouver between 1998 and 2002. Osanic has recently released an unearthed Lewis track entitled "Heartache" from the several albums worth of Wulff material he says are sitting on a hard drive in his studio. The song is attributed to another pseudonym, Randy Duke.

Osanic describes Wulff as an incredibly dedicated perfectionist, who would spend hours obsessing over tiny details of his delivery. He was so demanding Osanic considered quitting the job. Instead, he decided it could be a valuable experience. “If I could record [him], I could record anybody,” he says.

During this period, while Wulff was operating under the name Randy Duke, he was also claiming to be the nephew of the famous tobacco heiress Doris Duke, who had a period of tabloid notoriety in the late-'80s when she adopted a Hare Krishna women who she believed was the reincarnation of a daughter she had lost in child birth. According to Osanic, Wulff would talk in rich detail about his childhood growing up on Duke’s estate in Hawaii, reflecting on, among other things, dodging organized criminals intent on kidnapping him to extort his wealthy aunt.

Like most stories pertaining to Lewis it's hard to verify any of it, but Osanic says these stories always seemed believable because of the air of mystery that Wulff always maintained, to his understated but clearly expensive mode of dress, and certain small hints that he was used to dealing with money. For instance, he remembers a voice-over guy from the studio telling him he did a double-take when he spotted Randy, who he was accustomed to seeing in old sweaters, coming out of a Vancouver bank in a three-piece suit.

"I never asked him," he says, a bit wistfully. "I didn’t know what perspective to put it in.”

"Lewis Found!"

When those words appeared in the headline of a piece on Light In The Attic's website, like many other followers of the Lewis saga, my initial reaction was disbelief. I had spent much of the previous week speaking to the people responsible for discovering and popularizing L’Amour, and looking into some far flung leads regarding periods of Lewis’ biography. Although no one wanted to say so explicitly, it was looking more and more likely that he was dead.

Lewis- Things Just Happen That Way

How could he just be out there, hiding in plain sight? Wouldn't he, or someone he knew, have caught wind of the coverage his records had been getting? Why had the ever-growing cabal of amateur sleuths, or even the genuine private eye who had been hired by the label to find him, turned up nothing?

As the idea of an extant Lewis set in, and the reality of this seemingly quiet and relatively ordinary man, “living and breathing and content, simply playing his music in the comfort of his own home, with a girlfriend and some kittens by his side” as Sullivan put it, I assumed that this was a story I couldn’t write.

I had been ready to present it all as a beguiling but insoluble mystery, but here the mystery was, apparently solved. As I went back over my conversations with everyone involved it occurred to me that finding the corporeal Lewis wasn’t really what the search for Lewis had been about. Perhaps what I was looking for was a resolution of the tension between the swaggering playboy millionaire portrayed on the covers and liner notes of the records and the wordless emotion of his music. Maybe what I was searching for was something that explained the neverending twists and turns that led me towards and away from his ever-shifting identity and, as Weird Canada's Aaron Levin, who is credited as one of Lewis’ most ardent popularizers says, “trying to understand the role that creative expression played in Lewis’ life.”

What I was looking for wasn't a man, but a legend.

After all of the conflicting reports and myths, the final chapter in the search for Lewis might seem anti-climactic, but the trail that led Fleischer and Sullivan’s to Wulff was appropriately bizarre.

It began with a tip from a former business partner called Heath, who had gone on his own search for Wulff in the mid-‘80s. According to Fleischer, Heath had been working with Wulff in Canada when he suddenly disappeared, something he apparently has something of a knack for.

It seems the key to finding Lewis is to stop actively looking for him.

Heath had no idea where he had gone, but was at the time interested in Eastern mysticism, and believed that he and Randall had some sort of cosmic connection. Following that instinct, he flew to Los Angeles, hopping into a taxi with no destination in mind. Wandering along the beach in Santa Monica, he consulted a pocket copy of the I Ching, which told him that he would find what he was looking for at sundown. He waited until sundown and, sure enough, he found Wulff having dinner with his brother and girlfriend in a restaurant just off the pier. It seems the key to finding Wulff is to stop actively looking for him.

Fleischer describes his own search as “some sort of Zen lesson.” The pair searched for two days in the neighbourhood where Heath said he had seen Randall roughly a year before, and were on the verge of giving up when, while walking dejectedly through a different neighborhood, they caught sight of him sitting in front of a coffee shop. According to Fleischer, Wulff was completely unfazed by being approached by two strangers from L.A. with a record he had made 30 years ago.

“It was like he’s a celebrity, like this happens to him all the time and we’re just, you know, the fans,” says Fleischer.

Lewis - Let's Fall In Love Tonight (1983)

He had no interest in royalty money the label has been holding in escrow for him, refused to sign a contract, and evinced no interest in his new found notoriety, but rather, spent their 45 minute interaction reminiscing about his various celebrity friends including Brinkley, Harry Nilsson, and the film director David Lean, and delivered an anecdote in which he criticized George Harrison for wearing side-zippered cowboy boots in an upscale hotel.

Fleischer says he speaks the way he sings: “He’ll tell a story and just leave off and then come back. A lot of it was hard to follow. But that's a big part of his weird charm. He was always mysterious.”

After chatting outside the coffee shop for 45 minutes, Lewis made a polite but abrupt exit, leaving no means to contact him in the future. Light In The Attic are going to let the already pressed Lewis records sell out, but have no plan to re-press them, seemingly content to let the records drift back into the ether where their creator chooses to reside.

There are some who have expressed disappointment that Wulff has been found, suggesting that the mystery has been spoiled. But Fleischer, who has likely spent more time searching for and pondering the strange phenomenon of Lewis than anyone, doesn’t see it that way.

“I don’t know how it could have ended any better,”he says. “For a brief afternoon we saw him and that’s all you get.”

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