The Curious Case of Lewis’ L’Amour
It's the best album of 2014, despite the fact that it was recorded in 1983.
The world is littered with millions of discarded old records. Most smell like the damp cellars that they’ve been kept in and ignored for decades, with the chances that they will ever be owned or even played again being slim to none. But, if you’re a dedicated enough digger, maybe you’ll find one that’s any good. It might even be worth a few bucks. But kick yourself if you’ve ever passed on a copy of Lewis’ L’Amour, because it is the most talked about vinyl rarity to surface of late. With a monochrome cover of a handsome face and brilliant coiffure, one might assume it was the vanity project of a pompous gigolo. For all we know, that’s what he was. But the music is deceivingly graceful and transcendent, filled with scant arrangements of noodling synthesizers, gently plucked acoustic guitars and that supple, and those whispered mumble of his. L’Amour just might be the best album of 2014 – despite being 31 years late.
Very little is known about both L’Amour and its creator. Lewis, who’s real name was allegedly Randall Wulff, was an Albertan who cut an album for a private press imprint called R.A.W. in 1983. History has gone to show that the album was ignored from the moment it dropped. Lewis himself vanished almost as quickly as the record itself. But was this album really just something left to fade into obscurity or was it secretly influential on beatific like-minded artists as Arthur Russell and Angelo Badalamenti?
Light In The Attic Records imagines the latter – that L’Amour was the best kept secret ever, guarded by a lucky select few. The Seattle label is looking to change that though by reissuing the album, after high demand saw O.G. copies of the vinyl fetch over $600 on eBay. Thank god then for Jon Murphy, a Victoria-based record collector who brought it back into public consciousness by digging up a copy of the album for one dollar at a flea market.
Murphy says it was the cover that made him part with his loonie. “It's amazing,” Murphy says. “It was too good to pass up, especially once I took a look at the song titles. It was a chance flea market find on a cold winter morning, back in 2008. I buy a lot of records based on cover art, but not many of them live up to expectations. I used to play Lewis for friends when they came over but I never thought this record would appeal to more than 10 or 20 people. It seems to have really caught on.”
Managing to find a second copy, Murphy passed it on to his friend, Aaron Levin, who runs the music blog Weird Canada. A 2012 post on the site caught the attention of collectors and all of a sudden Lewis became a growing curiosity.
Murphy says he hasn’t been able to track down any more copies, but they’re still apparently out there. “I haven't seen another one since, but a friend of mine just turned up a copy in a barn outside of Barrie, Ontario.” Described as “a true discovery of the blog age,” L’Amour is such a beguiling work because at a time when virtually any piece information is at our fingertips, little is still known of both the man and the album. Writer Jack Fleischer was hired by Light In The Attic to pen liner notes for L’Amour. With the help of detective Markus Armstong, Fleischer has managed to put together some bits and pieces together.
“We have a skeleton of miscellaneous small anecdotes and minor details regarding Lewis,” Fleischer explains. “It is just enough to have a good idea, but not too much so as to spoil the mystery. He was from Canada, and would jet set to different places as he was loosely affiliated with finance and investments in the stock market. He was leading the life of a global playboy basically and part of that was making records in L.A. and supposedly later, Europe, too.”
So, in many ways, the exact personality you’d expect from that album cover. But Fleischer suspects it runs even deeper.
“Many aspects of the story lead one to see him as a kind of con-artist, but I think it would be wrong to label him that outright without knowing more,” Fleischer says. “He stiffed the photographer who took the album cover, but from all accounts it would appear he paid for his session time, at the know defunct Music Lab in Silver Lake. It was the cheapest studio in town, known for booking mostly raucous punk bands like Black Flag and Cheap Trick, as well as a great variety of Latin and R&B music. You couldn't get much further from Beverly Hills back then, culturally speaking, which makes his choice of studio particularly interesting. That is to say – he was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel while making the record. “
The one man known to have had the honour, or in his case, dishonour of meeting Lewis is the aforementioned stiffed photographer, Ed Colver. At the time, Colver was known for shooting L.A. hardcore bands: his credits include Black Flag’s iconic Damaged cover and Circle Jerks’ Group Sex. Colver himself doesn’t remember why he ended up shooting Lewis, but he seems happy to forget the whole experience.
“I met with him, found a location for the shoot, drove to the photography shoot, shot the photographs, developed them and made contact sheets,” Colver explains succinctly via email. “I got back together with ‘Lewis,’ a.k.a. Randy Wulff, and he chose the photograph. I went back home, printed the photographs and entirely mocked up the finished LP artwork to scale. Then I drove back for the third time to deliver it. He was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel, driving a white convertible Mercedes and had a girlfriend that look like a model. He wrote me a $250 check on a closed account in Malibu. I had ‘cashed’ it, then it bounced and it took me months to repay the bank. I returned to the hotel to find him. I'm quite sure he was aware the account had been closed. They me told at the front desk that he had gone to Vegas and then on to Hawaii without leaving forwarding info.”
Luckily for Colver, Light In The Attic finally covered Lewis’ tab after 30 years, paying the photog the outstanding $250 bill. Colver says he has no idea what may have happened to him, but “I know what would have if I had found him. My experience with him is one of the worst in over 35 years of shooting photographs.”
In reissuing L’Amour, Light In The Attic has attempted to locate and contact Lewis, though without any luck. Rumour has it he moved to Vancouver at some point and drove a white Porsche. He also apparently recorded more music.
“His nephew mentioned him making records in Europe in the late 1980s,” Fleischer says. “Then we were able to locate one of his pseudonyms on the roster of a studio in Vancouver circa mid-2000s. The engineer there said he recorded five or six albums’ worth of material at that time, and that it was, in his words, ‘very soft, religious music.’ I think it's safe to say he's been making music all along, and that it is clearly a very important part of his life.”
If music is as important to Lewis as Fleischer presumes, maybe introducing the world to L’Amour will bring its creator out of hiding, should he still be alive. Light In The Attic’s reissues of psychedelic cult figure Rodriguez did just that, earning the musician a second career, a new generation of fans, and even an Academy Award-winning documentary.
“It's up to the winds of fate,” Fleischer says. “But that being said, the odds of something occurring on that front are much higher with the publicity this release has drummed up. I've had peculiar dreams and visions related to his whereabouts, but my mind is always twitching in various directions like that. I've grown quite content with the place of mystery that the whole story occupies in my life. It's an increasingly scarce commodity in the present age, and I think it certainly is a part of the record's charm.”
Cam Lindsay is a writer living in Toronto. He's on Twitter.