Dark Androgyne: Ephraim Lewis, Skin (The 15th anniversary)

By Daniel Garrett

Ephraim Lewis, Skin
Produced by Kevin Bacon and Jonathan Quarmby
Elektra/Warner, 1992

“Searching for a way out of so much pain. Sometimes to hurt is better than nothing,” are the first words on Ephraim Lewis’s music album, Skin, his first album, his last album, his only album. His is singing offering a clear candor, an incisive intelligence, and a pure passion, and Ephraim Lewis’s distinct diction drives words deep into one’s mind. Ephraim Lewis (1968-1994) was a very special singer, and a charming man of some mystery, “a public face with a private life,” a man who wonders “Is my skin just a veil I’m wearing?” a question that echoes with intimations: one thinks of W.E.B DuBois’s speculations about living behind a veil of color; and one thinks of how one identity marker can mask others; and one thinks of the division between mind and body, and between spirit and flesh. Ephraim Lewis, who had lived in England, died after his first album was given to the world, while he was in America pursuing plans for his second collection of songs; died after a confrontation with American policemen (died frenzied, naked, unnecessarily—like Sam Cooke decades before him). Immediately following Lewis’s death, there was no significant explanation made public; and since then, there have been reports of longtime family trouble involving religion versus secular life and siblings encountering mental illness, as well as indications that after separating from his girlfriend Lewis was beginning to explore his sexuality (with same-sex lovers); and that he may have been experimenting with, or been given unknowingly, drugs that led to the strange behavior for which the police were called. (There is now a web site devoted to Lewis, organized by Steve Caraco.) How much can be predicted in any man’s life? “The colour of night is bound to find you,” Ephraim Lewis sings in the song “Skin,” accompanied by the saxophone of Michael Ward, the guitar of Hussein Boon, and the drums of Trevor Murell and percussion of Colin Elliot.

A lifetime is not a long time, and some lives are shorter than others; and while there are dangers, and destruction, and death, some risks can be worth the trouble: in “It Can’t Be Forever,” Ephraim Lewis sings in a low voice, a voice of authority and contemplation, “No falling under the spell of here today, tomorrow will do just as well. It’s so easy to believe in the power of others. They come and go, and in the strange half-light they seem to know some, but who can tell? Be so brave. Walk into the fire, no one else can guide you. No one else can make you strong.” Written by Lewis with Kevin Bacon and Jonathan Quarmby, the passion and wisdom embedded in this elegant, electronic music could have made Ephraim Lewis the peer of performers such as Anita Baker, Sade, and Seal.

“I’m drowning in your eyes, I’m floating out to sea, helpless on a restless tide that flows between you and me,” sings Lewis, smoothly, softly, in “Drowning in Your Eyes,” a sweet romanticism. Ephraim Lewis, in music, might have been an ideal for many others (he is that for me): a being of force and sensitivity, able to reconcile sophistication and soul, a being with an eye for reality and a heart for dreams, able to embody in music contradictions without being destroyed by their conflicts, the dark androgyne.

Ephraim Lewis was a singer—and singers, like poets, like painters, are nearly timeless figures, and can be imagined singing on a desert plain alone with no listeners but wild animals, or chanting near a campfire, or providing comfort and vision to a shivering group hovering in a cave; that is, their desolation and deprivation can be imagined as much as one can imagine them surrounded by adoration and wealth. On Lewis’s album Skin, “Mortal Seed” seems to be about isolation and repression: “There’s a wound which cannot bleed for the pleasures we have been denied…You talk about a new direction, but the words fly out and disappear…Oh it’s the same today, always just the same as before…” (The song was written by Lewis with Jonathan Quarmby.) To have a song of love and trouble sung by a beautiful black man whose voice can fly high and dive low is to be given evidence for the establishment of a new idol, the object for a new faith. One becomes ready for revelation; and it can be hard to tell the difference between profundity and platitude.

“Over and over our lives will be changing direction, time after time if you look you will find that there’s always something new,” sings Lewis in “World Between Us,” a song in which the narrator tries to persuade someone to stop being afraid, as there is “a world of loving still between us, a place that only we will know.” That seems passionate and wise. Is it? Or, am I confusing hope and small insights with large wisdom? Often it is later work that confirms and corroborates early work, but with Lewis there is and can be no later work. To have a new idol removed from view before his promise can be fulfilled is haunting; and confounding.

Lewis is even more intense—singing fast and high—in his composition “Captured,” as he declares, “After all our passion we’ve been set free. Stolen days we shared. I never knew you cared quite like you said you did. You captured my heart, you dazzled me blind.” However, my favorite song on Skin is “Summer Lightning,” a song of delicate mood and sunny images, of amazement and belief, apparently written by Quarmby alone, and performed by Lewis with only the bass of Barry Zeli and the percussion of Colin Elliot.

There is a place for ambiguity despite desired or imposed restrictions in “Rule for Life,” a song with spiritual and political implications: “Don’t ever rock the boat, be thankful for the right to vote—no deal. Why should they tell you what to do?” The song has a strong (dark, thick, propulsive) rhythm, a strong and smoldering rhythm, with the bass of Kevin Bacon, the guitar of Mark Sheridan, the trumpet of Chris Bachelor, the sax of Steve Buckley, and the trombone of Ashley Slater. In the song, Lewis rejects simplification and embraces ambiguity and complexity when he sings, “There’s a rule for life, that it can’t be written in black or white. You’ll find too many shades of grey.”

A woman is the first subject of “Sad Song.” (Most of the songs on Skin seem to have no gender.) The woman is lonely, crying, waiting. There is a lonely man in the song too. Do they become lovers—or artists? “Thinking life had passed them by, they opened up their mouths to scream to the sky, ‘My dreams they never come true.’ So now we’ll paint ourselves a sad song, and colour it blue.”

True art lasts, and after many years, I still love Ephraim Lewis’s Skin, music of questions and answers, of beauty and sorrow. The concluding song, “Hold On,” is about desire that continues beyond being rejected: “Could it be true when they say this emotion called love is blind, has no time, has no place, has no reason? Ah, but it’s everything.”

For more information about Ephraim Lewis: http://www.ephraimlewis.com/index2.htm

Daniel Garrett, Louisiana-born and a longtime New York resident, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, is a writer of essays and creative work, including fiction, drama, and poetry. His work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, PopMatters.com, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett’s extensive commentary on the film Brokeback Mountain was published abroad last year, in Film International. For The Compulsive Reader, Daniel Garrett has written on music, films, and books. Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com or d.garrett.writer@gmail.com