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Huey Lewis' Struggles With Hearing Loss

The singer discusses his Ménière's disease and future in music

spinner image Singer Huey Lewis standing nearby San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge on a foggy day
Deanne Fitzmaurice

Rock band Huey Lewis & the News sold 30 million albums globally on the strength of such 1980s hits as “Power of Love,” “I Want a New Drug,” “Stuck With You” and “If This Is It.” Last year Lewis, 71, and his News mates came out with a new album: the soul-pumped rock album Weather, their first set of original songs since 2001's Plan B.

It may be their last. The singer suffers from Ménière's disease, an inner-ear disorder, and can no longer hear music frequencies or hold vocal pitches. Sometimes his hearing abruptly disappears, as it did just before he went onstage in Dallas on Jan. 27, 2018, forcing him to cancel the show and the rest of the tour. They'd finished the album before this turning point; he'd previously been able to hear fairly well with his left ear. Since then his hearing loss has been much worse, often fluctuating unpredictably.

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Just before the album’s release, we talked with the eighties icon about his music, his hearing loss and more.

Why he and his band waited 19 years to release a new batch of original songs

We're not very prolific is the short answer. We were doing 75 shows a year, and we weren't in a hurry to record. We just slowly compiled the songs and played most of them live. We actually wrote “Her Love Is Killin’ Me” decades ago. I wrote “One of the Boys” for Willie Nelson — I worship him. When I was done, I realized, Oh, my God, this is the story of my life. So we put it on the album. We had seven songs done when my hearing collapsed.

When his hearing troubles started

I've been having vertigo attacks for 35 years, and I was diagnosed with Ménière's 25 years ago. I lost 80 percent of the hearing in my right ear. The doctor said, “Get used to it. It happens, and you only need one ear.” Indeed, I existed pretty much on my left ear until two years ago. Now my hearing still fluctuates. I measure it on a scale of 1 to 10. It's not a 10 anymore. If it's 6 and I have hearing aids in, I can hear speech for sure, and I can hear the phone and TV OK. Can I sing? Maybe. But I can't book a rehearsal, because if it goes to a 2, then I can't hear anything.

His search for treatment

It's not really a disease; it's a syndrome based on symptoms, which means they really don't know much about it. I've been to experts at the Mayo Clinic, Massachusetts General, UCSF [University of California, San Francisco]. I've tried all sorts of holistic stuff, from acupuncture to chiropractics to cranial massage to supplements and all kinds of herbs. Nothing seems to work. Zero. It's such a crazy inner-ear disorder. The first six months tormented me. But you can get used to anything.

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Signs of improvement

There's evidence that the intense vertigo bouts can abate. I think I've almost outgrown the vertigo. Vertigo is the worst. The world's spinning. You just throw up, curl up in a ball, take a Valium, lie in bed and sleep. Then you might not have another bout for years.

On a happier note

I think, Wow, this could have happened years ago. I have to be grateful. I have to chill. I'm an optimistic guy, and I have to admit, I'm a lucky guy. The silver lining to this cloud is, I read a lot more. And I'm able to appreciate the support and love from our fans. Normally, I didn't think about the fans all that much. I would just write songs and keep the boat going. Now it's gratifying to reflect on what our music meant to people.

A new episode of Behind the Music featuring Huey Lewis is available for streaming on Paramount+ starting on Aug. 5, 2021. In this clip above Lewis discusses his pleasure in working on his musical, The Heart of Rock & Roll, despite his hearing loss. 

What's next

We have a musical, The Heart of Rock & Roll, that's going to Broadway. It's an original story based on our music that we've been working on for 10 years. Now that I can't go on the road, I'm involved in the whole process. It's very collaborative. I did the musical Chicago on Broadway for two stints of three months — 222 shows. I fell in love with the community. Theater people are funny and bright and talented beyond belief. They're humble and generous and so much fun to work with.

His future in music

That's going to be hard. Right now I can't hear well enough. I'm hoping my hearing will stabilize at level 6 and I can find a way to sing again. It was at 6 for nine weeks at one point. But then I crashed. Now it's a 4.

Why fishing's his salvation

I'm a fly-fishing fanatic. I fly-fish all over the world. I'm not conventionally a religious person, but I believe the closest I ever get to God is through Mother Nature. When you're fly-fishing, your senses are so attuned to nature, and you're connecting more deeply. It's a wonderful feeling. It's something you can do with a group socially, but when you're actually fishing, it's a lone pursuit.

As you get older you want to be challenged. You don't want to be almost as good as you once were. You want to improve. I play golf. After a while, you just don't hit it far enough. With fishing, you can get better for the rest of your life.

Editor's note: This interview was originally published on Feb. 13, 2020. It has been updated with a new video from Paramount+.

Edna Gundersen is a California-based journalist and a former longtime music writer and critic for USA Today.

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