In the autumn of 1983, Huey Lewis and the News released their darkly satirical concept album Sports. This collection of songs hid a layered and nuanced commentary on the dark side of gambling on schoolyard games under the glossy sheen of catchy hooks. This seminal work propelled this San Francisco-based band to international stardom. Most critics and listeners mistakenly interpreted this album as a benign but commercially appealing middle-of-the-road pop/rock confection. Futher analysis reveals its grittier underbelly.
The opening song, "The Heart of Rock 'n' Roll," tells the story of a drifter known as The Gambler (one of the album's many Kenny Rogers Easter eggs) making his away across the United States after losing his life savings gambling on stickball in the streets of New York's boroughs. The opening lyric is clear on this:
New York, New York, is everything they say
And no place that I'd rather be.
He treks to cities around the country (Tulsa, Austin, Oklahoma City, Seattle, San Francisco, too) hoping to set his life back on the straight and narrow, but as the song ends, he is drawn back into the world of schoolyard game betting
The second track, "Heart and Soul," is a giddy interlude about The Gambler falling for a comely fourth grade teacher he meets while trying to score some action on a Red Rover game. The woman turned out to be a federal agent investigating the Red Rover gambling ring. She uses him for inside information, gets the name of the ring's leader, and moves on:
Nine o'clock this morning
She left without a warning
I let her take advantage of me, you see
She got we she wanted
This leaves The Gambler once again down on his luck and he laments his situation in the bluesy "Bad Is Bad." He is lost as he wanders the town trying to determine his next move. By the end, he tries to reconnect with the lady agent (Back up town to see Marie; nobody home I open the door with my key), but she has clearly moved on (a strange pair of boots underneath the bed). The next song, "I Want A New Drug," shows our anti-hero desperately seeking a game to get into when he learns of the massive All-City Interschool Kickball Tournament. This isn't spelled out explicity in the lyrics, but Huey Lewis and his co-writer Chris Hayes shared in an interview that "I Want A New Drug" is very much about a kickball tournament. I'm not one to contradict an artist's interpretation of their own work.
"Walking On A Thin Line" plays like a soliloquy of a man on the brink. The Gambler knows he must give up this life, but can't help himself. He bounces from game to game trying to score enough cash to make the big bet at the All-City Interschool Kickball Tournament. He hits a hot streak by making small bets on marbles, hopscotch, and four square. His big score though was after a placing a big bet on a game of Spud. Toward the end of the song, he meets a young boy named Timmy Townsend, who convinces our character to bet everything on him even though Timmy is 500-to-1 shot. Sensing skepticism, Timmy sings of learning to throw a ball hard growing up on the streets:
Taught me how to shoot to kill A specialist with a deadly skill A skill I needed to have to be a survivor
Timmy Townsend wins the day and our nameless hustler splits his substantial payout with him. The gambler's newfound jubilation is skillfully rendered in "Finally Found A Home," where he places his entire earnings on a team named Finger-Kicking Good in the kickball tournament. The song tells of his misguided belief that he has at last arrived and hit the big time. Finger-Kicking Good, a longshot at 6,000-1, stuns everyone with a shocking run and eventually wins the title. The Gambler attempts to reconnect with Marie, who has confessed her love for him. They plan to run off together and start a new life. They plan to meet at a beach in Wichita, but it is apparent she is going to stand him up.
The heartbreaking mid-tempo classic "If This Is It" delivers a shattering portrait of a man desperate to know if he has a future with his beloved. Sadly, he does not. Knowing he has been duped once more, The Gambler sings "You Crack Me Up" to himself in a moving monologue about self-loathing and processing grief. The song ends with him issue a self challenge to give up the playground sports gambling addiction before it ruins him:
You better ask yourself a question Cause you can't live like this for long You better listen to my suggestion Before you wind up in somebody else's song
Sports ends on a bit of cliffhanger since we never really find out what happened to The Gambler. The album's finale is a cover of "Honky Tonk Blues" because I guess Huey Lewis like Hank Williams. I don't know.
It was assumed Huey Lewis and the News would explore the next chapter of The Gambler on their next album, the mega hit Fore!, but that turned out to be just a pop album. Some thought it was about a time traveler from the late 1980s going back to the 1950s to introduce Chuck Berry to rock-and-roll, but, that was dismissed after a 60 Minutes expose.
Sports remains one of rock music's most misunderstood masterpieces. Yet, it spawned four top ten hits and a fifth release hit the Top 20. The album was also immortalized in the movie American Psycho starring Weird Al Yankovic and Huey Lewis himself. I've attached a clip below depicting that film's most inconic scene. It's lasting impact isn't lost on this writer, either. Anymore, when I'm looking to drop a bet on some Kick The Can, Red Light/Green Light, or Crack The Whip, I put on my copy of Sports (vinyl, of course), think of The Gambler, and choose a more righteous path.