Garland Jeffreys: The King of In Between
Published: Jun 23, 2011
On New Year’s Eve, I took a friend to see Garland Jeffreys and his band at Joe’s Pub. In his music, I heard snatches of Bob Marley, Mick Jagger and his old friend Lou Reed, but mostly I saw and heard a Garland Jeffreys master class in rock and roll, the distillation of half a century of recording and performing. Long before it ended, my friend was dazzled by Garland’s energy, intelligence and wit — to say nothing of his ability to write songs with killer hooks. She asked: “Why don’t I know anything about him?” My answer: “You don’t live in Europe, where he’s huge.” Garland has released a more recent CD, Truth Serum, and it’s fine, but this is the one I keep coming back to — and, for you, a good introduction.
The terrifying thing about Memory Lane is how far back it goes.
1973: What were you listening to?
Me: Garland Jeffreys.
In the heat of the summer
Better call up the plumber
and turn on the street pump
to cool me off
With your newspaper writers
and your big crime fighters
You still need a drug store
to cure my cough
Running wild in the streets
Put those lyrics together with the music, and what you get is one of those classics that joined the Immortals the first time a DJ played it. Now? #7 on the Village Voice list of “60 All-Time Best Songs About New York City.”
Whatever happened to the guy who made that record? Good question. Garland Jeffreys’ real fans hung around for decades of thoughtful, hard-hitting music. The industry lost the beat. Jeffreys was… confusing. His music was all over the place: rock, reggae, blues and more. And he was a little too New York: half African American, half Puerto Rican, born in Coney Island, a downtown migrant.
Jeffreys has had a great career — in Europe, where he’s nearly as beloved as Lou Reed. The career he should have had at home has now restarted, thanks to “The King of In Between.” (That’s a double pun, first about his mixed race heritage, then about his impossible-to-classify music.) Of the 12 songs, six or seven are right up there with “Wild in the Streets” — it’s one of those records that defines the New York state of mind. [To buy the CD from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]
One example: “Coney Island Winter” With lyrics that cut sharp as the wind on the Boardwalk in January. And that pounding, New York-bloodstream beat that is one of Jeffreys’ signatures. Here. Watch and listen:
And there’s more. A disco song the Stones would love to have. Reggae with a lilt. A downtown confessional. A bonus track of a killer classic. Catchy stuff, and quotable — the record speaks for itself.
But after decades I wanted to hear the voice of the creator. So Garland Jeffreys and I did some phone:
Jesse Kornbluth: Hey, you’re in The New Yorker.
Garland Jeffreys: It’s been like 5 mentions over the course of 6 weeks.
JK: Amazing. Why is this?
GJ: Believe it or not, there’s an attraction for what I’m doing.
JK: What are you doing?
GJ: What I’ve been doing for 40 years.
JK: You mean, writing great songs and making great albums?
GJ: Obviously, it starts with the writing. I was writing songs I liked — always a big indicator. For what I do, I have to be involved with the story. Little by little, I found my way.
JK: What is the story?
GJ: It has a lot of aspects. The sruggles of working class people, the insane economic inequality in America, mortality, the power of music to lift us up.
JK: Ah, the real stuff. Is there so much of it here because, this time, you paid to make the CD?
GJ: My own company — long overdue.
JK: The difference?
GJ: I don’t have to answer to anybody. I want to listen to people — but I can choose the people.
JK: Thirteen years between CDs. That’s impressive. Even more impressive: At a fairly advanced age, you have a 15-year-old daughter. How did that happen?
GJ: If you can believe this, having a child wasn’t on our radar. Then my wife Claire said, “I’m 37 — you want to have a kid?” I said, “Yeah.” Just like that.
JK: And now your teenaged daughter is a singer/songwriter.
GJ: Savannah is a great kid. When she was in the womb, I was working on a CD. I played it to death. So she was born with music on the brain. We used to sing together on the way to preschool. Almost every morning, we’d make two loops around a statue of Peter Stuyvesant. And we’d sing a song we made up: “I’m going to my old school… passing Peter Stuyvesant…” When she saw people coming, she’d sing louder!
JK: What have you taught her about writing and performing?
GJ: We got her a piano, but I have not interfered with her at all — I’ve never even shown her a chord progression. She has really come to it herself. I take my hat off to myself for keeping my mouth shut.
JK: By any measure, you’re incredibly vital — what’s the secret?
GJ: Maybe having a child — that definitely kicks your ass. But I think it’s really that I’m an artist. I was born to do what I’m doing. Each time out, I do my best. I do projects I’m interested in, I try to shape a story, and I go through the process. I’m pretty sure I’ll be making music until it’s impossible to do so.
JK: Future plans?
GJ: Perform this music all over the world. And then stay alive and keep making music — I’m on the 90 year plan.
Garland Jeffreys is now 70. Twenty years to go. If “The King of In Between” is any indication, he’ll make it.
“96 Tears.” The original recording, made forever ago, was by ? and the Mysterians.