Garland Jeffreys: Cult NYC Songwriter Is Somewhere Between Interesting and Dangerous

Garland Jeffreys is scheduled to perform Friday, December 7, at Talking Stick Resort in Scottsdale.
Garland Jeffreys is scheduled to perform Friday, December 7, at Talking Stick Resort in Scottsdale.
Danny Clinch

When Garland Jeffreys broke onto the New York music scene in the early 1970s, the same scene that spawned Patti Smith, Television, The Ramones and (via New Jersey) Bruce Springsteen, his songs were a little too close to the pressing realities of the times. Music was supposed to be an escape, not something to remind people of the struggles presently endured.

But Jeffreys then -- and now -- finds it his calling to address the politics of race and ignorance, struggles and hardship, but also the joy and goodness in the world through a compelling blend of rock and roll interspersed with reggae, blues, Latin, and soul.

Though he was already making music with his previous band, Grinder's Switch, which served as John Cale's back-up band in 1969 on the Vintage Violence album, Jeffreys' debut as a solo artist was in 1973.

Ironically, his biggest hit came from a non-album single, "Wild in the Streets," which chronicled both joyous and turbulent life in the Big Apple. Numerous edgy, dynamic songs followed, including "Spanish Town" in 1977, radio-staple "R.O.C.K." in 1980, and "Don't Call Me Buckwheat" -- the song and album title inspired by someone at a Mets game yelling for Jeffreys to "sit down Buckwheat" -- released in 1992.

Now, Jeffreys' first album in 13 years, The King of In Between, continues with a new chapter of gritty streetwise songs packed with the intelligent lyrics that's always given Jeffreys' music its edge and determination.

Speaking to Up on the Sun from his New York home, Jeffreys discusses his new album, family, recent successes, and what might have prevented his musical star from shinning brighter.

Up on the Sun: On your recent album the first track, "Coney Island Winter," visits the Coney Island of your past. Is this an allegory for the album as a whole, which really has the gritty feel of your earlier work?

Garland Jeffreys: It's interesting. I had to make this new album and initially it was about what kind of record was I going to make. I could go several different ways with the record, you know. I started writing songs and writing songs and writing songs and it just became clear the way I feel, which is the current circumstances in the world, and not just the hurricane [Sandy], but the way people are struggling, I see it every day.

I've always been in this forgotten place where I'm compelled to see people. I see them out on the street, I talk to them. I'm connected to people in that way. I'm interested in their well-being. That's "Coney Island Winter" opening up the album: It only reflects my past as a look back from a moment. It's really about the present and the circumstances of people's lives today. I want to paint that picture. When you go to Coney Island in the winter it's not a pleasant time. It's cold; it may have snowed or rained. The Coney Island of my childhood was different. My family used to go all the time; we lived not far from Coney. It's a kid's dream. There's no other amusement park in the world to compete with Coney in its prime.

So I'm definitely into thinking these days about the way people are acting and living and what they go through, and this is a perfect time in that sense to have this conversation with what's happened with this hurricane. So, "Coney Island Winter" is really a song about circumstances currently in people's lives in the last few years.

It took me back to the early work; your first album also spoke of hardships. Do you find there are similar circumstances today as it was in the early 1970s with people needing to have their voices heard through your songs?

I think that's so. When I started to make the album, I had written a lot of songs, but this particular song I liked very much. We recorded it on the last day of the sessions, the very last song. I remember [my wife] Claire saying, "You've got enough songs, let's get this thing done." And I remember saying, "I don't have enough songs." And I wrote two songs and recorded them the next day, "Love is not a Cliché" and "Coney Island Winter." I'm very close to the "Coney Island Winter" song. It says everything I want to say right there. It's a good way to get [the album] started. It's a different approach vocally. I'm not singing as much as stating. The rest of the album you hear my vocals the way you would normally hear it. I'm very proud of the way the album came out.

And you were correct in recognizing that it reminded you of my style from the past because all the vocals for the most part were cut live with the tracks. I had a great team of five players (including Grammy-winning producer and guitarist Larry Campbell) and we laid them down song after song. I love working this way. It's the way I did Ghost Writer. I prepare the band, and then lay it down in one, maybe two takes. That way you don't lose any of the feeling you want to have. The band is right there with you. They may not know the song exactly perfectly, but you don't want them too.  

The King of In Between is your first album in 13 years. I know you usually take a long time between albums, but this is the longest span yet.

It is the longest stretch. I love music, I love performing, I'm enjoying performing more now than perhaps I ever have. But it's not the only thing in my life. I'm married; I've been with my wife for over 30 years, which is probably more than most musicians can claim. I have a 16 year old daughter I'm concerned about and involved with. She's had her father around during her childhood, which I think is very, very important. In a way I'm giving my daughter a lot of what I didn't have. She's benefited from it. She has my love, my fatherly caution and direction. Together with my wife we've raised her and are very happy with her, with her being, who she is. She's also a talented musician and writes her own music.

It must be a great feeling. I see she's credited on the album. Does she play on many of the songs?

She sings with Lou [Reed] on one of the songs. She sang on "The Contortionist." But she's a singer in her own right. I'm definitely thrilled with what she's accomplished. I have a show coming up ... she's going to open for me. Then she will sing with my band.

You were at the center of the vibrant New York rock scene in the 1970s that spawned Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Television, etc., did stuff with Lou Reed (who plays on the new album), and yet while others achieved some semblance of commercial success, you never quite got over the top. Why do you think this was the case?

Lou and I have been friends since 1961. We're probably friendly now then we've ever been. In terms of my own success and where I should have been, I guess it would have been nice if I was where my peers are, the guys you named. I can only say my talent is equal to theirs as far as I'm concerned. To feel bad about it, I don't dwell on that at all. I know what I can do as a songwriter, as an album creator, as a performer. A lot of things happen some times and definitely race can be part of it. It's not something I like to lean on by any means, but it's a fact.

Do you think the is music a little too...


I was going to say dangerous. Yes, interesting is a good way to put it.

[Laughs]. I think so. But I did "Wild in the Streets." How big of a rock and roll classic can you make? It's as good as anybody's record. It's as good as anybody's done this year. It's all there... that energy. I would have loved to be recognized more for my talents and abilities, but I think the way the people are, especially then, maybe not so much now, they're just not open-minded. They had very little intellectual experience. I think Lou should have been a bigger artist. I think sometimes people can't handle it; they don't know what to think. I don't put a lot of faith in what journalists have to say, though journalists have been very kind to me over the years.

Well, I think you've carved out a respected niche. The journalists who look at your music for the body of work, and not just sales numbers, that's where you've gotten the respect.

I think so. This album was received really well all over the world. Europeans were really raving about it. And it got good reviews in the U.S. I think that's the first time that's happened, both at the same time.

It's great to hear that at this stage of your career.

Well, I have a great band I'm working with now. I'm really enjoying performing. I'm grateful I have my health, my energy and vitality keeping me going. ... You'll see me on stage in Scottsdale? Well, I won't be snoring.

Garland Jeffreys is scheduled to perform Friday, December 7, at Talking Stick Resort in Scottsdale.

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