2002-02-01 The Garland Jeffreys Interview by Diane Wilkes

This interview was conducted over a period of four hours, and is quite in-depth. We discussed his musical influences, his lengthy and respected recording career, and his plans for the future. Garland Jeffreys and his music deserve this level of examination and much more.

DW: You began recording in 1970, with Grinder’s Switch?

GJ: I recorded that album in ’69 and I believe it came out that year. I had been in a few different bands before that.  My whole musical experience started very, very young.  When I was four years old, I was already singing–not professionally, but I wanted to sing. I was already imitating the music I heard in my house. My folks would play records all the time–they were huge music fans, so I heard the best jazz could offer, between my Uncle Nat and my parents.

My mom would play a lot of big band stuff–eventually she grew into Frank Sinatra and became a big Sinatra fan. Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington . . . there were all these band leaders–Chick Webb, even Glenn Miller. So I heard a lot of jazz and jazz singers growing up, and those singers really have influenced my voice. Those were the first real influences I had, especially Billie Holiday and Ray Charles and Nat King Cole

Some people talk about the blues that they were really influenced by. I was really influenced by the great jazz singers. And Miles Davis and Charlie Parker–even though they weren’t singers, they really made an impression on me. Ella also had a big impression on me.

I remember when I was in kindergarten and first grade, I would sing a couple little songs that I had; I was already a performer. I already had a little style and wasn’t shy in that way. And as time went on, in elementary school, teachers would ask me to get up and sing in class or a school play, things like that.

Then, in my neighborhood I began hearing and liking R&B, street corner music. I never called it doo-wop. To me, that was never the right phrase; it was acapella, it was street corner music. I would hear older guys who had these four-part, five-part harmony groups. There was this one guy, Davy Nichols; he could sing like Smokey Robinson; he had that real high, falsetto voice. And I would watch all these older guys and eventually, I was in my own groups. I was the second tenor for backgrounds and harmony parts, and the lead singer on other songs.

Those were the early days of my music, listening to groups and singers like Frankie Lymon, who was my main influence. He was my idol, alongside Jackie Robinson. But Frankie was my size. I wanted to be like him, I wanted to look like him, copy his style; we were the same age, so he was the perfect model. When you listen to Frankie Lymon’s voice today, you realize what an incredible instrument he had. When he sings the song I sang on the Buckwheat record (“I’m Not a Know-it-All”), his voice is just so strong. When he sang ballads, he was just too brilliant. Remember when I played in the Ritz in ’81? We started the show with a Frankie Lymon clip doing “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.” It was fantastic.

I also liked the Harptones, the Cleftones, the Drifters–all those groups, mainly the black groups were the real groups for me, with the sound they had in the voice. There were just so many and you could listen on the radio to Alan Freed’s rock-and-roll show and then eventually Jocko’s Rocket Ship on TV. One of the big things on the show was the the dance, the “Slop”–it was the greatest, sexiest dance. It was sexy music, it was red light music . . . grindin’ at the parties with your girlfriend or somebody’s girlfriend or whatever. I would get home and watch “American Bandstand” every day when I was a kid, too. I was a big fan. I couldn’t wait to come home and watch that show–it was that little world I could enter into. And then Jocko came on at 5:00. I’d watch them back-to-back.

Then along came the two forces that most influenced my writing: Motown and Bob Dylan. Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Mary Wells, and of course Smokey. I was transfixed by Dylan, his music and the sound of his voice and the incredible words. He’s my Number One artist; he’s just the master. Those first ten albums he did had a tremendous impact on me; I listened to them constantly–they were the work of a magician.

In the sixties, I was doing a few different things. I was going to some jazz clubs like Birdland and The Half Note. I’d see Miles, Charlie Mingus, Coltrane–I saw him at The Half Note play to an almost empty house. In ’63, I went by myself to this place called The Jazz Gallery and next to me is this guy in a camel-hair coat.  He was very tall, so I look up and it’s Sonny Rollins. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers were playing that night. Later on, in the seventies, I did a show on television called “Soundstage.” Carmen McCrae and Sonny Rollins were my guests. We did “Nothing Big in Sight” together. Turns out Carmen McCrae was a distant relative of mine–we verified it at the show. She was just a wonderful singer.

I wound up going to Syracuse University because I was a big fan of Jim Brown, the football player. I later discovered he had a few aspects to his personality that I didn’t like–the violence towards women. I was listening to Dylan and the Rolling Stones; I was not a big Beatles fan. Eventually I came around to it through Lennon, but, in the end, The Beatles just could not compete with Motown for me.

I met Lou Reed at Syracuse University; we were friends for a lot of years, from the early sixties. We don’t see each other that much these days, though we did run into each other a few weeks ago at a fundraiser for Doc Pomus.

I lived in Florence in 1963 as an exchange student for part of that year, and it opened me up in a different way. It freed me from America. I’m a very big Italophile–been back many times. I was going to go to graduate school to study iconography and art; that was the plan. I quit after a week! I was going to be an academic but I really wanted to make some music. I put together a band with me and some friends who went to Pratt Institute, and then I put together some other bands–Train, one called Mandor Beekman. Lou was now almost pre-Velvets. One special night we were playing at the Balloon Farm (which later became the Electric Circus). Eric Burdon was onstage, Lou was playing, I sang a couple of songs, and I believe Gerard Malanga and John Cale, who would eventually be a part of the Velvets, were onstage, too. John Cale and I became friendly, because he was around at the time of the Grinder’s Switch period.

After the Velvets broke up, I hooked up with John, because he asked me to write a song for his Vintage Violence album. I wrote this song called “Fair-Weather Friend” and we became friends out of that time. I was playing at clubs in the city (this was around ’66-’68) and then I had the opportunity to put a band together. I have to say I was very influenced by the Band–the “Big Pink” period and all that kind of music. My band and I had a place not far from Woodstock, too.

We worked on our music–there was a guy named Stan Szelest in the band who was from Buffalo. Most of the band was from Buffalo. Stan was the original piano player with the Ronnie Hawkins band, before Richard Manuel. He was an amazing piano player. I was really infatuated with that music and just went that way. It was almost like getting off the A Train. I took a little trip . .

We all just hooked up and put a band together. I wrote the songs and we recorded an album for Vanguard. I have good memories of that experience because I had never done that before. The musicians I was working with were really good and I learned a lot. One of things I learned was that I’d rather be a solo artist than in a band.

DW: Alan Freedman, who you’re presently touring with again, has been involved with your recordings since he first solo album.

GJ: Yeah, he came into the picture around ’69, when I was no longer with Grinder’s Switch and I was looking to play as a solo artist. It was a good time to be playing clubs and I felt like I had to strike out on my own. I hooked up with Alan and he became a real support to my music and we would rehearse all the time and prepare for these shows. We worked on the arrangements of the early songs, and we took them everywhere in the New York-Manhattan area. We played church basements, lunch crowds–three, four gigs in a day sometimes. We’d play Kenny’s Castaways when it was on 84th Street, then get downtown to Gerde’s to get on line and play a couple songs there and then we might play a gig at the Gaslight later on that night.

So, we took every opportunity to play everywhere and that was great, ’cause the music got better. I had a little studio apartment in the city and all I thought about was music, all I did was music, morning till night, every day. I developed a style and I got my songs ready for the Garland Jeffreys album. That’s when I had the opportunity to meet Dr. John–I contacted him and he came and sat in and played on that whole album. Later the next year, he worked on “Wild in the Streets” with me, in terms of the arrangement. He and I remained friends over the years. He is really an authentic guy and he’s in a great place right now.

I met Paul Griffin back then. He kind of held my hands through the sessions, and we started a long, long relationship. He was just a brilliant piano player. He played the piano on “Like a Rolling Stone” and a lot of the tracks on Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing it All Back Home, and Blonde on Blonde. He was originally the band leader for King Curtis.


DW: Bernard “Pretty” Purdie also plays on that first album.


GJ: Yeah, and Chuck Rainey, Ralph MacDonald–they were great. But Paul will remain special. He played on Don’t Call Me Buckwheat and a number of things over the years. He grew up in Harlem in the church, and he could really play the organ. At a fundraiser for him at the Bottom Line, Al Kooper said, “If it wasn’t for Paul Griffin, I’d still be in Queens, trying to find some chords that would fit ’cause Paul Griffin really taught me how to play the organ.” Paul wrote “The Fez” with Steely Dan. When he played on a song, it was his infusion that really created the song, that really brought out the arrangement. He was just a great guy. We were talking about doing some more recording and putting a band together just before he died.

DW: That first album gives us the first hint of the huge influence of films, with “Lon Chaney.”

GJ: It would be better if you asked me a number of years ago; it’s like a blur now. It’s not something I do now that much. It was an early fascination with movies and the characters of movies. I also wrote a song called “James Dean” that was supposed to be on Ghost Writer.

I bought the master for “Wild in the Streets” from Atlantic because I loved the song and wished they had handled the record better. They had the opportunity to have a hit–it was a hit in certain territories but never got the support it really needed. It was recorded in ’73. People think it came out in ’77, when Ghost Writer came out. I was inspired to write the song that summer after reading about a murder in the Bronx–two boys, twelve and thirteen, threw a girl off a roof.

When I first met the Rumour, they told me they were influenced by my first solo album as well as “Wild in the Streets.” It got around, it got to London. The Clash loved it, and I gave them a copy of the original Atlantic recording when we first met. It’s nice to know that it had that kind of impact. When I played Hamburg for the first time, in 1979, they knew all the songs from Ghost Writer. It was a surprise to me! When I first played Japan, I thought, “What’s going to happen here?” But they knew the songs.

DW: My Ghost Writer and One-Eyed Jack CDs are Japanese imports.

GJ: In Paris in Winter of ’92, I played the renowned Olympia Theater. These two guys came backstage. They had a record store on the Left Bank. They gave me Ghost Writer and One-Eyed Jack Japanese import CD’s, and I didn’t even know that they were out–I was thrilled!

So that Atlantic album was recorded in ’72; part of it was recorded in Jamaica. There’s a track that never made it to that album, but it’s on another version of the album–I guess it’s the European one. It’s called “Midnight Cane.” I had fallen in love with reggae music in the late ’60s; it reminded me of R&B, but with a twist. The early Wailers stuff with the falsettos — “Hallelujah Time” and stuff like that–it really reminded me of R&B, of the music I grew up listening to and had always loved.

I gravitated to reggae for a lot of reasons: it was really simple, I could write songs and tell some good stories with it, it was rhythm and blues. I hadn’t heard of Marley yet. I had heard the Heptones, and then Jimmy Cliff (The Harder They Come), and then [I heard] Marley.

I was later to meet him in ’73, when he was opening for Bruce [Springsteen] at Max’s Kansas City. It  went on for five or six nights, and I went to every show but one. Marley completely blew me away. The other guy was pretty good, too. (laughs)

Marley and I became friends–apart from his music, I liked him. What was really nice is that the Wailers–Junior Marvin–was singing “I May Not Be Your Kind” when I went backstage. I didn’t know how they [the Wailers] were going to feel about it, but they gave me my props.

DW: I know the critics and rock cognoscenti think Ghost Writer is your finest recording. Do you feel Ghost Writer is your best album?

GJ: Yeah, I think it is. At the time I had been working on the songs and performing them live in 1975, leading up to the new contract. Alan and I could perform all those songs as a duo and we did. We played them everywhere. So, they were really ready.

I remember, I asked one guy to be my producer and he said he would love to. I met him a couple of times and he never talked about music! That’s the thing about producers–some guys can really order a good hamburger, and the other guys know something about music. The record company was very happy I was choosing this guy . . . about two weeks before we started recording, I said, “I can’t work with this guy. It’s just not going to work.” It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life.

I got in touch with David Spinozza, a great guitar player. A&M suggested I not use him. And I said, “I think this is going to work out.” We started doing arrangements, figuring out how it was going to be recorded, and I told him the musicians I wanted to get and he had some other suggestions as well. It worked out well. He had a relationship with Steve Gadd and James Taylor, and I had my reggae connections I wanted to bring into the picture. We went into the Atlantic Studios, recorded on their new console, and we finished the record in five days!

There was something about “Ghost Writer” (the song) . . . I thought the tempo wasn’t right, and I hadn’t realized I had made a mistake with that. Peter Tosh was in town, and I went to his hotel room. It looked like a huge suite of rooms, but you couldn’t see, because the smoke was so funky and thick. It was fantastic! You were entering into the world of Peter Tosh. I spoke to Sly and Robbie and asked if they would come over and record with me on Monday. A friend of mine brought them over to the studio and the same band, with Sly [Dunbar] on drums and Robbie [Shakespeare] on bass–and they couldn’t keep the tempo. They had never worked in a studio outside of Jamaica. It was the first time. It was so heavy-handed and wrong that I realized what I had already. We became friends, especially Sly and I, and he mentioned to me over the years, “I owe you one.” Of course, he and I worked on other things over the years.

The drummer on “Why-O,” “I May Not Be Your Kind” and “Ghost Writer” was Winston Grennan, who died last year. He played on all the songs on The Harder They Come, all the early Marley records, all the Toots and the Maytals songs, he was an original member of the Skatalites. He played on everything that came out on Dynamic Sounds from the ’60’s into the early ’70’s–just an incredible drummer and a lovely guy. We toured together, he was part of my band around that time.

We recorded those songs in five days, we put a few overdubs on them, the vocals were done live in the studio, James Taylor did the arrangements for the background vocals for “I May Not Be Your Kind”–it’s not listed that way, but he did the arrangements for them. He was very generous with his time and participated on “Cool Down Boy,” too.

Working with Steve Gadd and those guys was great. I was used to playing “Spanish Town” live with Alan, and Alan would make the moves from chord to chord with me, and sometimes they wouldn’t be perfectly measured. So when I was recording it with the band, Steve on drums, Anthony Jackson on bass, Spinozza and Alan on guitar, me on guitar and vocal, the changes weren’t being made at the same time at certain parts of the song. We tried two takes and it was very frustrating. I was upset and it was quiet in the room and I was concluding that this was just not going to work out. Steve Gadd came over to me and said, “Don’t worry about it. Let’s try it this way: I’ll play drums and you and Alan play the guitars and sing it like you normally do.” So we didn’t have to worry about the other musicians, because the drummer will play just what we’re playing. We recorded it like that and then we added the bass, keyboards, strings, trumpets–all the things that needed to be added–and it turned out to be beautiful. We did it in two takes and bang, and the vocal was live. I’ll never forget that; it was a real learning experience.

DW: The song “Ghost Writer” seems to have more than one meaning.

GJ: It’s as autobiographical as you can be. My music is a combination of things. It is very personal, it is somewhat autobiographical. It’s just experiential–it’s very much about the world that I’m traveling in, the world that I see other people in, the feelings I have about the world I’m in and what’s going on.

“Ghost Writer” is a mysterious song in its way. I’m talking about the struggle of emerging as an artist. It took me a couple of years to get a new contract–and those years were not pleasant. I was performing a lot, but I was frustrated at not being able to record. And that’s happened more than once in my career. “Ghost Writer” is about being behind-the-scenes, not discovered, not seen; not literally a ghost writer in the true sense of the phrase. I’m not bitter over it or devastated by it, but at times I felt like, “Where’s my piece of the pie?” There’s a certain amount of frustration, but I try not to focus on it, because if I do, I’m a dead duck. I try to move forward, and I’m thrilled to be playing again.

DW: At the Tin Angel, you said that record promoters were pushing “I May Not Be Your Kind” as a single, that it was going to be the hit. That surprised me because “Wild in the Streets” and other songs on that album seem more radio-friendly.

GJ: That wasn’t really true when I said that. It’s more a metaphor for the whole record company thing–they’re gonna launch you. It was never released as a single.

DW: On to One-Eyed Jack . . . I love the way your voice and Phoebe Snow’s weave together in “Reelin’.”

GJ: She’s a great person with a great voice. I love that first album that she did (Phoebe Snow).

DW: You’ve worked with a lot of famous people, as anyone who reads liner notes knows.

GJ: I record in New York City, and a lot of great artists live here. Everyone thinks these people are unavailable. They’re not. Call ’em up and ask, “Would you like to play on this?” It’s so simple, really.

DW: Don’t you think it’s also because they’re familiar with your music, too? 

GJ: Yeah. Ghost Writer covered a lot of ground; it was a powerful record. The thing about Ghost Writer that will always be special is that it had the deepest emotion. It was recorded at a time where there was not a lot of thought–it was a direct pipeline to my feelings and my thinking. There wasn’t a lot of pre-production, there weren’t a lot of overdubs. The voice is recorded live. So what you have is an unstudied picture. People who know music know that record–and respect it. It was one of the first, if not the first, that really talked about race in that way–maybe Sly Stone did it as well. And the combination of rock and reggae was unique at the time, too.

I always have loved the idea of mixing musicians up, people who don’t ordinarily play with one another. On “I May Not Be Your Kind,” you have Winston on drums, Anthony Jackson on bass, who could play with anybody, Don Grolnick, a great keyboard player, and Steve Gadd opted to play percussion on that. Steve Gadd doesn’t play percussion–he’s a drummer. Not that he can’t, but it was so nice that he said, “Let me play tambourine and a cross stick on this,” and he played that live; that was the spirit of the record.

Dr. John had never played with Purdie or Chuck Rainey before. To have Paul Griffin and Dr. John playing organ and piano at the same time–it’s the top of the line, you know? I’ve always liked that kind of energy.  When we did the Escape Artist album, you had Danny Federici and Roy Bittan from Bruce’s band, with the drummer and bass player from The Rumour, all playing on the same tracks. That was an unusual kind of thing.

DW: You talk about Jackie Robinson on One Eyed Jack, and you talk about your favorite athlete getting traded on “American Backslide” (on Guts for Love). You seem to have a real resonance with sports.

GJ: Well, I grew up in a time when Jackie Robinson broke the color line, and I loved him and the Brooklyn Dodgers. That was a time when a team remained intact, year after year. You could depend on Carl Furillo, Roy Campanella and Gil Hodges and these players. In modern times, sports has become something else, buying teams–it’s all business now.

DW: On “American Boy and Girl” you ask Lori and Chino not to let you down.I have to ask–did they?

GJ: They were these kids that I met; I identified with them so much. The difference between them and me is that I escaped their fate. I could have gone the way they did. I never knew what happened to them. But I knew they were kids, and they had been on 42nd Street, probably selling their bodies. And these were young, young kids. You saw the movie Traffic, which showed freebasing cocaine and crack and what you’ll do for it.  I think about my own daughter. She’s five and she’s very precocious and exciting. Like any father who cares, I’m watching her closely, I want to keep my eye on her. I want to be around as she grows up, I want to be by her side and make sure she goes the right way. I’m gonna be on her case. I’m willing to sacrifice not being cool; I’m not gonna be too modern. I’ve got her respect and I just want to keep on nurturing that. Obviously, Chino and Lori didn’t get any of that.

“Please don’t you let me down”–that was a comment I made almost 22 – 24 years ago. That record came out at a painful time for me. The record company didn’t want anything to do with the record, meanwhile “Matador” became a blockbuster hit in Europe. “City Kids” came out of that whole 42nd Street thing. There was Covenant House, which is a good thing. But those things only go so far. If you don’t have the parenting and the care, it can be very rough.

The kid who said, “I did a little stealin'” was a real kid. That was the point we were trying to make. The bridge of it–Uncle Nat–that was my story.

DW: “Livin’ for You” is a precursor to the self-help movement. “I’m not livin’ for you, baby, I’m livin’ for me.” You mention Nathaniel Branden in your liner notes to that album. Are they connected?

GJ: Definitely. I currently feel that Branden was selling an idea that wasn’t good. Self-esteem is based on how well you’re doing. If you’re not doing well, then what do you do? Where is your self? That’s where the crux of the self-esteem movement really comes up short in my opinion. Now I am more in tune with Albert Ellis’s point of view, which is about self-acceptance being crucial, regardless of how well you’re doing. I’ve come to understand that if you base your well-being on how well you’re doing, you’re in deep trouble. I love the idea that self-acceptance is for everyone.

DW: “If Mao Could See Me Now” is one of my favorites.

GJ: I gotta tell you—I don’t know what that song’s about. It just came out. I haven’t listened to it in years, and I should probably listen to it. I should perform it sometime. Hold on–I want to check out the lyrics . . . Wow. Interesting. Mao seems like a metaphor, like “Matador,” similar kind of a force, almost-God or a father or . . .  I gotta go back and listen!

DW: On to Escape Artist, when you switched labels from A&M to Epic and had the Columbia Record Machine behind you. What was that like?

GJ: It was invigorating. “Matador” was officially released at the tail end of ’79. A&M didn’t like the American Boy and Girl album, they were pissed off with it; they wouldn’t even give me $5,000 to rehearse my band, forget about tour support or anything like that. Then “Matador” started climbing the charts. A woman who was in the A&M office in Paris–who is a friend to this day–loved the album, and she introduced me to Anton Corbijn, who took my publicity photos. They worked the record and it became a hit despite A&M America.

I got free from them and went to CBS. I had the wind at my back. The songs were just pouring out. There was just no resistance. Everything came together for it. Harvey Leeds at Epic really worked the record. It garnered so much play. But once again, the album didn’t get the full support it needed, didn’t break out. A few times in my career, I’ve had this happen.

DW: Some of the best songs are on the 45 that came with the record. How did that happen?

GJ: It seemed that the songs that ended up on Escape Artist all belonged together, sonically [and thematically]. Before recording that album, I spent a lot of time in Paris and when I came back, I had a sackful of songs. I started recording and working on the album, and it all seemed to fit.

Then I went to London to record the two reggae tracks [“Miami Beach” and “We the People”]. They had a whole different sound and they turned out great. I was promised by Epic that the second disc would be an EP, not a 45. Had they not verbally agreed to that, I probably never would have gone and recorded those songs. When it came time, they reneged. I felt that a lot of money had been spent on this excursion to London, and while I loved every second of it, [I expected Epic to support it]. But I knew I had the songs and I wanted to put out this special kind of album.

We had started recording “Christine” as a ballad.  It took a while to get it done in the studio; we were having problems nailing it. Finally, we did, and we knew it and we were happy about it, it was great. We did the song once, uptempo, sort of as a lark, and look what happened. Bang! One take with the vocal. Then I wrote “Lover’s Walk.” It’s very romantic, and it evokes exactly the feeling of walking along the canals. I think I wrote the lyrics in the studio. It happened so fast I gave credit to every one of the musicians for a piece of the writing. It was just the spirit of it. Roy’s piano part on that is really cool.

So it seemed like that was supposed to happen. I thought of the idea [of naming the 45] “Escapades,” the word is even mentioned in “Lover’s Walk.” When I was recording the songs in Europe, it was really like an escapade. The whole experience was great. Escape Artist and “Escapades.”

It was a joy to make that record. With Bob Clearmountain doing the engineering and mixing (on Escape Artist), you never had to think of anything with him. You just worked and he got it all on tape. We rehearsed it in the Astoria Soundstage Studios in Queens and had five days of rehearsal. I wanted everyone to get a feel for the material, but not learn the songs too much.

I wanted to hear how Danny’s accordion was going to sound on “Jump Jump.” Danny and G.E. Smith came up with a great little riff between the guitar and the accordion to create that sound. Bob Clearmountain did some real technical wizardry on the end of the song to give it a [Beatles’] Magical Mystery Tour or the Rolling Stone’s Satanic Majesty’s Request feeling. “Jump Jump” was also about that feeling of being in Paris, like a travelogue through Paris — Victor Hugo, Notre Dame, and the painter Paul Cezanne. It was a joy.

DW: That same year, you put out the live album Rock and Roll Adult. What was it like, touring with the Rumour?

GJ: Well, it was interesting. The good thing was the drummer and the bass player had played on the album, so I had the rhythm section. We rehearsed in London and it was a gas to be there, working on the songs. The drummer, Steve Goulding, was and still is a huge reggae fan, so we had a lot in common. In fact, all the band members were reggae fans. We toured Europe and every show was great. Then we played the States, and those shows were great. It was a fantastic band and they really followed me and supported me on stage. I loved playing with them. I always wondered why Graham didn’t continue playing with them, but bands have lots of hard feelings and lots of things go on. We recorded Rock and Roll Adult at the Ritz and in Paris.

DW: And then Guts for Love came out. I’m guessing you met your wife around that time.

GJ: Yeah, we met April 17th of ’81. The tour was over in June and we went to Europe together; we hardly knew each other but we were definitely in a romance. I felt like I had met my match, we were head over heels, and the songs started to come out. It just became that kind of record. I was working on “Guts for Love” the other day and there it is: “Do you want a one-night stand/Do you need a guarantee/Do you want to try your luck/Do you want a love that’s real?” Are you playing? Do you want to give it a shot? And then there’s my admission in the bridge.

That trip we went onto Europe. We were in Cannes and I had my head on the table and there was a bottle of rose in front of me and Claire snapped the picture [on the cover of the album].

DW: I always thought that album should have been huge.

GJ: Guts for Love was treated like a stepchild. There was a big party for the record in the summer of ’82. The record was supposed to come out in the fall, “Surrender” was supposed to be the single. The record went out to radio, then Epic fired 350 people, so they pushed the record back. That killed the record. It didn’t come out until February, but the radio copies were out already; it was old news. It wasn’t as simple as a company not working it–it was just circumstances beyond anyone’s control. This kind of thing is continually happening. If you’re on a record label right now, God help you, because everything is in such disarray that you don’t even know who’s around to even talk to. My idea is to play, perform and just keep working to recreate a grass-roots fan base–and have a good time out there. I would not be doing this just to be a success–I’d like that to happen, but I’m really into recapturing what it is that I do, and doing it.

DW: Did you have any input into the Matador and More record?

GJ: No. I didn’t like what they did with it at all. They could have easily contacted me and we could have made some different selections and had a real cover, which would have been nice.

DW: Then you weren’t recording for a number of years.

GJ: I had done six albums in seven years. I was pretty exhausted and frustrated. The Guts for Love situation really threw me, because I felt like, “What do I have to do to get this thing going?” It wasn’t even a case of the record not doing well; it didn’t even have a chance to not do well. I felt I had shot my wad, in a way, so I just backed off, stopped doing everything for about a year. I wasn’t writing anything. I regret it now that I didn’t continue to perform.

Time went on and I started thinking about doing a play, “The Color of Music,” and I started writing these songs. “Don’t Call Me Buckwheat” was the first song. I was at Shea Stadium watching the Mets vs. Houston, Dwight Gooden vs. Nolan Ryan. I was sitting in foul territory in left field. I got up to get some franks and I was watching the game and going down the steps. I’m probably blocking the view of people–and one guy says, “Hey, Buckwheat! Get the fuck out of here, Buckwheat!” I had never heard the word used before like that; I was shocked. I turned around and I was just frozen. I kept walking and I was on line and feeling really uncomfortable. I said, “Don’t call me Buckwheat” to myself, and I went home and wrote the song. It just brought back my whole childhood, all the name-calling. I grew up in Sheepshead Bay in a very mixed-race community: Jews, Irish, Blacks, Italians–Kikes, Micks, N—–s, and Wops.* You heard those words a lot. I would cringe when I heard the word “n——.” I still do. The whole usage of it today in rap disturbs me to no end.

The Buckwheat album is really a response to the ’80’s. I was very disturbed by a lot of things that were happening [at that time]. It was like the marketing of race, the race card, race-baiting–everything involved with that. I’ve been in situations when I’ve had a number of black friends in the room, and I’d be the only one challenging them. When the O.J. thing happened, it was such bullshit. It was so absurd.

DW: When you played at the Tin Angel, you said, “Don’t Call Me . . .” and people screamed out the word. You laughed and said, “Yeah . . .” I wondered if that was like, “Don’t you get it?”

GJ: Not at all. My attitude onstage is very different. I feel like I’m transcending any hostility. When I sing it in concert with all those other names, you have the historic background. It’s my feeling that people are totally disarmed. They hear the words, it’s almost like entertainment, but I would bet that a lot of people hear what’s going on in the end. They know it’s not a joke. I don’t expect any transformations, but I do expect them to listen. Who else is going to make a song like that? (laughs)

I worked on the album (Don’t Call Me Buckwheat) in a very different way. I knew that I was tackling a subject and I wanted to have a historical backstory. I also wanted it to be very personal and emotional. I was constantly battling and balancing the two; I didn’t want to be academic. I spent a lot of time in Harlem, I spent a lot of time at the Schomburg Library and Museum. I went to a lot of plays–that’s when I had the pleasure of meeting  August Wilson (Fences) after one of his plays. I was even thinking of getting an apartment in Harlem just for work. I almost did, but I realized I didn’t have to. We shot the video for “Hail, Hail Rock and Roll” there; Anton Corbijn directed it.

A guy named Joe Mennonna and I did all the arrangements for Buckwheat. Joe was very skilled at translating the songs into a production. His versatility, his ability to play many instruments and his command of all different styles of music contributed a great deal to the record. We set up a lot of things, brought them to the studio and started recording with various people.

DW: The title song and “Original Lust” from Wildlife Dictionary really speak to the importance and impact words, particularly epithets, can have.

GJ: It’s that kind of disregard for human beings, whether it be women or your brother or sister, Black or White. That’s why at the end of the song (“Don’t Call Me Buckwheat”) I go into “Jewboy and Spic”; it’s all the same.

DW:  I found “I Was Afraid of Malcolm” puzzling, originally, because I couldn’t relate. I realized that I found out about him when he was dead and had gone through his transformations. Being a New Yorker and older, you experienced him before he was “safe,” but still it seemed very brave of you to say it.

GJ: It’s funny. I always felt that feeling of disruption when Malcolm X was first on the scene. I had fear about him because it was very, very abrasive, very harsh. I didn’t care for the whole Elijah Muhammad thing. The whole thing about looking African, this cultish kind of thing, didn’t appeal to me. It just seemed like a losing battle to me, that Malcolm was standing up there, giving his speeches. I felt the pain of it. I felt, “Somebody’s gonna get hurt. Somebody’s gonna get killed.” That’s where it came from: “I was afraid of Malcolm, just like any white man./Between the powder and the talcum.” That line is about passing for white. “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum/I was afraid of Malcolm”–that line has a little bit of levity in it.

Many, many black people I’ve spoken to felt the same way about Malcolm. With a guy like him on the scene, you felt more uncomfortable in the streets. There was some radical feeling going on. You knew things weren’t comfortable in the first place, but now they were explosive.

What I really felt for in the end was Malcolm’s incredible ability to transform himself and become the man he was.

DW: “Spanish Blood” is about passing for Spanish, which seems part of the same piece. But since there’s also “Spanish Town,” I have to ask: what is the Hispanic/Spanish connection with your music?

GJ: My grandmother is Rafaella (in “Spanish Town”); my mother is Carmen. In the line, “Rafaella is my mother’s name,” I’m saying she’s my mother in a way. My mother was sixteen and my grandmother was the matriarch in the family. Mario was my mother’s older brother and Ray was my father, my stepfather, really. They’re on my Puerto Rican side: my grandmother, my mother was Puerto Rican and Black, my biological father was mulatto, black and white. My grandmother died when I was eight. She was always trying to teach me how to speak Spanish.  Had she lived longer, I would have gotten closer to my Puerto Rican side. The whole family fell apart when she died. She was the real glue, the matriarch.

“Spanish Blood” is very specific. I remember when I was in the fifth grade and Reed Goldstein was having a party at his house. We were best friends at the time. I wanted to go to this party, and so did Bobby Bradley, who was decidedly black. One day after lunch, we’re standing on the corner of the school. Reed says, “You can’t come to the party, Bobby.” “Why is Garland going?” asked Bobby. “Because Garland’s Spanish. Right, Garland?” And Garland says, “Yeah, I’m Spanish. My family comes from Madrid.” So I was trying to pass; I wanted to be included. I wanted to be accepted.

Bobby was excluded that day. He knew my story; we lived on the same block. Reed didn’t know my story. So in the song, when I say, “Say you’re Spanish,” that’s literal. “Say you’re Spanish/Say you’re Spanish Blood”–it’s all there. My mother implied strongly that I should take every advantage I could take, ’cause it’s rough out there. She never used those exact words. To write that song and tell that story is a very big achievement for me.

Ghost Writer was a special record, to say the least. Don’t Call Me Buckwheat was something else. This had something that Ghost Writer didn’t have; it had a conviction. It was saying, “Let’s really call a spade a spade.  What is all this bullshit about? Life is bigger than this, than the posturing and the warring of both sides.

“Spook House,” the play I’m writing, is going to tell a lot of those stories. It takes place in Coney Island, where Bolden, the protagonist, lives. He lives not far from Neptune Avenue, the Wonder Wheel, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs. His mother has passed away and people are in an anteroom in the funeral parlor. There’s sadness and laughing as they are talking about her. Bolden has a vision of her spirit in the room and “Moonshine in the Cornfield” is playing. He hears her voice and she says, “Bolden! Come up in this house right now!” I’ve written a few scenes, the atmosphere is all there. I need that driving force and my goal is to develop it so that it can go to Broadway.

I spent several years working on Don’t Call Me Buckwheat, from 1985 until its release; I thought it had the ingredients to be a big success. It did sell 400,000 copies in Europe. I had a hit record with “Hail, Hail Rock and Roll”; and “The Answer” was a minor hit. It was the first time I had made a record in years, so I naturally wanted it to be a success, but I wanted it to be on my terms, something creative, not just a hit record to have a hit record. That’s what I’m always looking for: a record that’s received, that’s heard, that sells, and is about something.

When that record ran its course, we did some great shows in Europe with it. Graham Maby and Steve Goulding played on that tour. The label didn’t support a tour here.

DW: Then we move from the political to the very romantic, very sexual Wildlife Dictionary.

GJ: I  went to London and worked with a couple of writers, because I wanted to get out of what I was doing and work with some other people. I wrote some songs there, some I didn’t care for, but the “Sexuality” track  was what really sparked things and that was the key to the album. Once that was there, I felt like I had something. I thought, “This is great, I’m going to follow this road.” I recorded in people’s houses in NYC, Europe and Jamaica.  I tried this different technique of recording: I kept a lot of my demo vocals and tracks, because we were relaxed in these different settings. We did them on computer. After that, we did what had to be done on each song, bringing in various musicians to complement things. It was a long process of experimentation.

These last two records were similar in that they were recorded on computer, and the vocals weren’t live in the studio with a band like the other records.

DW: “Gotta Get Away From This World” is a wonderful track.

GJ: It reminds me of “Groovin’,” of an old-time years-ago song. I thought that song had the makings of a hit.

DW: Wildlife Dictionary was only released in Europe . . .

GJ: Yeah, why do something simple and intelligent? Let’s do something dumb. (laughs)  It didn’t do well in Europe and I guess they made the decision from there not to release it here.

DW: I read that Calvin Klein used the song “Sexuality” in some advertisements.

GJ: No, Armani. I got a call from my publisher in Paris that Giorgio Armani liked the song and was interested in using it for his global fragrance campaign. I had never used a song for a product before, but I decided I would because I perceived it as a great opportunity to get exposure. Plus, it was Giorgio Armani!

They said they had to test the song, and they liked the way it worked out. I went to London for the launching of the perfume on MTV. They were playing the whole album (Wildlife Dictionary) and they sat me next to Mr. Armani. He doesn’t speak English, but I do speak Italian, so we hit it off. He asked if I would do the music for one of his Paris fashion shows, so I put together music for the show. It’s an edit of some of the songs from the Wildlife record and also some additional tracks. It became a five-song CD called “The Paris Show,” which was wrapped in an Armani handkerchief and placed on every seat at the Armani fashion show in New York.  Armani is quite an artist himself.

DW: I’m also a big Laura Nyro fan, and since you’re both New York artists who used some of the same musicians on recordings (the Brecker Brothers, Bernard Purdie), I have to ask–did your paths cross?

GJ: I never met her, but I had tremendous regard for her. She was a brilliant songwriter, and I love her voice, too. Those first two albums that she made, “Stoned Soul Picnic”–I’m a fan of hers, and my wife is a big fan, too. My wife has got quite a voice herself. Laura Nyro, she had her own genius, her own special world that she traveled in.

Another amazing artist is Aretha Franklin. I’ll never forget the time that I was in the recording studio in the booth watching Aretha record. It was a mind-blowing experience because it’s not like I thought it would be. She was overdubbing her voice to an existing track. I was with Ahmet Ertegun or Jerry Wexler, I’m not sure; this was 26-27 years ago. She did something I’ve never seen before and never seen since. Every three or four words, she’d stop, say, “Let me do that over.” She’d fix that and then go onto the next word. She knew her voice so well and she knew what she wanted to get out of it. And she knew exactly how to overdub and punch in her voice here and there. It was a technique that she had. She was the consummate professional. At first, I was like, “I expected to hear a performance.” I don’t know if that’s the way she approached all her recordings, but I tend to think it was something she used quite often. I sat back and watched, and realized it was an art form in itself–it was something to see. She knows what she wants–this woman is an absolute genius.

DW: So what are the plans for the future?

GJ: The plans for the future are very much in the present: to keep playing everywhere. I’m supposed to be  going out to Chicago, Santa Fe, Vegas, Phoenix, Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and probably Seattle or Portland. That will probably be in June. I’ll be doing a couple of shows in April. One will be in Jersey, perhaps another at this very unique school in East Hampton, New York, the Ross School. I’ve been going to schools off and on for years, talking to kids about being an artist and an individual, and also about race. I would like to continue doing that. I’m interested in doing a lot of different things like playing in jazz clubs and writing music for movies.

DW: You did a Skip James song for a Wim Wenders film . . .

GJ: “The Washington D.C. Hospital Blues.” That’s part of a six-part series called “The Blues,” with six directors–Wim Wenders, Scorcese, Mike Figgis, Michael Apted, Charles Burnet and Spike Lee are all doing an episode. It will be like the Jazz series for PBS, only it’ll be six episodes. I believe that in Wim Wenders’ case it will be a feature as well. I perform the song in the movie. There will be other artists with each director–Lucinda Williams and Lou Reed are also some of Wim’s choices. In the end, all the musicians from all the episodes will do a concert in New York, and the money will go to the families of Skip James, J.B. Lenoir and some of the other artists. Scorsese is supposed to film the concert, which will be released as another project as well.

I definitely will have have a band down the line. I enjoy playing “Ghost Writer” now, but when you can do a song like that with a band, there’s so much you can do onstage. I’m thinking in June I might like to play Town Hall (in NYC) and then in the Fall, I’d play two nights at Irving Plaza with a band. I like the idea of doing all this in steps, being portable and flexible and not having any headaches–at least, not too soon. Then in the Fall, play the same cities with a band in larger venues with a recording. There are some other things that might happen. I just want to keep playing.

– End –

Postscript:  Whatever happens next, if Garland Jeffreys plays in your town, with or without a band, don’t miss him. He’s an artist’s artist, a special human being, and an amazing live performer. — Diane B. Wilkes

* Editor’s Note: I take no issue with Jeffreys’ use of racial epithets within his artistic context. It is an unfortunate fact that readers will recognize “n—–” without me spelling the word out. I was unsure whether readers would recognize the other epithets if I abbreviated them, so I spelled them out for the sake of clarity. I do not, however, condone their use in other contexts.

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