2011-06-15 Mass Live

Garland Jeffreys talks about new album, tour

Mass Live | Kevin O’Hare, The Republican

Garland Jeffreys had just finished a weekend gig with his longtime friend Levon Helm on the day we spoke, playing at one of the former Band drummer’s Midnight Rambles at Helm’s home studios in Woodstock, NY.

Jeffreys was still coming down from the exuberance generated by the show as well as the release of “The King of In Between,” his first album of all new studio material in 13 years. His tour will take Jeffreys to the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, where he’ll be making a rare Western Massachusetts appearance, performing on Saturday night.

Brooklyn-born, blue-collar, street poet, soul rocker Jeffreys – a cult hero in New York City and beyond – has a lot of famous friends, though his relationship with Helm is special and the “Midnight Ramble” was a show Jeffreys was thrilled about.

“It was fantastic,” he said in reference to the experience. “It was a very, very special night. Mainly I had been there before just to visit. But with (guitarist/producer) Larry (Campbell) and Levon, we go way back. The people at the Ramble go out of their way to be so nice, so inviting. Fans couldn’t get enough. We rocked the place. It was so exciting; we had our ‘A Game’ on.”

To some, Jeffreys may be best known for the company he keeps. He’s good friends with Bruce Springsteen, who has had Jeffreys share the stage with him on several occasions, as well as Lou Reed, who sings background vocals on one of the best songs on the new album, “The Contortionist.” Jeffreys and Reed go back to the early 1960s together when they were both attending Syracuse University, along with future Young Rascal Felix Cavaliere.

“There was a music scene but it was centered around fraternity houses,” Jeffreys said in reference to Syracuse. “It was a built in audience, all these frat houses wanted a band for a party. I wasn’t part of that. Lou had a band called L.A. and the Eldorados, and he would play in a few different situations, so I mean there were a couple of other bands, but I don’t think there was a big music scene.”

Jeffreys started playing New York City clubs in the late 1960s, recorded one album with a group called Grinder’s Switch, and released his eponymously-titled solo debut in 1973. His 1977 album “Ghost Writer,” and its centerpiece song “Wild in the Streets” were critically acclaimed and featured a vast array of musical styles, including reggae rhythms courtesy of drummer Winston Grennan, who had drummed with various reggae acts including The Wailers.

It was during that era that Jeffreys met another rising star who would turn into a lifetime friend, Bob Marley. The initially met at the fabled New York nightspot Max’s Kansas City, but spent more time together in Chicago.

“I went backstage at his show and a couple of the Wailers started singing (Jeffreys’ song) ‘I May not be Your Kind’ as I walked to the back of the stage,” Jeffreys recalls. “I felt like I was walking into a bunch of guys that I’d known for years. I went back with Bob to his hotel, we hung out and chatted. We started our friendship officially at that point; unfortunately it lasted just a few years (until Marley’s death in 1981). He was a sweet guy.”

After the incredibly underrated “Guts for Love” album in 1983, Jeffreys took the first of his hiatuses from the music business.

“My first job is raising our one and only daughter (Savannah Jeffreys, who sings harmonies with Reed on the new album). My wife Claire and I really took it very seriously. I did not want to be away from her…I made a very clear decision. I got the chance to bring her to pre-school every day. I was really involved, and she is the person she is today partly because Claire and I really parented her and learned how to be parents and took it very seriously.”

He’s also never been a big fan of the record business anyway.

“They used to spend so much time and money on choosing what the album cover was and you’d fight with them on what the damn album cover was. Give me a break.”

While recording for various labels he ran into countless frustrations, such as in 1979 when A&M flat out told him they “hated” his album “American Boy & Girl,” which contained the song “Matador.” The song nevertheless helped him build a very successful career in Europe, which continues to this day.

“When I came to Paris, they said ‘We know A&M in the U.S. doesn’t like the album. but we love it. We want to put out “Bad Dream” as the single.’ I said ‘No, no, no, “Matador” is the single.’” It turned into a No. 1 song in several countries, Germany Holland, Belgium. It came out in 1979 and it gets airplay still and thank God, because it’s definitely helped our way of living, I earn a living based on that particular song.”

But he is enjoying having his own company now, Luna Park Records, and the new album easily ranks among the finest of his career.

It starts with the powerhouse tale about the stomping ground of his youth “Coney Island Winter.” The street poetry is jaw-dropping in its portrayal of hard times through ice cold imagery.

“People really are struggling with powerful challenges,” Jeffreys said. “It’s a struggle that people are going through each day. People who can’t pay their rent. It’s a metaphor using Coney Island, but that coldness…I know Coney Island has a summer experience because I was always there, Coney Island, Brighton Beach, Sheepshead Bay. If you wanted to go to the beach with me, great, if not I was going to the beach anyway. But ‘Coney Island Winter’ is really the struggle of what people are going through in this country and other countries. They don’t have the money, they’ve been foreclosed. They’re eating garbage. I see people dying right near here on the street. I heard that in Haiti they were eating dirt pies because there’s nutrition in the earth – that’s an amazing thing.”

There are also several songs about mortality on the album including the standout track “‘Til John Lee Hooker Calls Me,” complete with its references to James Brown, Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole and others.

“This John Lee Hooker thing, it’s funny,” Jeffreys said. “I think about mortality these days. Y’know I’ll be 68, and I wanna be around ‘til I’m 88. I’m on the 90-year plan, that’s what I think. And I plan to be performing like a few others who’ve gone that far and John Lee Hooker was one of them, into his 80s. That’s at the bottom of that song. ‘James Brown’s cape is on the auction block,’ that was the first line and I was off to the races. It’s about some of my faves. I’ve always loved Sinatra and ‘King’ Cole. I’m not getting any younger but I’m not feeling very old (laughs). I really like this song, we did it at the Ramble and it rocked the place.”

There’s actually very little doubt that anywhere Garland Jeffreys plays, he’s going to rock the place. His major tours, such as his current one, don’t occur often in the U.S. and this is an opportunity to see him still in his prime time.

Asked if there’s anything he wants to tell fans who’ve waited a long time to see him on stage, Jeffreys replies quickly.

“Tell them I’ll be in your neighborhood shortly, my goal is to tour everywhere I can right now.”

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