2011-12-10 The Boston Globe

Garland Jeffreys Returns After 13-Year Break

Franklin Soults,  The Boston Globe, December 10, 2011

When Martin Luther King stood at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 and spoke of “the fierce urgency of now,’’ he also unwittingly encapsulated the thrill of what was then often called “youth music,’’ from R&B to folk to rock ’n’ roll. For decades, the myth endured that only youth could create this fierce urgency because “now’’ was their time; indeed, it was the only time they’d ever known.

Over the past few decades, however, aging pop musicians have shown they can claim “now’’ with a different kind of urgency, in part because it’s the only time they have left. Bob Dylan – the major voice of youth in 1963 – made the most of this unavoidable truth in 1997 on his Grammy-winning rattle at death, “Time Out of Mind.’’ With more or less fanfare, other artists have followed suit. Paul Simon made this year’s most celebrated return to form on “So Beautiful Or So What,’’ released as he neared 70.

But no senior musician has demonstrated the urgency of 2011 with as much youthful fierceness as 68-year-old Garland Jeffreys on “The King of In Between.’’ On Saturday, Jeffreys comes to Johnny D’s bearing the album’s uncommonly alive combination of R&B, folk, and rock ’n’ roll, not to mention of blues, reggae, and hints of jazz.

The album matches this musical reach with its conceptual range. The ringing opening rocker, “Coney Island Winter,’’ sums it up with a rush of half-spoken imagery: “All the games are broken down/ Rust is falling to the ground.’’ At once, Jeffreys is referencing the declining amusement park near his childhood home, his own aging, and the economic crisis gripping America.

“That song really sets the stage,’’ Jeffreys says by phone from his Manhattan apartment. “You look out and you know that people are not in good shape. People are suffering.’’

After a 13-year absence, “The King of In Between’’ finds Jeffreys in apparently excellent shape, talking about what everyone sees but few popular musicians mention, and dealing with his own aging with equal parts acceptance, humor, and defiance.

“A lot of people have written articles where they go ‘Garland is talking about death,’ ’’ says Jeffreys with a slow, warm laugh, like some avuncular Brooklyn cabbie. “He is! That doesn’t mean I’m dead yet! Don’t bury me!’’

The point is driven home on the album’s second song, another open-chord anthem titled “I’m Alive.’’ In the chorus, Jeffreys repeats the title phrase in rapid succession until it turns into a blur of syllables. This unabashed, poetic abandon comes as a jolt in the age of perpetual irony. It’s a vibrant reminder of the redemptive, romantic rush of New York-area rock in the pre-punk 1970s, where Jeffreys first made his name. By the time of his masterful 1981 album, “Escape Artist,’’ he seemed ready for a spot in the pantheon between Bruce Springsteen and his college buddy Lou Reed (both of whom helped with the record).

But he also called the album “Escape Artist’’ for a reason. Even then, Jeffreys strained so much against packaging that the LP included a bonus EP featuring collaborations with reggae greats Linton Kwesi Johnson and Big Youth.

“Bruce and I are friends,’’ Jeffreys admits. “Maybe we come from the same working class background on some level. I think he suffered some of the stuff I did with the kinds of fathers we had, and stuff like that. But I didn’t grow up with the band thing.’’

The son of a Puerto Rican mom and an African-American dad, Jeffreys grew up, instead, as the artistic offspring of Martin Luther King and Dylan. The cover of “The King of In Between’’ shows Jeffreys standing at the corner of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King boulevards in Harlem, near his father’s childhood home. And Jeffreys coproduced the disc with longtime Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell, for results more intimate than on “Escape Artist,’’ yet more biting than on Jeffreys’s soulful early albums like “Ghost Writer,’’ which made him Rolling Stone magazine’s “Best New Artist’’ of 1977.

“Like the title of the album states, I felt in between the races,’’ Jeffreys says, reflecting on his childhood. “I did not want to be in one race or another; and I knew this somehow early, early on. See, now people talk in terms of multiracial. You didn’t talk about multiracial in my day – you were either black, or white. But there was a tremendous variety, as there is now, you know? People want to be seen today as their full self.’’

Released on his own Luna Park imprint, “King of In Between’’ also helps Jeffreys discover the fullness of life in a new digital century, with a more direct connection to his fans and a new sense of freedom and excitement about recording.

“I feel like I’m starting anew,’’ he says, adding, “Well, I’ll tell ya, I don’t think I can wait another 13 years for the next album.’

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