2011-06-07 Classic Rock Revisited

Out Of Exile – An Exclusive Interview with Garland Jeffreys

By Ryan Sparks | Classic Rock Revisited

Born in 1943, Brooklyn bred, singer / songwriter Garland Jeffreys, first began to make waves on the New York City club scene back in the mid 60’s. It would be an understatement to say that Garland’s multi-racial background, and tough upbringing on the streets of Sheepshead Bay have had a profound effect on his life and music.

After an aborted start with the band Grinder’s Switch, who released one album in 1969, before disbanding the following year, the seeds for Garland’s solo career were sown with his self titled debut effort, issued in 1973 on Atlantic Records. While the album was not a commercial success, it was the incendiary single “Wild In The Streets”, which was not included on the record and featured the likes of Dr. John and the Brecker Brothers horn section, that proved to be a precursor of things to come. After almost a four year wait, Garland’s second album Ghost Writer (A&M Records) finally appeared and it was this record that would put him firmly on the map as one of the most compelling songwriters of his generation. Containing such timeless tracks as “Cool Down Boy”, “Rough and Ready”, the aforementioned “Wild In The Streets”, the sublime “New York Skyline” and what is arguably his finest composition “Spanish Town”, Garland’s insightful musings on race, domestic issues, and how it felt to grow up in the big city, cut straight to the bone.

Through the remainder of the 70’s, Garland continued to build on the critical and commercial success of Ghost Writer with the albums One Eyed Jack (1978) and American Boy And Girl (1979), the later yielding him his first international hit with the song “Matador”. While the early 80’s found him switching over to Epic Records, it didn’t slow him down as he remained as prolific as ever, releasing such first rate albums as Escape Artist (1980), Rock ‘n Roll Adult (1982) and Guts For Love (1983). After a long absence from recording Jeffreys returned in 1992 with the critically acclaimed comeback record Don’t Call Me Buckwheat, which featured “Hail, Hail Rock ‘n Roll” and “The Answer” among others. Unfortunately the album slipped under the radar, so the vast majority of Americans never got to hear this diamond in the ruff, which tackled the complex issue of race relations in America. After releasing Wildlife Dictionary in 1997, Garland once again stepped out of the limelight. Now with the release of his new album The King Of In Between, his first album of all new material in thirteen years, he has returned in a big way. Co-produced with ex-Dylan band member Larry Campbell, The King Of In Between finds Garland once again covering all the musical bases, as he deftly utilizes elements of rock, soul, blues and reggae on these eleven original compositions. Old friend Lou Reed even puts in a cameo appearance, dropping by to lend some backing vocal support on “The Contortionist”.

Read on to discover more about his fantastic new album and so much more as Garland not only gave me a detailed look back at his lengthy career, but also gave me his take on the complex issues of race relations and how he managed to find his own identity as a multi-racial male growing up on the tough streets of New York.

Ryan: Your new album The King Of In Between is full of meditations on race and where you grew up in and around Coney Island and Sheepshead Bay. There are references not only to the past, but to the present as well. The album feels not only like a commentary on where you live and where you grew up, but like most of your records, for the country and for the world as a whole, would you agree with that?

Garland: I try to write songs, and this album is a good example, that encompass a life. This album is very much about the circumstances that a lot of people are living in right now and that definitely affects me and I can get upset about it. So when it comes time to make an album, part of you thinks that you don’t want to make an album that people will have to think about, you wanna make a pop album. Somewhere along the way that changes [laughs] and it becomes an album that maybe has some meaning for people and for me. Hopefully it will answer some questions and a discussion opens up.

Ryan: It’s interesting that you say that, because I think all of you albums are like that.

Garland: Yeah I can’t help it you know?

Ryan: You’re not the type of person who writes songs about chicks and cars. You’ve been shaped by how and where you grew up and that translates into your songs.

Garland: I live in a community that is a park. It’s an unusual place in New York City that is close to the East Village. It’s an open area where people can come and go. There are parks and fountains, it’s just unusual. We were lucky to move here many years ago. I know my neighbours and I see people walking around and I say hello to them. I’m in the house now, but in a little while I’ll go outside and sit down, take a couple of phone calls or go for a walk. I’m concerned for my neighbourhood, for the people, especially the elderly who are seventy five, eighty five and ninety five years old. I’m very affectionate towards them. I say this because it’s like magic. I see them and I’ll give them a kiss, I’ll make a joke and I’ll play with them. They’ll look for me and I look for them. Later on I’ll see someone and say hi to them or they’ll say hi to me, it’s nice. I feel like I’m growing up you know what I mean? [laughing] I feel like I’m accepting my responsibilities, I’m growing up. I’m allowing my feelings and my interests to come out and they come out in songs as well.

Ryan: The stark looking black and white photograph, shot by famed photographer Anton Corbijn ,which was taken at the intersection of Martin Luther King and Malcom X blvd, as well as the gorgeous shots of the boardwalk in Coney Island, I think serve as the perfect visual metaphor for the lyrical themes discussed within. There’s obviously a strong visual tie in to the music.

Garland: Yeah I love the cover. Anton is a dear friend. We met in 1979, when he was shooting press kit photographs. I love the photograph that he took, it’s just a brilliant picture.

Ryan: Was that done specifically for the album cover or is that an older photo?

Garland: No, it wasn’t done for the album. I was shooting the video for “Hail, Hail Rock ‘n Roll” in Harlem and he was directing that. About two months later he sent me an article from a newspaper in Amsterdam. I opened the article and there was the photograph. He hadn’t even told me that he’d shot it. I had been looking a certain way, he shot the photo and I didn’t even know it. That’s how great a photographer he is. I looked at the photo and said “Holy shit, this is amazing”. I kept the newspaper article and I still have it. I always knew I would use it, so I asked him about a year ago if I could, he agreed and sent me a digital print that was perfect.

Ryan: Could you explain the significance of the title? When I read the lines printed inside the disc “In Between the cracks, in between the lies and the facts, between the whites and the blacks…” I thought to myself that this kind of sums up how you’ve always operated, somewhere in between, at least that was my perception.

Garland: Yeah. First I’ll just say that it’s not just me, it’s other people as well. There’s a lot of people who feel this way. They’re in between and not seen, they’re off on the side.

Ryan: Displaced maybe?

Garland: You could say that, although that wouldn’t be the only definition or understanding of it, but that’s part of it. For example the line “In between the mansions and the shacks”, you could really stretch that into so many different things. Obviously the mansions are not in my world and neither are the shacks, so I am somewhere in between. The people I know, well I know a couple of mansion owners, but for the most part, the people that I know are in between. In my case it’s the race issue as well. I’m in between black and white. There’s the whole idea of too white to be black and too black to be white. There’s also the way people operate, “In between the lies and the facts”. It’s just a way of using words to express some thoughts and some ideas.

Often there’s a feeling of like you said, displacement and where do I fit? I’m here, I’m not here, I’m here nor there. I know a lot of light skinned people of color who don’t feel like they’re seen by their black brothers or friends, or their white friends. Today there’s much more multi-racial discussions going on. Multi-racial is a big word these days. In my day there was no such thing as multi-racial, you were either black or white.

Ryan: It’s true that multi-racial is much more accepted now than it was thirty or forty years ago.

Garland: Yeah, it wasn’t even discussed. If you had a drop of black blood in you, you were black. So a light skinned black person was black. It wasn’t really defined in the right way. It wasn’t seen as multi-racial. It’s very, very complicated because black people who have accepted themselves as black, who maybe are darker, they have their resentments as well. Some do, we’re talking in a general way. Light skinned blacks have been called High Yella, like you’re a blond or light skinned black. They suffered on both sides and I consider myself in that world, ’cause like I said I’m too white to be black and too black to be white. It’s incredible how the black community could reject their own, simply because they were a couple of shades lighter or things like that. Of course white people who are racist, can’t accept anybody that isn’t pure white.

Ryan: You touch on both life and death in a couple of songs. For example on “I’m Alive” you sing about just that, the fact that you’re still here doing what you do best which is writing and making music, whereas on “Til John Lee Hooker Calls Me” and “In God’s Waiting Room” you touch on the subject of death. As you’ve gotten older with more mileage behind you in the rear view mirror, has that changed your perspective and do you feel there’s more of a sense of urgency in your work?

Garland: I’m going to be sixty eight. Having a fifteen year old kid, I feel sometimes that I may not be around… I mean I hope to be around as long as I can, for my kid.

Ryan: To be there for all the special moments in her life.

Garland: Yeah, for her and for me. Mortality is an absolutely natural thing to think about. On this album I definitely address that in a few songs, but I think I’m throwing some sense of humour into it too, like when I sing ” But I’m not shopping for my cemetery tomb soon, I’m gonna wait till John Lee Hooker makes room”.

Ryan: Right, it’s not an impending feeling of death, you approach it more as if to say “Hey, hold on I’m not done yet”.

Garland: Exactly! Don’t write me off just yet, I’m not gone [laughing]. In the song “God’s Waiting Room” I ‘m trying to create my funeral with some humour as well. It’s like that expression “Laughing at the notion of death, giddy at the motion of my very last breath”. In fact I don’t think I’m really laughing at those two things at all [laughs], but I’m writing it that way.

Ryan: I feel there’s always been a Dylan lyrical undercurrent running through your albums, but I sensed a connection with his later albums like Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft and Modern Times at least from musical and production standpoint.

Garland: I don’t see it. I’m trying to picture that.

Ryan: What I’m specifically referring to is the stripped down nature of some of the songs.

Garland: Definitely stripped down. We put a band together and the basic tracks were Larry (Campbell) and Duke Levine, who’s a wonderful player. Larry and Duke were great. There’s Steve Jordan on drums and Mike Merritt on bass, he’s an excellent player, and Brian Mitchell on keyboards. That’s the band that basically cut all those tracks. There’s a couple of songs that have Steve Goulding on drums because of the reggae aspect, but this band covered all the ground. Anything that was put on the album… most of the tracks were cut in one take, one take with the vocal. So we definitely got a performance out of it. Like “The Contortionist” and “Coney Island Winter”, except that wasn’t done with the band that I just mentioned. That track was one of the last one’s written for the album. That one was done live with bass, drums, guitars and vocals. It’s funny, because when the basic tracks were done you start to ask yourself “What am I going to do now?”

Ryan: You were questioning whether or not you needed to add to it?

Garland: Yeah and what I did is, I did put more on top of it and then I wound up taking it off. I had some background voices, some additional guitars and stuff like that, but I took it off. So in the end I did a minimal amount of overdubs.

Ryan: I think it was a wise decision not to tamper with it too much, because it comes across as a very ‘live’ sounding album.

Garland: Yeah definitely. I wanted it to be a vital album, where you could feel and hear it.

Ryan: Was this your first time working with Larry Campbell and what did he bring to the table for you as a musician and collaborator?

Garland: Sanity [laughs]. We had never worked together before. I had contacted him to come by and listen to a couple of songs and he really liked them. Then we decided who we wanted to use on the sessions. Larry was really just a player, but as we progressed, ideas of his started to come out, such as using strings and various other things that we did as overdubs. We added to it without taking anything away from it. He was very, very helpful in telling me that I didn’t need this or I didn’t need that.

Ryan: So it was good to have that second set of ears around and someone you could bounce ideas off of.

Garland: Absolutely, which is what a producer is supposed to do, one of the main things anyway. He was able to bring his musicality and arrangement ideas into this project, as well as bringing some sanity.

Ryan: Your old friend Lou Reed also shows up for a bit of bit of background vocals as well. Did he joke with you about possibly giving him a little more to sing than just a few “Doo, doo, doo’s”?

Garland: No, that’s what I wanted him to sing [laughs]. I asked him to sing that as a little joke and he was very good at it [laughing].

Ryan: The inclusion of “Rock On”, the David Essex cover, which shows up at the end as a hidden bonus track, I thought was a fitting way to conclude the album. Was that your idea to cover that one?

Garland: Yes it was. I really love that song from way back and I thought that I would put it on. I figured that my fans would like it.

Ryan: One of the things that I’ve always enjoyed about your work is its ability to cross musical genres, you get rock ‘n roll, a bit of reggae and some good old fashioned blues. Describe the impact that these types of music had on you at the various points in your early development as a singer/ songwriter.

Garland: I love it all, that’s the first thing. I really love all that music. For example I was introduced to reggae back in I think 1969, by a guy who worked in the gym that I was going to. He was like the towel guy, he would pile up the towels and he would also approve your admission by looking at your card and making sure it was up to date. He had a little cassette machine on his desk and occasionally you’d hear some reggae. I said to him “What is that?” and he said [adopts a Jamaican accent] “That’s reggae music mon”. One of the first things I heard was The Heptones. I started loving it and began to get into it. I felt an affinity with it and I knew this music was for me. I envisioned being able to write some great lyrics over it. That’s how that happened. Shortly after that, when I was making my first solo album, I went down to Jamaica for the first time and recorded with a great group of musicians, including Winston Grennan, the great Jamaican drummer who influenced “Carly” Barrett and who played on all the early Toots and The Maytals and Bob Marley records. He was brilliant and a lovely person, who has since passed away. I met a bunch of other great players while I was down there, some are still alive and some of them aren’t. That began the whole reggae thing and it wasn’t that different for me with other styles of music.

I grew up listening to jazz and my music became Frankie Lymon and all that street corner music, which was early R&B. Then there was Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke and that whole world of music. From there it was on to Motown and Bob Dylan.

Ryan: I mean at the time when you were growing up, you had a chance to see all these artists coming up, not to mention rock ‘ roll hadn’t even been invented yet.

Garland: Yeah definitely. It started with Louis Armstrong and my Father and my Grandmother loved Nat King Cole. We also had Sinatra in the house. I loved Sinatra he was great. I’m sure he was a right winger, but that had nothing to do with his music [laughs].

Ryan: You are a genuine street poet. I’m curious were you influenced by the Beat writers, did they have any impact on you at all?

Garland: Maybe. I knew (Alan) Ginsberg. We had sung a couple of times together and he had his Harmonium. I liked him. He was a crazy, wild man. I also met (Peter) Orlovsky and (Gregory) Corso

Ryan: I want to go back to your second album Ghost Writer. I can remember hearing “Spanish Town” on the radio for the first time and being knocked out. It’s an absolutely epic track and the album is flawless from beginning to end. The themes and topics touched upon on that record are timeless and what’s really impressive is that it sounds like someone who has spent a lot of time honing their craft. What’s even more amazing is that you knocked that album out in less than a week.

Garland: Yeah. I think if you have something urgent to say and something urgent within you, whether or not it’s urgent to somebody else is not the question, but if you have something inside of you and you’re the kind of songwriter that writes about people, circumstances and conditions, then you’re compelled. I think it may present itself as craft, but the bottom line is that it’s a connection. A connection to what you feel about a particular situation, that inspires you whether good or bad. For example the circumstances in this country, if you’re not listening, after awhile you will have heard it, because it’s just pounding away you know? I am fortunate that I have a way that I can diffuse some of these things as a writer.

Ryan: A large part, if not all of that album was autobiographical wasn’t it? There was also a special dedication as well. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Garland: My Grandmother, Rafaella, the matriarch of the family, she…[pauses] I wish she was around, she died too early for me, as I was only eight when she passed away. I just absolutely loved her and she loved me. She was my protector, very much so. I think about her from time to time and I remember that period of time, of love and kindness and also the toughness she gave me. That song “Spanish Town”, I love to perform it and I do it at basically every show. It’s one of those magical songs and I try to perform it with as much energy and feeling that I can come up with, in order to really give the audience an experience.

Ryan: When you were recording that album did you know you had something magical?

Garland: I really loved the songs and they had come out really well. I was excited about the reggae. The players on the album were phenomenal, such as Steve Gadd on drums. The thing about Steve, was that when Winston played drums on the three reggae songs, Steve had to sit off to the side and that was something to tell Steve Gadd that he had to sit off to the side. What he did was he played percussion on those tracks and it was so great, because he did it without blinking an eye. As a musician who recognized that this was not his expertise, he played second fiddle basically, but was a class act doing it.

Ryan: Another album which packed an equally powerful punch and had a strong impact was American Boy and Girl. Similar themes of street life, utilizing strong lyrical imagery are touched upon in great detail on “City Kids”, “Night Of The Living Dead” and the title track. I have to ask you about the significance of Chino and Lori, the pictures of them on the front and back cover as teenagers and kids.

Garland: In terms of my childhood and the difficulties that I experienced growing up…I had a very strict Father, which was good for me in one way, but very bad in another. The good part was that I didn’t hang out with any heavyweight kids or tough kids, like other people that I knew in the area where I grew up. I think my Father was protecting me from that , but I had other issues at home. My Father beat the shit out of me until I was fifteen. Chino and Lori were not far from me when I was a kid. There were some similarities and I identified with these kids. They were not living in their own homes, they were living out in the street or else in… I forgot the name of the place that took in kids. Not really a shelter, but something like that. I never experienced that growing up, but I did experience the abuse and kids like that who were abused. Abuse is not difficult to find. I remember I was teaching reading to kids at one point in the mid 60’s and it was just a job, except the job really opened me up and made me see a few things. I’d see kids coming in after having had a bad night with their families. Again, like we were talking about earlier, these are the kinds of things, things that have been a part of my life and I’ve talked to many, many people who have gone through similar situations.

Ryan: Did you know Chino and Lori personally and do you know what happened to them?

Garland: I never met them in person, but I knew of them. I never knew what happened to them.

Ryan: That album marked the beginning of your love affair with Europe as the single “Matador” did really well in several countries and brought you acclaim on a larger scale.

Garland: It sure did. What I tell people is that “Matador” was such a hit and continues to be a hit. It’s one of those songs. I remember a DJ from Austria who contacted me, asking if he could use ten seconds of the song in his show and he would give me ten thousand dollars for it. I said “That’s a good exchange” [laughs]. I was very pleased to get that. So, that song has been very important in our lives, because it’s helped us with our economic challenges. Every songwriter should hope to get a song like that. I was talking with Graham Parker about this and he brought it up. He said “You’ve got that song Matador right?” and I said “I sure do”. He said “Shit man I’ve never gotten one of those”. A guy like Paul Simon probably has like twenty of those [laughs].

Ryan: After making six albums in seven years you took a break from the mid 80’s until around 1990. Did you find that the 80’s, at least the early 80’s, that they were particularly fruitful for you as an artist or were you starting to get disillusioned with the industry?

Garland: Well I’ve been disillusioned with the industry from time to time. There’s no question about it that it’s been very frustrating.

Ryan: The industry is different now.

Garland: It’s a lot different now and it’s a better situation. It really is better for so many reasons. But the whole idea that you relate to a group of people, who really have a different view on what they want to do with your music than what you want…

Ryan: Or a different agenda.

Garland: A different agenda, that’s a better way of saying it. I’m just kind of glad things are the way they are right now and I think it will improve as well. My wife and I are putting out this album on our own label, Luna Park Records and it’s exciting.

Ryan: You have complete freedom and total control.

Garland: Yeah and all the headaches too! [laughs].

Ryan: Right. I guess it’s not all roses is it?

Garland: No, it’s not [laughs].

Ryan: Call it a comeback if you will but Don’t Call Me Buckwheat marked your return to music in 1992. Were you surprised that this record didn’t do better for you in the States, especially considering it was largely a mediation on racial issues in America.

Garland: The record company, BMG, really undermined the record in America. There was two different labels, there was the American and the European label. The reception from Europe was tremendous and the record company did what it needed to do. They were very kind and they got the record out there. They sold the record and people worked it. The European press was very interested in writing about the subject, because you generally don’t get that kind of thing from a record. I still have some wounds from the fact that America wasn’t serviced with the album and that the company didn’t get behind it. I think that the people that worked at the label were from the south, they were all from the south. It was a southern company that had come up north to run the company. They wanted me to change the title of the album. I remember talking with Paul Simon and him saying “You can’t change that title, that’s the title, you’ve got to keep it.” It was great to hear him say that, because it gave me some confidence.

Ryan: The fact that they wanted you to change the title was probably the first indication that this wasn’t going to go exactly as planned.

Garland: That’s right. They buried the record in the States. “Hail, Hail Rock ‘n Roll” could have been a successful song on radio, if they had had the courage to go out there and do it. The people at MTV that I knew told me that if the record label was not going to get behind it, then they wouldn’t be able to go in on it by themselves. They were willing to do it, if they had gotten word from the record company. I think that the label people at that time just didn’t want to deal with it.

Ryan: Do you feel that as an artist you should be obliged to promote your work or do you feel that you should be free to create and have nothing to do with the act of promotion?

Garland: I think it’s a myth. The idea of separating the artist and the work. I’ve always promoted my work and I feel that I’m the best representative for the work, because I feel that I can talk about it. I remember what they did for the Buckwheat album in Europe. There were two guys from the label who went around with me and I made presentations about the album to the journalists. I showed the big, blown up picture of me on the cover. I would tell the story of the kid and what he was like at that age, that it was 1947 and that Jackie Robinson had just broken the color barrier and played his first game. The promotion was very unusual and very successful because people had never seen anything like that .

Ryan: At first people probably didn’t even realize, until you told them, that the kid on the cover was you.

Garland: That’s right. The people who are listening to what you’re doing have to be educated, because they don’t know. I don’t like the idea of explaining the meaning behind your songs, telling them that this means this and this means that. I don’t do that, but on this particular album because it was about race, it needed to be talked about. I wanted people to understand what I was trying to do.

Ryan: When you were a young kid growing up, absorbing all different types of music, do you recall a defining moment where you thought to yourself that music and the life of a musician was the path that you wanted to follow?

Garland: I wasn’t sure because my family wanted me to go to college, which I did do. When I finished college I went to the Institute of Fine Arts for graduate school. I quit in the first week and was able to get 90% of my tuition back. I remember coming home after a couple of days and telling my folks that I had left school and that I was going to make a life out of it. They were very, very disappointed and my Mother cried. Eventually I started playing and they always wondered what the hell I was doing anyway. It all worked out and when I handed them the gold album for “Matador”, it was then that they knew that I was making a living and that I had some money you know? [laughs]

Ryan: For them it validated what you were doing.

Garland: Yes, absolutely.

Ryan: Last question for you. I realize that asking an artist to single out a favourite song is kind of like asking them to name their favourite kid, but picture someone who has never had the chance to hear your music. If you had to pick out for that person, one song, that truly represents who Garland Jeffrey’s is as a musician and human being, what would that be?

Garland: Oh man, that’s not easy [laughs]. I couldn’t do it. You have a song like “New York Skyline”, which has a certain kind of sound, it’s the lyric, the music and the vocal. Then you have “Spanish Town”, “Wild In The Streets”, “American Backslide”, the whole Buckwheat album…

Ryan: Ok, maybe we’d have to make it a compilation then.

Garland: That’s it. I like the comp idea [laughs].

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