“Time is the school in which we learn
Time is the fire in which we burn.” — Delmore Schwartz, from
“Calmly We Walk Through This April’s Day”
“Twenty-two stops to the city,” chants Garland Jeffreys in “Coney Island Winter.” Twenty-two stops. If you are reading this you may recognize the feeling this song evokes—I remember it myself—you’re living double-digits deep down a subway line to afford the rent while the flame of Manhattan burns in the distance. As Jeffreys describes it, “Going to New York, I felt like I was going somewhere. I felt like I was somebody. I’d go with friends, I’d go by myself. I’d go any chance I could get right after school. I’d sit at the window in my fantasy and I knew then that there was more to come, more to come. If I didn’t have New York, things would have been different. New York is/was my salvation.”
Jeffreys is 68 now, and basking in the accolades that his latest album, The King of In-Between, 14 years in the making, has been receiving. Praised to the skies by NPR and Rolling Stone, the record captures Jeffreys pondering his past and celebrating the present, all while criticizing a system that has failed to take care of its own. More manifesto than nostalgia trip, it shoots from the hip and speaks from the heart. Says Jeffreys, “This album, The King of In-Between…I’m writing about who I am now, not who I was. It’s a rock and roll record from a guy who is not a kid.”
Garland Jeffreys’s youth was spent in Sheepshead Bay. His family had very complicated DNA and it left him feeling “in-between,” unconnected—too black to be wholly accepted in the white group, and vice versa. But music was there. At the Jeffreys house it was Duke Ellington and Count Basie, while his favorite uncle played Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. The wheels were set in motion when Jeffreys, age seven, was sent solo on the subway to Prince Street, where a piano lesson awaited. Soon he was visiting Greenwich Village at every opportunity, happy to sit in a window people-watching.
These were the boom years of Village jazz. Around every corner Jeffreys’s idols were playing, their proximity compelling. Without money for tickets, Jeffreys learned how to sneak in, and saw Davis and Coltrane and Simone. Still, he stayed out of trouble and did well enough in school to be accepted to Syracuse University in 1961. Although Syracuse looked remote and uninviting to Jeffreys, his family was heavily invested. Jeffreys was the first to go to college; his stepfather was working two jobs to send him. Jeffreys knew he had to make the most of it.
And he did. He was drawn to Renaissance art and studied hard—for a period in Florence—but his off-hours education was equally stimulating. He was hanging out with classmate Lou Reed and Reed’s mentor, poet Delmore Schwartz. What he wasn’t learning in class, his Bohemian circle was filling in. After graduation he and Reed returned to New York to see where music would lead.
Jeffreys had left New York a provincial kid and returned worldly, but during these years the music scene hadn’t stood still. Jeffreys had departed for Syracuse the year Bob Dylan arrived in Greenwich Village, forever altering folk music, and within months of Jeffreys’s graduation in 1965, Dylan again changed the game, going electric at the Newport Folk Festival. Reed and Jeffreys jumped into the fray. In 1967 the first Velvet Underground album appeared, while Jeffreys formed his own band, the short-lived Grinder’s Switch. “I was very much into the band at that time, and met Levon right around then, and Robbie and Rick Danko…I fell in love with that whole sound.” After one record, Grinder’s Switch dissolved.
Jeffreys, feeling the need to find his own voice, went solo with a vengeance. “I was just playing every club, blind to what was going on [at] a world level—very much learning how to be a musician and writing songs about personal experience. I didn’t really know what was going on in New York at that time. I was playing.” Garland Jeffreys resulted. Not surprisingly, the record showcased Jeffreys’s writing and singing, but emerging from the interstices was an eclecticism that would become characteristic of all of Jeffreys’s work: David Bromberg and Dr. John contributed, the sessions musicians were jazz players, and several tracks were recorded in Jamaica.
Jeffreys had first heard reggae around 1970. “I had been going to the YMCA on 23rd Street, and the guy giving out towels was Jamaican. He had a little ‘box’ on his desk and was playing music. He played me the Heptones, who were big then, and I loved it. The music was simple, and I could use it and write my stories on top. I felt like the sound fit me very, very well.” He flew to Jamaica and recorded at Byron Lee’s Dynamic Sound Studio, where the Stones, who had relocated to Jamaica at about the same time, recorded Goats Head Soup.
In contrast to the Stones, however, for whom the impact of reggae was not immediately apparent, Jeffreys soaked it up and put it back out. He was enamored of the sound and couldn’t help being drawn to the socially conscious content of much of the music. Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come was one embodiment of it; Bob Marley made it explicit. As Jeffreys puts it, “Marley was talking literally about ‘free the people. We’re your people, are you taking care of us? You’ve got the money, you’re not sharing the money.’ Sound familiar?” These same concerns would become integral to Jeffreys’s vision.
Until now, Jeffreys’s next album, 1977’s Ghost Writer, has been considered his best, the album that brought it all together. Although it garnered for him Rolling Stone’s 1977 Best New Artist award, Jeffreys was now 34 and had had time to look around. “Wild in the Streets” was driven by an incident wherein a girl was thrown from a roof by some boys; it painted a picture of a city in tatters. As New York teetered on the brink of insolvency, corruption simmered and violence spiked. In the summer of 1977, the city hit bottom as blackouts unleashed looting and rioting in ethnic communities. Still, as bad as it was, nothing would sway his affection for the city. In “New York Skyline,” Jeffreys sings to a lover that he hears New York calling him back. Other songs dealt with culture and identity, including the title track, the moody Latin “Spanish Town,” and the reggae “I May Not be Your Kind,” backed by players from the Wailers. The entire album showed Jeffreys in peak form, mining the veins of personal quandaries as well as the societal dilemmas of the five boroughs.
The following years were busy. Jeffreys was writing, touring, and turning out nearly an album a year. His 1979 American Boy & Girl featured “Matador,” which became a huge hit in Europe. 1980’s Escape Artist included “96 Tears,” a hit that covered a song from 1966. As Peter Stone Brown recently opined, it was “the perfect song for him to do, and a good cover, but it was like he was getting noticed for all the wrong reasons. Here was one of the best songwriters in the country, someone with endless ideas and inspiration to spare, not to mention that the majority of his music is eminently danceable, and he’s noticed for a cover of a 14-year-old song.” Jeffreys continued making albums, but “96 Tears” did not lead to renewed commercial success, and his status in Europe, thanks to “Matador,” began to outstrip his status in the U.S.
Jeffreys’s path changed with the birth of his daughter Savannah in 1997. When the time came, Jeffreys and his wife Claire approached the parenting phase with great seriousness. Jeffreys’s childhood had been difficult enough to fuel years of songs. He was determined to raise Savannah differently. Earlier, Jeffreys’s social consciousness had been given voice in songs. Now the stakes were higher. Instead of singing to an audience about his concern for his fellow man, it was time to walk the walk. He put most of his touring aside and stayed home.
The years that followed were spent nurturing the people around him. He gave time and energy to his daughter, his wife, his neighbors, and he gave to his friends, one of whom was stricken with A.L.S. To help his family, Jeffreys brought together Dr. John, Paul Simon, Suzanne Vega, and others for two concerts that raised almost $250,000. Later, as the friend neared the end, Jeffreys slept beside him in bed to help him through the night. He also thought and wrote. By the time Savannah entered Stuyvesant High School, the new songs had been crafted and stage-tested. The King of In-Between was ready.
The album that Jeffreys and co-producer Larry Campbell released is honed to a fine point. As we have come to expect, it features a variety of musical approaches and a certain amount of gravitas. The many arrows in Jeffreys’s quiver are here on splendid display. “Coney Island Winter” opens the album and is followed by the emphatic “I’m Alive.” “Love is Not a Cliché,” given its title, seems an unlikely candidate for the record’s most danceable song, but Jeffreys makes it work through an infectious backbeat and title riff. Reggae and affection for the city merge familiarly in “Roller Coaster Town,” while later Jeffreys muses on mortality in “’Til John Lee Hooker Calls Me,” an up-tempo track that, with its arch lyrical phrasing, is a reminder that Jeffreys’s teeth were cut on the songwriting of Berlin and Cole Porter.
As lively as “John Hooker” is, though, much of what preoccupies Jeffreys here is the fate of the less fortunate. Consistently, it is the empty rhetoric of policy-makers and the powerful that Jeffreys calls on the carpet. In the opening song he sings, “Politicians, kiss my ass! Your promises—they break like glass…Hark the angels, can’t pay the rent. Jobs are gone, they came and went.” This criticality earned him a track on the box set inspired by Occupy Wall Street. In its liner notes he identifies his stance as “outrage that in a land of plenty, there are so many with nothing.” Jeffreys made it plainer still in conversation with me. “I certainly don’t think that the right wing is the wing to be excited about, that is going to help us. I don’t think they give a fuck what happens to the average person. This is the time to reach out to the person next door who needs help. Just say hello to someone. I believe in that.”
Nevertheless, it is not merely the courage of his convictions that keeps Jeffreys going. He has learned to act on the too-often-forgotten truth that the more you give, the more you get. From the shadowy land of in-between, Garland Jeffreys has emerged triumphantly—critically revered, professionally dynamic, healthy, and beloved by friends and family. I guess that’s what makes him King.