Brooklyn-born singer-songwriter Garland Jeffreys has always been a New York guy. Even when he went away to college, he didn’t leave the state. Jeffreys, who went to Syracuse University in the ’60s, had a college experience that changed his life. While at Syracuse, he befriended another aspiring singer-songwriter by the name of Lou Reed. The two would develop a friendship that lasted until Reed’s death in 2013.
“We would meet almost every single day at a bar called the Orange Bar,” says Jeffreys during a phone interview from his New York home. “[Poet] Delmore Schwartz would meet us as well. We would meet like clockwork at around 4 o’clock. We would hang and drink, and Delmore was a great guy. At the time, Lou Reed was just Lou Reed. He was just a plain guy. Me meeting Lou and Lou meeting me — that was a very powerful experience for both of us. What’s sweet about it is that we stayed friends until just before he passed on. He was a very great friend.”
While Reed went to form the Velvet Underground and then start a successful solo career, Jeffreys began gigging in Manhattan. Like Reed, he developed his poetic sensibilities and wrote songs that reflected the time period. In his music, he would famously explore race relations in the states. The topics continue to intrigue Jeffreys, whose career experienced a rebirth in 2011 with the The King of In Between
, his first studio release in years. Now, Jeffreys has embarked on a rare full-band tour that brings him to the Beachland Ballroom on Jan. 22.
His roots and blues based music represents an extension of the music he heard while growing up.
“My mother played music in the house all the time,” he says. “My father loved Louis Armstrong. I heard Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Those were the original sounds I heard. I graduated to Frankie Lymon who was my idol. I fell in love with that. I still love jazz and blues and of course, Miles and Mingus and Monk and all those people.”
In the early '70s, he had some success with the single "Wild in the Streets,” a song that was inspired by rape and murder that took place in the Bronx. It features blaring horns and snarling guitars as Jeffreys croons, “Mrs. America/Tell me how is your favorite son?/Do you really care/What he has done?” The song has a Springsteen-like swagger to it — not surprisingly, Jeffreys and Springsteen are pals and work together on Springsteen’s Light of Day foundation that raises money to combat Parkinson’s Disease.
“It’s amazing, that song,” says Jeffreys when asked about “Wild in the Streets,” adding that “it’s really wild that it [will be heard in a forthcoming Baz Luhrmann-helmed Netflix series].” “It’s very promising. With a capital P. It’s almost like being rediscovered as if it’s first happening. I’m beginning to enjoy what is happening to it with the promise that there will be more exciting things surrounding the film. I think my wife is already going out and spending money.”
Numerous artists have covered the tune over the years — the punk band the Circle Jerks put it on their 1982 album Wild in the Streets
“I’m very happy that people have covered it,” says Jeffreys. “Every artist would be lying if they said they didn’t like one particular version of one of their songs. They like any one that’s been done. I fit into that category. I particularly like my version better.”
In 1992, he released Don’t Call Me Buckwheat
, an album that centers on his reflections on being multi-racial in America.
“It’s a very interesting way that I used that phrase,” he says. “When I say, ‘Don’t call me Buckwheat,’ it means don’t stereotype me and don’t belittle me. I’m saying it to the race. It’s all about racism. It’s all about respecting your brother and sister regardless of their color. That’s my message. Period. A short paragraph [about my music] would be we know that racism is still pervasive and powerful. I spent part of my career championing the idea that it’s time for a change. I’ve been doing that forever.”
After Jeffreys made a comeback bid with the 2011 roots rock album The King of In Between
, he shared the stage with acts such as Springsteen, Levon Helm and Chuck Ragan. The album’s success also inspired Jeffreys to return to recording. He followed it up in 2013 with Truth Serum
. Now, he’s started writing new songs for an album due out later this year.
“I’m working on an album now and one of the songs is called ‘Black Murder,’” he says. “It not only comes out of that jury trial in the South, but it’s the ease with which black people have been murdered. There are outrageous situations where racism has been so strong and active. People are saying, ‘So kill them.’ It’s amazing. People have had that race hate for hundreds of years. Somebody like Obama, whether he’s the greatest president or not, is undermined constantly. He fought it and fought it and fought it. He’s done a remarkable job considering he’s had no help. This is the country we live in.”
Recently inducted into the New York Blues Hall of Fame, Jeffreys says he’ll take whatever accolades come his way.
“It’s a nice tribute,” he says of the Hall of Fame induction. “At the center of my music is my interest in the race discussion. It always has been, even before it was popular. That’s always at the heart of what I’m doing. I do go off into different other things. It’s just been that way. I come from a place where I’ve had a lot of experience growing up.”
He counts one particular incident that inspired him to put race the forefront of his music.
“Years ago, I remember very clearly when I went into a candy store, I was about seven years old,” he says. “I walked into the candy store and the owner of the store or the man running it, said, ‘What are you doing in here, blackie.’ It hurt me so much. I thought it can’t be good. At that age, you can’t discern very much. You feel something like that. I could see the scenario as clear as day now. I remember that candy store and the way he acted. That’s the kind of mark it leaves on people. Black folks have had that kind of experience. It’s a crazy world in that regard. We’re talking about a world that is quite prejudiced in all regards. I’m talking about sexual prejudice and racial prejudice. Fortunately, I’m not stalked by this stuff. I don’t think about it 24 hours a day. Some people unfortunately are consumed by it because it was so painful.”
And yet, Jeffreys, 72, still makes music that matters. Truth Serum
simmers with a real intensity that’s apparent right from the start as the opening title track features a nasty bit of harmonica and a gritty blues guitar riff over which Jeffreys speaks the lyrics (and at one point yells “lies, lies, lies”). So what’s been the key to keeping relevant?
“I feel like for me, I’m compelled,” he says. “I want to. It’s not a job. I want to write good songs. I have another song for this new album; it’s called ‘I’m a Dreamer.’ That’s very different for me. I have a whole bunch of new songs. I have a song called ‘Andy Warhol was a Friend of Mine but He Never said Hello to Me.’ That’s the way Andy Warhol was. That’s some of the good stuff from the past. I’ve met some wonderful people along the way. I put out some good music over the years too. Now, with this [Luhrmann] movie, we expect some action. What odd timing. That’s the music business.”
Garland Jeffreys, Robbing Mary, 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 22, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $22 ADV, $25 DOS, beachlandballroom.com.