garlandIt was sometime in the first few months of 1970, I was living in some sixth floor walkup on the Lower East Side, and late one night, listening to Bob Fass’ “Radio Unnamable,” when this mysterious song came on that sounded like something from The Basement Tapes but the recording quality was too good and the voice was closer to Nashville Skyline.   Since Bob Fass rarely announced the songs he was playing, I somehow found out that later the song was called “Seven Sleepers Den,” and was on an album on Vanguard titled Grinder’s Switch featuring Garland Jeffreys.  Eventually I bought the album, where I found the influence Music From Big Pink pervaded, which was no small wonder, since the drummer Sandy Konikoff had taken Levon Helm’s spot on the drums backing Dylan in 1966, and pianist Stan Szelest had preceded Richard Manuel in Ronnie Hawkins’ Hawks, and years later following Manuel’s death would take the piano chair in the reformed Band.  But I didn’t know any of that at the time. 

As it also turned out, Grinder’s Switch was only slightly representative of Garland Jeffrey’s true talents or where he was coming from.  A few years later his first solo album simply titled Garland Jeffreys appeared on Atlantic Records and revealed a singer-songwriter of the highest order, but despite a stellar cast of backing musicians including Dr. John, keyboard player, Paul Griffin, David “Fathead” Newman, Mike Mainieri, David Bromberg and the Persuasions, the album received little notice or airplay.

Four years later, now on A&M records, Jeffreys released his masterpiece, Ghostwriter.  At that point in time FM rock radio had yet to totally decline, and “Wild In The Streets” and “35 Millimeter Dreams” received quite a bit of airplay.  Ghostwriter revealed a brilliant writer in total command of what he was doing whose music encompassed all of rock ’n’ roll and its contributing sources.  By a simple turn of phrase or slight inflection he could evoke Frankie Lymon one second and Lou Reed the next.  With his beloved city of New York as the backdrop, the songs covered a wide range of topics and emotions, expressing outrage and rebellion, black/white relations, and societal pressures countered by great tenderness and beauty.  The often mysterious darker songs, which included hints of Kafka inspired paranoia, the innocent man as guilty always managed to have a flicker of hope, the salvation often being the music itself.

Jeffreys was a powerful and soulful singer, someone who obviously had paid serious attention to his influences, and often the way he would phrase something, whether a line or a single word could add layers of meaning and had a way of zapping you like an electric shock.  He was also one of the few non-Jamaican musicians who could use reggae and ska to its full effect without coming off as a pretender.  But the songs that received the most airplay only showed one side and the best tracks on the album, the title track, the cinematic epic “Spanish Town,” and the gorgeous “New York Skyline” possibly the best song ever written about New York City barely made the airwaves.  Jeffreys made all the right moves, touring with a great band, and a carefully planned, often dramatic show, but didn’t break through.  Maybe the music world wasn’t ready for a half African-American, half Puerto Rican singer who would sing about Charlie Chaplin in one song and come off as a rebel punk in the next.

Jeffreys released two more albums on A&M, One-Eyed Jack and American Boy & Girl before moving to Epic in 1980.  Escape Artist gave Jeffreys his first real hit, a cover of Question Mark & the Mysterians “96 Tears.”  It 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 hit.  Jeffreys made a few more albums for Epic, then moved to RCA, but many of the records got bogged down in ’80s production values, and he remained kind of a cult artist better known in Europe than his own country.

Now after 13 years, Jeffreys is back with a new album, The King of In Between released on his own Luna Park label.  Co-produced by Jeffreys and Larry Campbell, the album find Jeffreys with all his skills more than intact.  To say the album rocks from beginning to end is an understatement.

The opening track “Coney Island Winter,” fades in getting louder and louder like a train coming into a station.  Coney Island, the once great oceanfront amusement park with the legendary parachute, a place of ghosts now for decades.  When I was six, I was at Coney Island one July 4th, when the New York Aquarium was a month old and the Cyclone and the Tornado were the most terrifying roller coasters around.  It seemed the entire beachfront and boardwalk were wall to wall people.  When I went back a decade later, it was pretty much a ghost town, but I happen to like ghostly boardwalks.  The song is part metaphor, and when Jeffreys, a master of using a repetitive line, sings “22 stops to the city,” over and over, he lets you know just how long that subway ride back to Manhattan is.  But in this case Coney Island is metaphor.  He wastes no time getting down to business, and manages to work a whole lot of what is happening now into the song – “Insanity lives on the edge of the streets,” and then immediately, “Politicians kiss my ass/Your promises they break like glass,” leaving little doubt who that line is directed at.  And then in the next verse, “Hark the angels, can’t pay the rent/Jobs are gone, they came and went.”

The next song “I’m Alive” rocks just as hard and is celebratory, but with a dark edge.  There’s something about the way in the midst of singing, “I’m alive,” over and over, he sneaks in “Not Dead,” and it hits like a bullet, as does the line, “I did reverse the hearse.”  All this takes place to a guitar assault with slide by Mark Bosch, and at times, what’s described as sonic orchestration in the credits echoes the lyrics with almost demonic laughter.

On “Streetwise” the sound gets a bit funkier with a terrific strings arranged and played by Larry Campbell who also plays guitar on the track along with Duke Levine.  The song moves from being worried about his daughter walking home alone from school, to “Black president on the White House Lawn/I remember when there were to black jockeys there/When I was born, to “All you secret service guys/You gotta be streetwise.”

On “The Contortionist,” things get a bit spookier, and there’s no mistaking the sneer in Jeffreys voice as he sings, “I used to be a contortionist/Now I know what it really means/Contortion or distortionist/Doing anything to be part of the scene.”  Lou Reed guests singing a perfect “do do do” part between the verses.  The song has a delightfully nasty bite and one could almost imagine the Stones doing it around the time of Some Girls.

On “All Around The World,” Jeffreys moves right into the 21st Century on a song that is much darker than it first sounds, the ska backing accentuating lines like “The property is condemned/And so are the people who live here.

The album then shifts gears into trio of tributes to music itself with a smoking John Lee Hooker boogie honoring some of his musical heroes on “I’m Gonna Wail ’Til John Lee Hooker Calls Me.”  Again a large part of Jeffreys impact is in the way he phrases his lines.  What might look one way on paper comes off way different when he sings it.  This song is part companion to “I’m Alive,” and echoes one of the themes of this album, which is being alive in the face of mortality, and Jeffreys is always the fighter, almost taunting, yeah, one day you’re gonna get me, but it won’t be without a fight.  The song name checks a lot of people from Bo Diddley to Louis Armstrong and Sinatra, but the classic opening line, “James Brown’s cape is on the auction block/Should be in a museum under key and lock” is hard to beat.

The swampy “Love Is Not a Cliché,” which starts with, “I like my folk/I like my jazz/I like my R&B,” but then shifts gears on the second verse, “The land of opportunity/Goes swiftly down the drain,”  but it’s sung in such a way, that if you’re not paying attention to the words, you could miss it at first..  One could imagine John Fogerty shouting this song out.  Keeping things thematically consistent, “Rock And Roll Music,” (not to be confused with the Chuck Berry song of the same name) which features a rather spectacular Larry Campbell solo, is the perfect answer to anyone who claims rock and roll is only for the young.

Then it’s back to ska, for the reflective “The Beautiful Truth,” which combines many of the albums lyrical themes, and contains there lines: “All the pain and self pity/That I learned back in my youth/Is like a flame running through me/It’s what I call the beautiful truth.”  Staying in ska mode, but a bit more upbeat Jeffreys brings things full circle with “Roller Coaster Town,” which is a simply a love song to New York. The chorus: “New York’s the place/Where everybody’s here from the human race/Where they lift you up when you’re feelin’ down/That’s why I love this roller coaster town” made me recall a line from one of my favorite songs on Ghostwriter, “Lift Me Up,” “Down so long like the underdog/But you’ll never ever catch me in the L.A. fog.”

On “In God’s Waiting Room” Jeffreys returns to the feel of his first solo album, playing acoustic guitar accompanied by Larry Campbell on what’s listed as “revelator” guitar, and takes the album’s underlying theme of mortality head on, in a way that is scary and humorous at the same time” “The Staple singers will be present/In my very last dream/Fingers at my funeral on guitars turned up to sixteen.”  The song is followed by an unlisted bonus track, an ethereal cover of David Essex’ “Rock On.”

Ultimately what makes The King of In Between stand out is that Jeffreys takes on a host of heavy duty topics, from the current climate of the United States to mortality, mixes them up with his life story, his love affair with music, his love affair with New York, his love for his family, and combines and entwines them in such away that the dominant message of the album is not despair or fear, but life.  It might be life in the face of continual and difficult obstacles, but the feeling that comes through loud and clear is live and live now.  That’s quite a trick, and considering the topics, there’s not a song on here that’s down or even sad.  More to the point Jeffreys pulls this off in such a matter of fact way, that you don’t even realize at first what he’s singing about until it hits you full force.  So when he sings, “I used to be a contortionist,” he knows exactly what he’s singing about.

The King of In Between is available at:

http://garlandjeffreys.com/

(Originally published at the now gone Muddy Water site.)