In November 1981, when the Rolling Stones were touring in support of their enormously successful Tattoo You album (best known for “Start Me Up” and “Waiting on a Friend”), bassist Bill Wyman talked to Rolling Stone magazine about the band’s desire to play small clubs in the midst of its worldwide stadium-rock orgy: “When we…
When the legendary street poet and songwriter Lou Reed passed away a few weeks back, it struck me that for people of a certain age, he was more influential than some of his better-known predecessors like Bob Dylan or the Beatles. By the time Lou Reed emerged on FM radio in 1972, pop music had evolved from its energetic beginnings where every song was, as the Clash would later say, “two minutes fifty-nine,” to a sort of cumbersome, preachy psychedelia where every song was intended to change the world. But Reed and a handful of other songwriters, mostly, it seems, from New York City and the surrounding area, focused their attention not so much on changing the world as describing real people who lived in it.
Unique among that group of east coast songwriters, which included artists as diverse as Bruce Springsteen and the New York Dolls, was Garland Jeffreys, the son of an African-American father and a Puerto Rican mother, who added depth and dimension to the teenage angst and streetwise cynicism of his mostly white peers. Jeffreys scored a hit with the song “Wild in the Streets” in 1973, which was later included on his 1977 album, Ghost Writer, and had considerable success in the early 1980s with Escape Artist (1980) and Guts for Love (1983). After a few albums in the 1990s, Jeffreys took off most of the early 2000s to raise his daughter, Savannah Rae, returning in 2011 with the brilliant memoir/comeback album, The King of In Between. He just recently released his 13th solo album, Truth Serum, and at age 70, he’s sounding better than ever.
Touring in support of the latest album, Jeffreys came to Chicago’s landmark Old Town School of Folk Music Saturday night, with a band that featured Tom Curiano on drums, Gray Reinhardt on keyboards and guitar, Brian Stanley on bass, and Mark Bosch on lead guitar. His 15-song set, including several encores to an extremely enthusiastic crowd, ran the gamut of his career, with a particular emphasis on the last two albums. Opening with a scorching rendition of “Coney Island Winter,” the lead track on The King of In Between, Jeffreys seemed to take particular joy in stressing the lyric, “Politicians kiss my ass/Your promises, they break like glass …,” before seguing into “35mm Dreams” from Ghost Writer and the aptly named, “I’m Alive,” also from The King of In Between.
From the new album, he played the title track, “Truth Serum,” and “Any Rain,” the first single off the LP; but it was “It’s What I Am,” which Jeffreys called his signature song, that provided the first emotional highlight of the evening:
Too white to be black too
Black to be white
I’m one of them
That’s what I am
It’s what I am . . .
Continuing the theme of straddling racial divides and looking for acceptance, the set included the reggae ballad, “I May Not Be Your Kind” from Ghost Writer, and the hip-hop influenced “Hail, Hail Rock ’N’ Roll” from his 1991 manifesto, Don’t Call Me Buckwheat:
Father of coal, mother of pearl
Never too black to blush to pick up a white girl
The color of you
The color of me
You can’t judge a man
By lookin’ at the marquee
Hail hail rock ’n’ roll
Comes from R & B and soul
Don’t leave me standing in the cold
I used to think I’d never grow old
Hail hail rock ’n’ roll
Don’t leave me standing on the beat
Leave me stranded on the street
I see the light, I feel the heat . . .
The highlight of the night, though, was an extended version of “Mystery Kids” from Escape Artist, in the midst of which he talked about growing up in Brooklyn in the shadow of Coney Island, the difficult relationship he had with his father and their and eventual reconciliation, the passing of his longtime friend Lou Reed, whom he met at Syracuse University 50 years ago, and his love for and devotion to his wife of 32 years and his daughter, Savannah. It was an incredibly touching moment coming in the midst of a song that captures the essence of what the Lou Reed/Garland Jeffreys school of songwriting is all about–just how hard it is for real people to survive in the real world:
She got no good life
They got no love life
Got no future
Got no hopes or dreams
In the cool world
In the cruel world
You’re a number
You’re a mystery . . .
The biography of Garland Jeffreys on his website says, “his explorations of race, prejudice, and love earned him a reputation as a socially conscious urban poet with a keen eye for detail and immense lyrical power,” and every word of that is true. What it doesn’t tell you, though, is that Garland Jeffreys is one of the sincerest and most decent artists you’re likely to encounter these days. After everything he’s been through over four decades in the music industry, you’ll never see an artist who’s more appreciative of his fans, and who’s more willing to take the time to chat or exchange tweets (he’s @garlandjeffreys) . . . or even pose for a goofy photograph with an itinerant This Week in Blackness staff writer:
On “’Til John Lee Hooker Calls Me” off of The King of In Between, he sings “I’m not getting any younger but I’m not feeling very old,” and Saturday night was proof of that. Let’s hope John Lee Hooker doesn’t call Garland Jeffreys home for many, many years.
Here he is singing “It’s What I Am” in honor of his good friend Lou Reed: