By Noah Hubbell
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If any performer has an excuse -- make that multiple excuses -- to be bitter, it's singer-songwriter Garland Jeffreys.
For more than three decades, Jeffreys has made challenging, innovative and consistently satisfying music characterized by Ghost Writer, one of the great lost records of the '70s. Unfortunately, the idiosyncrasies and individuality that impressed critics and attracted friends and collaborators as disparate as Lou Reed, the Rumour and Bruce Springsteen made him difficult to promote. For that reason and others, Jeffreys never became as big a star in the land of his birth as he deserved to be, and although he continues to be a prolific composer, the last studio album shipped to stores in America came out over a decade ago. Yet he refuses to bellyache about what might have been.
"People say to me, ŒThe record companies didn't really do their job with you; you really got let down.' But I don't go there," Jeffreys says. "Companies don't intentionally do things like that. It's to their advantage to have success. That's why I choose not to take the route of the victim. It's such an easy place to go, but I won't. I don't dwell on things in terms of them being the end of the world. They're just not."
These days, the New York-based Jeffreys has empirical evidence to back up this conclusion. The day after speaking to Westword, he hopped a plane to London, where he signed a new contract with Universal Records. The multi-album deal, which includes worldwide distribution, kicks off with a retrospective that differs from his finest package currently available, Wild in the Streets: Best of 1977-1983, in two major respects. First, it will cover his entire career, not just a significant but limited span. And second, he'll be able to personally choose what's on it. "The plan is for me to write the liner notes myself, so you'll have an idea of what's really there and what really happened," he says. "And it'll have probably two or three new songs, and other things that you might not expect to find."
Even more pleasing for Jeffreys, Universal has agreed to put out his first disc of fresh material since 1997's Wildlife Dictionary, which was released in Europe only. (Stateside airplay pretty much began and ended with the use of one track, "Sexuality," in an Armani perfume ad.) The sole hint he offers about the forthcoming CD's themes relates to the experience of singing and playing in front of live audiences again -- gigs highlighted by 2003 appearances at Giants Stadium and Shea Stadium alongside Springsteen. As Jeffreys puts it, "Till John Lee Hooker calls me, that's where I'm at."
Such references to mortality are rare for Jeffreys. He was born in 1944, but when he's asked if reaching sixty was something of a benchmark for him, he reacts with mock indignation. "I'm not sixty years old, man; I'm 39," he insists. "Really, I'm a rejuvenated person. There's nothing wrong with me. I have all the energy I've always had." He adds that he lives in a building whose elderly residents appreciate his presence "because they like to know there's a younger person on the floor."
Does that mean sixty is the new 39?
Jeffreys laughs before saying, "Sometimes 35."
His youthful mindset comes naturally, as he's the father of an eight-year-old daughter, Savannah. He's limited his touring since she came along because, he says, "I'm serious about being a father. Can you imagine if I was out performing all the time when she was growing up? I'd be missing the most important thing in my life."
After Savannah entered school, Jeffreys began to venture away from home again on occasion, and he hasn't noticed any rust on his performances.
"They're the highlight of what I do," he says. "Everybody wants to make a new CD, and everyone should aspire to that. But they shouldn't make that what it's all about. In the end, there's so much you can't control when it comes to the marketplace, but you can control what you're doing on stage, how you relate to your audience, how you're singing, how good you are, what improvements you can make and how much fun you can have. And I'm telling you, I'm having more fun right now than I've had in my entire career."
A Brooklyn native, Jeffreys attended Syracuse University, where he became friends with a pre-Velvet Underground Reed. Later, he was drawn into the Velvets' orbit and grew close to their other main man, John Cale; Vintage Violence, Cale's first solo album, contains a Jeffreys number, "Fairweather Friend." But Jeffreys wasn't satisfied with just being a member of Reed's posse. He spent much of the second half of the '60s behind microphones at Greenwich Village nightspots, establishing himself as an artist who could stand alone. "Sometimes I'd play two or three shows a day," he recalls, "and when I wasn't playing clubs, I'd be in this great little studio apartment I had. I wrote all my songs in that apartment and spent the rest of my time in front of the mirror, trying to figure out what my style was."