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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."
The process didn't occur overnight. In the midst of an obsession with the music of the Band, he formed a group called Grinder's Switch, but the outfit's debut, 1970's Garland Jeffreys and Grinder's Switch, left nary a ripple. Jeffreys made a switch of his own shortly thereafter, moving ahead on his own, and Atlantic Records eventually took notice of his efforts. Too bad the firm didn't put more muscle behind Garland Jeffreys, a 1973 solo offering that fully revealed the dimensions of his talent for the first time. For proof, look no further than "Wild in the Streets," a riveting urban tale inspired by the murder of a young girl who was tossed off a roof by two boys, ages twelve and thirteen.
The tune's concerns prefigured punk rock and became an early anthem of the movement. English punks such as members of the Clash got to know it from a cover version by the British Lions, a combo that co-starred former members of Mott the Hoople; Guy Stevens, who produced the Clash's London Calling, did the same honors for Mott. "When I met the Clash in 1979 or 1980, I gave Joe Strummer a copy of the Atlantic-label 45," Jeffreys remembers. "He knew it very well." So did the Circle Jerks, whose rendition of "Wild" became the title cut for their second full-length, from 1982. Earlier this year, the Jerks' recording was used for a Vans commercial aimed at the skateboarding crowd. "I get a small royalty from these things," Jeffreys allows, "but what I'm much more excited about is that people have embraced the song -- that they're still playing it and recording it and listening to it."
"Wild" isn't the only great song on Ghost Writer, a 1977 album that marked Jeffreys's jump to A&M Records. Also on the disc is "New York Skyline," which he played at benefit shows with Springsteen after 9/11, and "Cool Down Boy," one of several tracks that sport a reggae undercurrent thanks to assistance from some of Jamaica's finest sidemen -- among them drummer Winston Grennan, who kept the beat on Toots & the Maytals' classic Funky Kingston platter and worked with Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff.
While Jeffreys's love of reggae and ska further endeared him to punks, it merely confused U.S. radio programmers, who had no clue what to do with an African-American singer-songwriter who didn't specialize in soul, R&B or disco. It's no surprise, then, that even after Jeffreys made two more highly regarded LPs, 1978's One Eyed Jack and 1979's American Boy & Girl (distinguished by "Matador," a song that topped charts in much of Europe), A&M dropped him. He resurfaced on Epic Records two years later with Escape Artist, which featured Reed, David Johansen and a who's who of New York rockers, plus reggae figures like Linton Kwesi Johnson and Springsteen cohorts Roy Bittan and Danny Federici. This crew created enough of a stir to turn a new rendering of the rock chestnut "96 Tears" into a minor hit, and a live followup, 1981's Rock 'n' Roll Adult, drew some heat because Jeffreys was accompanied by the Rumour, the band heard backing Graham Parker on his most memorable recordings. Nevertheless, Epic and Jeffreys parted company after 1983's Guts for Love, and another nine years would pass before another label, RCA, filled the vacuum. His 1992 disc, Don't Call Me Buckwheat, collected the expected raves but was harder to find than it should have been; Jeffreys says Springsteen didn't track down a copy until 2001.
Springsteen's enthusiastic patronage, as well as a key role in a Wim Wenders-directed segment of The Blues, Martin Scorsese's recent multi-part TV documentary, probably made Universal's decision to ink Jeffreys to a new agreement that much easier. "I'm thrilled about the opportunity to put out some new recordings with a large distribution," he says. Still, he knows better than to tie his self-esteem to anything as fickle as sales figures or acclaim.
"I think everybody aspires to more recognition if they're honest with themselves," he maintains, "but I'm taking responsibility for myself. I feel very much part of the world, very at ease with myself and comfortable in my own skin. No one has cost me anything."