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Garland Jeffreys on Lou Reed and "living in between"

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Garland Jeffreys (due Saturday, January 21, at the Lion's Lair) should be a household name considering some of the shoulders with which he's rubbed during the course of his long career: He met Lou Reed and Maureen Tucker before the Velvet Underground were properly a band, when Jeffreys and Reed were students at Syracuse in the early '60s. He helped write material for the first solo John Cale album. He's toured with The Stones. He has released numerous albums since his self-titled debut solo effort in 1973. His hit song "Wild in the Streets" was covered by Circle Jerks and Hot Water Music, to name a few. His music, always expertly penned pop and rock music informed by a deep jazz, soul and R&B influence, has been imbued by a social consciousness and a concern for the nature of the identities we take on and those assigned to us by biological and cultural facts of our upbringing we can't change.

In 2011, Jeffreys released his latest album, The King of In Between, to great critical acclaim with glowing reviews and coverage from Rolling Stone and NPR. Jeffreys is 68 years old, but on that record, he sounds like he hasn't lost any of his touch. In fact, he may sound better now than he did forty years ago. We had the chance to speak with Jeffreys recently about Lou Reed and his life being in between.

Westword: What did you struggle with the most growing up in Brooklyn as a biracial person of African-American and Puerto Rican-American ancestry?

Garland Jeffreys: I think it's the very simple thing of skin tone, skin color being different. In my elementary school, in my church, I was raised a Catholic. My grandmother and mother, we were the only family of color in the church. Pretty big parish. Most anyone of color was really going to the Baptist church, for the most part. There weren't a lot of Hispanics and Latinos in my area, by any means. Literally black and white, so to speak. Blacks went to the Baptist church. Whites usually went, obviously, to the synagogue or the Methodist churches and Catholic churches.

So it was very much like the album says, in between. In between the blacks and the whites. Very much in that. It takes an album like this to make me think about it even more. I make the album, and now I'm back talking to you and as I'm talking to you I'm reflecting on it again. And I remember that feeling of definitely being different than anyone in my school. There were a couple of other black kids in the school. And definitely different than anyone in my church.

I was equipped with a pretty good attitude, just as a human being. That kind of got me through a lot of things until I got older and I met people who were more understanding and mature. I was going into the city and going into the Village and hanging out, when I was grown but still young. But I had grown away from the narrow-mindedness and put some distance between me and that.

When you're a teenager, like you're fifteen, and you're going in to see Nina Simone and you're hearing Miles and stuff like that, and you're also hearing it with your family and the records that you're listening to, you're really still listening to your folks' records. Especially in my case there was a lot of jazz in the house and I heard Duke Ellington and Count Basie. From my uncle I heard Miles and Charlie Parker.

It's funny, this is a topic the more I talk about it, the more I learn about it. In a sense I'm the one who's lived through it, so I talk to people about it, especially like now in interviews and related to my new release, but it's always an education for me.

"Ghost Writer" is about coming of age in the big city. How did you get your start doing art and playing music, and what sorts of music inspired you early on?

As a four year old, maybe three or four years old, there was a lot of music in the house, not players. Although my uncle was an opera singer, and he lived on the floor below us, and you knew he was an opera singer because you could hear his voice, you didn't necessarily want to hear it, but there it was; he was singing. Like I say, that music of my folks was so powerful, like the jazz of that era, the real stuff, as far as I'm concerned. I'm not a big fan of modern day jazz. It gave me some soul, so to speak.

I'll never forget as a person in my late twenties, I had an apartment in the city, and I would put Billie Holiday on. I was still listening to that music I learned to listen to when I was a baby. There was a period of time where I would listen to that double album of hers constantly. I was listening to Charlie Parker also, you know. That's music you can play your whole life, especially if you've been introduced to it and if you've heard it since you were a kid.

Eventually I chose my own music. People always ask me this question, so I tell them what the answer is, which is that when I became of age, like eight, nine, ten-years old, I started listening to my own music like Frankie Lymon. All that music that was happening in the late-'50s R&B, singers like Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke.

Frankie Lymon was the man to me. Well, he was a boy, but he was my idol. Frankie Lymon's voice, when you hear it, is still one of the great instruments. I personally think...I don't know who Michael Jackson listened to, but Frankie Lymon's voice was the best, as far as I'm concerned. When he sings "I'm not a know-it-all, don't know why the raindrops fall, don't know what's beyond the blue, I only know that I love you." That's the stuff.

At Syracuse, you met Lou Reed. Were you both active in music at that point?

Round about '61 is when I started going to school in Syracuse, and my horizons were expanding. I hated to be leaving when I was eighteen to go to school because I had just really started getting a chance to go into the Village. Even when I was fifteen, I was sneaking into places and going with a couple of older friends and we would go to the Half Note, and I saw Coltrane. I eventually got to know Charlie Mingus because he used to work at the Five Spot on St. Mark's Place and 3rd Avenue. So you heard

And that's the way it was, and then I went away to school. My father was probably happy to get me out of town, so he could be with my mother in peace. I hated the idea of going to Syracuse because I did realize what Syracuse meant -- snow drifts forever, freezing, fucking cold. Then I met a few people like Lou Reed and Delmore Schwartz and our little crew we had. Sort of like Bohemian group of people. These people really taught me.

In terms of art, earlier than that, my best friend Phil Messina -- he's still my best friend, lived a couple of blocks away from me, we grew up together and went to the same church -- he was my ally. He was an Italian guy, but he accepted me full-on. He was already way ahead of everybody else because he was an artist. He had tremendous abilities as a painter and as a draftsman. He taught me about art.

When I was eighteen, nineteen, I went to Italy, and that's when I really blossomed. Going to Syracuse helped because I met a couple of great elderly gentlemen who were teachers, Dr. Christofides and Dr. Fleming. Christofides was a master of Byzantine art, and Fleming was an overall expert at world art. I learned about art, the history of art, the place of art in society from the ninth through the sixteenth century. That opened up the door to Impressionism and learning about France and Cézanne, Renoir, Manet and these incredible painters.

For a guy like me from Sheepshead Bay, from a mixed race family, that had no education, a street education, family ran numbers. My mother ran numbers. My grandfather was a numbers runner also, a bit of a hustler, you know? But all things said and done, I can complain about certain things, like how roughly my father treated me, but in the end, when I really look at it, my father worked two jobs and put me through college. I was the first person to go to college in my family.

I met Maureen Tucker's brother, James Tucker, who wasn't a musician, but we all hung out together. James Tucker and I were very close, very good guy, still alive, but I can't seem to find him, but he's still around. I met Maureen through James. Sterling [Morrison] and I were friendly, and of course, Lou and I became very close. Lou and I have known each other for fifty years, since '61. So now we're having a great time together. We see each other a lot.

You contributed to John Cale's first solo album Vintage Violence. Did you meet him through Lou, and how did you come to play on that album and co-write "Fairweather Friend"?

What happened is that I knew Lou, and I eventually met John. I think I met John around '65, '66 maybe. John and I liked each other from the beginning. I wish I could see him now. I don't know where he is, but maybe I'm not looking hard enough. I had a friendship with John and a friendship with Lou, but they were different kinds of friendships, each of them strong. John played bass in that first band I had Grinder's Switch. It was my first recording band and John was part of that. But John, in the end, wanted his own thing, of course. He wanted to bringing his Welshness to things.

So he asked me to write a song for the album, and that's how it started. I wrote "Fairweather Friend," which had to do with Lou Reed and the circumstances under which they split up and all that. He asked me if I would write any liner notes, and I wrote that poem on the back. Then I played guitar on one of the songs, and that's the way that worked out. We always cared for each other.

Has it surprised you that "Wild in the Streets" has become so embraced by skaters and punks since it was released?

I'm not surprised about anything. Anything is really possible. More than that, I'm happy about it. It's like there's a group that's going to be recording it soon, the Darlins, so that's fun. It's a very special song so naturally I'm happy when somebody wants to record it. Circle Jerks, I think, recorded it and a couple of other bands.

Why was it you took nine years between Don't Call Me Buckwheat and your previous record?

First of all, regarding time and making album and sequencing: I had been in a situation when I made six albums in six years. I guess that would be Ghost Writer, One-Eyed Jack, American Boy & Girl, Escape Artist, Rock 'n' Roll Adult and Guts for Love. All these albums. That kind of defined a period, and I didn't want to do that anymore.

What I'd rather do is take time and make a brand new album that has everything I wanted to have. It has a spirit, the right mood, the right songs. To make an album where all the songs really are good. That's what I've been doing. That's where different albums that I've made, maybe we could say, "Could you make it a shorter time between albums." That's probably true, but I have a daughter who is healthy and psychologically healthy and a musician. She's a lovely person. I don't know if I'd have that going on like that if I was out on the road and unavailable.

How did Wim Wenders approach you to be in his movie The Soul of a Man, and what is it about the music of Skip James that especially resonates with you?

Wim Wenders and I met quite some time ago. He took me on a trip through Berlin to show me some of the plans of the city, what was going to be happening, what was going to be reconstructed and how they were going to rebuild the city, really. We had dinner out, and it was very nice. We had met in Paris at a show that I did. He had come back stage, and that's how I met him the first time.

He was doing this project with Scorsese doing one of these five films and he asked if I would be part of it. He's the one who said, "Check out Skip James and see if there's something there for you." There were two choices; I forget the other artist he suggested I listen to, but I just liked the Skip James thing, and I started practicing that song for a month, literally, every day, because I wanted it to be representative. I wanted it to be able to honor the project and do something good. I'm really pleased with the way it came out.

There's a great song called "Love Is Not a Cliché" on The King of In Between. Why did you feel the need to make such a statement in your music at this time?

It's hard to say. The opening of the song is, "I like my folk, I like my jazz, I like my R&B, I love my rock and roll with a dash of soul and funky. I like a message in my sound, tell everybody what's going down, don't ever want to leave this town." All those lyrics, that I just spoke are all about unification. It's all about how you can be all those things. You like all that music. You can make albums with all kinds of music on them; it doesn't just have to be one musical theme. You can create an album that takes you on a journey, not just in terms of a [narrative] story but in terms of the story that the actual musical styles present.

It's hard to explain it absolutely literally, but one of the themes of the album continues to be one's identity. You know, "I like my folk, I like my jazz, I like my R&B." You know, black people aren't supposed to like rock and roll and white people aren't supposed to like soul. We know that that's really a lot of bullshit. Some people still think that way. I don't ever want to be limited, I try not to be limited. I try to expand what I'm doing and naturally make choices that happen to be different. People have said I'm not classifiable. That's one of the most boring things I've ever heard and it's stupid. It's very lightweight.

At 68, your voice sounds better than ever, and you've put out arguably the best record of your career. Is there anything that has consistently kept you inspired all these years?

I think it's pretty simple. If you're going to make a project, make an album, do something, a painting or something, and if you want it to go into the pubic, you better damned well make it good. Because what's the point, number one. Number two, your ass is out there. My goal is to stay alive and to continue to work at my own pace, within reason, and turn out my best work, and go beyond anybody's judgment in terms of what they think I should do or what I shouldn't do.

There's some great artists that did some great work in their later years. Both musicians and definitely painters. A guy like John Lee Hooker, for example. Even Sinatra in his eighties. I saw Sinatra in his eighties, and he sang at Carnegie Hall -- we were lucky to get it a seat. But it was great to see him. All the people out there that you love and admire, those are the people that we follow. Then there are those that follow us. Look at Bob Dylan, I don't care what he does, he writes those songs, writes those lyrics and they're fucking phenomenal. He still continues to do it. In a way his life depends on it. Can you imagine him not having that? So this is it.

Garland Jeffreys, 8 p.m., Saturday, January21, Lion's Lair, $20, 303-320-9200, 21+

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