When Garland Jeffreys released his first solo album in 1973, Village Voice critic Robert Christgau called him both “classy” and “classless.” He wasn’t meaning to be self-contradictory: It was clear even then that Jeffreys was elevated just a little in temperament and ambition from much of the streetwise New York scene he was a part of. It was also evident from day one that classifications meant nothing to a genre-indifferent performer whose self-titled debut had “Stonesy blues shuffles rubbing elbows with reggae from Kingston.” The dean of rock critics declared that “this man should be given the keys to every city whose streets he walks—ours first” and issued a bold two-word prophecy: “staying power.”
There’s been no cause to eat those premonitory words since. Although Jeffreys did take a hiatus from recording in the late ‘90s and 2000s, he returned five years ago with a comeback album, The King of In Between, that made Christgau gush that the singer/songwriter had somehow “beaten the odds by surpassing 1973’s Garland Jeffreys and 1977’s Ghost Writer.” He won’t be treading of any of those high-water marks. In 2017, Jeffreys stays on a returning-champion roll with 14 Steps to Harlem, a spirited summation of virtually all the styles and subjects he’s explored through a nearly five-decade career. If the entire world doesn’t know it, the cognoscenti still agree: As “woke” New York rock standard-bearers go, Jeffreys remains at the head of the class. (And the classy. And the unclassifiable.) The new album is filled with autobiographical narratives that refer back to Jeffreys’ occasionally rough, fondly recalled Brooklyn upbringing, as well as songs that salute his adult friendships with peers like Lou Reed, Bob Marley, John Lennon, and Joe Strummer, explored in both original songs (“Reggae on Broadway”) and a pair of choice covers (“I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Help”). He looks back to his childhood in “Schoolyard Blues” (about being an undersized basketball hustler) and the title track (about his father’s inspiring work ethic), but the invocation of these memories is less indulging in nostalgia than about a continued penchant for narrative writing.
“I try to make all these songs have an identify and have meaning. I can’t get around telling stories,” Jeffreys says. “I’m always telling a story because my life is full of them. It’s not a simple, plain life. It’s been complex… and fun. The key is to stay alive —that’s the number one goal!—and to keep making records. I’m 73 now, and I plan to stay around for at least another 50 years. So we’ll see what kind of work I can turn out. I’ll have to whisper the lyrics to my wife,” he laughs.
You won’t find much whispering on 14 Steps to Harlem. He is still operating in the full-throated fashion that, when his last album came out, led AllMusic to remark that “Jeffreys’ distinct lyrical voice shines bright even when he’s chanting his thoughts like a mantra, and his voice is warm, passionate, and a joy to hear more than four decades after he cut his first album.” It’s an amalgam voice that well represents an amalgam artist — as tough and tender as you’d hope for from someone who grew up idolizing Nat King Cole before joining the pre-punk east coast underground. New York Times critic Stephen Holden has always loved Jeffreys’ “wide, reedy vibrato and undertone of plaintiveness,” writing, “Mr. Jeffreys’s raw, hungry singing, which combines the fervor of Frankie Lymon and the edge of Mick Jagger, gives it an incendiary immediacy… Musically, Mr. Jeffreys, who is of racially mixed descent, comes as close as any other pop performer to representing a composite New Yorker of a certain age, (accumulating) rock, soul, reggae and hip-hop influences, with a touch of salsa, layered so as to evoke a strong historic resonance.”
You get a sense of that span in one of the anecdotes Jeffreys tells as he recalls his nearly lifelong friendship with the late Lou Reed, memorialized on this album in a Velvet Underground cover. “I met Lou when we were both at Syracuse University in the early ‘60s,” Jeffreys says, “and I think one conclusion I had was: If that guy can get up and sing a song, then I can too!” He laughs. “And he loved my voice. One time when I was performing, Lou got up on stage and sang a song with me, and then he had to go, and as he got off the stage and was ready to leave, I sang a Frankie Lymon song a cappella, because I knew he would love that. And in front of the full house, he got on his knees and bowed down to me. It was both hilarious and absolutely wonderful.”
As a child of black, white and Puerto Rican heritage growing up in the ‘50s, Jeffreys was raised on everything from R&B to the first bursts of rock and roll to “God Bless America” crooner Kate Smith (who gets a shout-out in the new album’s title track, by virtue of having been a daily TV favorite of his grandfather’s). He fell in with a more literary crowd once his blue-collar father made enough money to send him to Syracuse. Once he started making his own music, Jeffreys never became any easier to nail down. As a folkie, he played Village nightspots like the Bitter End and the Gaslight, before recording his first album as a member of the short-lived Woodstock-based group Grinder’s Switch for Vanguard in 1970.
In ‘73, he literally made a name for himself, going solo with an Atlantic debut that included the likes of Dr. John and his band among the session musicians. A single was released that same year that ended up being a signature song: “Wild in the Streets,” which suddenly made Jeffreys sound like the black — or part-black — Mick Jagger. The single had a peculiar life: Punk band the Circle Jerks covered it in 1980, popularizing it among the skater set. It was used in a L’Oreal commercial, of all places, and most recently, highlighted the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix series, The Get Down. If this is his most enduring song in the outside world, “I don’t mind that,” he says. “It’s nice to bring a little college money into the picture!”
In 1981, he reached No. 5 on the rock chart with a cover of “96 Tears,” the classic by ? and the Mysterians, getting exposed as well on brand-new MTV to viewers unaware he had any previous lives as a performer or that the song itself was anything but a freshly minted new wave hit. But that was the least of Jeffreys’ artistic achievements in the ‘80s and ‘90s, which included Guts for Love, an album-sized meditation on love and fidelity, and Don’t Call Me Buckwheat, which took the preoccupation with race that’d long factored into his songs and extended it to feature length.
“I could say that I was one of the first musical artists who talked about race so openly in America,” Jeffreys says. “Challenging racial difficulties comes out of my own that I had growing up in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn. I love expressing what’s on my mind about subjects that are intense and difficult, and along the lines of race, I’m interested to do what I can to make it better. I don’t expect to create miracles, but I know that I can have an effect, and I have, my whole career.” The new album’s “Colored Boy Said” is in the lineage of previous songs like “I’m Not Your Kind,” “It’s What I Am,” and “Color Line.”
But the perennial race theme is but one flavor to which he returns on 14 Steps to Harlem. Having been ahead of the curve when he traveled to Kingston, Jamaica to record a track for his ‘73 debut, he circles back to it on “Reggae on Broadway,” a song that has as much to do with his friendship with the Clash as the title genre. Family plays an even bigger part on the album than famous pals. “Venus” is a mash note to his wife (and manager), Claire, while “Time Goes Away” lovingly celebrates not just his spouse but their vocally gifted college-age daughter, Savannah, who sings a guest lead on the track.
Love of family helps explain why Jeffreys went almost 20 years between studio albums in the States, with a vast gap separating 1992’s Don’t Call Me Buckwheat and 2011’s The King of In-Between. “I’m not afraid to take a break — to get off of it, have a different kind of life,” he says. “I loved taking my daughter to Europe,” he notes (European countries always having afforded him radio hits and touring offers that were more inconsistent in America). “Savannah is quite terrific, and she’s following in my footsteps. I think being a musician is fantastic, and I’m so grateful that she’s doing it too.” Having an empty nest has obviously worked wonders for his productivity, as he’s followed that nearly two-decade release gap with three albums in six years, now — “making up for lost time,” he says.
The new album has guests that will be known to all — like Laurie Anderson, who contributes electric violin to the closing number, “Luna Park Love Theme” — as well as those familiar to liner notes buffs. The player who goes back the farthest with Jeffreys is guitarist Alan Freedman, who played on the self-titled Garland Jeffreys album all the way back in ‘73. Drummer Steve Goulding first performed with Jeffreys in the early ‘80s, almost concurrent with his overlapping status as a member of Graham Parker’s Rumour, Gang of Four, and the Mekons. Other musicians include the Spin Doctors’ founding drummer, Aaron Comess, and co-producer James Maddock, known in the UK as a member of the groups Wood and Fire Next Time.
There have been plaudits aplenty in these, the victory lap years. In 2016 Jeffreys was inducted into the Long Island Hall of Fame. He has shared the love over in New Jersey, performing at Bruce Springsteen’s Christmas gigs and Light of Day Foundation shows. (A longtime admirer, Springsteen has had Jeffreys join him on stage numerous times.) In the early 2000s, he was featured in a Wim Wenders-directed, Martin Scorsese-produced installment of the documentary film series The Blues. The documentary that Jeffreys himself deserves is in the works, to be crowdfunded, like his recent albums, through PledgeMusic. “We’re raising the money and putting it together,” he says of the in-progress film. “And my wife is in charge of that. I just have to show up on the set.”
That set, of course, is a life still being well-lived. “I’m a very fortunate guy,” he says, “I’m not rich, but I’m rich in many, many things. People love my music. I get to play on stage and do my thing. And when I’m on stage, I give my all.” The staying power Robert Christgau predicted in 1973? Like Jeffreys himself, it’s far from exhausted.
1969: Grinder's Switch featuring Garland Jeffreys (Vanguard)
1973: Garland Jeffreys (Atlantic)
1977: Ghost Writer (A & M)
1978: One-Eyed Jack (A & M)
1979: American Boy & Girl (A & M)
1980: Escape Artist (Epic)
1982: Rock 'n' Roll Adult (Epic)
1983: Guts for Love (Epic)
1992: Don't Call Me Buckwheat (RCA/BMG)
1992: Matador & More... (A & M)
1997: Wildlife Dictionary (RCA/BMG)
2007: I'm Alive (Universal)
2011: The King of In Between (Luna Park Records)
2013: Truth Serum (Luna Park Records/30 Tigers)
2017: 14 Steps To Harlem (Luna Park Records)
1980 TImes Square Soundtrack: Innocent, Not Guilty (RSO)
1998 Diamond Cuts: Turning Two (Vol. II) (Hungry For Music)
2003 Johnny's Blues: A Tribute To Johnny Cash (Northern Blues)
2003 Light of Day Tribute To Bruce Springsteen (Schoolhouse Records)
2003 Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: The Soul Of A Man (Sony)
2005 Elliott Murphy: Live Hot Point (Last Call Records)
2009 Libby Johnson: Perfect View (Wrong Records)
2012 Occupy This Album (Music For Occupy)
2016 Heaven: Compilation by Dennis Bovell (Optimo Music)
2016 The Get Down: Original Soundtack From The Netflix Original Series (RCA)