At 69, Brooklyn rocker Garland Jeffreys has seen about all of it. A running buddy of Lou Reed's when they both attended art school at Syracuse University, Jeffreys was there at the birth of what eventually morphed into punk, although his own work has little to do with punk per se.
Jeffreys started in the New York scene in 1966 and played guitar on John Cale's first solo album in 1969. After a couple of false starts with bands, he landed a solo deal with Atlantic Records and released one of his best-known works, "Wild in the Streets," as a single in 1973. The song has been covered numerous times and become a cult favorite in the skateboard community.
Jeffreys hit big in 1979 with "Matador," which A&M Records released in Europe as a single. It remains popular on European radio to this day and makes Jeffreys an in-demand act at festivals. His latest release, last year's edgy rock-and-soul amalgam The King of In Between, was a critical success. Jeffreys's music has always explored the racial situation in America — check out "Don't Call Me Buckwheat" — and what it means to be a black man in what is essentially a white business.
Chatter recently caught up with Jeffreys from Brooklyn, where he was recovering from jet lag after his latest series of gigs in Europe. While over there, he sang "96 Tears" with Bruce Springsteen and his band.
Chatter: We saw the videos of you with Springsteen from a few weeks ago. How did that happen?
Garland Jeffreys: Bruce and I go back to early days in the city. We knew each other before his career exploded. So it was just a friend-to-friend thing.
C: What other interesting tales do you have from that mid-'60s period in New York?
GJ: I moved to the East Village in '65 — my parents did not approve — and I met Charles Mingus. I snuck in to see Nina Simone at the Village Gate. Carmen McRae and I were friendly. I was friendly with Sonny Rollins; there's a video of us out there.
C: You're getting up in years, and Bruce is no spring chicken. Some guys retire, some guys soldier on. How do you see Bruce in that equation?
GJ: You have to admire the guy. He carries himself like you're supposed to. His feet are on the ground he's very real about what this life is. He's adjusted, but he's still got so many people counting on him. I think he's a role model of sorts for a lot of young people coming up in this rock-and-roll world.
C: A lot of what punk was about came out of the UK art schools. What did an art-school education do for you?
GJ: Understand I wasn't a painter. I was an art historian; I was interested in the ideas and the context. I was even lucky enough to go to Italy to study art history.
But I came at music before punk started, so my experience isn't the same as the people who came out of the UK art schools. My scene was Max's Kansas City, not CBGB.
C: That must've been pretty wild.
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GJ: I remember just hanging around there, trying to fit in, trying to look like I fit in. That's what the song "The Contortionist" on the new album is about, trying to fit in rather than just being who you are.
When "Wild in the Streets" came out, they put it on the jukebox at Max's and I would just stand there night after night. They played that song all the time, but if they didn't, I'd put a dollar in and play it. I thought that was going to be the greatest thing that would ever happen in my life, the Max's crowd accepting my music.
C: You've managed to live a rock-and-roll life, but like Springsteen you've found a way to do it with dignity and to raise a family — to have something of a normal life.
GJ: My dad sacrificed so much for me, I knew I had to be a real father, not some guy who just passes through occasionally. If "Matador" hadn't been such an evergreen hit in Europe, if the royalties had dried up, it might've been different. I've had some luck.