The talented singer, songwriter and performer was friends and collaborators with both Lou Reed and John Cale before embarking on a solo career that has spanned more than four decades. Though the biracial Brooklyn native ended his live music career with some celebrated shows at the City Winery in NYC earlier this year, Jeffreys still has music on his mind. PKM spoke with both Garland and Claire Jeffreys, his wife, business manager and producer of an upcoming documentary film about his life and career.
Though he has announced his retirement from regular performances, Garland Jeffreys is by no means stepping away from music entirely. He remains open to special appearances, claims that he has the musical ideas to ‘make an album tomorrow’ if he wanted, and is the subject of an in-development documentary.
Jeffreys began performing in the mid-1960s at such New York City venues as The Bitter End, The Gaslight, and Gerde’s Folk City. He then formed Grinder’s Switch, which released one album in 1969 and also served as the backing band for John Cale’s solo debut Vintage Violence (Jeffreys had gone to college with Cale’s Velvet Underground bandmate Lou Reed.) With the dissolution of Grinder’s Switch , he focused on his solo work, releasing the album Garland Jeffreys in 1973.
Throughout his career, Jeffreys has continued to blend music styles, fusing rock with elements of blues, R&B, soul, and even reggae. Lyrically, race and the nuances of being biracial has played a big part in his work. In America, Jeffreys tends to be best known for his 1973 single “Wild In The Streets” and 1981 cover of “96 Tears,” but in 1979 he hit the top 10 in many European countries with “Matador.”
Jeffreys took an extended break from music to raise his daughter Savannah, and his 2011 return The King of In Between was truly a family affair. His wife, Claire, had become his manager, and Savannah contributed vocals to a track (she went on to record a duet with Garland for his most recent album, 14 Steps To Harlem.)
Sitting in the living room of their East Village home, Garland and Claire discussed Garland’s long career and the documentary Claire is making about it.
He’s always been under the radar. You know, that was a phrase that almost every journalist who wrote about him would use or some variant of that.
PKM: You did a series of final performances at New York’s City Winery earlier this year. How did you approach those shows, compared with regular past performances?
Garland Jeffreys: Well, my wife Claire came up with a good strategy. In a real way, it was time for me to retire. I’ve been playing for a long time. From the early days of Folk City to travelling, playing in Japan and Australia and on and on and on.
Claire Jeffreys: It was definitely a different approach. The goal was to showcase songs that were from Garland’s full catalog. For example, one artist did a song from his debut album; those songs almost never get performed live. I don’t know if we succeeded, but the goal was to have at least one song from every album.
Garland Jeffreys: Laurie Anderson played the violin for one of the songs, “Luna Park Love Theme”.
Claire Jeffreys: And so, the thinking was also to find songs that each artist was comfortable doing. Like there were a couple of people who we said to ‘oh, would you do such and such a song?’ And they, they said, ‘oh no, I really want to do such a such a song.’
Garland Jeffreys: Like James Maddock did “New York Skyline”. He does it at his own shows.
PKM: Could you talk about your friendship with Lou Reed?
Garland Jeffreys: Lou and I were very close. It’s like a bittersweet kind of a thing, you know. He and I had a great friendship, great relationship. And then when Laurie came into the picture, it was enhanced. Lou and I went to Syracuse [University] together, we met at Syracuse [where Jeffreys was an art history major]. And the story goes that, you know, Lou was never a great singer by any means. I can laugh at this because it was really funny. He’d say, ‘wait, where do you get that voice? You know, how come I didn’t get any of that?’ And I’d say ‘you’re a white man, you’re white, man, you don’t have this kind of voice.’
When I think about Lou, I just have very fond feelings. A lot of people had other things about him, but he and I got along extremely well. I miss him.
You know, it was an interesting time because it was a time when they [Reed and John Cale] had a split, or they were verging on a split and I was friendly with both of them. Cale was very interesting as a musician, a very, very talented guy.
I’m just trying to think of all the people in the band that I had back then [Grinder’s Switch] with Sandy Konikoff was on drums and I met Levon Helm around that time. Stan Szelest was the keyboardist. Ronnie Hawkins was the father of those bands, the sound. Stan Szelest, this guy was an absolutely brilliant keyboard player and really something, I get chills thinking about it. “Oh, sister divine. She drank up all my wine.” That was a different era anyway. Alcohol played a part of a lot of these kinds of songs. There was Ernie Corallo, very good guitar player, and Bob Piazza bassist.
PKM: That was when you were part of the band Grinder’s Switch, correct? And then that line-up went to on to work on John Cale’s Vintage Violence.
Garland Jeffreys: Yeah. I don’t know where the hell that album title came from.
“Fairweather Friend,” written by Jeffreys, appeared on Cale’s Vintage Violence album:
Cale and Lou had a real rivalry. You know, drugs and alcohol played … it’s no secret … it has played a part in music. I’d love to see John again. I haven’t seen him in a long time. We definitely connected. I’m grateful to be alive. I’ve retired and chances are I won’t come out of retirement, unless it’s a sizable amount of money [laughs].
When I think about Lou, I just have very fond feelings. A lot of people had other things about him, but he and I got along extremely well. I miss him.
Claire Jeffreys: You’ve got to qualify that by saying you’re still going to do some recording and other things. The thought was to stop performing sort of full-length shows. Because they’re pretty taxing. But not long after those Winery shows, Garland went up to Montreal to open for Little Steven and did four of his own songs with a sort of stripped-down band and then joined him on a song with his full band. So that was a kind of a cool little thing that came up. So, when those opportunities pop up, that’s something we want to do. Just not the constant sort of grind of trying to book shows and traveling and deals.
But anyway, we want to do some recording put out more material. Maybe some live stuff that’s been recorded, some demos, some new stuff. And we’re also working on a documentary.
PKM: What are your goals with the documentary?
Claire Jeffreys: Basically, it was sort of my idea to try to get Garland into a wider audience in the sense that he’s always been under the radar. You know, that was a phrase that almost every journalist who wrote about him would use or some variant of that. And I just thought to myself, ‘you know what, if there’s one medium that might move the needle a little bit on that, it’s probably film.’ And now I think there’s such a thirst for documentaries. I think the goal is to do sort of a portrait documentary that both contextualizes him in a time and place in New York City. And because Garland is an unusual figure in that he moved to the Village and was listening to jazz, and then it morphed into a folk scene that he was somewhat a part of. And then it went into sort of a rock and punk scene.
Garland Jeffreys: I worked with Sonny Rollins, Carmen McRae.
Claire Jeffreys: And he would go to shows when he was in high school [in Brooklyn], seeing Nina Simone.
PKM: You introduced reggae influences into your music before many other rock-oriented acts were doing that. What inspired you to do that?
Garland Jeffreys: That’s easy enough to answer, because the sound itself just floored me. Bob Marley was the one, though I know that Jimmy Cliff certainly was very talented as well. I met Marley at Max’s Kansas City. That was a great place. Mickey Ruskin’s place. He provided that place for so many of us to get started and play. I can see Marley at Max’s saying to me “rasta, rasta man, cool.” Marley was very playful, you know, and I said to him, ’you know, I can do this music as well, maybe as well as you can!’ Then we cooled it down. The idea was we were going to get together afterwards and do something together. He recognized that I was sincere, you know, because he was quite suspicious. At the time I didn’t know he had cancer. He was a very special person.
Jeffreys used reggae to put across the title track on his Ghost Writer album:
PKM: After doing the album with John Cale, did you have a clear sense as to there you wanted to go with your solo career?
Garland Jeffreys: I think that I was determined, without having to even think about it. It was without question. I’m just going to the next level. I was going to do everything I could and perform, get on the road, go to different venues, different situations, travel, you know, all, all that. I guess one of my regrets that I feel like I should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I never received a Grammy or anything like that. These are my regrets. Do I dwell on it? I have my brains, my life, my family, my wife, my daughter. I think I covered a lot in my own life. I met my wife and that was a wonderful thing, and my daughter, as I’ve said to her, ‘you’re going to have to take over soon, you know.’
PKM: Your daughter Savannah appears on your most recent album, on the track “Time Goes Away. “ How do you feel about collaborating with her?
Garland Jeffreys: I feel really good about it. She’s a great talent, and if she’s going to go beyond me, that’s the point.
Claire Jeffreys: I’m only laughing because in the documentary, there’s a scene which we will probably end up keeping. Savannah says something about what our aspirations are for her as a singer / songwriter / musician versus her own aspirations. And you were sounding like that’s what you want, she’s going to surpass you. She’s going to be better. She’s going to do this. And you don’t know that. Like, you know, she may not even pursue it. She’s 23 and it’s a very interesting dynamic because one of the things in the documentary that we’re looking at is you’re the child of an artist. You’re the only child of an artist and you have seen the nitty gritty of the music business. You’ve seen…
Garland Jeffreys: Absolutely. And she has a great memory and she knows exactly what’s going on.
Claire Jeffreys: The music business can really chew you up and spit you out. She’s observed that for years and seen both the highs and the lows and how incredibly difficult it really is to make it big, if you want to use that word. And I think some of her ambivalence comes from thinking, ‘well do I want to do it if I’m not going to make it big? Wide recognition, financial success, peer recognition, awards, industry, all that jazz’. And I think that it’s interesting. She sees, here’s my dad. He has all this artistic integrity. He has these incredible fans. He has this great body of work. He’s always been true to himself. His songs have a message. He’s an incredible performer, great singer. But why isn’t he as big as so and so?
It was Lou [Reed] talking about Garland saying ‘nobody can do that, that old time-y stuff, better than Garland’
PKM: Being independent now, does it feel different making an album, versus your time on major labels?
Garland Jeffreys: I think it’s pretty much the same for me. But I look back to Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, who signed me, and the help of an incredible woman named Cathy Oudemans, who promoted me. I felt like I was special at that point. Everybody wants and everybody needs to have this kind of support.
PKM: As your music has spanned genres, did the labels every try to pressure you into a particular style?
Garland Jeffreys: I was just lucky. Nobody was trying to push me into a style. Not that I can recall. I was determined to develop my own style, my whole point of view. Race was paramount in my work. I feel very proud of that, that I was one of the first people to really talk about race.
Claire Jeffreys: The story of Don’t Call Me Buckwheat was that Garland wrote an album that was all about the nuances of being a biracial person in America. That record label was RCA in America and Bertelsmann for International. What ended up happening was that the head of RCA at that time was a Southerner who in the middle of the project moved back to RCA Nashville. And there was really never any support for that record at the domestic level. And I don’t know whether that was because of racism or because they didn’t know how to market it. I think they did not want you to use the title if I’m not mistaken. Isn’t that true?
Garland Jeffreys: Yeah, yeah, they thought it was too out there…It’s almost like they throw it out there. And if it doesn’t work, you know, they move on to the next.
Claire Jeffreys: And I think in that case, what ended up happening was that the album did extremely well in Europe because it was perhaps appreciated more for what it was. And there was a radio hit off of it and that opened some doors in Europe.
I have been in Garland’s life since 1981 and I’ve heard, you know, stories about what happened before, but also seeing that there have definitely been times when you could almost feel the record label thinking, ‘well, we don’t know what to do with this guy. He’s not black. He’s not white, he’s not rock, he’s not folk. He’s not dance. He’s not urban, he’s not blues, he’s not reggae. Whoa, what are we going to do? And so let’s just probably do nothing.’ But that’s the kind of compartmentalization labels like to do.
We started putting out independent records in 2011. And the only difference being that it’s really hard, but it’s also kind of exciting when you feel like you’ve done it yourself. The bottom line is that Garland has recorded the same way he’s always recorded and did everything the same. But certainly, owning your masters is great.
PKM: When your daughter was born you took an extended break from releasing new albums, returning with The King of In Between in 2011. Had you been consistently writing music in those intervening years?
Garland Jeffreys: Well, I hadn’t stopped. You know, even though I’ve retired, I could make an album tomorrow. In terms of ideas, pulling something together, and I’d probably surprise myself with what would come out. I’m always thinking about song ideas. Sometimes we call them snippets. Little pieces of paper with three lines on it, or two lines on it, or something. And that could lead to a whole song. I’ve got a box of that stuff and a part of it is, am I inspired enough to go to work?
Marley was very playful, you know, and I said to him, ’you know, I can do this music as well, maybe as well as you can!’
Claire Jeffreys: When that album [The King of In Between] was recorded, I think it was kind of chock full. It was very dense album and I think it was a lot of ideas that you’ve been mulling over for the last 10 years that you didn’t even realize. It got incredible reviews and I think part of it was people were responding to, ‘oh, he’s still alive, he’s still kicking, still breathing, he’s still rocking.’ When I look at that album, I can see that there was a lot of mortality themes on it. This record had “Till John Lee Hooker Calls Me.”
Jeffreys performing ‘Till John Lee Hooker Calls Me” live in New Jersey in 2011:
Garland Jeffreys: “But I’m not shoppin’ for my cemetery tomb soon. / I’m gonna wait till John Lee Hooker makes room.”
Claire Jeffreys: “In God’s waiting room,” that was very dark sort of song, also about mortality.
Garland Jeffreys: You’ve got to cover all bases [laughs].
Claire Jeffreys: To get back to your question, a lot of artists might say ‘I made a few records and then I went and became a teacher or whatever.’ And there’s no shame in that. But I think that Garland’s case is really interesting because he had a very big hit in Europe in 1979 with “Matador.”
Garland Jeffreys: Yeah, “Matador” was top ten in five countries.
Claire Jeffreys: And it still gets airplay today. And so that the financial success of that song, along with other royalties and stuff, is what allowed him to not have to go take a straight job. To take such a long hiatus and to not take a straight job.
PKM: You mentioned the label support, but do you think there were other factors behind your European success?
Garland Jeffreys: I’ve always been internationally inclined. An artist like me can smell a possibility.
PKM: Especially in America, “Wild in the Streets” has become one of your best-known songs, and it’s been covered [by the Circle Jerks, among others] and featured in various places. Did you have any sense that it would be a song that would take off?
Garland Jeffreys: Other people have recorded it. Some people have, have taken it as if they wrote it. And we challenged them and then we were able to work that out. I absolutely knew it was special. When it happened, I knew that I was onto something. That anticipation, sort of anticipating the beat, “wild in the streets,” everybody started doing that kind of thing in the clubs and wherever.
PKM: What is the status of the documentary? When do you think it will be released?
Claire Jeffreys: Hopefully next year. We’re still working on the rough assembly, but we got a lot of archival stuff already and a lot of shooting done and feel really excited about it. It’s just now that I’m working with an editor to begin to figure out how to tell the story in the best way. But I’m feeling pretty optimistic right now.
PKM: How long have you been working together professionally?
Garland Jeffreys: Since the day I was born [laughs].
Claire Jeffreys: I guess nine years? That’s hard to believe. Wow. It’s interesting because we started doing it just is an experiment to see if we could withstand it and to see that I could do it. And to see if we could make it work.
Garland Jeffreys: She turned out to be pretty good.
Claire Jeffreys: I turned out to be pretty good. I definitely made mistakes. But I feel like in terms of keeping Garlands integrity and getting him out there as much as possible, at this point I’m really more focused on legacy building. This is a guy who’s made a lot of albums, a lot of great songs.
Things will sometimes happen out of the blue. Like there’s a character in that show The Deuce who is based on Garland. They had a scene where the musician is Garland singing “96 Tears,” Garland’s cover of “96 Tears.” And it’s kooky, that kind of stuff. You’re in the cultural story to some degree and very often these things will come up and I’ll just say, ‘well, there you go. It shows you that some people are aware of what you’ve done, what your impact has been and what you represent.’
Scene from The Deuce featuring Jeffreys’ cover of “96 Tears”:
The editor of the film found this thing on Soundcloud that I had never heard. It was Lou [Reed] talking about Garland saying ‘nobody can do that, that old time-y stuff, better than Garland’. It was just a little snippet, but I thought, how cool is that? And then there’s something in a book where he says ‘no one does punk rock better than Garland.’ I think Garland’s story needs to be heard, and that’s what I’m trying to do.