Syracuse University Magazine

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Garland Jeffreys performs at the Ottawa Folk Festival this past summer.



Garland Jeffreys '65

Fearless Music

From his ’70s hit “Wild in the Streets” to his latest album, legendary singer-songwriter Garland Jeffreys has taken on life’s big issues with his own eclectic brand of music

 By David Marc

From the pages of The New Yorker to deep inside the blogosphere, legendary singer-songwriter Garland Jeffreys has been winning high praise for his new album, The King of In Between, released last summer on his own Luna Park label. Loved by fans and admired by colleagues for his fearless movements through rock, R&B, reggae, and whatever other styles he may need to articulate his borderless vision, Jeffreys puts his mastery of popular musical forms in the service of personal expression, a talent he shares with Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Feeling “too black to be white, too white to be black,” he occupies his own space and fills it with a gritty sweetness that is hard for likeminded souls to resist.

Growing up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, during the 1950s, Jeffreys learned a thing or two about “diversity” long before the term took on its full contemporary meaning. “I’m from a totally mixed-race family—black, white, Puerto Rican, Native American,” he says. “At the time, we were the only people of color in the Catholic church we attended every Sunday. At school, I had my close friends, but I was also often the only ‘colored’ kid in the class, and every time I met a girl I liked, I had to contend with a race issue. My music has always had a great deal to do with these experiences.” Jeffreys felt more at ease in nearby Coney Island, where beach, boardwalk, and carnival karma drew people of every background imaginable. He also enjoyed the privilege of seeing the Dodgers play at Ebbets Field. “I was just 4 years old, but I was there at the game, April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball,” he says. “Sports have always been an important part of my life, and even helped bring me to Syracuse. My father wanted me to go to Boston College. But Jim Brown [’57] went to Syracuse, and obviously I had to go to school where he went.”

Shortly after arriving on campus, Jeffreys met Lou Reed ’64, who became a lifelong friend. Although both were moving toward their careers as musicians, Reed was studying poetry and Jeffreys had his sights set on art history. “We hung out at the Orange Bar with Lou’s teacher, the poet Delmore Schwartz, and a bunch of people—I guess you’d call them ‘Beats,’” Jeffreys says. “It was a great place for me to be because race didn’t matter; it was all about hanging out and knowing each other.” Felix Cavaliere ’64, who was about to depart for the top of the pops as lead singer and keyboard man with The Young Rascals, was another friend Jeffreys first bumped into on Marshall Street.

Another highlight of Jeffreys’s education—he calls it a “life-changing experience”—was his semester abroad in Florence. “I spent days alone in the Uffizi Gallery, in the Duomo, and in all the incredible places,” he says. It almost didn’t happen. Jeffreys’s application to the Florence program was originally rejected, without explanation. Feeling sure of his qualifications, he confronted the program director. “I told him I felt it might be a race issue,” Jeffreys says. “He said he’d look into it and get back to me.” A few days later, the director told Jeffreys there had never been a nonwhite in the program, and the “real” issue behind the rejection was housing; the administrators didn’t know if they could find a family to host him. By speaking up, Jeffreys challenged them to at least try. “I was accepted into the program and lived with two fantastic families while I was in Italy,” he says. “That experience really began my journey into Europe, which is where a substantial part of my career as a musician is today.” And that’s how Garland Jeffreys became the Jackie Robinson of the Florence program.

Jeffreys was accepted into graduate school at NYU’s prestigious Institute of Fine Arts, but during the summer following Commencement, he began playing with Lou Reed at an East Village club and the rest, as they say, is (not art) history. “I realized at this point that I was going to get serious about music, and I never looked back,” he says. Jeffreys formed a band, Grinder’s Switch, and made an album with the group, but like many troubadour poets, he soon went solo. Garland Jeffreys, the first of 13 solo albums, was released by Atlantic in 1973. In the liner notes of its 2006 re-release, Jeffreys wrote, “[It] marked a new stage in my music career. I’d prepared for this album by performing in small clubs, church basements, synagogues, homeless shelters, hootenannies, and village scenes, as well as at the various apartments I lived in or crashed in during those early days.” A 45-rpm single, “Wild in the Streets,” not included on the album, was also released that year. It occupies a unique place in Jeffreys’s repertoire as a cult classic. The song has been covered by numerous artists, ranging from British rock guitarist Chris Spedding to the Circle Jerks, a seminal L.A. punk band.

While a series of insistent themes pervades Jeffreys’s work, most of his albums emphasize a particular obsession. In Ghost Writer (1977), it’s New York, the living city of his dreams and memories; in Don’t Call Me Buckwheat, it’s the emotional price of racism; in Wildlife Dictionary, love and sex. The King of In Between has plenty to say about the mysteries of mortality, but asked about the title, Jeffreys points in another direction. “I called it The King of In Between because that says so much about the way I felt throughout so much of my life,” he says. “I was there but not there, wanting so much to be a part of things and feeling so much outside of things.” As tough a place as “in between” might be, it has its own joyful music. And Garland Jeffreys plays it.



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The singer-songwriter has been on tour in support of his latest album, The King of In Between, and has appeared on such shows as WNYC’s Soundcheck and the Late Show with David Letterman



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Jeffreys performs in Belgium with longtime friend Lou Reed ’64 (right). Their friendship dates back to their Syracuse days.



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Jeffreys studied in Italy (here at Milan Duomo).

Photos by Eroll McGihon (Ottawa), Aaron Epstein (with band), Rob Walbers (with Lou Reed), Martin Inn (Milan Duomo); album cover image courtesy of Claire Jeffreys