By Dan Dodds
“I love this!” says my brother, listening to the track blasting out of the van’s speakers whilst hitching a ride to The Pilot for a swift one. “Let It Bleed?” he asks, referring to a Rolling Stones album title.
It’s not so wide of the mark, because Wild In The Streets – the Garland Jeffreys classic – does sound a heck of a lot like Gimme Shelter era Stones.
Released as a non-album single on the legendary Atlantic label in 1973, it’s got the moves like white skinned/Dartford born Mick Jagger and has that ensured Garland Jeffreys – equal parts Puerto Rican/African-American – could, if he wanted, compile a mammoth scrap-book full of rock press clippings, spanning his 44-year recording career.
Not that Garland is a one-trick pony; like the 13 that came before it, his new album Truth Serum (on Luna Park and distributed by Thirty Tigers in the US, home to Van Hunt’s last release) encompasses blues, rock, reggae, Americana and soul.
“It wasn’t like I had been holding onto these songs for a long time,” says native New Yorker Garland, talking via Skype at home in his Brooklyn apartment, a block “surrounded by trees.”
“You might say I had been bursting with ideas, because BANG! There was Truth Serum. Truth or honesty, I’m always on the look out for that – looking for it in others. No-one’s perfect, but I want to find the righteous.
“And then there’s the issue of race: I’ve always been a strong, devotee of the idea of freedom among the races.”
A glance at chapter one of the Garland Jeffreys story appears to read like the usual R&B singer beginning.
“I would actually walk outside in the neighbourhood and there would be people on the corner singing. These guys were older than me – Stetson Nichols and his brother Davy. Davy was as good as, or better than, Smokey Robinson. I was the younger one and Frankie Lymon was my idol growing up – he was the end all.”
It was through a love for the music of Frankie Lymon & punk-wop that Garland first met future rock legend Lou Reed at New York’s Syracuse University.
“I’ll tell you a story about Lou. A couple of years ago I was performing at a club here in the city and Lou came down to see the show with my band. And he was just leaving when I started to sing I’m Not A Know It All [the Frankie Lymon classic, covered by Jeffreys on the brilliant Don’t Call Me Buckwheat album] and Lou heard it, turned around, came back to the stage and in front of everybody bowed down to me.” Garland laughs. “The music was the connection: that’s how we became friends back in the sixties; it was easy. We were both passionate about the same stuff.”
Jeffreys remembers the moment when he first started to listen outside of the R&B cashbox.
“It was Lou, actually, who became interested in one of your [British] bands. I remember one day, in the early sixties, him looking me in the face like the world had changed and he said, ‘The Rolling Stones Are Coming!’ I didn’t know what the hell Lou was talking about. He really opened my eyes to that. That’s really the way it started.”
Garland turned on, tuned in and dropped out – leaving an academic career, before going to graduate school to work purely on his music. Not that peddling his particular brand of blues would be a walk in Central Park – as Garland sings on one of the standout cuts It’s What I Am from Truth Serum: ‘Too white to be black, too black to be white … I’m one of them.’
“You might say my career has been thwarted because I have written many songs about race and about equality. I’m drawn to the subject because it’s a part of my life in a deep sense. People are aware I sing and write that kind of thing, and I do it in a way that it can be heard.”
But do songs like It’s What I Am or the aforementioned Don’t Call Me Buckwheat [written by Jeffreys after someone shouted, “Hey buckwheat, sit down!” at a baseball game”] really make a difference? Do they just preach to the converted, or could they change the mind of a bigot?
“I believe they can,” says Garland firmly, a strong hint of conviction in his voice. “You know, I don’t wanna brag about this thing, but just get it across clearly. I feel I have a skill of writing these kinds of songs and putting them out to a public who can actually listen to it. It’s not pedantic; I’m not trying to sell anything. I feel that it works.”
After the spike of optimism that followed Barack Obama’s appointment as President, to the nadir of the Trayvon Martin case, the message of racial equality is as necessary today as it ever was.
“Things are still not good enough for me,” says Garland, “Take the Trayvon Martin case… there’s some kind of scam going on down there in Florida. I don’t trust it. And I hate the way the American government has acted with their treatment of Obama, whether he’s a great president or not, you don’t treat your president like that. I can’t believe some of the things that they’ve said; it’s out and out racist. Talk politics sure, but you don’t paint your president like a nigger. You don’t do that. I’m not happy about it, and let me tell you black and white are not happy about it, not in New York City!”
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Garland’s pride and joy is his daughter, a relationship he alludes to in the sloppy Collide The Generations, a mantra-like guitar freak-out that has him proclaim, ‘She’s so much slicker than me’.
“She’s a terrific, wonderful kid. My wife and I – especially my wife – have done a great job raising her. Kids can be rebellious, but my daughter, who is 18 next year, has already passed that difficulty. She too, at her school, is working to combat some of the racial disharmony. It’s a public school [with a mix of races], but she helps the new kids to deal with fears or reluctance of racial integration and gives them support.”
It’s this kind of straight talking and reluctance to pull punches, lyrically and musically, which has made Truth Serum one of Garland Jeffreys’ best albums to date.
“We recorded this album so fast. All the first eight or nine tracks we’re done in one take each. I’m surrounded by so many fantastic players, take Steve Jordan the drummer. He’s so clear when he plays that he never interferes with the vocals. He’s the vocalists’ drummer – he knows what needs to be done. All the guys do – Larry Campbell and Duke Levine on guitars. It’s the second album we’ve worked on [after 2011’s The King Of In Between]. But it’s funny: in my experience it’s never normally that fast.
What might have been looked at as not being able to put out enough stuff over the years, I’m now seen as a person who has this longevity. From the time of 1969 to the present, over 40 years, I can say I’ve had a career. And thankfully, right now, I’m getting a tremendous response with the new album.”
Ain’t that the truth.
Garland Jeffreys plays St. Pancras Old Church, London on Friday, Feb 28; The Cluny 2, Newcastle, Sunday, March 2; and The Musician Pub, Leicester, Wed March 5.