After Dark: Garland Jeffreys
10:35 AM, Jan 22, 2014
If you go
What: Garland Jeffreys.
When: 8:30 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Abilene Bar & Lounge, 153 Liberty Pole Way.
Garland Jeffreys insists that it all began in the beginning.
“My whole history as a songwriter, and what is near and dear to me, comes out of all the childhood experiences I’ve had,” he says.
“When I was a young kid 7, 8, 9 years old I remember going into New York City on the train, by myself, to take piano lessons with my uncle, who lived in Little Italy at the time …”
Those childhood experiences go back some 70 years, although you wouldn’t have guessed as much if you saw Jeffreys’ two energetic sets last summer during the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival. And there didn’t seem to be a lot of Norman Rockwell nostalgia in the air that night. There he was at Abilene Bar & Lounge … well, let me just borrow from my review of his performance:
No wonder Bruce Springsteen’s a fan. Singing like a longshoreman, ripping up the night in the first set with his best-known song, “Wild in the Streets,” jumping off the stage the second set during ? and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears” to circle behind the crowd in the tent with his cordless microphone screaming, “Cry, cry, cry!” as people with plastic beer cups slapped him on the back.
That doesn’t sound like a guy who draws inspiration from visits to his piano-playing uncle in Little Italy. No, that sounds like a musician whose history as a songwriter germinated in college. When Jeffreys got to know Lou Reed while they were students at Syracuse University. They remained lifelong friends. “Lou Reed, I saw him about a month before he passed away, he looked like he was in perfect shape,” Jeffreys says. “When you’re around somebody like him, you learn how to be an individual, you learn how to be yourself. In the end, it’s what you make of it. You’re not somebody else. Some people don’t want to be themselves. They want to be somebody else.”
Yes, that sounds more like Jeffreys, back at Abilene Thursday to celebrate the release of a new CD, Truth Serum. Being an individual, “challenging things, I guess that’s pretty much everybody’s story,” he says. “We’ve all had some shocking, difficult things to overcome. I think that’s what life is all about, you must go down that road.”
He calls himself “a pretty well-adjusted guy, I have a lot to give.” And Jeffreys spreads it around the Manhattan apartment building where he lives. “I like to talk to the elderly women, ladies in their 70s, 80s, even 90s,” he says. “I’ve always been that kind of person. I like to say hello. People recognize me, ‘Hey, he’s the guy who says hello!’ Put my arm around them, kiss them on the cheek, reach out to them.”
Garland Jeffreys, agent of change. He does it in big ways, writing songs. And small ways, like being nice to the old ladies.
“I’d like to see people get a fair shake,” he says. “I’d like to see people doing better. Not just Americans, but all over the world. I’d like to see people not doing so well get some support.
“That’s always one of the major themes in my music. I remember when I was 7 years old, I felt like I could see, and I wish that I had real power to make things change, almost like magic. I thought I could see what was best for people. I was only 7 years old and I was thinking this way. Perhaps my songwriting is a continuation of wanting things to be that way.”
And as a mixed-race kid growing up in Brooklyn, he has a lot to say about whites and blacks, from both sides of the issue.
“I was certainly one of the first artists to talk about race in a recording,” he says. “I read where someone said the two best albums ever made discussing race were What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye, and Don’t Call Me Buckwheat, Garland Jeffreys. That’s probably true. I’m proud to have talked about race.
“I don’t go out there preaching. I have my own sense of humor. I don’t care if people hear ‘Don’t Call Me Buckwheat’ and they laugh. They can laugh about it if they want.”
For Jeffreys, race was a childhood experience.
“We were the only family of color in the Catholic church were we went, and it was a big church,” he says. “Down the street was a black church, a Baptist church. And I didn’t get any currency in either place.
“I went to Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. Back in those days, blacks would sit with blacks, whites with whites. I didn’t want any part of that thing, that setup. In fact, it’s still happening.”
But not in his life. He and Claire, a white woman, have been married for 33 years.
“I’ve been rejected by whites, I’ve been rejected by blacks,” he says. Truth Serum’s centerpiece is a song called “It’s What I Am,” and Jeffreys quotes a line: ” ‘Too black to be white, too white to be black.’ That’s as true as it gets for me.
“Like I tell my daughter. ‘Write it in a story.’ “
Savannah Rae is 17, just about ready for college. And now what Jeffreys first started talking about how his history as a songwriter goes back to his childhood experiences, becomes clearer. He’s countering racism by giving his daughter the same positive experience that he had while riding the train to Little Italy for piano lessons.
“We’ve given her a lot of room,” he says. “We’re protective, of course. But she’s a city girl, she goes to a very good school here. We bless her with freedom. I see already the signs of a person who will be free.”
Learning to be an individual, just like Lou Reed said. Jeffreys has big songs about race, but didn’t overlook where he could have the most impact. After Savannah Rae was born, Jeffreys disappeared from music, choosing to help raise his daughter. “As a father, I was learning how to be one,” he says. “I gave up my career. Now that I look back at it, my kid is fabulous, bright, gregarious, very interesting.
“My thing turned out to be an experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. I would walk past her room and my daughter would be in there, playing piano, playing some new songs. Or struggling over a math assignment. I didn’t miss any of that.
“And look, I’m back playing now.”