Music was at a crossroads when Rolling Stone named Garland Jeffreys 1977's Best New Artist. Sure, artists like the Clash, Talking Heads and Suicide were releasing hugely influential debut albums, but the mainstream pop industry was continuing to push something else entirely. "Afternoon Delight" purveyors the Starland Vocal Band won the Grammy that year for Best New Artist while, even more perversely, Leo Sayer's No. 1 pop single, "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing," ended up receiving the Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Song.
But Jeffreys has clearly stood the test of time. His classic "Wild in the Streets" went on to become a skate-punk anthem, thanks in large part to subsequent covers by the Circle Jerks and Hot Water Music. And last year's King of In Between was named one of Rolling Stone's "Best Under-the-Radar Albums of 2011." As NPR put it, Jeffreys' first American release in decades is "as good an introduction to his excellence as the superb album that put him on the map, 1977's Ghost Writer."
A celebration of life in all its diversity, Jeffreys' latest includes homages to the lifelong New Yorker's favorite city ("Coney Island Winter," "Roller Coaster Town") and his favorite emotion ("Love Is Not a Cliché"). And perhaps needless to say, it's also interwoven with the kind of social commentary we've come to expect from the artist who once sang "I was afraid of Malcolm / And the afro picks in the sand / Just like any white man."
We caught up with Jeffreys last week to talk about a legacy that's lost neither its relevance nor its vitality.
Indy: You've got Lou Reed on the new album, and I know you two go back a long way together. Do you see any through-line in terms of how your music and his have developed through the years?
Garland Jeffreys: Well, Lou and I went to school together. We've known each other for, what, 50 years now?
Indy: Did you know Lou's mentor, [the poet] Delmore Schwartz, as well?
GJ: Yeah, we were all there back in '61. But where my music was coming from really predated that by a lot of years. I mean, I started out hearing the music my folks played in the '40s — Count Basie and Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, that kind of music really was the foundation of my sound. And eventually, in the '50s, I fell in love with my all-time idol, Frankie Lymon, from Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers.
Indy: Great voice.
GJ: Frankie's voice to me was — like you just said, I'm glad you said that — a truly amazing voice. And I wanted to be like him. I was the same size as him. I was hoping to sound like him.
Indy: Your voice is a little lower, though.
GJ: It's definitely lower. [Laughs.] But when I was younger, it was higher. And so that's the beginning for me. Frankie and I had a special relationship, you know? The depth of my love for him is only being revealed right now in this conversation.
And I also loved Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, the early Motown stuff. And then Bob Dylan interfered with my life, eternally. I was not a Beatles fan, but I remember in '63 or '64 Lou Reed saying in that voice, I'll try to duplicate it [drops to a monotone with a New York accent even heavier than his own], "The Rolling Stones are coming." I said, "What the hell is that?" And then of course I heard those first couple Stones records, and I was crazy about them.
Indy: You and Lou have both done homages to Coney Island, and you mention on this album being born a thousand yards from the Cyclone. What is it about Coney Island that inspires the kind of mystique that's built up around it?
GJ: Well in my case, I think it's a little different than most people, including Lou. Growing up, I could walk to Coney Island and it'd take me 20 minutes from my house. And when I was a little kid, my family went there all the time. We'd go to a spot near Bay 9, and I'd watch my uncles Dave and Matt and my father Ray swim way, way out there. I was both a little fearful about it — because would they return? — but at the same time, I saw the vigor and strength they had.
Coney Island became a place where I saw a lot of things. My uncle was much more connected to an interracial group of people, and my mother was more connected to black people. And so I grew up being around mixed-race folks. That filled my life. And thank God, thank something, that I had that experience.
Indy: And you yourself are black and Puerto Rican, right?
GJ: You could say that I'm a mulatto. My father's side is black and white, and from my mother's side, she's Puerto Rican and black. But what was more profound at that point in time, I'm talking the '40s, was being around all those mixed-race folks. In a certain way, it really set the stage for my life.
Indy: You named the new album The King of In Between, and the cover photo shows you standing in Harlem at a crossroads beneath street signs for Martin Luther King and Malcolm X boulevards. Which of those directions do you gravitate toward?
GJ: I've always been a person from the very beginning that really found no use for racial discrimination. You know, I'm the embodiment, if you will, of racial harmony. I am not for black people, or white people, or anything like that. I've always cared about people as people.
Indy: So that puts you more on the Martin Luther King side of the street?
GJ: I think Malcolm X was a guy who needed some development. A brilliant man, a fantastic guy. But he started out with Elijah Muhammad, who was a fraud. And when Malcolm X eventually went to Mecca and looked around, he saw that Muslimism, if you will, had nothing to do with white or black. It had to do with people, you know, and a point of view.
Indy: The King of In Between could also be used to describe the diversity of arrangements on this record. You've got strands of reggae, that Curtis Mayfield vibe on "Streetwise," a mandolin on "Coney Island Winter," and I don't know how to describe your cover of David Essex's "Rock On." But somehow it all feels like it's coming from one place. Was that something you were conscious of, recording it?
GJ: Well, I like to take my audience on a journey, and I like the idea of having different styles. Because, I mean, I won't mention any names, but some people they make album after album, and it's the same album, you know?
Indy: One last question: Having recorded mostly for European labels over the last couple decades, is returning to an American label a significant thing for you?
GJ: Yeah, it's funny, but I think it is. Although it's a worldwide release, this is the first time in a long time that I'm really focusing on America. In the past, I've done a lot of my performing in Europe, but this time I really want to play the U.S. Not to mention that the album has been received extremely well across the country, and I think the opportunity to perform everywhere will just add to that.
Every artist wants his music to be heard. And that's the plan. I'll be up onstage giving everything I have.