The Return Of Garland Jeffreys

Nov 17, 2011
Originally published on November 18, 2011 8:42 am

With more than a dozen records, Garland Jeffreys moves listeners from the very first note. His new record, The King of In Between, tells honest, compelling stories that were inspired by his own life. His loyal fan base waited nearly a decade for the release.

Why the long wait since his last album? Jeffreys explains to Tell Me More host Michel Martin that he wanted to be with his family.

"I made a decision to be with my kid — not just to be a good father — but to have the experience for myself," he says. "To make a kind of family that I've never had."

When his daughter was 6-years-old, she asked Jeffreys if he was ever beaten by his dad. He answered: "Yes, I was, and it is something you never have to worry about." Jeffreys' daughter is now a teenager. She spent years with her father, learning to play the piano, sing and write her own songs.

Yet, Jeffreys always kept the rock and roll spirit of his youth. He began his career in the 1960s, playing in Manhattan nightclubs. His first hit song "Wild in the Streets" propelled him to the national spotlight in 1973. Since then, the song has been covered by several artists, and has become an anthem for skate boarders worldwide. Then in 1977, Jeffreys was named best new artist by Rolling Stone Magazine.

In Between Worlds

As Jeffreys grew up in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, he often faced the reality of being mixed race in America.

"It's always been there, it's something I've struggled with like many black kids — not feeling comfortable in my case on either side, black or white," he says.

He often used his songs to challenge racial stereotypes. One of his most recognized songs, "Don't Call Me Buckwheat," emerged from his experience at a Mets game. A man shouted at him, "Hey buckwheat, get the 'f' out of here!" That moment deeply upset the artist, but it also helped him express his feelings through music.

Jeffreys continues to keep his pulse on present-day challenges. He starts his new album with the last song he wrote: "Coney Island Winter."

"Woman walks down the street. Tears come rollin' down her face

Frozen on her cheeks. Steeplechase, no time to waste

Heaven blessed, heaven sent. Hark the angels, can't pay the rent

Jobs are gone, they came and went. All the money has been spent

All the games are broken down. Rust is fallin' to the ground

They say they're going to fix this town. Straight from City Hall."

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Our next guest roams between the worlds of rock and reggae and the blues, to tell bittersweet stories about life.


GARLAND JEFFREYS: (Singing) Used to stay up every night, be so all alone. In my hand, my trusty pen. I'm working it to the bone. Ghost writer, writer, just trying to make it. Ghost writer, writer, writer, writer, fill my empty cup.

MARTIN: That is Garland Jeffreys singing "Ghost Writer" from his album of the same name. A son of Brooklyn, he first began playing in Manhattan nightclubs in the late 1960s. His first hit song, "Wild in the Streets," propelled him to the national scene and was later covered by many artists. In 1977, he was named Best New Artist by Rolling Stone and, since then, he's produced memorable albums, including "One-Eyed Jack," "American Boy and Girl," "Don't Call Me Buckwheat," and "Matador" and more.

Now, after a decade out of the studio, he is back with a new album, "The King of In Between." And Garland Jeffreys was kind enough to fit us in between everything else he's doing in our performance studio 4A in Washington. Thank you so much for coming.

JEFFREYS: It's really nice to be here.

MARTIN: You know, I have to tell you, the title of the album is like its own little poem. You know?


MARTIN: And let me just read some of the words from the inside of the CD, if you don't mind. You know, I should have you read this. Do you want to read it?


MARTIN: You read it. OK. Why am I doing your thing?

JEFFREYS: Yeah. What are you reading that for? Let me read it.

MARTIN: Yeah, you read it.

JEFFREYS: (Reading) In between the cracks, in between the lies and the facts, in between the secrets and the lies, the other side of the tracks, between the mansions and the shacks, between the whites and the blacks, the King of In Between.

And I think, probably, for the most part, it really tells that story of my life from the very, very beginning, being very a very light-skinned kid in a very mixed neighborhood, unusual in a certain way. This was Sheepshead Bay. We were the only family of color in the Catholic church in all Sheepshead Bay. And the Baptist church was down the street from me and I was kind of in between these two situations, both church-wise - yeah - but more like people-wise.

MARTIN: You know, the other thing about this album is it's - I don't know if you think of it this way, but when I heard it, it feels very much of the moment. It's not just about the interior world. It's about a lot of things that a lot of people are experiencing right now. So I just want to say - do you feel like you want to play something? You want to play "Coney Island Winter" and then we could talk a little bit more about it?

JEFFREYS: Yeah. That is definitely a song of the moment and that was the last song written for the album. And I wrote the song in one day and recorded it the following day. And my wife had already said, you know, you have written enough songs for this album. Don't you think you should put it away? You know, I said, no. You know, as I say from time to time, no.

And I went in and wrote that song and, to me, it's the perfect song to open up the album.


JEFFREYS: (Singing) Woman walks down the street, tears come rolling down her face, frozen on her cheeks. Steeplechase, no time to waste. Heaven blessed, heaven sent. Hark the angels. Can't pay the rent. Jobs are gone. They came and went. All the money has been spent. All the games are broken down. Rust is falling to the ground. They say they're going to fix this town, straight from City Hall. Coney Island winter, Coney Island winter.

(Singing) Last stop off for the Iron Horse. Ride shuts down on a winter course round and round, and round and round on the Ferris Wheel comes to a stop. Standin' on Mermaid and Surf, shutters have been shut, colder than a knife that cut. Streets of summer with a Coney Island strut. I'm on a mission of my own. Don't wanna die on stage with a microphone in my hand, in my hand. Coney Island winter. Coney Island winter. Coney Island winter. Coney Island winter. Coney Island, Coney Island, Coney Island, Coney Island, Coney Island winter.

MARTIN: Thank you.


MARTIN: Well, so what was going on? You mentioned that you wrote it in a day and recorded it the next. What happened?

JEFFREYS: It's just the circumstances of peoples today - how people are living, how people are struggling, it is very sad for me. I can feel it and it's affected me, so this song just came right out. You know, it's for the Coney Island that I grew up in, that I loved, that I spent so much time on the beach with my family and the rides and the - it was great times. Just sort of turned the story around a little bit, to, kind of, paint a picture of the way things are right now.

MARTIN: I think the message and the kind of your passion and care will remind some listeners of I think he's a friend of yours, Bruce Springsteen. Do you feel that that kind of care and concern for others is lacking in music right now? Do you feel like you just had this – you know what? I guess I'm kind of going around the barn here. Kind of what I really want to ask is this is your first album in 10 years and I just wondered - you obviously have a lot to say and I just wondered why you haven't been talking to us over the last 10 years or so.

JEFFREYS: I had a great opportunity. I sort of changed through a certain period of time of songwriting and album-making. And, you know, my wife said to me, my wife at the time was 38 and she said, you know, we never talked about this, but out of nowhere she lets, can we try to have a kid? What do you think? I said yeah right away. I mean, yeah. Let's try. So we did, a couple years and then she got pregnant. So I made a decision to be with my kid, not just to be a good father, but to have the experience for myself, you know. To make the kind of family that I never had. And like I remember my daughter a few years ago, she's 15 now, so she said to me on - I mean six, when she was six or seven, I don't know exactly how she knew what she said dad, you were beaten by your father, weren't you? And I said yes, I was and that's something you never have to worry about, you know. So I wanted to be with the family...


JEFFREYS: ...and that's what I did.

MARTIN: Is that hard to say out loud? I mean we often hear women say that, but we don't often hear men say that. And we especially don't often hear rock stars say that.

JEFFREYS: I don't think about it in those terms at all. I think about it just in, you know, when you have a baby and the baby's there, it's your child, looks like me. Maybe people out there listening now, they think this is corny and everything, but it was very important to me. And my daughter has had her dad home all these years and she's now plays piano, she sings, she's got a great voice, she's a songwriter, she's really a smart kid. I would like to think that I contributed to some of that.

MARTIN: Well, bravo to you.


MARTIN: So what made it time to come back out?

JEFFREYS: Just, you know, I better get myself going. I wasn't the only one who was saying it either. My wife said, you know, I wish you'd get out of the house and...


JEFFREYS: know, make some money.


MARTIN: OK. Well, let's see about that.

If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm visiting with singer...

JEFFREYS: I'm telling you more too, up here.

MARTIN: That's it. You sure are. Break it down. Break it down.


MARTIN: I'm speaking with singer-songwriter Garland Jeffreys. We're talking about his new album "The King of in Between." Going back to one of the things that you've talked about, you've talked about a couple of times, is the whole question of race and being, you know, of a biracial background, which is a very rigid way to talk about it, but, you know, that's kind of the language we use. And, but you've talked a lot about race in your work. Like for example, in your 1992 song "Don't Call Me Buckwheat." Well, I'll just play a little bit for people who haven't heard in a while. Here it is.


JEFFREYS: (Singing) This is a song about words, the power of words. Well it all takes place in a big city with a very small mind. Don't call me buckwheat.


MARTIN: I haven't heard some of those in a while. But, you know, I'm not dating you, but I know those are some of the things I know my father grew up with some of those - that...


We've kind of edged around some of the lyrics. Do you think that you would write that song today?

JEFFREYS: Well, it was only what...

MARTIN: '92.

JEFFREYS: I guess it's 18 years or so.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.


JEFFREYS: It is a long time ago, but in a certain way. I was at a Mets game. I was in right field, sitting on the foul line. It was an amazing game and I was getting up watching the game, sort of mesmerized by the game but also getting up because I was going to get some franks and stuff for the guys. And a guy says hey, Buckwheat, hey, Buckwheat, get the (bleep) out of here. And, first of all, I never heard it used like that so directly, you know, I mean Buckwheat was a character on TV. I never saw it that way. I never saw it that way. And I was upset. I left the area, went online and I right away said don't call me Buckwheat in my head, like and I went home and wrote the song. It became the umbrella for the whole album, "Don't Call Me Buckwheat," you know, get even. That's the way I look at it.


JEFFREYS: But really, it's always been there. It's something I struggled with for the longest time as a young, young kid being called all kinds of names, like many black kids, not feeling comfortable in my case, on either side, on either place - black or white. But I have a love for all people, I always have and I have a lot of fans who support it and that's really nice, you know. They let me know in one way or another that there with me, regardless of what color they are.

MARTIN: So how does it feel to be back?

JEFFREYS: I'm really loving it. I almost killed myself making this album. It was like grueling. And I wrote a zillion songs but I chose the right ones, you know, and in the end I wrote these two songs, this "Love is Not A Cliche" also. I'm glad that the journalists and critics and radio agrees with me...



JEFFREYS: ...this time.

MARTIN: Can we talk you into one more? How about "Love is Not A Cliche?" Can we talk you into it.

JEFFREYS: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: All right.


JEFFREYS: (Singing) I like my folk, I like my jazz, I like my R&B. Love my rock n' roll with a dash of soul and funky. I like a message in my sound. Now tell everybody what's going down, don't ever want to leave this town. Love is not a cliche. Love is not a cliche. Hey, hey, hey. The land of opportunity goes swiftly down the drain. Go to work on Monday, I hope I'll make the train. I can hardly see what I stand to gain but untrue. Now let me explain, love is not a cliche. Love is not a cliche. Hey, hey, hey. Love is not a cliche. Love is not a cliche. Hey, hey, hey. It's the same all around the world. It's the same for you and me. Goes around and comes around. It takes every part of me. You can feel it on your mind. You can feel it in your heart. Any place or any time. Love is not a cliche. Love is not a cliche. Hey, hey, hey. Love is not a cliche. Love is not a cliche. Hey, hey, hey. Hey, hey, hey. Hey, hey, hey.

MARTIN: Well, thank you.

JEFFREYS: Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you very much. So what are you doing now? You're just running around promoting the album?

JEFFREYS: Well, I'm playing, first of all.

MARTIN: Right.


JEFFREYS: Doing a lot of shows and I do all kinds of shows. Some big attendance, sometimes house concerts and I'm doing it again and it's been not only a lot of fun but it's been driving me, you know, it's been great.

MARTIN: Well, it's nice to see you. We wanted to play something to go out on. We just wanted to play "Wild in the Streets." And we hear that it's become kind of an anthem for skateboarders...

JEFFREYS: Yes. "Wild in...

MARTIN: ...which is kind of funny isn't it?

JEFFREYS: Yeah. It's amazing. You know, can you imagine, it first was picked up by a group in LA. It's a big punk group.

MARTIN: OK. So what you think, I think we'll go out on that. Garland Jeffreys is a singer and songwriter. His new album is "The King of in Between" and he was kind enough to join us from our performance studio 4A in Washington, D.C. Garland Jeffreys, it's good to see you.

JEFFREYS: Great to see you too.

MARTIN: All right.


JEFFREYS: Are you ready? (Singing) Wild in the streets. Wild in the streets.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And to tell us more, please go to and find us under the Programs tab. You can also find our Podcast there. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at TELL ME MORE/NPR. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.


JEFFREYS: (Singing) Got a gang called Shady, a midnight lady and two transvestites to beat the band... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.