Life was Bent, and I was Twisted: The King of In Between by Garland Jeffreys

By Daniel Garrett

Garland Jeffreys, The King of In Between
Executive Producer Claire Jeffreys
Mastered by Greg Calbi
LunaPark Records, 2011

Garland Jeffreys, a singer and guitarist, is one of those rock performers and songwriters who are known best by other distinguished artists, and discriminating critics, than by the general public.  Jeffreys, a student of art and music whose early associates included Lou Reed, John Cale, and Dr. John, has long articulated the sensitive mind of a man in the city; and often he played in small clubs in downtown Manhattan, though I relish having seen him in Central Park at a concert that felt like a celebration.  His early albums, specifically Garland Jeffreys, Ghost Writer, One-Eyed Jack, American Boy & Girl, and Escape Artist, were touchstones for some bohemians; and in the early 1990s Garland Jeffreys released an album, Don’t Call Me Buckwheat, that took on the subject of race, making him a spokesman for another kind of topicality.  On his latest album, The King of In Between, the subjects are varied—youth, aging, and death; and neighborhood and New York City.  Garland Jeffreys is looking at, through, and beyond age, class, and ethnicity for the truth.  The songs contain different kinds of learning, and the rhythms are just as diverse.  The album acknowledges and affirms musical history and the generous, hungry spirit that drives it.

It’s “twenty-two stops to the city,” sings Garland Jeffreys in the impressionistic “Coney Island Winter,” a song full of New York attitude, both enthusiastic and hostile, about a part of the city in which much has come to ruin.  Jeffreys sings and plays acoustic guitar; and in the song he is joined by Mark Bosch on electric guitar and piano, and John Conte on bass, and Rich Pagona on drums.  With a somewhat playful dance rhythm, “Coney Island Winter” is a slice of life song, full of fact, memory, and attitude; and in it, Garland Jeffreys sings “politicians kiss my ass, your promises break like glass.”  New Yorkers have seen it all, some of which they hate, some of which they have enjoyed, some of which they hope will return.  Yet, Garland Jeffreys notes, “I’m on a mission of my own.  Don’t wanna die on stage, with a microphone in my hand.”

The artist Garland Jeffreys, who remained dedicated to the rock-and-roll music established by Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Bo Diddley long after many African-American ceased to be interested, performing his music in cosmopolitan locales that appreciated his complexity, is now a mature man; and Jeffreys, who seems to have come through some personal difficulty, sings, “I’ll continue to tell you my story” and “life could be a curse” in the hard-charging “I’m Alive.”  His sung vowels are easily identifiable for the way they form a long plain line.  He describes circumstances and customs in a changed city, a threatening and threatened city, one in which soldiers have a presence.  Poetry occurs when pain or joy is contemplated, understood, and transformed into image and music.

One of the album’s highlights, in which changing times are acknowledged, with loss of family and social decay recognized, “Streetwise” is an engaging song with a very attractive rhythm, a sultry groove and nice accents (Mike Merritt plays bass, Larry Campbell and Duke Levine electric guitars, Brian Mitchell organ, Steve Jordan drums, with other strings by Campbell).  Some progress has been made in the world: “Black president on the White House lawn.  I remember when there were two black jockeys there.”  Jeffreys claims to have been a contortionist, performing tricks, when “life was bent and I was twisted,” and he speaks of someone who will “do anything to be part of the scene” in “The Contortionist,” which has a chanted refrain that is fun; while “All Around the World,” focused on the daily toil during an economic recession, has a reggae beat, and in it Jeffreys asserts, “This property is condemned, so are the people who live here.”  Obviously he is attempting to make his work into a mirror for what has been going on in the world; a mirror that can speak, offering insights, if not answers.

It is very liberating to hear someone say something that sounds tough and wise; and in “Til John Lee Hooker Calls Me,” a blues-rock rave-up with intense singing, Jeffrey celebrates the musical heroes who have come and gone, such as James Brown, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, Sinatra, Nat Cole, and John Lee Hooker.  “Not getting any younger, and I’m not feeling very old,” says Jeffreys, who refuses to shop for his cemetery tomb, adding that he is not going anywhere until he gets his personal call: “I’m gonna wait ‘til John Lee Hooker calls me.”  Jeffreys, with a nod to both musical and political history, also says “the king that wears the crown is not the king necessarily.”

In a composition with an old-fashion (slow, heavy) blues beat, “Love Is Not a Cliché,” about both music and love, Garland Jeffreys stretches out the title, making it one-third croon, one-third moan, one-third plea.  “When I’m feelin’ low, after reading the news, I usually listen to my rhythm-and-blues,” Jeffreys sings in “Rock and Roll Music,” an anthem reconnecting two once intertwined, now divided, genres: rhythm-and-blues, and rock-and-roll.  “Imperfection is the new perfection,” sings Jeffreys in “The Beautiful Truth,” which has a ska rhythm (he used a similar rhythm in a previous album), though it is interesting that he sometimes makes the word beautiful sound like the word pitiful.  He sings of pain and shame, and of difficult duty, exuding a rare honesty among men.  An outright tribute to a “Roller Coaster Town,” that multicultural place, New York City, “RollerCoasterTown” has a summing up quality, as do some of the other songs.  Those are the works of a good and mature artist.  “In God’s Waiting Room,” an imagination of the afterlife, is comic but downbeat in rhythm, meandering.  The collection’s bonus song is Marc Bolan’s “Rock On,” which is terrific fun!

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art.  He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.