garland jeffreys: the king of in between

Garland has got Brooklyn etched all over him. ‘Coney Island Winter,’ the opening cut, is a rock and roll anthem about what is wrong or right with our old neighborhoods being changed against our will…”


by mike morgan


I read a smashing novella about twenty years ago called “A River Runs Through It.” Robert Redford made the book into a Brad Pitt film, not half bad, but that’s not what this is about. Thinking about reading the novel and seeing the movie, I remember the old story about the billy-goat that finds a book and a reel of film in a field. It happened that the animal had come upon the epic by Lew Wallace and the Charlton Heston movie made thereof, the one with the chariot race, the galley-slaves, the lepers and Jesus. The billy-goat, doing as billy-goats do, ate the book and then the plastic. He swallowed the paper and spat out the film. In goat lingo he then said, “Loved Ben, hated Hur.”

Why I bring this up is that the author of “A River Runs Through It,” one Norman Maclean, eventually penned his best-selling book at the age of seventy-four years. His children had told him he was a great yarn teller and that he needed to write down what he had to say. They put him up to it. The author never let on that he was an older man, but most of his readers didn’t need to know this. What mattered was that Norman Maclean finally got around to doing the right thing. He eventually nailed it.

Garland Jeffreys is a songwriter that didn’t blossom late like Norman Maclean. I came to America in 1978, and I soon heard his music. I immediately fell in love with it. Garland’s lyrics taught me about the conundrum of relations between the communities here. His songs reflected the rock and reggae that I had come to think was one of the most worthwhile ways of making statements whilst remaining soulful. After I arrived in New York City (Brooklyn) then there were two homegrown artists that made the most sense to me, Gil Scott-Heron and Garland Jeffreys.

Gil is now dead, but Garland is far from it. Garland Jeffreys started young and strong. He’s been at it for a long time. I have written about his work in this publication before, and if you want to read that stuff go into “Vault of Smoke.” The previously published piece was about a 2003 concert of Garland and his band in Manhattan. In some ways it seems like only yesterday, but it was eight years ago. I thought of the need to write about Garland Jeffreys then, and I’m still going to write about him now. So I’m not going to repeat any of that earlier material here, but I am going to talk about what it means to get on in years and still stick to one’s guns. This is where the Norman Maclean connection comes in and the message is “don’t give up.”

Earlier this year, Garland Jeffreys produced his new record called “The King of In Between.” He had not brought out an album since 1991. The cover photograph was enough to sell me. Anybody who is familiar with the struggle in this country should know about the political differences between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Junior, even though they were both on the right side. On Garland’s black and white cover pic, he is staring up at the intersection of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Malcolm X Avenue in Harlem, looking a little lost and for some direction. And that’s just for starters.

Garland has got Brooklyn etched all over him. “Coney Island Winter,” the opening cut, is a rock and roll anthem about what is wrong or right with our old neighborhoods being changed against our will. Next there is a number called “I’m Alive,” which Norman Maclean would be proud of. But then the record hits overdrive with a song called “Streetwise.” On this one, Garland warns us not to lose our street savvy. He does it in such a way that is tear-evoking but not cheap, referring to his dad’s wisdom and that is “You’ve got to be street-wise.” He goes so far as to defend Barack Obama, saying that the Secret Service guys protecting him need to be street-wise. Even this has some value. I never thought much of Obama and have only defended him when the attacks against him have been purely racist. As a human being, he doesn’t deserve any of that. As a representative and leader of the Democrat Party and the so-called free world, he deserves all of the crap he gets.

The next track is my favorite, a song called “The Contortionist.” This has the line about imagining swallowing swords and things, referring to the kind of delusion that a twister of reality might have whilst high or on the sauce. The contortion part comes with trying to stay true but at the same time needing to fit in. To that degree, we are all contortionists. And then there’s “All Around the World” with Junior Marvin, an old Wailer, that still cuts the skank. Not to forget “‘Til John Lee Hooker Gets Me.” The music universe might never completely fess up to what it owes John Lee Hooker. Let’s ask Eric Burdon. Garland knows the answer.

The world of recorded music is so different from what we knew as kids. Artists now have the technology to produce their own recordings. They are not so dependant on the whims of the music industry which no longer wields the power it once had. It’s a double-edged sword. The always talented ones like Butch Hancock, Joe Ely, Garland Jeffreys etc., make and market their own discs. Whether they have the business wherewithal to sell their products is up to them. They depend on their old fan base and hope like hell that the young ‘uns might want to hear them. It’s a tough row to hoe. But there is a level of honesty which the labels could hardly ever bring to the table. This is why it’s important to buy these musicians’ records on their own sites versus something like Amazon, because it means they might be able to afford making another.

And honesty is where it’s at, which brings me back to Norman Maclean and Garland Jeffreys. “The King of In Between” is all about getting on in years and how one deals with that. Bob Dylan sang about staying forever young, but that’s a mindset that doesn’t take into account the physicality of reality. Garland refuses to accept that it’s over, and like a good port wine, age is an asset. He’s perhaps made his best record ever to prove it. Try and run a river through that.

Originally published:
Issue Sixty-Two
October 2011


A Brooklynite by way of Wales and South Africa, Mike Morgan is the founder of Burrow Magazine and serves as one of its Senior Editors and Contributors. In addition to these duties, he has been and continues to be at the heart of a thriving literary, art and music scene and is a regular at several neighborhood bars, where he can be found discussing global and local affairs, rock and roll, various New York sports teams, and whatever books he happens to be reading at the time. More from Mike Morgan can be found in the Vault of Smoke.

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