Here comes the sun
There goes the night
And like a silent gun
There goes out the streetlight
But no love is lost
Between the black and the white
We got rock ‘n roll music
No sign of a street fight.”
by mike morgan
In the middle of the Garland Jeffreys set at the Village Underground, an exuberant and no doubt aging spectator called out for the number “If Mao could see me now,” from the “American Boy & Girl” record (at least twenty-five years old). Garland, forever the wry humorist, immediately responded, “I can’t do that, I’m a bushman now.” It’s unlikely, indeed nigh unimaginable, that the man who coined the phrase “Eisenhower’s Weisenheimers” is buying this current crop of war rubbish. What is not imagined, but is no doubt for real, is his true love for the city and it’s underground array of diverse, locked out, creative, dispersed inhabitants. Garland’s city is not Guiliani’s or Bloomberg’s New York. These overseers would have us believe that the only working populi who count wear either uniforms with badges or three-piece suits. His city is not reserved for the adherents to the daily opinion of the Wall Street Journal or for the myopic residents of penthouses on Park Avenue. Theirs’ is a “big city with a very small mind.” Garland’s New York belongs to “the orphans and the city kids,” “a gang called Shady and a midnight lady,” and the residents of Spanish Town. In Garland’s place, even though it is replete with newspaper writers and big crime fighters, he still needs a drug store to cure his cough.
Witness this: It was a cold, wet Saturday dusk when the diehards lined up on West Third Street to await admittance to the venue. This was an all too familiar circumstance for the masses, roped off and left to hear the occasional order barked from a muscle-bound bouncer. All of a sudden, there was Garland Jeffreys walking up and down the queue, shaking hands with and welcoming the punters. “Come back and play,” shouted the Root Cellar Kid (the RCK), a member of our gang, himself a former notorious busker. True to form, Garland came back out on line with his guitar and serenaded us in the rain with “Corrina, Corrina (the Dylan version). It was a special moment. The RCK, always respectful of a working stiff, gave Garland a dollar! Garland pocketed it too! The point here is that with respect for one’s audience comes accessability. This is not the normal routine. Usually, the star of the show is cloistered away in some protected area, and unfortunately, more often than not, views his/her audience either with distant acknowledgment or, in some more repulsive cases, with actual disdain. As a great foreigner once said, “Democracy is not a one-man cup of tea.” The give and the take between an audience and a player is often what differentiates a memorable show from just another gig. Too often, the audience is used to being treated like mindless cattle, and both the performers and the establishment reinforce this bad relationship. Not so with Garland Jeffreys. Not so with this particular audience. Not that Saturday night.
Because it’s not easy staying true. In our society, honesty is often punished, whilst selling out is rewarded. Standards of success and failure are set by these extremely dubious criteria and by the industry that holds them to be sacred. Popular culture is one such medium where the act of abandonment of anything resembling soul and integrity in its stead for the serving up of pablum is revered as a potential holy cash cow that reaps both material and political benefits for those in charge. But the conditions of the sell-out and its long-term effects are even more revolting. For example, the latest mess of prime-time reality TV shows essentially have one basic common theme or characteristic, namely how to hoodwink and tell on your neighbors, peers, spouse, or so-called friends, without them copping to it until it’s too late. The golden rule is “stab them in the back before they stab you.” For accomplishing this, the winner usually receives a minimum of one million dollars. It’s no surprise though, since this country has a horrid, sordid history of encouraging deeds of duplicity and backstabbing and raising them up onto a popularly acceptable, if not respectable, pedestal, e.g. HUAC (the House Un-American Committee) in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the primary focus of which was to weed out perceived subversives in the movie industry via snitching. Thus, it’s hardly cause for wonder that many gifted artists, after years of trying to flog their wares, fall by the wayside, victims of a system that never recognized their true worth, because that same worth couldn’t be completely owned, controlled, manipulated and abused by the bean counters, the money people and the guardians of whatever happens to be the mainstream political line/agenda of the day. Although a few of the good ones can’t be silenced that easily.
Not entirely, but in large, this helps explain why Garland Jeffreys and his body of work are more of a secret and less readily available. Raised in Brooklyn, Garland arrived on the music scene in the mid-1970s, with a series of thought-provoking, intelligent songs that rocked, skanked and doo-wooped their way onto my turntable, for one. Albums such as Ghost Writer, American Boy & Girl, and Escape Artist were regarded with critical acclaim by people who were actually paid to think and write, not merely to write. Garland even did a stint with Graham Parker’s band, the Rumour, before disappearing into obscurity by 1983. He emerged again in 1992 with another corker, Don’t call me Buckwheat. Now, ten years or so after his second disappearing act, he is back, playing around the city with his self-labeled “Brand New Rock ‘n Roll Band.” And this is a group to kill for, featuring among others, ex-alumni from the Rumour and Tower of Power, and representing a microcosm of an international community of musicians.
Garland’s band at the show we went to comprised of white and black Americans, a Brazilian, a Finn, two Londoners and a South African. This wasn’t some multi-culturalism a la Sting, who can afford to pluck musicians from different parts of the world because he can pay them probably a significant amount more than they could earn in their respective homelands, plus it makes him look better than he really is, which is awful on a good day. Rather, it is a logical conclusion of what happens when an artist takes on international questions such as racism, can create an environment that attracts and challenges his fellow players, and has the chops and downright humanity to back it all up. Garland Jeffrey’s band is not a result of political correctness at work, but correct politics at work and at play. Bono take heed.
For this audience member, the highpoint of the evening was Garland’s rendition of the song “Ghostwriter.” At a particular point, he donned a black mask, and digressed from the recorded version, rapping about “growing up in a ghost house” and “having to sweep the stairs, then wax the stairs, because you ain’t even seen the schoolyard yet boy.” It doesn’t entail a gigantic leap of consciousness to understand the symbolism here. Talk to anybody who grew up on the have-not side of segregated Brooklyn fifty to sixty years ago. Garland Jeffreys doesn’t shirk from confronting this inequality, which is hardly dead today, despite the Colin Powell’s and Condoleeza Rice’s of this world. His later-played song in the concert, “Hail, Hail Rock ‘n Roll” refers to the plight that non-white American musicians found themselves in and still find themselves in… “Don’t leave me stranding on the beat, Leave me standing on the street.” If you don’t believe me, check out the history of rock ‘n roll (Bo Diddley versus Aerosmith, Willie Dixon versus Led Zeppelin…who’s in debt to whom?). Or consider the opinions of middle-aged white people, weened on rock ‘n roll, towards hip-hop? There will be exceptions, but the overwhelming majority will pan the ghetto music. Garland’s positions might hit you over the head, but they’re as real and clear as white on rice (and as sticky too).
It was ironic that Garland Jeffreys and his band played the weekend after the Grammy awards, an annual event where various sequined and tuxedo-clad crows clap each other on the back, celebrating another successful year of extortion, larceny and, in most cases, miserable music (Elvis Presley never won a Grammy award…Milli Vanilli did, until they were exposed as sham knackers). It brings to mind the occasion when Arlo Guthrie received enshrinement into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on behalf of his dad, Woody. Arlo, on the stage set up at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel (one of New York’s swankiest), said, “I don’t know where Woody would be tonight if he were alive, but I can guarantee you he wouldn’t be here.” That’s a no-brainer. He probably would’ve been downtown at the Garland Jeffreys show.
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.