Thursday, April 21, 2011

Garland Jeffreys, New York Storyteller ~ Loves His Town

photo by Danny Clinch

“Twenty two stops to the city, twenty two stops…” Garland Jeffreys voice kicks in joining the drum’s anthem beat on “Coney Island Winter,” his terrific new single from his forthcoming album “The King of In Between,” a lament and love letter to New York City. (Release date: June 7th through Luna Park Records).

This week, I wrote about my musical hero, Garland Jeffreys, in my "City Stories: Stoops to Nuts," column in Our Town and the West Side Spirit.

When I was 8, I saw Mickey Mantle in the RKO movie house on 86th Street. The Yankees were promoting "Safe At Home," a silly film made right after the 1961 record home run year. Before the movie started, the whole team filed into the theatre and lined up on the right aisle. I was positioned perfectly with my father. Elston Howard, I could've touched and Mantle right next to him I could've reached with my sneaker. Howard saw my face with my mouth open looking at Mantle, Ellie leaned over and whispered, "Say hi, kid, he won't bite." I remained in my trance. Howard and my father laughed, and a moment later the Yankees marched up to the stage took a bow and left the place through a fire exit.

I swore if I ever met another one of my heroes, I'd start talking and not stop. This wouldn't be very productive if I intended on writing about it, so I used one of my childhood tricks to shut up, I put my whole fist in my mouth and let Garland talk. This was difficult but rewarding. We hung out in a cafe for an hour. No surprise, he is a nice fellow.

Brooklyn born, Manhattan native, Garland Jeffreys, is a New York City storyteller who uses the medium of music to lay his story down. His introspective autobiographical songs effectively use New York as a character. Listen to “New York Skyline,” “Ghost Writer,” or “Wild in The Street.” You cannot separate him from the city or the city from who he is. Even when the city is not mentioned by name you sense it in the words and tone of the characters he paints in his songs.

Jeffreys’s cultural background is black, white, and Puerto Rican. He grew up (22 subway stops from the city) in Sheepshead Bay in a multi-ethnic neighborhood where his was the only family of color in his local Catholic church. This racial diversity underlines and at times punctuates his music. Over coffee last week in a First Avenue cafe, he told me, “Growing up in that multi-national neighborhood in a large and loving extended family was a blessing. It readied me for the world. I’ve always mixed well with people.” In the restaurant, I saw evidence of this when he warmly greeted the wait staff with waves and a smile. Easy to see why Garland counts Bruce Springsteen and Lou Reeds as close friends.

Garland is married to Claire Jeffreys, a writer and his business manager. Their talented daughter, Savannah, 14, pens her own music. Being there for his family is the central reason Garland’s been out of the musical limelight for several years. “I did not want to be on the road all the time; I wanted to watch my daughter grow up.” He also wondered whether or not he should re-engage with the business of making music. After a long period of retreat, he came to see that in the end, performing is the most important facet of his musical identity, and little by little the performing led to a desire to get back to writing new material.

Though prejudice wasn’t flagrant in my family, the subtleties were there mostly fed by fear of the unknown. Hearing Garland’s stories, seeing the city through his eyes, visualizing his “Racial Repertoire,” gave me a desire to engage other cultures and consider the race issue from both sides. This readied me when I went to work for city government and comfortably adjusted to the cultural diversity there.

In June 1992, I drove my brother, Rory, upstate to a rehab program. Not for the first time. He and I tried hard to become closer as brothers, but we couldn’t make it work. I loved Rory but didn’t know him. At the same point, I was having my own personal problems and about to change jobs. I came home to New York City miserable. The next day, I read Garland Jeffreys was giving a free concert at Summerstage in Central Park. I felt low, I almost didn’t go.

Garland played for two hours. The cops were dancing by the third song. It was a gorgeous day and people whirling around sent the dust on the floor of the space into the air where it stayed. I wrote my first story when I was 49, eight years ago. The seed to write the story was planted in Central Park at that show.

Garland Jeffreys & the Coney Island Playboys headline the Highline Ballroom next Saturday, April 30th. Tickets are available. His live performances are legend, don’t miss it.

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