Garland Jeffreys is a rock 'n' roll poet with a gentle soul. He's a reactionary, a musical voice for the voiceless with a swaggering street narrative running through it all. He has had nominal hits with songs like 1973's "Wild in the Streets" and has rubbed elbows with contemporaries like Lou Reed, David Johansen, Dr. John, John Cale, and Bruce Springsteen.
At 70, Jeffreys still tours and churns out music, is active in his community, and raises money for charities like Parkinson's disease through the Light of Day Foundation. He has released 14 albums on his own and has appeared on countless compilations, including 2011's "Occupy This Album: 99 Songs for the 99 Percent." No matter which cause or issue Jeffreys is attached, his music is couched in straight-up rock 'n' roll intoned with a side of vocal soul and cool.
We gave Jeffreys a jingle to discuss working with Lou Reed, if things are alright, and laying it down in the studio in one take. He was utterly charming. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
CITY: So you've been busy...
Garland Jeffreys: The last two albums I've done, "The King of In Between" and "Truth Serum," were done almost back-to-back. I haven't done that in a long time. And I'm starting now thinking about a new album. I'm on the road, I'm playing a lot. So I'm very productive at 70 years old.
You were friends with the late Lou Reed.
Yes. We went to Syracuse together back in the day. We were best friends. The man was a great guy who was insistent on doing something that was off the average, away from the usual — a groundbreaker. The things he wrote about, the things that were significant to him.
How did Reed influence you?
I would say he influenced me by taking more chances than most people. We met in 1961 — it was an over-50-year friendship, and we had a lot of contact over those years. There were a lot of things Lou did that other people couldn't do. Lou wasn't the greatest singer in the world, he didn't have the greatest voice, but it didn't stop him. He invented, in a way, certain approaches. He really stepped out there. Everybody wants a little commercial success, but that wasn't his focus — as it's not my focus. The focus is to write songs with real heart and soul, real meaning and real significance, hopefully reaching out to others, expressing our own view, our own sense of what's right and wrong.
Your songwriting seems reactionary to social and political injustice.
Yes, it is. It just hurts to see it.
But what would you write about if everything were alright?
I'm not even going to answer that question, because it's not. Let's talk about what is.
How has your music changed over the years? How has it remained the same?
I think it's consistent in the sense of wanting to examine, draw attention to, and investigate certain ideas; being a supporter of change in certain ways. One of the things I'm interested in these days... where I live, in the city, there are a lot of elderly in the community and I'm looking out for them; talking, saying a few words. A lot of them know me. I've always been interested somewhat in the lives of others and helping to improve them in certain ways.
You're currently traveling and performing with a trio. What is your favorite type of live line-up?
I like a four-piece back-up band, but I'll play under any circumstances. I mean, I grew up singing a cappella on street corners. I like guitar, bass, drums, keys. I like rockin' out with that.
With your latest album, "Truth Serum," each track was recorded in one take, vocals included. That's amazing. Was that your goal or did you just luck-out?
That's what I shoot for. I'm looking for a vocal that's live to the track as opposed to overdubbing the vocal. I don't like that; it loses something. I've found it really gains something when you just sing the song while the band is playing. There's a connection. We're all being recorded at the same time and it's an event.
When all is said and done, what will they say about Garland Jeffreys?
I'm not ready to give you my epitaph yet, man. I'm sorry. I'm just not there.