WILD IN THE STREETS (Best Of 1977-1983) - Garland Jeffreys (Raven)

Deniz Tek wrote it and Rob Younger sang it, "You got Garland Jeffreys on the car radio/You know I don't need you". Those unfamiliar with Mr Jeffreys' oeuvre (which would have to include the vast majority of the Australian listening public) were probably left wondering whether that meant that listening to Garland Jeffreys was unusually prevalent amongst those who knew they were being dumped or that listening to him would clue you in to everything you needed to know, after which perspectives and relationships would be changed forever.

Even without any specific evidence to be back me up, I always felt that this must have been some sort of reference to "Wild In The Streets" and according to the liner notes that come with this compilation, that song was actually a much earlier single only included on the "Ghost Writer" album as an afterthought. Not much radio play here perhaps, but probably quite a bit in the U.S. while Dr Tek was still living there, so it could well have been the one that he was referring to.

How did I know come to know anything about Garland Jeffreys and "Wild In The Streets" in the first place? Simple, I had a mate who had a copy of "Ghost Writer" and he used to play it pretty often. The fact is, at that time he only had about three albums: "Ghost Writer", da Oils' first album and... shit, can't remember now what the third one was; something by the Stones probably. Come to think of it, the Yes triple live album ("Yessongs") was huge with him too at one stage, but I'm sure that he only bought that much later; at the time that I'm thinking of, he was studying fulltime while supporting himself cleaning office floors at nights and a triple album would have been well beyond his budget.

He sometimes talked about all the other albums he'd buy when he had graduated and started earning a decent income, along with all the other good things that might lie in his future, though what the future actually turned out to have had up its sleeve for him was the death of his mother from a brain tumor, betrayal by a long term girl friend who backdoored him with one of his workmates and then left, taking most of the furniture with her and several bouts of long term unemployment on two continents...

Anyway the point is that whenever he started playing his records it wasn't too long before Garland Jeffreys' turn came around... again. I reckon I got to hear it at least once every time I dropped around for a beer, which was a lot.

In so far as Jeffreys ever broke through, "Ghost Writer" was his breakthrough album, so it's not surprising that it accounts for eight of the twenty tracks on this compilation and what a diversity they demonstrate! "Rough And Ready" has echoes of early Warren Zevon (circa "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead"), while "New York Skyline" sounds like something Billy Joel might have done in his early singer/songwriter/piano man days (you know, before he mutated into the U.S. equivalent of Elton John - another singing pianist who also parlayed a minstrel's modest musical talents into a seat in a big, comfy chair at the music industry's biggest trough). In one picture in the accompanying booklet, Jeffreys even looks remarkably like an exceptionally well tanned Billy Joel.

"Cool Down Boy" is like a collision between Lou Reed and Willy De Ville, somewhere on a street corner up in Spanish Harlem and "35 Millimeter Dreams" rivals Ray Davies' "Celluloid Heroes" in its evocation of the golden age of Hollywood, but "I May Not Be Your Kind" represents a real change of pace. It's a soulful reggae exploration of race relations, one of two themes that permeate much of Jeffreys' work (the other being New York, as much a state of mind as it is a place).

However "Wild In The Streets" remains the star turn; an eclectic mix (courtesy of some assistance in the studio from Dr John) of acoustic guitar, understated horn section with tuba dominant (or maybe it's just the bass cranked up to buggery and picked real slow), a touch of George Harrisonesque My Sweet Lord guitar, very solid rhythm section (any tuba confusion notwithstanding) and provocative, defiant vocals. It's the Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer In The City" as it would have sounded if Lou Reed had been allowed a big hand in the writing of it. It's even got a couple of transvestites in it.

Jeffreys' history is an interesting one. He did actually know Lou Reed in his early years, having met up with him at Syracuse University, from where he graduated as an art major. He went on to study in Italy (renaissance painting in Florence) and then returned to America, ending up back in New York (he was born in Brooklyn) for further studies at the Institute of Arts. In the meantime, Reed had also ended up in New York, working as a staff songwriter for Pickwick Records before going on to found some band or other.

Not long after he got back to New York Jeffreys started playing solo in Manhattan clubs, making ends meet by waiting tables, before joining a group called Grinder's Switch in 1969. That group broke up after only one album and most of the members then went on to back John Cale on "Vintage Violence" the following year, for which Cale covered Jeffreys' "Fairweather Friend" and Jeffreys wrote the liner notes.

Jeffreys connected up with Reed again in 1976, singing on his "Rock and Roll Heart" album. Reed eventually returned the favour in 1981, singing on Jeffreys' "Escape Artist" (apparently the only non-compilation Jeffreys album still in print).

"Escape Artist" is represented by three tracks on this compilation, a cover of the classic "96 Tears", with a very solid rhythm section beneath some chintzy sixties keyboards, "R.O.C.K." (sounding like a young Johnny Cougar in full blown Springsteen stadium mode) and "Modern Lovers", which could be a reference to Jonathan Richman but sounds more than anything like an outtake from an Elvis Costello tribute (and despite what your ears may be telling you, no that isn't the Eagles' Don Henley trying to muscle in on the vocals during the later choruses). From what I can gather, the whole album was chock full of guest artists and the rest of it sounds just as disparate as these three tracks.

The follow up album (and last for nearly a decade) was "Guts for Love", also represented here by three tracks. Unfortunately they've been given such a heavy handed production job that they've all become very samey and bland, though if you listen hard you can just detect some pretty personal lyrics imprisoned behind the monumental, AOR radio friendly facade. For someone of mixed black, white and Puerto Rican ancestry (and with even a faint trace of Cherokee blood) and having grown up in a Jewish/Italian neighbourhood, being different would be no novelty, but making him sound like everyone else is still a crime.

This compilation collects together the highlights of Jeffreys "middle period" ("Ghost Writer", "One Eyed Jack", "American Boy & Girl", "Escape Artist" and "Guts for Love"), skipping the Grinder's Switch album, his first, self-titled solo album and both of his albums during the nineties, "Don't Call Me Buckwheat" and "Wildlife Dictionary". Unfortunately it also skips the 1981 "Rock'n'Roll Adult" live album, where he was backed by most of the Rumour, but at a shade over 75 minutes it's still bursting at the seams. - John McPharlin





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