TERRY GROSS, host:
Garland Jeffreys has released his first album of new music in over a decade. It's called "The King of In Between." In 1977, he was hailed as Rolling Stones' best new artist. In recent decades, Jeffreys, a native New Yorker, has had more success in Europe.
Rock critic Ken Tucker says his new album showcases a lively artist whose talent is undimmed.
(Soundbite of song, "I'm Alive")
Mr. GARLAND JEFFREYS (Singer-songwriter): (Singing) I strolled on down to the valley of death. I met the angel and the devil's breath. I can tell you, I was not alone. It was me and myself and the bright lights on. Yes. Yes. Yes. It ain't no jive. Grateful I'm here and still alive. I stumbled all along my path, but I took down notes and I photographed. I'm alive. I'm alive. Alive. I'm alive. I'm alive. I'm alive. I'm alive. I'm alive. I'm alive. I'm alive. I'm not dead. I'm alive. I'm alive. I'm alive.
I continue to tell you my story...
KEN TUCKER: Garland Jeffreys is indeed alive. I took down notes and I photographed, he says on that song "I'm Alive." It's Jeffreys' precisely recalled details about a life begun in Brooklyn, studying art history in college and the decades-long pursuit of rock and roll redemption - if not stardom - that continues to give his music its fizz. Jeffreys is one of the few performers who came of commercial age in the era of Bruce Springsteen who can still make that guitar-based, myth-making impulse work as intimate art.
(Soundbite of song, "Streetwise")
Mr. JEFFREYS: (Singing) All of my relatives have gone to their peaceful resting place. (unintelligible) to carry on, to do what's right. Leave a smile on your face.
And one thing my father said, I looked into his eyes. Then he turned his head and he said, you've got to be streetwise.
TUCKER: Singing about his own upbringing in New York City and observing his daughter's walks down what Jeffreys would never stoop to call those mean streets, he's at once a wary realist and an appreciator of the culture lurking amidst the potential dangers. The song is called "Streetwise," a quality Jeffreys possesses in abundance without letting the swagger overtake his reportorial skills. The music has a cinematic, string-section swirl that's reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield's soundtracks for films such as "Superfly" and "Claudine," but bent to his will by his own guitar hooks.
Garland Jeffreys retains a pride in his roots that's both fierce and sentimental. Perhaps that's why he had himself photographed on the cover of "The King of In Between" standing at the intersection of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevards in Harlem. It's an image echoed in the music: he's at a crossroads, trying once again to break through the noise of the music industry while remaining true to his own eclectic style.
(Soundbite of song, "Roller Coaster Town")
Mr. JEFFREYS: (Singing) New York's my home, and I'm 40,000 yards from the cyclone. Every time I turn and look around, I realize how much I love this roller coaster town.
New York's the place where everybody's here from the human race, where they lift you up when you're feeling down. That's why I love this roller coaster town.
Going back to Brooklyn...
TUCKER: Jeffreys' music has always been rich with his diverse interest in all sorts of popular music and his heritage as a man born to a black father and a Puerto Rican mother. He's written incisive songs about mixed race and mixed feelings: Too black to be white, too white to be black, he's said ruefully. And he's never forgotten where he was born: 22 stops on the subway from Manhattan, where he started playing professionally with jazz and rock musicians. Except for the vehement use of the phrase rock and roll itself, it's hard to believe this is the music of a 67-year-old, isn't it?
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. JEFFREYS: (Singing) When the day comes that I'm 64, I won't be one of those guys who falls on the floor. But if it so happens, I'll pick myself up and dust myself off and listen some more to the rock and roll music, rock and roll music. Rock and roll music. Rock, rock, rock, rock, rock, rock, rock on.
When I'm feeling low...
TUCKER: Jeffreys counts Springsteen as his friend and Lou Reed as on old-school chum. Reed sings back-up vocals on one cut here. If you aren't familiar with his music, well, the best compliment I can pay Garland Jeffreys is to say that his newest album is as good an introduction to his excellence as the superb album that put him on the map, "Ghost Writer" in 1977. There are quite a few mentions of mortality scattered throughout his new collection. On one song, Jeffreys says he doesn't want to die on stage with a microphone in my hand, but he makes it sound as though it might be a beautiful way to go. In every respect, he's not just artfully ambivalent. He's the king of in-between.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed "The King of In Between" by Garland Jeffreys.
(Soundbite of song, "God's Waiting Room")
Mr. JEFFREYS: (Singing) Laughing at notion of death. Giddy at the notion of my very last breath, while the world replicates the feelings of doom. I'll be standing in line in God's waiting room.
The Staple Singers will be present in my very last dream. Fingers at my funeral, on guitar is turned up to 16. Nothing really changed in the colors I see, 'cause I'm laughing at death when God's finger points for me, in God's waiting room.