On his farewell tour, Garland Jeffreys is a satisfied rock ‘n’ roll survivor
As a kid growing up on the streets of Brooklyn in the 1950s, Garland Jeffreys wasn’t thrilled about the name his parents gave him.
“I didn’t feel it was a masculine thing,” he says with a chuckle. Later, however, when he began performing, he came to value how it had a memorable ring to it.
“Sometimes what you want is not as good as what happens to you,” says Jeffreys, who plays a sold-out show May 10 at City Winery in Boston (tickets are still available for a May 9 concert at the Double E Performance Center in Essex Junction, Vt., where he’ll share a bill with Steve Forbert). “I think that’s happened in many ways and situations with me.”
At 75, Jeffreys is set to play the final shows in a 50-year career marked by occasional highs, periodic interludes, and an an overarching story of rock ’n’ roll survival. He wrote and recorded the timeless song “Wild in the Streets,” was a longtime friend to Lou Reed, and has been a regular in recent years at Bruce Springsteen’s charity shows. Bob Marley was a fan of his forays into reggae.
“Sometimes you take a break — you feel like you’ve done your best,” Jeffreys says. “Then you crawl back. You say, ‘Hey, this music world is pretty good’ ” — in spite, that is, of its long history of failing to reward worthy artists such as himself.
Jeffreys is probably best known for his 1977 album “Ghost Writer,” still regarded as a classic of the era, with hints of doo-wop, easy skanking, and even a little disco, all scuffed up with bankruptcy-era New York City grit. But his performing days reach back as far as the tail-end Greenwich Village heyday and subsequent Woodstock retreat of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and his most recent albums — after a decade-plus hiatus — have been hailed as a welcome comeback.
“It’s interesting,” he says, on the phone from his home in Manhattan. “When you get to be my age, you look back and think: Where did the time go, you know?”
After a few more farewell dates, including a birthday tribute with special guests set for New York City in late June, Jeffreys and his wife and manager, Claire, will concentrate on completing a documentary on his life in music. He’ll continue to write songs, he says, “but I’m ready to hang up my rock ’n’ roll shoes.”
Jeffreys, whose heritage is African-American and Puerto Rican, grew up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, in a melting-pot neighborhood with black, Latino, and white schoolmates. He attended Syracuse University, where he befriended Reed and hung out with the poet Delmore Schwartz and his coterie of student followers.
He cut his first album in 1970 as part of the rootsy Upstate New York band Grinder’s Switch, which featured keyboardist Stan Szelest, who would become a latter-day member of the Band.
“Stan was a great guy,” Jeffreys says. “He was like a papa. He was a real rock ’n’ roller. When you’re around people like that, you learn a lot from them.”
Jeffreys co-produced his self-titled solo debut, released three years later, with the jazz-oriented Atlantic Records staffer Michael Cuscuna, who would go on to major reissue projects for Blue Note and other labels. After the success of “Ghost Writer” and “Wild in the Streets,” Jeffreys tried to capitalize with a flurry of albums that ranged from softer rock (one song, “Matador,” became a surprise hit across Europe) to a stateside version of pub rock.
Following a decade of downtime, Jeffreys returned in 1992 with an album called “Don’t Call Me Buckwheat.” The title track was spurred by a derogatory remark someone shouted at him at a ballgame. In a New York Times essay last year, songwriter Loudon Wainwright III included it among a list of 10 great songs “that have challenged the status quo.”
Jeffreys’s music has often addressed the uncomfortable truths of racism, from “Why-O” and “I May Not Be Your Kind” (from “Ghost Writer”) to a cover of “I Walk the Line” for a Johnny Cash tribute album, which lent a very different interpretation to the familiar lyric. One song from the “Buckwheat” album, “Color Line,” was inspired by a boyhood trip to a ballpark, when his father took him to see Jackie Robinson play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
“My uncles were Giants fans,” he explains. “But my father loved Jackie Robinson, so consequently I did, too.”
After several years spent mostly out of the spotlight while raising his daughter, Savannah (now a 23-year-old songwriter and activist), Jeffreys launched a comeback with 2011’s “The King of In-Between,” which featured the sublime Boston guitarist Duke Levine. Two more albums have followed.
“You wouldn’t have known he hadn’t been in the studio making a record for that long,” says Levine, who first met Jeffreys while Levine was holding down a residency at an East Village club. “He was totally at home, natural. There was a really good energy about it.”
Jeffreys’s biggest gift is his ability to synthesize all the various styles he likes into one all his own. “Whatever bags he’s been into in his life, they’re all there,” Levine says. “Early rock ’n’ roll, blues, boogie-Magic Sam kind of stuff. And he seems to always have a reggae groove in there somewhere. If an artist wasn’t that strong as a singer and songwriter, that stuff might not hang together on record.” But it does.
There have been times, but not many, when Jeffreys has chased a hit.
“Commercial music occasionally hits on something that’s a success,” he says. “But that’s not the goal. The goal is to make music you appreciate, with the hope that other people appreciate it. I feel like I made that step.”
On that 2011 album, Jeffreys announced his return with an irresistible song called “Rock and Roll Music,” which sounds like his version of the Beatles revisiting their own roots on the rooftop at Apple Records.
“When the day comes, and I’m 64/ I won’t be one of those guys who falls on the floor,” Jeffreys sang. “But if it so happens, I’ll pick myself up/ And dust myself off, and listen some more/To the rock ’n’ roll music.”
He’s 75 now, and it’s your last chance to see him onstage. “I’m ready to let it go,” he says.
But even in retirement, you can bet he won’t stop listening to the rock ’n’ roll music.