Mar 042022

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

Garland Jeffreys

For an artist who never cracked the top 50 in the U.S., Garland Jeffreys has left quite a footprint. A friend of Lou Reed’s when they were students at Syracuse University, Jeffreys went on to perform on John Cale’s solo debut Vintage Violence before striking out on his own. His mix of rock, folk, soul, reggae, and more made him hard to pigeonhole, but the people who knew, knew. Rolling Stone named him the Best New Artist of 1977, a year that saw debuts from the Clash, the Jam, Talking Heads, Television, and more. Far from prolific – he released five albums between 1983 and 2013 – Jeffreys still secured a devoted following, especially in Europe. Though he no longer tours, he continues to write, maintains an active Twitter presence, and a documentary is in the works to raise awareness of this rare giant of the past half-century-plus.

Jeffreys has relied on his own pen more than that of others, with many of his songs carrying an autobiographical flavor. You could say the same of his covers, paying tribute both to the songs he grew up with and the people he knew when they were barely getting started.

Garland Jeffreys – 96 Tears (? and the Mysterians cover)

“96 Tears” was Jeffreys’ biggest chart hit in America, peaking at number 66 in March of 1981. There’s footage of him doing it live that year on The Old Grey Whistle Test and here on Fridays, the SNL wannabe of the day, with Graham Parker’s backing band The Rumour playing behind him. He’s also performed it with Bruce Springsteen, no slouch of a garage rocker himself.

Garland Jeffreys – Streets of Philadelphia (Bruce Springsteen cover)

Speaking of Springsteen, the Boss opened for Jeffreys at the Cafe Au Go Go back in 1972. They’ve stayed in touch ever since. Jeffreys appears on Light of Day, a great Springsteen tribute album, performing “Streets of Philadelphia” with just as much emotion as its author.

Garland Jeffreys – I Walk the Line (Johnny Cash cover)

How do you put a spin on “I Walk the Line” to make it your own? That was the puzzle facing Jeffreys when he covered the immortal track for the Johnny Cash tribute album Johnny’s Blues. Jeffreys’ solution was a novel one: accordion. It gives the song a little Orange Blossom Special kick, without turning it into a novelty tune.

Garland Jeffreys – Waiting For the Man (The Velvet Underground cover)

Jeffreys and Lou Reed were both students of Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse, and they stayed friends for the rest of Reed’s life (a pretty tremendous accomplishment, you have to admit). On his most recent album, 2017’s 14 Steps to Harlem, Jeffreys pays tribute to his friend with a cover of “I’m Waiting for the Man,” from the first Velvet Underground album. PopMatters says it “forgoes the indie drone of the original with a more traditional bluesy, barroom feel that subtracts none of the song’s potency.”

Garland Jeffreys – Help! (The Beatles cover)

John Lennon was always proud of “Help!” as a written cri de coeur, but the record itself was another story. “I don’t like the recording that much,” Lennon admitted to Jann Wenner in their famous 1970 Rolling Stone interview. “We did it too fast to try and be commercial.” Jeffreys approaches “Help!” with that in mind. He transforms it into the ballad Lennon originally imagined it being, and the song is all the more remarkable for it.

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