"You must make love to me with the music!" the teacher would roar, scandalizing 'em for blocks, I was sure. These outbursts, usually accompanied by a pounding fist and a shower of spittle, filled my soul with shame and my cheeks with a hot crimson yet to be matched in the laboratories of Sherwin-Williams. After awhile, though, I came to learn the meaning of these damp exhortations: that good music is a most intimate social sharing, and should emanate not from the ink on a page, but from the heart, the id -- the hormones, if necessary.
Some people are slow learners, I guess. But Garland Jeffreys is a lover from 'way back. In 1977, his "Wild in the Streets" (from "Ghostwriter") caressed the airwaves in a tantalizing shower of warm guitars; 1978's "One-Eyed Jack" raised the temperature, rocking steady, and 1979's "American Boy and Girl" throbbed with the tough-and-tender steam of the American street.
With "Escape Artists," Jeffreys has unleashed the sort of raw, rugged to live and die for. This is essentially the same stuff that made your parents wince and your girlfriend wiggle, back when rock'n 'roll aspired less to Art than to aphrodisia. Every track is a natural act, and the heady sensuality comes not so much from the words, which seem pretty pedestrian on the page, as from the music, the message of the unrelenting backbeat.
Rock has always been Jeffrey's self-proclaimed saving grace. On "American Boy and Girl," he referred to its inspirational powers; here, he uses the form as a means of escape from the harsh realities of poverty, failed romance, social injustice and even death. Again and again, the music serves as one type of escape or another, and the cumulative effect is one of celebration. "It rescued me from a fate that's worst than death," he sings in "R.O.C.K." with the unbridled gratefulness of a would-be street casualty. And in "Graveyard Rock," he turns the funeral of a neighborhood alcoholic into a joyful occasion, tongue lodged ruefully in cheek as he shouts "Mash it up!" to a skanky beat.
"Jump Jump," dedicated to John Lennon, sums up the idea most eloquently:
And here comes Les Miserables
It's one of my favorite novels
But it's so serious
Hope I'm not too rude
But I'm not in the mood
Let's make the great escape
All due respect to art for art's sake . . .
To the rock and roll Rimbauds . . .
To the poets and verse . . .
To the Venus Di Milo . . .
To the ones who came first
In matters of love, Jeffreys is as quick to flash his humor as to bare his soul. "True Confessions" is as honest a soul-rendering as its title implies, while the two versions of "Christine" show lost love first for its tragicomic absurdity, then for the sustained torture of recrimination that lingers after a heartbreak. In a lighter vein, "Ghost of a Chance" jibes an intermittent affair doomed to failure:
When it came to love and sex
He was a fan of the quick sensation
Carbon copy of his ex
Masochistic love and sex
They were both two nervous wrecks
Jeffreys tackles social problems, too, in "Miami Beach," We the People" and the definitive "Mystery Kids." But he always takes pains to let the music speak louder than the words, so any potential for didacticism is greatly diminished.
These cuts give evidence that Jeffrey has learned a few tricks since "American Boy and Girl," Chiefly that of letting his strong musical instincts take over where sometimes weak lyrics might fail. The ending of "Ghost of a Chance," the climax of "Mystery Kids" and the sheer gumption of using both versions of "Christine" display his commitment to the idea that where the music leads, the heart will follow.
At the very moment when "R.O.C.K." reaches its panting peak, Jeffreys shouts "Turn it up!" and for two suspenseful measures, the music reaches its lowest possible dynamics. It's pure test of will at that point to keep one's hands off the volume control. And confronted with the authoritative back-beat of these tracks, a metronome needle would wilt with impotence.
Something should be said of the musicians who helped Jeffreys put all these elements together, a diverse crew including Big Youth, Lou Reed, the Brecker Brothers, Steve Goulding and Andrew Bodnar of the Rumour and co-producer Bob Clearmountain. It's hard to imagine what kind of rapport must have developed in the studio among these wildly different individuals, but it's pretty clear that Jeffrey's enthusiasm, his desire to transcend mere musical mechanics, was as infectious to them as it is to the listener.
In the tradition of great rock vocalists -- Dylan, Joplin, Jagger, Springsteen -- Jeffreys has a dry, gruff, limited-range voice. Luciano Pavarotti he's not. Most frequently he's been compared to Jagger in Style, but these days Jagger should be so lucky. If the whiny misogyny and head-banging cynicism that have become Jagger's stock-in-trade are what really dwell in his libido, I'll take my chances on a date with the Hillside Strangler.
And speaking of punks, I should mention that the only cover tune on this album is "96 Tears," that seminal wimp-rock first performed by ? and the Mysterians. Jeffreys will likely be chided, not for covering the song, but for the way the hard, tight guitar bulges against the simpering Farfisa, the way his voice cracks almost imperceptibly at the end, doing a turnaround on the mean-spiritedness of the thing.
If you like the way rock music has become colder, safer, more distanced over the years, don't bother with "Escape Artist." But if you want something you can crank up, come close to, get sweaty about, this is the best investment you'll make all year. I'm talking basic rock'n roll. I'm talking love, sex, the giving arts.
Old Fountain-Face would be proud.
THE ALBUM -- Garland Jeffreys, "Escape Artist," Epic (36983).