It's Sunday night at the Bayou and while the crowd is there to see John Cale, a cluster of fans crowds the small, dreadlocked man who has come to check out an upcoming venue. A year ago, without the dreadlocks, Garland Jeffreys would have passed unnoticed in this nightclub, but his Rasta-proud picture has begun to occupy increasingly prominent corners of national magazines ranging from Rolling Stone (not the cover, not just yet) to Stern (the biggest magazine in Europe) and soon, Time. Tonight, Jeffreys appears on the "Tomorrow" show with Tom Snyder while "Escape Artist," his first successful album in a 15-year career, nestles comfortably in the top 40, with a hit single almost as old as the singer himself, "96 Tears." And Jeffreys is touring with one of the best bands in the business, England's Rumour, temporarily separated from Graham Parker.

By 10 yesterday morning, though, Jeffreys has already been up for several hours in his room at the Iwo Jima Quality Inn in Arlington. This is where many of the groups stay until their guarantees jump them into Watergate suites that are only a mile away but can take 10 years to reach. Jeffreys, who will be able to afford the move if his star continues to rise, woke to noise from the busy interstate highway and National Airport airlanes that his hotel room has been built between. "It's just like my apartment in New York," the singer grins. Normally, he adds, "the great thing about being on the road is that it's very quiet."

Jeffreys has spent enough time on the road to offer expert criticism. Despite a minor rumble in the mid-'70s with "Wild In the Streets," it's taken 14 years for Jeffreys to hit and stick on the charts with his remake of the ? and the Mysterians proto-punk classic, "96 Tears," which pushed Jeffreys' sixth album to previously uncharted heights; typically, Epic is his fifth record company. "Fact is, I've dropped all the record companies I've been with," says the proud Jeffreys, a small but powerfully built mulatto man whose chocolate-milk skin and luminous eyes make him look a decade younger than his 38 years. He looks like a Rasta Lou Reed, another longtime friend in the business.

"[The record companies] never presented me or promoted me as if they wanted me to be in the public eye. I was a cult artist because they kept me that way," he says defiantly. Part of the problem had to do, no doubt, with Jeffreys' color, a problematic image rooted in two cultures, a situation which the rigidly defined patterns of the music industry have seldom come to terms with. Eight years ago, on his first solo album, Jeffreys was labeled a black songwriter working in the folk idiom; "now it's 'a black person who does white rock 'n' roll,' as if I'm not allowed to be anything else but an R & B singer or soul and disco writer, the black variants. That's racism to me."

The racial ambiguity, being "undefined," is a long-lived situation left over from growing up in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn. The son of a Jamaican-Puerto Rican mother and a mulatto father, Jeffreys was "a brown-skinned Catholic among Italians, Irish and Jews, but never a part of any of these groups, never being accepted even by black people. I was confused. And 'Garland,' it wasn't fun to have that name as a kid. It's great for show business, but . . ." Jeffreys looses a comfortable laugh.

In a pattern familiar to black jazz players, Jeffreys finally achieved both success and career impetus in Europe 18 months ago, where a single, "Matador," sold over a million copies, topping the charts in France, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Austria; typically, A&M never released it as a single in America and Jeffreys had already left that label when "Matador" hit overseas. That was just one more step in a career-long set of frustrations that saw Jeffreys garner enough critical kudos to paper a wall . . . but not much else.

The European success led to the current contract with Epic; in the process, Jeffreys hooked up with Graham Parker's old band, the Rumour, one of the most desired units in the rock field. Several members of the Rumour had played on "Escape Artist," as did members of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, a combination that gave that album a much harder, rock 'n' roll sound that Jeffreys showed on any of his earlier efforts. When Parker went off the road last year, the Rumour hooked up with Jeffreys.

If "Escape Artist" sounds different, it's also thematically advanced, the result of a personal catharsis Jeffreys underwent over the last two years. In the early stages of his career, there were always hints about his growing up in a violent, tough community but Jeffreys would never let himself be drawn out on specifics. Now he talks about it in a very direct way.

"I didn't grow up tough, but there's a toughness in me because of what happened to me as a child -- I got beaten by some members of my family, consistently, over a period of 14 years, until I was about 16. I've always known, but it's easy to keep that shock [hidden] in your life; that's how you survive as a kid." Jeffreys pauses to order his thoughts. "But it's no longer binding. It's been difficult getting it out, but I'm really glad that I am. It's making me whole, people can see who I am."

Coming to terms with that anguish of youth also provides new light on the body of Jeffreys' work, but another fight waits: The songwriter has dedicated his new album to the "continuing fight against racism." Eighteen months ago Jeffreys, who could easily pass for Spanish, started wearing his hair in the dreadlock style "purely for fun." It was a revelation. "I don't 'pass' so easily anymore," he says knowingly. "People see me as some sort of a black weirdo. It's something I really pick up on -- they treat me differently at customs, in airports, on the streets. Racism is on the rise, not just in America, but in France, England, Germany. In Hamburg, a restaurant wouldn't serve me breakfast in the hotel I was staying at." And again, being "undefined" has created a situation where Jeffreys has never been written about in the nation's black press.

As if that weren't enough, the singer also has to worry about "ageism." "The concept of achieving success 'late' or 'early' is such an American concept," he sighs. "Is there rock after 30? It's a dangerous, fake feeling when rock 'n' roll creates an age limitation. I don't consider myself an old man," he laughs. "And it has a lot to do with how you feel."