Unknown Pleasures Chapter 11:  Racial Repertoire

A continuing series exhuming, exploring and exalting the “lost” treasures scattered in the sands of music history. Because it’s never too late.

Garland-Jeffreys Garland Jeffreys – Don’t Call Me Buckwheat [BMG 1992]

All he wanted was a hot dog at the ballpark, but apparently one jackass in the crowd thought it was too much to ask

“Hey Buckwheat…Sit down!”

I have no idea what Garland Jeffreys did next.  Oh wait – yes I do.  He smiled ruefully, shook his head, sat down and watched the rest of the game, without finding the jerk who yelled and kicking his goddamn ass the way any normal person would/should have.  How do I know?  Because that’s what he, me, my father his father and every other black/brown man would do in that situation…It’s what our mothers teach us to do from the moment we’re old enough to walk out of the front door on our own. It’s what they teach us so that we won’t die.

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In case you couldn’t tell, this one is personal, but then it’s impossible to write anything about Garland Jeffreys that isn’t personal. Jeffreys is one of those artists who’s never been able to fake it, dumb it down, phone it in, play the game, which is why he’s not as famous as he should be. On the other hand, that’s what makes him so special to the people who do know of him. For nearly half a century and over a dozen albums, there hasn’t been a box he’d willingly fit in, a format he’d satisfy.  Just being half black/half Puerto Rican and playing rock and roll in the 70s is a revolutionary action.Time and again, he’s been a master of disguise, undercover in plain sight, his own ghostwriter and ours . It’s a big part of why people who know his work love it [and him].

Jeffrey’s ninth album arrived after a decade long hiatus [and some asshole’s racist remark] You can hear his spikes in the terse, dense sound of it; the warm American Rock he’s always loved is all but gone, supplanted by a palette of edgy dancehall, uptown drum programming and hip hop rhythms that sound like things getting pushed over.  As brilliant as it is, it’s disheartening this record still has to exist. Because an album dealing almost solely with racism in America shouldn’t be totally relevant over 20 years after it’s release.  But then “Ball of Confusion” is still relevant and it’s nearly 50 years old, so whatever.

Don’t Call Me Buckwheat  opens with “Moonlight in the Cornfield,” a candlelit hymn to the spirit of those who’ve brought us this far…and almost everything that follows reads like an angry pre-millenial letter from a brother who’s been away only to return and realize nothing’s changed….nothing at all.

“Hail Hail Rock’n’Roll” laments black culture pilfered over and over for fun and profit, even as it’s deplored and ridiculed by those in power. The title track is a litany of the slights, jabs, offenses and outright attacks that have been replaced by microaggressions and dog-whistle code words that make up our new Troll Culture. Same racism, disguised as “free speech” in “post racial” America.  “Racial Repertoire” could have been the alternate title for the album as it recounts the aforementioned lessons black mothers, aunts and grandmas still have to teach their sons to get along in a world looking for any excuse to erase them. “Color Line” surveys the landscape through eyes that can remember when just one athlete or celebrity could be tasked with carrying the hopes and aspirations for an entire nation within a nation.

“Spanish Blood” and “I Was Afraid of Malcolm,” mark the crossroads of the record. While most of the songs on Buckwheat deal with the outside world’s [mis] perception of skin color, these two tracks tell an insider’s story of feeling outside. Most of us know someone who is passing for white, though few know they know them. More complicated is how black people who don’t have the option view those who do. I went to university with a girl who i discovered was passing…made sure not to mess up her thing; she had something in her possession that was priceless and while [a small] part of me felt sorry she’d spend most of her life hiding who she was, I was mostly envious as hell that she could.

“Passing in a Lighter Shade/Passing in a Silent Parade/

Passing Like the Ships in the Night/Passing and Pretending You’re White…”

“I Was Afraid of Malcolm,”is hard [but familiar] listening; the self-denial and eventual self-reconstruction many people of color go through at one time of another.  Sometimes, when you do/say the “right” thing, there’s a tiny space in the world you can believe is yours.  Eventually though, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, you learn that no matter how you scrub, it never comes off. Never. Why is it so typical for slaves to end up praying to the same god as their masters?  What do you do when fitting in means denying part of what you are?

Because he’s so freaking honest, Jeffreys can’t let anyone off the hook, hence the sour stomping regge of “Murder” — a page straight from the Linton Kwesi Johnson book on urban reality.  Are you self-hating or a sell out because you want your family to be safe?  Does authenticity have to be a do-or-die proposition?  Is danger and violence always going to be part of blackness in America?  It’s half past the second decade of the 21st century – If that isn’t long enough to find peace and acceptance, how fucking long is it going to take?

Anybody?

Of course there aren’t any simple answers – maybe there aren’t answers period, Jeffreys still lets us down easy with the aching doo-wop of “I’m Not a Know It All,” because no matter how desperate the fight, every warrior needs to hold somebody close at the end of the day’s battles.

Like any True Believer, Garland Jeffreys couldn’t stay this angry forever.  SInce Don’t Call Me Buckwheat he’s made a spate of albums that celebrate life, love, learning, rock and roll, the past and the future.  Last time I saw him, he was pushing 70 and could still rock a house with nothing but a guitar and the heart of a Lion.  Perhaps he’s not a know it all, but he definitely knows what’s important. He’s just waiting for the rest of us to figure it out, maybe even that clown at the ballpark.  Maybe.

NEXT: Be Bop Betty [If that is your real name…]

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