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Taking a Ride with Garland Jeffreys

(Photo by Danny Clinch)

Coney Island is my favorite place in New York.

It is a wonder wheel world.

I’ve been there several times and I have stirring memories of the port of crazy hope. I’ve seen the Mermaid Parade, I caught the inaugural season of the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball team and I heard an ex-girl friend who had relocated to Brooklyn say she would have married me.

You see strange mirrors at Coney Island.

One time I was at my friend Jill Richmond’s (former member of the Aquanettas, the greatest New York City surf-rock band) wedding in Hoboken, N.J. and took the train from New Jersey to Coney Island. I recommend that journey for anyone who wants to get a quick feel of New York.

Singer-songwriter Garland Jeffreys was born in 1943 in the Coney Island neighborhood……

……He is more identified with Coney Island than any musician I know (i.e. Lou Reed’s “Coney Island Baby,” “Coney Island” by “Death Cab for Cutie” and the Ramones’ awesome “Oh Oh I Love Her So”).

The leadoff anthem on his Jeffrey’s new “The King of In Between” CD (appropriately enough on Luna Park Records, another nod to Coney Island) is “Coney Island Winter” where Jeffreys counts off the “22 stops” to the city. I always wondered about that.


Jeffreys is part Puerto Rican and mulatto. His roots reflect the sparks on the sand of Coney Island. His distinct sound incorporates jazz, doo-wop, soul and reggae. Jeffreys was one of the first Americans to travel to Jamaica and record in Kingston. His music is far more edgy than the snoozefest of Paul Simon.

“My grandfather was Shorty Boland,” Jeffreys said last week in a thoughtful conversation from his Manhattan home to promote his appearance tonight at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn—his first Chicago area gig in 30 years. “He was a character, a bit of a gangster. He ran poker games and dice games to all the waiters at lunch tiime at Lundy’s (brothers) Restaurant very close to Coney Island and Brighton Beach. My uncles worked in that restaurant. We’d hang out by the piers and sometimes fish off the piers. As an eight and nine year old I worked on the boats in the summer. I’d go out deep sea fishing and clean the fish and water down the deck. I learned how to filet fish. We were raised Catholic so I’d bring home fish for Friday. That’s not bad for a nine year old kid to learn that kind of thing.

“These were great adventures.”

The last time I visited Coney Island was in the summer of 2007. It turned out to be the last time I would visit Ruby’s Bar & Grill, which opened in 1948. It was the last vintage tavern on the boardwalk. The old jukebox played Tito Puente mambos and raunchy Ronnie Hawkins. Who do you love?

The back bar was a circus of kitsch with tickets to the Stauch Baths and a photograph of Bob Hope and Jackie Gleason in blond wigs and drag. The comics’ walk on the wild side was a surprise birthday present to owner Ruby Jacobs, who adored Marilyn Monroe.

Rudy’s fell victim to redevelopment at Coney Island that include a year-round amusement park, hotel and time-share units.

“There are things about Coney Island today that disturb me,” Jeffereys said. “The feeling. Its still there but its gone. Its very much a real estate story. They’ve already torn down things and are building big condos. They have the beach to sell and the beach is still very nice. Its not the Hamptons but it has something the Hamptons doesn’t have. You don’t have to be exclusive to be at the beach, like at the Hamptons. Coney Island, you get on the train, you’re there.

“The ghetto of Coney Island is not taken care of. Its in shambles. There’s murder. There’s crime. Three blocks away from Nathan’s (hot dog stand) is the ghetto. I went to Lincoln High in this area. From that point of view its a sad situation. It can never be the same. I do rejoice in going there and when I am there I do have fun. But I don’t compare it to what it was like when I was getting my ticket to go into Steeplechase park and the midget hits you on the ass and you walk in. That doesn’t exist.”

The past is never present.

Jeffreys continued, “Coney Island was a haven. It was a secret place. It was exciting. It doesn’t have any of that. Although I imagine young young kids must feel something about it. I remember my kid (his daughter Savannah Rae, 15) and I and a bunch of her girl friends went to Coney Island for her birthday. We had a birthday party near the Cyclone. They had a ball and went on the Cyclone and a couple of other scary rides. I forgot the name of the ride but I wouldn’t go on it. I did go on the Cyclone with my kid. This must have been four years ago. I sat in the first car which I used to do. Let me tell you, I got shaken up. I got off that ride and I was a wreck. I was in the first car, showing off.

“And I haven’t been on it since.”

Savannah Rae has taken to her own version of Coney Island.

She enjoys going to the amusement park in the dead of winter.

“We went to the aquarium,” Jeffreys said. “I took her on the merry go round. This particular day we went on the beach. It was New Year’s Eve. It was freezing outside. The Polar Bear Club had just jumped in the water. The next thing you know she’s standing in the middle of the Polar Bear Club. She wound up with that experience. I worked at Coney Island. I was a stock boy, you know those chalk dolls you can win? My job was to make sure there were enough on the weekends. On a rare occasion they would give me the microphone in the summer. I’d get up there with, ‘I’ll guess your name, I’ll guess your age. Step up!‘ A couple of times I got people there, but I wasn’t an expert at keeping on the hook.

“The idea is that you let them win the teddy bear. And the teddy bear cost more than the price you have to pay to play the game. That was the part of Coney Island that was a scam. But at least it was a scam where something was going. Even now I still go several times in the summer.”

A poetic place where summer never ends.