by Eric Althoff
Southside Johnny found it ludicrous to be selected for the New Jersey Hall of Fame. Yet in October, Southside was in fact inducted into the Garden State’s illustrious class of 2019 alongside Martha Stewart, Jason Alexander and “Game of Thrones” creator George R.R. Martin.
“It’s humorous to me,” Southside said of his inclusion in the pantheon by fellow Jersey rocker Jon Bon Jovi, adding he only regrets his parents didn’t live long enough to witness the induction. “I mean, Thomas Edison is in the ‹hall›. I’ve done just ‘as much’ for the world as he has—just in different ways.”
What he has done, for the better part of a half-century, is entertain crowds the world over. Born John Lyon in Neptune, New Jersey, the musician came of age in the Asbury Park scene of the ’70s, frequently crossing paths with a young whippersnapper from nearby Freehold by the name of Bruce Springsteen. Lyon was dubbed “Southside Johnny” due to his early taste for the Chicago-style blues.
With his longtime band the Asbury Jukes by his side, Southside Johnny will perform at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, Dec. 14th and the next evening at Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis, Maryland. And while his name may be less familiar to the general public than the Boss, Southside doesn’t seem to mind, so long as he gets to continue making music.
“I am a working musician—that’s what I think of myself,” he said. “I don’t think of myself as any great star. I’m just a guy who likes to sing, and I’m lucky enough to have made a career out of it.”
Southside Johnny has over 30 albums to his credit as a solo artist and has frequently collaborated with Springsteen as well as E Streeters Garry Tallent and “Little Steven” Van Zandt on various recordings. Several former Asbury Jukes wound up joining Max Weinberg’s band on Conan O’Brien’s various talk shows. Southside is credited as one of the founders of the “Jersey Sound,” so much so that Bon Jovi cited him as the reason he ever got into music to begin with. He and the Jukes even appeared in the ‘80s comedy movie “Adventures in Babysitting.”
Not bad for a humble guy from a shore town. In fact, Southside recalls as a teen seeing Ray Charles and James Brown at Asbury Park’s famed Convention Hall, a stage he himself would later tackle.
“To go on that stage, it’s like ‹wow›, this is where I saw James Brown,” Southside said of playing the Convention Hall. “I had to focus on doing the show because it was really one of those moments where you realize you are part of the process that you’ve loved since you were a kid. It made me appreciate the fact I had been given this chance to make music, and I’ve never taken it for granted.”
When responding to questions, Southside, now 71, still boasts the unmistakable Central Jersey vowels of his formative years, combined with a smokiness in his vocal timbres borne of a life well lived on the road as a traveling evangelist of rock. He continues to write and record and travel the globe to bring the joyous noise to his fans.
“I don’t sit down and say I’m going to write a song today. It either comes to me or” it doesn’t, the artist said of his creative process alongside his longtime keyboard player Jeff Kazee. “I have ideas, ‹Kazee› has ideas, we collaborate, and we spark each other.”
“When you’re sitting and writing your lyrics, you’re constantly editing in your mind. So when you do it with another person, it’s so out in the open.”
A tune like “Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness” betrays Southside’s multiple and varied influences, be they blues, rock or jazz. The songwriter said he wrote this particular song with soul and R&B in mind, lending it a definite Coasters vibe.
“But I’m also a huge fan of the American songbook: Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington,” he said, adding that Bob Dylan and Tom Waits’ mastery of poetics informed his own lyric-writing later on. “I can tell a story. I like that aspect of ‹my writing›.”
As he’s been on the road for nearly 50 years, Southside said he must of necessity do a few things differently these days. For one, he is a big fan of a good pre-show afternoon nap to ease the wear and tear of getting from one city to another day after day. He will typically fall asleep with a book or working on an acrostic puzzle after the show rather than party well into the night.
But even as physically and mentally fit as he stays, entropy nonetheless follows: While listing off some of his musical influences, he reached for and missed some names from his memory.
“Since I’ve gotten older, names escape me completely,” he said. “I had a dream that there was a painting and a guy in a beret with a cigarette, ‹but› I couldn’t remember his name: Pablo Picasso. My brain went, ‘No idea. Bob, I think.’”
In July of this year, Southside returned to his Asbury Park haunts to play the outdoor stage of the vaunted Stone Pony. He made a few phone calls, and thus a supremely excited crowd greeted the sight of special guests Springsteen and Tallent sitting in for a few songs. Having famous friends like that, who happen to have homes near the Pony, makes it likely they might join him onstage, but Southside insists that he has never fielded a complaint if the Boss or another E Streeter didn’t cameo for a Jersey Shore gig.
“I don’t worry about that too much. I used to, because early on ‹people said›, ‘Do you think Bruce is going to show up?’” Southside said. “We’re not enough, the band and the songs?
“It pissed me off a little bit, but now I don’t worry about it.”
Just as he has learned to table any anxiety that people who come to his shows are there “only” in the hopes Springsteen might pop by, Southside said he has learned to live and let live in general.
“It only takes you 50 years to learn to forgive yourself for things you didn’t do,” he said.
Southside continues to write new material—frequently while driving, requiring him to hum a melody line into his phone. He is already booked for gigs well into 2020.
“We don’t have any great message we want to send. The basic thing is just to enjoy yourself,” Southside said of the MO for his show, adding that he and the Asbury Jukes enjoy returning to the Birchmere and Rams Head On Stage, the venues for their area gigs. “They’re not just another bar or theater, they’re places where we really connect” with audiences, he said.
Still, he always needs a van, bus, train or plane to get to the next gig. Or does he?
“I was hoping to be projected to the next stage, but ‹that technology› hasn’t come around yet,” he said. “I think what I’ll do is retire and make a hologram of me singing all the songs, so maybe I’ll put that out there.”
“But I’d have to die first for that, and I’m not ready to do that!”
Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes will be performing at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, Dec. 14 and at Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis, Maryland, Dec 15.
A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.
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