Southside Johnny relishes role as a working-class musician

By Mike Greenblatt

Southside Johnny Lyon, 64, is sitting quietly in his dressing room at The MusikFest Café, a lovely Bethlehem, Pa., venue on the site of the old Bethlehem Steel.

The locale is a fitting one for contemplation, a blending of the past and present. A campus featuring outdoor music venues, a movie theater, comedy club, restaurants, shops and cafés have risen up among the hulking remains of what was once the second-largest steel company in America before it idled in 1995, purposely left standing as a reminder of the past at the ArtsQuest Center at Steel Stacks. A huge picture window behind the stage invites one’s eye to wander to the five blast furnaces that light up at night with revolving colors like an art-deco sculpture.

Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes

Some things have changed for Southside Johnny from the old Dr. Zoom days. For starters, he no longer favors zoot suits or sips Jack Daniels and eats fried chicken onstage while waiting for Bruce Springsteen to finish up a long guitar solo. And musicians have come and gone from The Asbury Jukes. What hasn’t altered is his love of performing: “I still love to travel. I love it when we’re on the move. I just love the idea of being a musician. I don’t take it lightly,” he said.

Lyon has just finished soundcheck, where he obviously was having a good time barking out orders, joking with his boys, jamming extemporaneously but getting done what needed to be done. The joy he harbors as he does his job is obvious. He’s carved out a hell of a life for himself and refuses to stop touring around the world like a man possessed, which, in many ways, he is. Southside belongs on a stage. It’s what he’s always lived for.
It’s been a crazy 40 years. He’s come close to reaching the brass ring of rock stardom on numerous occasions and he’s never gotten off the merry-go-round. He fronts one of the best bands in the business, a band with musicians who have revolved in, out and through the bands of David Bowie, Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, Diana Ross and so many more. But they keep coming back to the Jukes.

His live album, “Men Without Women: Live 7-2-11” was recorded in Asbury Park, N.J., at The Stone Pony with Steve Van Zandt and a beefed-up, six-man Jukes horn section. The album features a track-by-track performance of the 1982 studio album “Men Without Women” by Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul (the title taken from a 1927 collection of short stories by Ernest Hemingway), along with three classic Jukes tracks, “This Time It’s For Real,” “Broke Down Piece of Man” and “It’s Been a Long Time.”

The current band consists of Southside Johnny on lead vocals, harmonica and guitar; collaborator/musical director Jeff Kazee on Hammond B3 organ and piano; Glenn Alexander on guitar; John Conte on bass; drummer Tom Seguso; trombonist/guitarist Neal “The Dude” Pawley; Chris Anderson on trumpet; and John Isley on saxophone. Last year, the group lost its beloved manager, Bill Durborow.

“Yeah, it was a bad blow for the Jukes,” Southside says softly. “Bill had been sick. He had Parkinson’s. We all picked up the slack for him, but then it was a shock when he died. I talked to [wife] Carol [Ross-Durborow] that day. It was just unbelievable that he passed away like that. But he was always the guy I could turn to who would give me good advice. He didn’t act like a manager. He acted like a friend. Because we were friends. I knew him when he worked for my old manager, David Sonenberg. We go back that far. Right to the beginning of the first Jukes recordings. I asked him to manage me when I left David, because I just wanted somebody who I could trust, somebody who wouldn’t bullsh*t me, and somebody who wouldn’t steal from me. And Bill was just the most honorable and honest guy, so he was a good guy to have.

Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes perform in the 1970s
“David and I met up when he came down to see us upon our Epic Records deal. We had made the record before we signed the deal. We didn’t have time to wait. Steven was going to go with Bruce. We had saved up some money. Everybody always laughs at this story and they don’t believe me when I tell it but it’s true: Steven and I had had a very good year at Monmouth Racetrack. We had a few grand between us. Plus, we borrowed money here and there. That’s what we used to pay for the original studio time on our debut. Plus, we bootlegged a lot of studio time. Jimmy Iovine was the engineer and he was in the midst of producing Meat Loaf on the East Coast and Golden Earring on the West Coast. He was always flying back and forth. But he had an in at The Record Plant, so at 3 o’clock in the morning, he’d say, ‘OK, you can go in now.’ And we’d drive up all bleary-eyed to mix and stuff. The Jukes knew they were on call 24/7, and it was a real fly-by-night thing, because we weren’t really sure we were even going to get a deal! We just thought we’d go ahead and make the album while we could … and while the good feelings were there. Fortunately for us, Epic did sign us to a deal, or we would have been on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars. We had faith in Steve Popovich and Ron Alexenburg; they were the two head honchos, and they were both really behind us. The rest of the people at Epic really didn’t give a sh*t. They were just starting out with Boston, Cheap Trick, Meat Loaf, Michael Jackson, so we were small potatoes. And they could have easily said, ‘We don’t want it.’”

As it turned out, those first three albums — “I Don’t Want To Go Home” (1976), “This Time It’s For Real” (1977) and, especially, “Hearts Of Stone” (1978) — were among the best albums of the ’70s. (Now, granted, that could be the Jersey boy in this reporter coming out but, hell, I’m stickin’ to it.)

“‘Hearts Of Stone’ was a strange experience,” remembers Southside. “I was on the road at that point for 13 months. I was married, and when I came home, I wasn’t married anymore. It was my choice. I had lost the thread of the whole thing. I would get home for three weeks off, and I’d be in the studio with Steven [Van Zandt] singing, listening, writing and reading. I never really got home at all. So that was the end of that. I slept on the studio couch most of the time. Roadies are watching ‘Star Wars’ for the 300th time. Steven’s in there constantly doing guitar solos. We were under the gun all the time with our records, because there was so much involved. Sometimes the bus would no sooner pull up in the middle of the night — oftentimes at Todd Rundgren’s Secret Sound Studio — and I would get off the bus with my suitcase, take the elevator right up to the recording studio, and fall directly to sleep on the couch, get up, eat the cold cuts they served, and that would be it for like four, five days running. I’d shower down the hall, the bus would come and pick us up again and I’d be gone for another two months. I’d fly home to do vocals and mix. It was a very grueling schedule. And I think that comes through on the album. You had to really mean it, otherwise there was no reason to do it because it was just too hard.”

In Peter Ames Carlin’s biography of Bruce Springsteen, Southside is portrayed as a real colorful character during the pre-E Street Dr. Zoom collective of musicians that Bruce organized. Carlin paints a portrait of Southside as the band’s resident blues historian, singing some jump-blues with passion and flair, dressed for the part in 1920s-styled zoot suits.

“I don’t know about the zoot suits, but I did have a collection of older-than-old suits that, yeah, I wore every day just about,” he confirms. “Hell, that’s what I had! I used to sit on a chair onstage during Dr. Zoom shows at my own little night table, waiting for my harmonica solo. It had drawers in it, and I’d keep a bottle of Jack Daniels in one drawer, my harmonicas in another, and an order of fried chicken in a third drawer. Bruce would play one of his long, long guitar solos, and I’d have a sip of Jack Daniels and eat some fried chicken onstage.”

Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes

You wouldn’t know it by looking at him, but Southside Johnny has been ripping it up on stage with The Asbury Jukes for the past four decades. John Cavanaugh photos.

In answering the question as to why he plays no blues these days, he gets expansive.

“I never was strictly speaking a solid blues artist. I always did a lot of R&B. I’m a big fan of Billie Holiday. [Early E Street Band keyboardist] David Sancious and I would gig prior to the formation of the Jukes. He’d play piano like Billie’s piano man, Teddy Wilson, and I’d try to sing like Billie Holiday. People hated it. It wasn’t rock and roll. But although I learned how to sing from a lot of those old blues guys, I never really played solely blues. I learned harmonica from Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson. I liked all kinds of music. I was a big fan of Big Joe Turner, The Flamingos and The Moonglows. When soul came around, especially Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, of course I wanted to do that music, too.”
Springsteen wound up not using Van Zandt on his first two albums, and the guitarist left E Street with a bruised ego, not to return for two years. He wound up, during that time, composing, producing, playing lead guitar and even managing Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes.

“That’s true only to a certain extent,” corrects Johnny. “Steve told me we had to have a manager. I told him no we don’t, we can manage this thing ourselves. But he was adamant. ‘No,’ he’d argue, ‘the label demands it!’ So we hire this guy who had an antique shop, Tony, and he was going to pretend to be our manager. We’d go to a meeting and he turned out to be the most obnoxious motherf**ker in the world, and I said I never wanted to see this guy again. And that was it. But the record company bought the fact that we had a manager, so Steven and I wound up managing the whole thing ourselves. We made the decisions jointly: He handled the label. I handled the band. We really didn’t want anybody interfering. One of the points we made early on when we talked to Steve Popovich about making the Jukes a recording band was that we didn’t want interference. I didn’t want some A&R man handing me songs. I didn’t want a producer other than Steve Van Zandt. I didn’t want anybody telling me what to do. Steven didn’t want anybody telling him what to do, either. He would schmooze ’em, and I would go, “F**k you.’ That was our division of labor.”

Southside Johnny

Doesn’t take much to satisfy John Lyons. “I don’t have a mansion. I don’t have a new car.
I don’t have any of that stuff. But I got a great band. I got my health. And I’m happy,” he says.

In talking about the current live album, he says, “These are songs that Steven and I recorded for ‘Hearts Of Stone,’ and I realized they weren’t really songs for me. They were songs for Steven. They were much more political. Not overtly, but they were coming from his heart. They were songs for him to sing. So I said, ‘Let’s go in a different direction.’ He eventually put ’em out with his own band. But I did truly love those songs, so six months before we did the Fourth of July show and I said, ‘I love this record! I forgot how much I love all these songs!’ Of course, I remembered a lot of them, because we had recorded them, and I have that kind of mind where I remember a song once I’ve sung it. I said, ‘We got to do this album front-to-back live,’ and that’s what we did.”

So, bottom line, what keeps this man going?

“I still enjoy it. You just saw soundcheck. It was a lot of fun. I still love to travel. I love it when we’re on the move. I just love the idea of being a musician. I don’t take it lightly. It’s one of the things that’s very tough to do: Have a long career, and still keep your head above water financially.  I don’t have a mansion. I don’t have a new car. I don’t have any of that stuff. But I got a great band. I got my health. And I’m happy. Sure, there’s nights when I feel I can’t do it, but once the music kicks in, I’m all right. So much hinges on the audience. When they’re really having a great time, there’s nothing better. You’re just carried along for two hours. It goes by like nothin’. It’s so easy when everything works. It’s so hard when things break down. Fortunately, for us, we’ve become professional enough after all these decades, that even when things break down we can make it work.”

Is there a “New Jersey Sound”?

“No, I think the ethos is more working-class. We really all do come from working-class backgrounds. It’s not something you forget. Even if you make hundreds of millions of dollars like Bruce or Jon (Bon Jovi), you don’t forget what it’s like to work. I’ve been working since I was 15. And I kept my day job right up until the time we made our first album. Everybody’s fathers and mothers worked, usually both. So when our fans, working people, come to see us on a weekend, I’m very mindful they’re taking three hours — including travel — out of their time to really enjoy themselves after working hard all week. They have to hire baby sitters, drive, spend money, and they deserve the best show they can possibly get. It isn’t about me at that point. It’s about them enjoying themselves. And after all the damage from Hurricane Sandy, and all the terrible events that happened in 2012, believe me, I know, way down deep, it is totally about them having a good time. It’s not about me making money, or me getting off. It’s about giving them two hours of pure enjoyment.”

As to those rumors of a rift between Southside and Springsteen? False.

“How could there be bad blood between us?” Johnny asks. “A guy hands you a song like ‘Fever,’ ‘Talk To Me’ and all the other songs he’s given me … who’s been so supportive, who’s come down and jammed with us all the time. Hell, we just shared a stage in New York City and in Madrid. I get asked that all the time, ‘Don’t you ever get aggravated about Bruce?’ Hell no! He’s been the best guy for my career, and he’s an honest man. So it’s easy for me. Hey, if he was an asshole, it’d be different, but he isn’t. I think that guys like Bruce — and Jon for that matter — have finally learned how to handle the constant barrage of press, misquotes and stories that aren’t true. I could also tell you some stories of some bad things that happened to me. but I won’t.”

I ask him to give me just one example.

“No, no, I can’t. Because if you put it in the magazine, it might stir up other nuts. There’s a lot of nutballs out there.  And some of them are scary. And I think that Jon, Bruce and all the other really big people I know have learned to handle all that stuff very well, but it takes awhile. Nobody likes to be meat. It’s great to be loved. It’s great to have people love your music. It’s all very gratifying. But you don’t want to be used. And there’s times when you feel that way. See, I’m such a nasty bastard; I immediately say, ‘Get the f**k out of my dressing room,’ and I don’t care what happens. I walked out on a video shoot one time because people were bugging me. Hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake, and I just said, ‘F**k it,’ and left. I don’t care. I just don’t care. I don’t even care if people don’t like me. I don’t care if journalists like you like me. I don’t care about any of that stuff. And I ain’t never gonna take a good picture, so I don’t have to worry about that, either. I always want to be who I am at the time. If I’m in a good mood, great. If I’m not, I let that fly, and I don’t give a sh*t. Why should I? After all these years of playing, I’m gonna be myself no matter what I do. If I’m in a crappy, nasty mood and feel like screaming and yelling, I’m gonna scream and yell.”

Pressing my luck that he’s been in a good mood so far, I spot a big container of CDs sitting in a backpack right close to us, and I ask him if I can look through them to see what he’s currently listening to. He doesn’t seem to mind, and I find The Wood Brothers, Goo Goo Dolls, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Tom Waits, Josh Stone, Ry Cooder, Duke Ellington, Jamey Johnson, Bob Dylan, Greg Brown, Jeff Buckley, Portuguese Fado music and American folk, bluegrass, blues and standards.

I ask him which singers he particularly likes to interpret and who’s suitable for his voice, but he begs off, “We better cut this out now, because I’m getting a little hoarse,” he says.
And with that, I take my seat out front. For the next two hours, Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes provide kick-ass rock and soul entertainment, and the audience — including me — does indeed have a hell of a time. The show even comes complete with two surprises —The Band’s “Ophelia” and the Stones’ “Happy.” People put down their pizza and step away from their little tables to dance. One guy starts dancing with his waitress. Southside’s sweatin’ and singin’ up a storm. And that’s just the way it’s supposed to be.

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