Southside Johnny on New Jersey-Born Musicians: "We Want Out!"
His name has become intrinsically entwined with others of the New Jersey rock elite -- Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Little Steven Van Zandt -- but even so, Southside Johnny has maintained his blue-collar, Everyman persona. The gritty soul- and R&B-infused grooves he's championed since the early '70s became an indelible signature sound best encapsulated in his raucous, sweat-soaked stage show. In fact, all three of the aforementioned icons have intersected Southside Johnny's trajectory personally and professionally at one time or another, ensuring his lifetime membership in that fabled Jersey hierarchy.
This particular afternoon, however, the man once known simply as John Lyon is engaged in an activity decidedly removed from the image he embraces when he's facing the stage lights. It seems that the musician who made the song "I Don't Want to Go Home" something of a personal anthem is, in fact, tending to domestic duties. "I was busy changing my windshield wipers," he confesses.
When it's suggested that such activity seems below his stature as a venerable, veteran rock star, Lyon demurs. "I don't even like changing light bulbs, but I have no one here to do it for me," he admits. "I'm at the point in my life where I'd like to have someone doing things for me. But I can't afford it. There are so many other things that you have to do when you're making music, like writing and arranging. And then all of a sudden, you're changing windshield wipers."
Fortunately, these infinite distractions haven't prevented Southside and the latest incarnation of his ever-present backing band, the Asbury Jukes, from furthering their musical initiatives. Aside from concert commitments that keep the group on the road for about 100 dates a year, he can also boast two current albums.
The first, credited to Southside Johnny and the Jukes, is Men Without Women: Live 7-2-11, a live recording of Van Zandt-penned songs recorded early on by the Jukes but subsequently scrapped, only to resurface on the original Men Without Women album by Little Steven and his Disciples of Soul. Songs From the Barn, credited to Southside Johnny and the Poor Fools and released this past January, is a side sojourn into more acoustic and Americana realms. Taken in tandem, these two very different sets of songs suggest that even after 40 years, Lydon has lost neither his energy nor his enthusiasm.
New Times: So here you are 40 years into your career and seemingly as active as ever. What keeps you going? How do you still maintain the momentum?
Southside Johnny: It's the music. Once you're onstage and the band starts playing, you think, "Yeah, this is great!" All the other crap you have to go through pales compared to those few hours onstage. I know a lot of better musicians than me who can't make a living and have to have day jobs. I have been very lucky in not having to do that. The realization that I'm a musician is for me a great accomplishment. I never thought I would be.
So when did you first realize that in fact you wouldn't have to take a day job?
I think after the first album, although I was working right up until the time we went into the studio. I actually worked while we were recording it. But once we got out on the road, we were on the road forever. We were doing 200 and something nights a year, and I lived on the bus. So there wasn't any way to do any outside work.
We were so busy for 15 or 20 years. And then it slowed down a little bit. But now it's picked up again. So you feel like you've accomplished something and you have something to offer. At least someone wants to come out and see you. They line the front of the stage and scream their brains out.
So you don't mind the travel that's involved?
I don't. I do mind the fact that they've made flying a lot less fun. So if I have a little time, I actually drive. Recently, I flew to Augusta, rented a car, and drove to some of the southern parts of the country -- the Florida Panhandle, the southern parts of Alabama and Georgia, looking for old records and just talking to people and seeing the sights. For me, travel is great. Being home can get boring after a while. I like to keep moving.
Do you still live in Jersey?
Yes, I do. I live in my old hometown. I had a house that I sold, and then I didn't have a place to live. I didn't have a plan B. [laughs] A friend of mine offered me a little apartment in Ashgrove, and I love it here. It used to be hard because people would bother me. My mother lived here, and I'd come visit her when she was still alive, and I didn't like it. I didn't like the harassment. I'm not the kind of person who likes to be recognized. But now that I'm older and the other people here are older, I'm simply one of the crazy people in town. I'm one of the town executives. People say hi to me and I say hi back, and they leave me alone.
What do you think it is about New Jersey that inspires such great music?
We want out! [laughs] Really, I think it's because we live in a resort area and there are lots of bars on the Jersey shore. There are lots of places to play. And they needed bands, so we had lots of opportunities to play. But also there was a certain feeling here that making music wasn't a terrible thing to do. It was OK. Nobody ever believed we'd be successful. Except maybe Bruce... Bruce believed he'd be a star, but none of the rest of us figured we'd be able to make records and go around the world. But at least we thought we could make a living here. There really wasn't anything else that appealed to most of us. There were all kinds of day jobs. You could work in the Pepsico bottling plant or work in the post office, but none of us wanted to do that. We wanted to make music. We had opportunities, so we took them.
One gets the impression there's this group of guys, this famous fraternity that includes you and Bruce Springsteen and Little Steven and Jon Bon Jovi, and you get together at least once a week and sit around and play poker...
We used to! We used to hang out at the pool hall. But now everybody's got families and kids. Bruce is always on the road. Jon is always on the road. I'm always on the road.
Doesn't Bruce still live in New Jersey?
I don't know where he is. His daughter is an equestrian, so they travel all over with her. During Christmastime, he usually has his benefit shows at the Stone Pony and everybody gets together for that. I do see Jon occasionally. Jon lives in New York, and we talk sometimes.
Jon Bon Jovi has been quoted as saying you were the reason he started singing.
I don't know why he blames me for that. [laughs] Jon's a great guy, He's a great friend. He always loans me his studio when he's not using it. If it's free studio time, I'll take it. He's always been very supportive. He really has been a great friend for a long time.
Were you affected at all by Superstorm Sandy?
My town lost its fishing pier and part of the boardwalk, but other towns got devastated, absolutely destroyed. We've been doing a lot of benefit concerts lately, and you hear these stories that break your heart. My job is to go onstage and give people a good time and let them forget their troubles for a while. Maybe it will remind them that there's something worth living for and life isn't so bleak. No matter how I feel, I want to give them the best time they can have. Of course, you don't have to worry about that in Florida because you always have perfect weather.
OK, now for the big question inquiring minds want to know. How did you get the name "Southside"?
Bruce went out to California, and he came back broke. So he started a band because someone offered him some gigs and he could make some money. He named the band Doctor Zoom and the Sonic Boom, and he invited every musician he knew, myself included, but everybody had to have nicknames. Since I liked Chicago Blues, the kind of blues they played in the south side of Chicago, Bruce said, "Well you can be 'Chicago Johnny.' And I said, "I can't be Chicago Johnny. How about Southside Johnny?" And that was it. I didn't think anything of it, but the name stuck, so I kind went with it.
How did you originally meet Bruce?
When we were teenagers, a local club opened up called the Upstage Club -- this was in the mid- to late '60s -- and this is where all the musicians hung out, and everybody met everybody else. We had heard about Bruce, and I had heard about Steve Van Zandt. Everybody kind of heard about each other, but none of us had formally met. So we all went there and jammed and traded songs and supported each other, and that was our real school. We were 18 years old, and the world was ours. The girls loved us, and we had the boardwalk, we had this club, and we had our bands. We would drive around in our old cars and stack them full of equipment. It was a great, great time.
It sounds like an idyllic existence, the perfect teenaged life.
It was. We didn't have any money, not a dime between us, but somehow we got by. [laughs]
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes perform at 8 p.m. Thursday, March 7, at Hard Rock Live at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Tickets cost $19 to $49. Call 800-745-3000, or visit hardrocklivehollywoodfl.com.
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