SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: ONCE A ROAD RAT...
By Paul Freeman [1992 Interview]
This interview was conducted 20 years ago, but Southside Johnny is still going strong touring tirelessly. His latest album, “Pills and Ammo,” is available as CD and download, on his site, southsidejohnny.com.
In the song "Coming Back," from his new album "Better Days," Southside Johnny sings: "I'm coming back, back for what's mine; I ain't gonna let nobody stop me this time." This powerhouse collection of soulful rock works up a head of steam that should propel the dynamic performer to a mass acceptance that is long overdue.
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes have maintained a fervently loyal following since the mid-1970s. The excitement the group generates in concert is the stuff of which legends are made. But their recording success has been modest. Their 1978 LP, "Hearts of Stone" - a collaboration between Southside Johnny Lyon and producer-songwriter Steven Van Zandt, renowned guitarist for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band - was named one of the top 100 albums of the last 20 years by Rolling Stone magazine.
"Better Days" reunites Lyon and Van Zandt, and a number of New Jersey pals lent helping hands, including Springsteen, E Street bass player Garry Tallent and drummer Max Weinberg, Jon Bon Jovi and, of course, the Jukes horn section.
Originally, Lyon and Van Zandt had planned to do the traditional blues LP that had been playing in the backs of their minds for more than a decade. "Once we started talking in depth," Lyon says, "it turned out that what we really wanted to do was make a Jukes album that said a lot about being a Juke in the '90s, about making that kind of music in this day and age."
That kind of music, driven by Lyon's gut-grabbing vocals, is a muscular, no-nonsense style drenched in emotion.
"There are no frills, it's straight- ahead," Lyon declares. "We explored a lot of rhythm and blues, mixing in rock 'n' roll, Stax-Volt things, some Motown. It's the '70s Jukes sound using more modern recording techniques. We didn't go for modern beats or any of that stuff, though, because it wouldn't be us."
Though initial response to "Better Days" has been encouraging, Lyon takes nothing for granted. "I just appreciate having the opportunity to continue making the music I love to make," he says. "I was astounded that I got to do a second album. Eleven albums later, I'm still astonished."
"It's Been a Long Time," the first single from the latest album, urges, "Raise a glass to comrades we've lost." "We looked back and saw that a lot of the people we used to make music with were no longer making music, people who were good friends back then but who we don't see much anymore. Some have disappeared. Some have died. Steven and I thought we should address that. We didn't want this to be mired in nostalgia.
"We called the album 'Better Days' with the thought that there are better days not only behind us but also ahead," Lyon says. "We're still working, still making music, still trying to fight the good fight."
Lyon believes that some of his former comrades might have fallen out of the business because they lacked the absolute commitment a career in music demands. "Life in the music business means tunnel vision, a dedication that excludes many things. You don't hang out with the guys. You move around a lot. You're on the road. You have different hours and different concerns than most people.
"I'm not really one to keep up many long friendships," says Lyon, whose sincerity and humor offset his admitted volatility and cynicism.
But the rewards outweigh the sacrifices. "In all honesty, the best time of my life is on stage. That makes me feel that I've accomplished something with my life. I get to express myself. Hopefully, I'm also making people happy with what I do.
"My only regret is that I have to give up even a small measure of privacy, certainly nothing like Michael Jackson or Bruce Springsteen, but still too much. Because of the kind of songs I sing, people want to open up to me about the longing and hurt they're feeling. That makes me feel awkward."
Lyon is firmly rooted in his own uncompromising brand of rock, but he is tolerant of current music fads. One trend that disturbs Lyon is the ever-increasing emphasis on commerciality. "It's hard to make art when commerce is king. Few people realize how much music has changed in recent years because of the business aspects of the pop scene. I look at people like Neil Young, Van Morrison and Tom Waits, people I consider real artists. Even they have been changed, subtly, in one way or another, by the constant pressure to be something that the record company can sell or the radio can play. Even if they say, 'I'm going to go against that,' it's a reaction that will affect their music. I resent that.
"It used to be," he continues, "that an artist like Paul Butterfield would hold onto a base of fans while he tried different things from album to album, and the record company would be happy with a couple of hundred thousand sales. These days, that's not OK. Like with the movies, everybody's looking for an instant blockbuster."
Videos, of course, have become a vital part of the music industry, and Lyon made one for "It's Been a Long Time." But he did it his way. He, Springsteen, Van Zandt and Jon Bon Jovi returned to their Asbury Park roots, gathering at the Stone Pony nightclub. "It was just going to be one song and we were going to lip- sync it. But lip-syncing has never been one of my strong suits. I hope it never will be. It burgeoned into, 'Let's record it live!' and then, 'Let's do a whole concert.' It became a big megillah but, for me, it was much more fun. I'd rather spend my time on stage, pounding it out, sweating and singing as hard as I can, than standing around lip-syncing, waiting for the cameras to be ready and putting on makeup."
"The best piece of advice I ever got from Bruce was, 'Don't cheat. Try to keep as much integrity as they'll possibly let you have.' The more successful you become, the more they pressure you to do what they think will make you even more successful. They want to mold your career. People, once they've seen me on stage and they meet me, realize that I don't take to being molded."
Music hooked Ly on at an early age. His father was a bass player. "My parents loved black music. The only white singer I remember hearing at home was Sinatra. My parents both worked and I hated school, so when I was 12, 13, I would stay home and clean house for my mother and listen to their records - Billie Holiday, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, Big Joe Turner. I'd sing along, trying to sound like them.
"What I liked best about those performers," he says, "was that, with them, what you saw was what they were. Big Joe Turner was this huge guy who got on stage and had a ball. I got to meet him once and he was the same way. When I walk on stage, I've always just wanted to be me, not some construct, not somebody else's idea of what I am. It's not because I have this wonderful ethical or artistic attitude. It's just that I don't know any other way."
Lyon is currently enjoying life and a successful second marriage. He has moved to San Clemente, Calif. "I had to. Richard Nixon moved from San Clemente to New Jersey."
But he isn't home much. Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes have embarked on an unrelenting tour schedule. "It can be grueling, but I'm a real road rat. When I'm not doing it, I'm not very happy. I get antsy. If I take a few months off, it's like a large part of my life is missing. I belong out there on the road."