The fairgrounds in West Springfield, Mass., past the gaudy bright lights of stands selling fried-dough funnel cakes and cream puffs so big they come with instructions on how to eat them (twist gently), Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes are doing a sound check in the sun on a recent Saturday afternoon.
Here at the Eastern States Exposition (“New England’s greatest fair”), the members of the band have to keep reminding those passing by or seated early for the upcoming 3 p.m. set that this was just a sound check. There will also be another 45-minute set at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, six sets in all, free with admission to the fair. In the building behind the stage — where the nine band members and a handful of crew shared a cramped dressing room — an equestrian competition is taking place; a short walk from there, stage right, is “Farm-O-Rama,” come see the llama.
Lesser acts might be cynical, but for 40 years Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes have been performing a now formidable, largely original, always-changing repertoire of American music: R&B, blues, roots rock’n’roll. John Lyon, 66, and his bandmates (more than 130 members have worn the Asbury Jukes logo through the years, says Southside, sitting at a picnic table between sets) never had the popular success of Jersey Shore mates such as Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band or Bon Jovi.
But if you ask him, he’ll tell you he’s fine with all that. And more importantly, he really means it.
“Bruce and Jon [Bon Jovi], they’re good friends of mine, have made huge successes,” says Southside, who has frequently collaborated with E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt. But he identifies more with artists in it for the long haul who don’t need gold records and stadium shows — “people like Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt, admired musicians who are comfortable with the level they’re on,” he says. “No huge pressure to make hits; they make a good living. They’re allowed to do whatever they want to do. And if something works out, great. That’s where I always wanted to be. I’ve seen what it’s like to walk down the boardwalk with Bruce; I’ve been places with Jon. I wouldn’t like that at all. I’m self-conscious enough! I like to buy my own groceries.”
Bon Jovi’s admiration for Southside runs deep. Among the rockers of the Jersey Shore, he says, “Johnny has his place in the Holy Trinity. Bruce, Steven and Johnny were that to me.”
“He produced the first original band I was part of, called The Rest,” adds Bon Jovi. “Johnny let us open for him several times while I was still in high school and in the years shortly thereafter. I learned a lot of my stage banter from him, and I like to say it’s his fault I can’t dance. He and I have been close for 35 years. He is a complicated guy — beyond smart, witty, and a huge pain in the ass,” he jokes.
After four decades on the road, there’s no mansion on the hill to come home to for Southside. “John is the least materialistic man I’ve ever met,” says Jeff Kazee, 48, the Jukes’ keyboardist, Southside’s writing partner and frequent co-producer. In Kazee’s basement in New York’s Queens borough, he and Southside composed the music for the act’s latest CD, Soultime!, inspired more by late-’70s soul than other Jukes albums. Southside lives in a rented cottage in Ocean Grove, N.J., a quiet area that shares a boardwalk with Asbury Park, where it all began.
What Southside does share with his compatriots are roots in the teenage nightclubs of Asbury Park, off the beaten track enough to let them develop and distill their own sound based on their musical passions. “There were top 40 bands who played Friday and Saturday nights, who played all the latest hits,” recalls Southside. “We didn’t do that, me and Bruce and Steve Van Zandt and [E Street Band bassist] Garry Tallent. We had a place called the Upstage Club, open until 5 a.m., that didn’t serve alcohol, so teenagers could hang out. It had built-in amps, microphones, a set of drums and an organ, so all you had to bring was your guitar or bass, or in my case, just my voice. I liked Chicago blues, so the audience got used to hearing Elmore James. Steve liked reggae; Bruce liked all that ‘Telstar’ stuff. We were left alone long enough to gestate into what each individual person wanted to hear [themselves play] from all the different kinds of music we combined.”
Southside’s career could have been an endless loop of nostalgia shows, based on the lasting appeal, if not hit power, of songs from his first three Epic albums, beginning with Van Zandt’s title composition from the 1976 debut, I Don’t Wanna Go Home, and Springsteen’s song “The Fever,” as well as Springsteen- and Van Zandt-penned tracks on This Time It’s for Real and Hearts of Stone. Those albums earned fervent early support from key radio programmers like Kid Leo, then-program director of influential WMMS in Cleveland and former Columbia Records executive, who today says he “quite often” plays Southside’s music as host of Little Steven’s Underground Garage on SiriusXM.
But Southside never had that breakout hit, not with Epic, Mercury, Atlantic or other major-label imprints. Instead of folding, however, he kept recording and touring, moving around (including five years in Nashville in the 1990s), stretching his interests. In recent years he has independently released CDs ranging from live sets cut at Asbury Park’s famed Stone Pony club to Grapefruit Moon: The Songs of Tom Waits. He now has his own label, Leroy Records. And while some lament the demise of the major labels, it couldn’t have come too soon for Southside, who says he has never seen royalties from any of those albums. “I’m not a millionaire or anything like that, but I’m happy with what I’ve got,” he says. “I don’t have any children, I live alone and I like it.”
Southside wouldn’t reveal how much it cost to record Soultime! except to say, almost out of habit, “more than we make back.” Then again, that has never been the point. “It’s not about making money from an album. It’s having material to play live. We do 80 to 100 shows a year, and that’s where you make your money. We change the show every night; we don’t know what’s going to happen. We have fun onstage, and audiences come to see bands have a great time. There’s a body of songs fans relate to, and we try to give them that while doing what we want too.
“It sounds like a facile thing to say,” he adds, “but it’s really true in our case. On a given night, we’ll give them everything we have.”