Time for a trip down the Jersey Shore – or more accurately up to Hartford, Connecticut where I met my next guest Southside Johnny.
He's one of the first guys to showcase that Jersey Shore sound. I'm talking keyboards, and horns, with influences of heartland rock, and Italian heritage. It's danceable music that romanticizes the day-to-day of the young – the walking on the beach, playing games on the boardwalk, riding in your car, talking to your girl, to more mature themes of love, loss, and longing.
The music your Uncle Sal listened to when he was 17, sipping on a Schlitz at the Stone Pony, and hitting on your future Aunt Rosa. His hair was kind of greasy, and his teeth were kind of crooked, but his Cadillac made up for it, and you didn't need to be home until 11 o'clock, so what the hell, why not?
Southside wrote, or has notable versions of “The Fever", "Talk to Me", "This Time It's For Real", "Love on the Wrong Side of Town", and "Hearts of Stone". He plays them along with his Asbury Jukes a group he co-founded with Stevie Van Zandt back in the day. These guys that have included most of what is now Conan O'Brien's band. He was an influence on Gary U.S. Bonds. Jon Bon Jovi says that Southside is the reason he's a singer. Springsteen still plays his songs in concert, and if you got some time after this show head over the YouTube and you'll get goosebumps seeing these guys playing side-by-side.
Time has been tougher on Southside than maybe some of the other name's I've mentioned. As he said during the show he lives in a 3-room apartment along the Jersey Shore. The rent – a modest $1,100 a month.
But contrary to what you might think, there's little regret for Southside. He's probably tired of people thinking that there is. He's grateful for being able to travel the country, and work with some of the best names in music. Heck, if it wasn't for Springsteen's Born to Run the record executives wouldn't have come down to Asbury Park to offer him a deal at all.
And what the hell you feeling bad for a guy who makes any sum of money playing music. Shit, we're not thinking about this the right way are we? I saw the guy backstage. The man had gets free Heineken and pretzels. And he can do what he wants.
And if he wants to curse me out, he can, and he did. And I wear it as a badge of honor.
Ladies and Gentleman, the legend of the Jersey Shore, Mr. Southside Johnny.
Jesse Regis: Thanks for meeting with me.
Southside Johnny: Oh, yes you’re fine.
JR: I don’t know where to start. I drove four hours from Manhattan to be with you today.
SSJ: Aw, you poor thing! We drove four hours from New Jersey.
JR: Yeah, but I’m from New Jersey, and…
SSJ: Yeah, but the point is that I still have to work. You get to sit there drink beer and act like a fool.
JR: They upgraded our seats by the way.
JR: I don’t know why. So we’ll be front and center.
SSJ: To the sleeper seats or something like that?
JR: We’ll sing with you, I know some of the songs at least. So, you’ve been on the road for a long time now.
SSJ: Yes, four hours.
JR: How’s it been going?
SSJ: A lot of traffic in Connecticut.
JR: Yeah, but you’ve been on the tour for a little while. Things are going good for you?
SSJ: Yeah, I mean it’s been a good year, we worked a lot. We had some time off, but all in all it’s been a very busy year, which is good. We’ve done a lot of interesting things. Just like every year you look for those gigs that are out of the ordinary like playing at Yankee Stadium for a hockey game at 22 degrees or whatever it was. We did the Tunnels to Tower Run, which is in Manhattan that was great, too. We love playing so all of the regular gigs are great, too. It’s just that you want those few gigs that a little different.
JR: Your manager told me you were in the back doing the set list. How much of the set list is actually there before you go on stage and how much is improvised?
SSJ: It’s just that I need to put something out there. The guys get very nervous if there’s no set list at all.
JR: Ah, so it’s for them?
SSJ: We have gone out on stage and not even played the first song of the set list but we’ll probably stick to it tonight just to confound you.
JR: Ha! I checked out some of your older set lists from a couple of weeks ago. There’s some good stuff coming up.
SSJ: Some good stuff?
JR: Amazing good stuff! I was trying to transition…
SSJ: A LOT of good stuff.
JR: I was trying to transition to "Pretty Flamingo," which has been in my head all day.
SSJ: Oh, ok.
JR: I was hoping that was coming up.
SSJ: That one is not on the set list.
JR: Maybe we can weasel it in. You obviously are so connected with Asbury Park and the Jersey Shore, but you are traveling so much that I’m wondering how that impacts your ability to write a song about girls, and cars, and the Jersey Shore and that life.
SSJ: I think I’m a little bit beyond writing songs about girls and cars. Now it’s women and, and uh, airplanes…[laughs]…I don’t have a transition for that. The more places you go the more you learn. We’ve been fortunate enough to go all around the world and see different cultures, the way people live. I think it informs the way you look at America and American lives, and that’s mostly what you write about because you are an American and you feel for the people that you know. But, I’ve certainly written songs about people from other countries. I guess people can stay in one place and imagine the world, but for me I need to go around the world and then imagine the one place that I live in.
JR: Jersey Shore music is so much about getting up and dancing. I think the "E Street Shuffle." It must be hard to have people doing that when you’re playing a venue like the Infinity Hall where a lot of folks are sitting down and not as involved and not dancing as much as they used to be.
SSJ: Well, I think they’ll get up and dance eventually. It’s just that they feel a little intimidated.
JR: It’s a different environment.
SSJ: As long as the music is carrying me, I don’t care. We’ve played every kind of place from little tiny dumps to big theaters, Blossom, and Yankee Stadium. You just play the music and you get lost in the music. Eventually people do get up and start dancing and you can see if they’re responding or not. We’ve had very few shows in our lives, and I can remember a lot of them, where the audience really wasn’t into it. We’ve been lucky in that way.
JR: Are they in a particular part of the country, maybe in Pennsylvania or somewhere weird.
SSJ: We opened for Emerson, Lake & Palmer in a stadium in Toronto I think it was, Canada. It had rained or 4 hours while the people were waiting and the very last thing they wanted to see was a horn band from New Jersey. They wanted to see Emerson, Lake & Palmer and that’s all. We walked out on stage and 40,000 people gave me the finger at one time [laughs]. But you play anyway. I think we did 22-minutes and ran off stage.
JR: You knew right away that that crowd wasn’t into you.
SSJ: No, no.
JR: In general, how do you read a crowd? Is it tough? Have you done it so many times that it’s nothing for you?
SSJ: It depends on the response when you walk out on stage, too. Mostly you play to your own crowd so they’re glad to see you. When you do play to a different crowd you go ok either I want to start off kick ass or I want to build into it. And, it depends on how you feel. I have confidence enough that the band is that good and the material is that good that I don’t care. I will play my music and I will read some people and if it isn’t the whole audience well then the people I reach are the people I want to reach and the rest of ‘em are welcome to go home and go their own way.
JR: You’ve worked with some hundred Jukes now including Bon Jovi and some guys that people know in the music industry. You come from an environment of collaboration and working with some of the best names in music that there have ever been. There is with you a spirit of collaboration. I think of the Upstage Club where everybody got together. I don’t really see that now. Am I right in saying that?
SSJ: Oh, I think you are very, very wrong.
JR: Tell me why I’m wrong.
SSJ: At Red Rocks there was just an incident where the power went out. Some backhoe dug up the power cord and they took a long time fixing it so people were stuck in there for a long time. The two bands that were playing got on and they played with each other. I think many of the young bands do that all the time. As a matter of fact, you see guys leaving a band to form a band with somebody from another band and then go back to their bands and I think that’s great.
There are a lot of people who want to work with all the people they admire. A lot of them are young people like themselves. It can only be fertile ground for new stuff. They will inspire each other. Playing in a band is great but sometimes you need to step out and play with other people just to find out other ways to do things. I think the bands out now today – the ones that really play – I mean the real bands, always collaborate with each other. I think that’s a great thing. I think it’s the best thing that’s happening these days.
JR: Doesn’t it drive you nuts though that some of your guys take off and join other bands and you got to find new people?
JR: That would drive some people crazy though, right?
SSJ: Well, I was born crazy so what the hell? No, it doesn’t bother me. I mean, as long as they get a sub who’s good. Every one of these guys has left the band to go play with somebody. John Isley, our saxophone player, just did a stint with Diana Ross. He brought in two different people. They both were great. So, as long as that happens, I don’t care. As long as somebody comes in prepared to take that place....it’s when they don’t do that that I get mad and I think your heart’s not in this band, you’re out.
JR: What’s La Bamba up to lately?
SSJ: La Bamba plays with Conan O’Brien still.
SSJ: With Marc “The Loveman” Pender. And, he’s got his own band The Hubcaps. He’s doing a bunch of things. I think he’s collaborating on some kind of score. I don’t know if it’s a movie or a play, but he’s a great arranger and tremendous trombone player and completely insane.
JR: How do you maintain friendships with guys like that who are insane, and they’re doing other projects? You’re still so close with Bruce, and Bon Jovi, and Garry Tallent. Everyone is traveling the world, and how do you even get together and keep those friendships alive.
SSJ: I don’t. I am very reclusive. I mean, I went down to see Garry [Tallent] in Nashville two weeks ago and that was great. I love Garry. Garry and I are friends from high school. But, I haven’t seen Bruce in a while. I saw Steven [Van Zandt] not too long ago. You know, it’s hard. Everyone’s doing a million things. We’re very busy, which is great. In our sixties we’re still very busy - Richie [La Bamba Rosenberg] and Mark [Pender] - the thing is that we all have a history together. When we get together, we’re happy to see each other. It’s not like this awkward moment. I know stories about these guys and they know stories about me. We trust each other and that’s the best part of it. When you get together it’s like no time has passed, but it can be years in between seeing these people.
JR: You seem very content with it all. I love that.
SSJ: Well, I’m drunk. [Laughs] No, I’m very happy with where I’m at. I have a great band. This is probably one of the best bands I’ve ever had. I’ve written good songs in the last five or six years that I’m very happy about and I’m glad of that progress. I’m looking forward to the future, that’s all. I don’t dwell in the past. I’ve had an unbelievable life with playing and making music my whole career since I was in my early 20’s. Not a lot of people get to do that. So, I’m happy about all these things. I mean it’s a struggle to get motivated sometimes but I see the future and I want to pursue into it.
JR: Last thing, this show will air in Brooklyn, New York – and all around the world really – but Brooklyn, New York is where we’re based. Do you like the music scene in New York?
SSJ: I don’t really know the music scene in New York. I don’t like to go bowling in Brooklyn.
JR: They shut that place down. Did you see that? [editors note: this took place during the Ebola scare]
SSJ: That poor guy. He’s gonna get vilified. It’s that same old thing. I don’t feel bad, and then all of a sudden… I think there is a renaissance of players that like bands and like to write their own songs as opposed to the puff artists that are produced and groomed and all that stuff and I like to see that.
We got The Saint in Asbury Park, Asbury Lanes, and of course the Stony Pony and a bunch of other places. Those bands are out there pumping it. I’m sure it’s the same way in Brooklyn, and New York, and Long Island. A vibrant music scene means that there will be great music to listen to for a long, long time. It’s when it gets stultified. It happened in the early 60s, unless you really looked for it, and the mid-50s, unless you really looked for it. There was great music being made but no one ever heard of it because of the radio. Now with the Internet, if you like “X” you can go and say I like this band and they’ll give you five other bands or ten other bands you can check out and I think that’s the greatest thing.
Infinity Hall, Hartford, Connecticut
Originally aired October 2014 on BBOX Radio from Brooklyn, NY.
Interview edited for length and clarity. All rights reserved.