This weekend, Southside Johnny Lyon and The Smithereens will be among those honored with induction into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, part of this year's class for the 11th annual ceremony on Sunday, October 27. The red carpet induction ceremony will be streaming live, beginning at 5:45pm Eastern.
In advance of his long-overdue induction, road warrior Southside Johnny talks to Mike Saunders about the advantages of being an independent artist, the gentrification of Asbury Park, Bob Dylan's radio shows, singing with Tom Waits, ferocious Christians, assorted presidents and prime ministers, Brexit, the decline of Western civilization...and King Richard II.
All photographs by Mike Saunders - Shepherds Bush Empire, London, March 22, 2019
Last December, Southside Johnny became the first member of the New Jersey triumvirate to reach the end of his seventh decade. Since becoming leader of the band that bears his name more than four decades ago, he's watched numerous musicians pass through their ranks, witnessed the rise and fall of political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, experienced the analog-to-digital revolution, and returned to New Jersey after spending time living in Connecticut, California, Tennessee, and Delaware. But while the winds of change blew around him, his passion for singing remained undimmed.
I met Southside at his London hotel a few hours before his show at the Shepherds Bush Empire with the Asbury Jukes. At the start of what became a rambling, sometimes outspoken, but always entertaining conversation, I noted that when the band came into being in 1975, Gerald Ford was president and Richard Nixon had resigned only seven months before.
I didn't think we could get worse than Nixon. Him and his den of thieves. All of 'em went to jail, and in a just world, Nixon would have gone to jail, too. Carter, I liked him, but he had a troubled presidency because of economics, oil, it wasn't a good time to be president. Reagan, I didn't like him. It's astonishing to me that there are presidents who have a lack of compassion.
Trump is the worst by far. I'm reading about Richard II now: totally no compassion for anyone, demands to have certain rights, then he gets 600 archers around Parliament and bullies his way through. Trump is like Richard II. I hope the same thing happens to him that happened to Richard II. There's a sociopathic tone to the things he does. It's one thing to be a little crazy; it's another thing to be heartless, cruel, and petty. He reminds me of some of the kings in history, who used their power to crush anybody who offends them. I thought Reagan was like that, too. He was a little too smug, too self-assured. I like people who have doubts, like Obama, and Clinton, and Carter. Kennedy had doubts, too. Nixon had doubts but even though he knew he was doing wrong, he over-rode his own moral sense. He was such a damaged person, from all the years of being Vice-President.
I don't think there's ever been such a contrast between presidents as from Obama to Trump.
I'm hoping it swings back to some sort of normalcy. If they throw out Trump and Mike Pence gets to be president, he's a religious nut, so who knows what happens with that? He won't be in a room with another woman because he thinks that his wife won't like it, and it's sinful, and he might be tempted. If Angela Merkel wants to sit down with him, he's gotta have his wife there? These people are pathetic.
While all that's been going on, the Jukes have been ploughing a furrow for 44 years.
Yeah, you gotta do something with your life!
You've seen a lot of changes in the music industry, and in how music is recorded and consumed.
It's a good time to be a musician, a songwriter, singer of a band. You can make your own records fairly cheaply and have them sound very professional. You can promote your own records on the Internet. You can do gigs at small little places and sell your CDs, your merchandise, your downloads. It's a good time to be independent.
We were an independent band when we started out, and I didn't like losing the autonomy of that when we [signed with] record companies. But I will say that they promoted us in ways that we couldn't promote ourselves back then. In the 70s, if you didn't go out and play, or the radio didn't play your records, nobody knew who you were. If Rolling Stone or one of the local magazines did an article, you might get a little exposure, but if the record company wasn't paying for you to travel… some of the money on our first tour came from them, but we were on our own pretty much after that.
Now I pay for everything out of the revenues the band makes live, and it's so much more straightforward. You get paid for what you sell — there's no middleman, no lawyers or accountants trying to squeeze every dime for the record company. And you can do your own promotion. It's just a better time to be in a band, as long as you don't wanna be Beyonce. You can't do that without a major record label. But if you just want to be in a band and go play places, you can do that. We had (support band) The Curse of Lono with us. They ride in a van just like we do. They don't get paid what we do, but they're having a great time.
If you want to be the biggest star in the world, you're in a tough quandary — because even the record companies can't control that. Unless you're their top priority and they're convinced that you're going to be this multi-million-selling artist, they're not gonna give you the time of day.
A lot of bands on Epic — Meat Loaf, Boston, Cheap Trick — got more attention than you did.
Yeah, but almost all of the bands got some attention. If Cheap Trick or any of the other bands got signed today, unless one of the executives said "this is gonna be huge," they wouldn't get anywhere near the promotion that we all got then. It was cheaper then, too. Slip a few hundred dollars to the program director, and he plays your record!
Of course that never happened! [laughs]
'Twas ever thus!
What were your thoughts on the sound quality of CDs when they first appeared?
I was in Amsterdam, and they asked what song I wanted to hear. This was when the Otis Redding Best of had just come out. I said let's hear "Try a Little Tenderness" by Otis Redding. I put on the earphones, and the whole punch that people strive to put on vinyl was lost. Because the engineer said, "I can open up all these tones so that you can hear all the highs and all the lows!" — and all the middle got flattened out. I was appalled that there was not that visceral kick in the stomach that you would get from that great band: Booker T. and the MGs, and Otis, and all the horns.
So I was really down on CDs, and it took them a number of years to get everything right. I thought, Jesus, if this is the best it's gonna be, this is no good.
Engineers don't hear things the same way normal people do, and they don't build things the same way normal people do. I have a car radio. It's an engineers' radio. I barely know how to use it. You have to push four different buttons to do this one task instead of just turning it on and adjusting the volume. Engineers are the bane of my existence. They complicate things that should be simple.
The last time you had a big push on a label was for Better Days…
Yeah, the company went out of business. We've been through all that before. The companies change hierarchies. When the new king comes in, he gets rid of the old retinue because he wants his own people in there. It's the same thing with any conglomerate. As soon as new people come in, they look at the old stuff and think, "Well, if I make this a hit, it's gonna reflect well on the people who signed them and not on me." We got the cold handshake from the new guy at Epic, and I said, "We're outta here!"
There's all sorts of things that happen. We had a record being played in New York. It was doing well. I went on tour in Europe, came back, and the guy said, "We dropped the ball, we didn't do the right thing." To him, it's just another record. To me it's this "career" thing.
But I gave up on all that over time. I don't worry about record sales. I don't worry about getting played on the radio. I know I can go out and make a living live. When I make records now, it's for new material. I don't do it for commercial aspects.
Was there a specific point where you decided, "I want to make music"?
Garry Tallent, when he was 14 or 15 — we were talking one day, he was at school with me, and he said, "I'm gonna be a musician." I thought, "How can he know that at 15?" I mean, it's a tough road. Even I knew that back then. Then I met Steven and Bruce, and they all said the same thing. I got swept up in their enthusiasm and determination.
I can be a real bulldog when I believe in something and I want something. It's been that way for a long time. I realized that I listened to music in an intense way, and these guys did too. And my parents did. It was never background music. It had to really mean something to me to want to put it on and listen to it.
We found an audience who really wanted music to listen to, and they've stuck with us through the years because they know we mean it, and we know they mean it. You're gonna do your best. You're not going to be fake; you're not going to be jive. They like the fact that we take chances, sometimes make fools of ourselves. We've been fortunate that our audience has ridden along with us in all the strange little alleyways that we've gone down. Up the creek without a paddle, sometimes.
When you go to gigs these days, a lot of people aren't listening — they're there to hang out and talk.
We've run into that a couple of times in some places, and I just stop and look at 'em like, "The rest of these people want to listen. You don't? Get the fuck out!"
Some of the best work you've done over the years is not necessarily on a Jukes album. Three records spring to mind: Slow Dance, the Grapefruit Moon Tom Waits covers album, and the Detour Ahead Billie Holiday tribute. What can you remember about each of those and what they meant to you?
I barely remember the solo album. I had songs that I didn't want to translate through the Jukes. Not that they're not flexible enough to do this stuff, I just wanted to try not Juking it up. Some of it worked, some of it didn't. I remember being on the radio and playing some of it, and a woman called and said, "You fired the Jukes, I'll never listen to you again!" I'm trying desperately to explain to her: "No, this is just a little sojourn. I have these songs, I wanna do them quietly." "I hate you!" I'm like, "Oh Jesus. Goodbye!"
The Tom Waits album was quite an adventure, with all those horns, a rhythm section, La Bamba and all the rest of that stuff. It was a very expensive journey, but it was great. It was a long process. You had to be patient, which I'm not very good at, and there was a lot of time spent in the studio mixing it, which I really am not good at. But I'm very proud of it. I'm glad we did it. I have no bad feelings about it one way or another. I'm in negotiations with a record company to re-release that album. I don't know if it's going to happen. I'd like to hear some of that music in a movie, because the horns sound so great — the arrangements were so terrific.
You got to growl along with Tom on one of the songs.
Well, I asked and he said: [imitating Tom] "Okay." We got to destroy eardrums across the world!
Billie Holiday was one of the first voices you heard when you were growing up.
[The genesis of that album] was John Isley, my saxophone player. He said, "You always talk about Billie Holiday, and you wanna make an album — let's do it!" I said, "You do it, I'll be the singer." We picked songs, and he wrote a lot of arrangements. To me it was a simple process, because he did 90 percent of the work. He put an enormous amount of man-hours into it. It's one of those things you wish could be commercial, but I don't know who's gonna play it.
I didn't go in thinking it was going to be a huge hit. I wanted to make the record, so we did. Poor Fools [Songs From the Barn), by Southside Johhny & the Poor Fools], the same thing.
I forgot that one!
It's an acoustic album with electric instruments. Acoustic-esque!
A couple of years ago, you filmed an interview in the Upstage Club for the Asbury Park documentary Riot, Redemption, Rock 'n' Roll. What was that like, going back after a zillion years?
I don't really remember. They asked me a bunch of questions, and I answered them. I went to see the movie, it was all fine, and that's not part of my memory bank now. I'm not a nostalgist. When you ask me these questions I'll remember some of the things about the past, but most of it is not something that I dwell on.
There's building going on now. Gentrification looms.
Yeah, they're trying to un-honky-tonk [Asbury Park]. I don't know if they'll ever succeed. It's wonderful to see it coming back. There are people on the boardwalk. It's the way it used to be when I was young, only more upscale. But you know, whatever works for people. I'm happy if other people are happy.
There are a lot of places to play there now. There are four or five different clubs along with the Stone Pony, and that's always good for musicians — a place to learn your craft and show what you can do. I like that aspect of it.
And there are a lot of good restaurants now, too. You were hard-pressed to find a decent place to eat in Asbury Park at one point, except for Frank's, maybe Jimmy's for Italian food. But now there are some terrific restaurants, and you can get a drink on the boardwalk at last. I like that!
But they're building a huge building down at the north end. I don't want it to be a 15-story-building town. If you've ever been to Cancun or the south of Spain or France, or parts of California, these huge buildings block the view of the ocean, and they're all private residencies. That would be alien to my way of thinking.
One of the last times I was there, I went in the [Silverball] pinball museum.
I've seen the changes over the last 25 years. I remember Palace Amusements. The Casino. I think a lot of people are hoping it'll come back as it was… but it can't.
No, I don't think that's realistic. Let 'em build the highrises and the condos. People are spending a lot of money, and that's good. I have friends who have businesses in Asbury Park, and they're doing well. It seems as though an ordinary person has no control over those things, so if you can't control it, I wouldn't worry about it. No matter how much you think your voice has sway, money talks — a lot louder than you ever could. I don't decry it; it's the kind of transformation that you see a lot of places go through. You see 'em go up, you see 'em go down.
I was in Nashville not that long ago, and I used to live there. It seems like there's twice as many people. Traffic is a nightmare; it never used to be. The downtown is even more honky-tonk because of all these young people getting drunk on the street on Second Avenue. They have these bars on the third floors, people screaming and yelling…. It's worse than it ever was, as far as the drunken revelry. It reminds me of what Chicago and St. Louis and Kansas City must have been like in the '20s and '30s, and New Orleans. Open debauchery, and I'm too old to enjoy it, so that pisses me off!
You've lived in different parts of the country. You must have noticed differences in political thinking.
When I lived in California, I was down in the most Republican of counties, Orange County, and I never really heard anything bad there. There were a couple of set-to's I had with people about certain things, but nothing overwrought.
And Nashville is not really a typical southern town. In my drives through Mississippi and Arkansas and Alabama and Georgia and Louisiana, I've run into people and heard things… but Nashville's not like that. It's a much more progressive town.
New Jersey has its share of goofballs, too — people who have all sorts of strange beliefs. Right and left, libertarian, ferocious Christians. What people believe is what they believe. I don't have any problem with that. It's how they act on it that bothers me. You don't like black people? Then don't deal with black people, but don't come out and start cursing them. Let's not burn any crosses on any lawns.
The Internet has opened up this anonymous voice box for these people. They come out of the woodwork. They come out with statements that if they were to say them in public, they'd be beaten in the street. They can be whatever nickname they want to give themselves, and they say outrageous things. All the conspiracy theory people: the QAnons, the flat-earthers, the racists, misogynists…
You have the wrong thoughts, you can even say them in public, but don't think that your freedom of speech stops people from hating you.
You're here in London during interesting times. Speaking as a well-read, well-travelled, impartial observer, what do you think of the current political situation?
Well, for a nation this sophisticated, it is astonishing to see the level of pure incompetence in the government. Lib Dems, Labour, certainly the Tories — nobody has a clue.
When Nigel Farage can become the voice of a bunch of people and sway votes, you know you're in deep shit. The Lib Dems have faded. They're like little fireflies who've flown away. Labour is just a crucible of ignorance. You thought you had somebody good in Tony Blair, and he turned out to be a little shit. Gordon Brown, he's chastising people about economics now. I would remind everyone that Gordon Brown is the one who sold a lot of your gold at $200 an ounce or some shit, so I don't think he's got a leg to stand on. He shouldn't be talking about economics, because he was a disaster. And David Cameron, he just seemed like he didn't have a clue.
Then you got these other clowns. Jacob Rees Mogg, how's he get in? Unless it's a joke. Jeremy Corbyn, whose head's so far up his ass he doesn't know which way he's looking. Your railroads are still out of control and poorly run. Your health service is a disaster. These are things that you can deal with, but nobody does. It's astonishing to me, who's always loved Britain, to see it run so poorly from top to bottom.
Brexit has introduced a new word to the English language.
Brexit is some fever dream that you haven't gotten over yet. I don't know the way out. You need a strong leader who has some integrity and has some ideas, and a Parliament that isn't full of doddering old fools and main chancers. I don't know how you get that.
I'm hoping that in my country the electorate wakes up and sees that electing someone because you're pissed off with politicians doesn't work. You have to find somebody with actual ideas and the wherewithal to carry them out.
It's not unlike the decline of Western Civilization. You have China coming up. They're going to dictate terms in a much different way than what we're used to. We're gonna have to live with that. It's not something you can fight against if you're not united. Trump has alienated the English, he's alienated the French, he's alienated the Germans, he's alienated NATO. It's chaos in the West. And right at the time when China's ruled by a very strong person and started to become a behemoth.
How would you like to see the next few years pan out?
I don't think that far ahead. I've got stuff in front of me. I know I've gotta do this, so I've gotta take care of myself this way…. I can only think so far ahead.
You must have your own life between all that, times when you're just being you at home.
I tried a bunch of times for a social life, but there's not a lot of time for that stuff. My life is in between gigs, and usually it's spent reading.
I can't imagine you watching much TV.
I don't. [There's] very little that's interesting for me. Sports, occasionally. Maybe baseball this year. It looks like an interesting year. But I can lose interest in that, too.
Are you a person who plays music at home?
In the car. I rarely listen to it at home. I'm trying to get to the point where I'm cooking dinner [and] I put on some music. I like that. I forget most of the time. But in the car I've been listening to music.
I've been listening for the last year or so to the Bob Dylan Sirius radio show (Theme Time Radio Hour). I really enjoy that. I love his voice. I love his music choices, the stories, the jokes.
We all grew up with DJs, and when FM radio came in, there were people who'd talk about the bands and would tell stories. I miss that aspect. Downloading music is great, but there's no intermediary to give you information. You can find it, but it's nice to have somebody say, "I want you to hear this. Now, this is a guy who comes from…" It makes it more personal than just do you like it or don't you?
Steven does Underground Garage.
That's another one.
I can imagine you doing a blues show.
I've been offered that stuff. I just don't know when I'm gonna do it. I would only do it the way I wanted to do it, and that's as a psycho DJ from the '50s, but I don't know if they're ready for that. I don't know if I'm ready for that!
And I would obviously want to play whatever I wanted to play. Most of the things I've been offered say, "We want you to play '60s and '70s rock 'n' roll." I said no fuckin' way. I never want to hear that stuff again in my life! Really. I grew up listening to it, and I've listened to it for decades. No more Creedence Clearwater, please, no more Led Zeppelin.
Any plans for another album?
We're trying to make another album. Jeff [Kazee, with Johnny above] and I are trying to write. We haven't really knuckled down to it, but we're gonna have to at some point. I wish we could write on the road, but we don't seem to click as far as his mood and my mood being in sync. When we sit down in his basement, it's always there. But we're working on it.
Have you thought about another live album?
I don't know. What's the point? I'd be hard-pressed what songs to put on. It's not something that ever occurs to me.
Last December you reached a milestone birthday. Does it get harder as the years go by?
You don't have the stamina, and you don't have the patience. How many times are you going to ride eight hours in a van, you know? I've been doing that for 40-some years now. It isn't a tour bus — there are no bathrooms, no bunks. You live through it. The camaraderie is good in the band, otherwise it would be a nightmare. But you start to question whether you've got the wherewithal to keep doing that. I could never justify me flying and the band taking the van. It sits contrary to my feeling about being in a group. If I felt sick, maybe… but that's about it.
This Jukes line-up has been together around 10 years. No one has left, or been replaced, or killed, or fired, or…
All of the above! I like the guys. I get along with everybody. They're all great players. They're very cohesive onstage, and they're very open to experimentation, which is what we do at times. I'm happy with it. I don't even think about it. I don't worry about the band. I don't worry about any of the members in the band. Some are crazier than others — but I'm the craziest of all, so they have to worry about me!
Soon after the announcement of the 2019 inductees for the Performing Arts section of the New Jersey Hall of Fame, I sent a message of congratulation to Southside and joked that they were going to put him in a museum. "I'm going to be interred in the elephant's graveyard in Newark," he replied. "They were going to put me in the dinosaur museum, but they were afraid my skeleton would be too terrifying for the kids."
Following an introduction by longtime fan and supporter Jon Bon Jovi, Southside's acceptance speech at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park on Sunday evening will do doubt be unconventional, irreverent and laced with humor. Speaking to NJ.com this week, he said, "I've been reluctant to do any of these things for years and years. I don't think of myself in that way. I'm just a guy who goes out and makes music. I'm sure many people think I don't belong in there, and I could be one of them. It is sort of humorous, in a way, but it is an honor. I'm honored, why not? I like that it's in Asbury Park. It's great to see Asbury Park being recognized as a place where people learned their craft and went out and changed the world."