Southside Johnny shares his hard-working roots
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes have been performing since the mid-1970s, spreading the “New Jersey Sound” throughout the Northeast as well as across the country and Europe. The band mixes rock, soul, R&B, and blues and is known for its high-energy shows and working-class roots. The band will play Sunday, April 8, at 8 p.m. at the Ridgefield Playhouse.
Brad Durrell spoke with band leader and lead vocalist Johnny Lyon, 69, whose musical career overlaps with Bruce Springsteen and the former E Street Band’s Steven Van Zandt in the Asbury Park, N.J., region, where they all grew up. Lyon still lives on the Jersey Shore, near Asbury Park.
Brad Durrell: Where did the nickname “Southside” come from?
Johnny Lyon: Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom was a band that Bruce Springsteen put together when he came back from visiting his parents in California [in 1971], and I was in it. Everyone had to have a nickname, and I became Southside Johnny. I don’t even remember who said it, but it stuck. The name comes from my love of the Chicago blues, played at clubs on the South Side of Chicago like Theresa’s.
BD: What did you do before becoming a full-time musician?
JL: I always had jobs, even when young. When we were 11 or 12, my brother and I used to mow lawns and shovel snow. I helped run the kiddie rides at Asbury Park. I worked in a lot of places. I worked in a post office, mopped floors in Texas, was a dishwasher and was a short-order cook, but I wasn’t very good at it because it was too fast for me. I put handles on barbecues, which is one of the worst jobs I ever had. There was always something to do. Whatever it was that came along, you’d have money in your pocket and that was the best feeling in the world.
BD: When did you realize music could be a career?
JL: I didn’t really take it seriously until I was in my early 20s. I was in bands at 15, 16, but mostly just singing and trying to pick up girls. To me, it was never something you could possibly be good enough to make a living at until I met people like Garry Tallent [also of the E Street Band], Bruce Springsteen, and Steve Van Zandt, who were completely committed at a very young age to being musicians. Well, if they could do it, so could I — or at least give it a shot. And I started to get better at it, to take music more seriously. It just sort of grew from there.
BD: You’re known for playing working-class music. What exactly is that?
JL: We all grew up with the clubs in New Jersey being places where people who worked all week would let loose on Friday or Saturday night. They had put in their 40-plus hours a week and wanted to hear loud, fun music, and not introspective, gentle-easy music. For me, that’s what music is all about. People have given up some of their leisure time, which they work very hard for, to come see you, so you really have to put it out there and make sure they have a good time.
BD: Why keep performing after all these years?
JL: There aren’t a whole lot of other things you can do. Back in the 70s, 80s and early 90s, I was on the road nine, 10 months a year. When [I was] not on the road, you’re trying to get into the studio to make a record. It’s the sole focus of life, which is not good for marriage, by the way.
I do it because it’s somewhat how you define yourself. I don’t really know a lot else. I’m not someone who’s trying to develop weapons of mass destruction or cheat someone at a real estate deal. When everyone is having a good time, it’s a great job. When they’re not having a good time, it’s a lot of pressure. But when you see them happy, and they laugh at your jokes, dance and sing along, it’s very satisfying. I’m there to make them feel good and forget their troubles for a couple of hours. I may be cutting down at some point. But then again, we still do 60 to 100 shows a year along with some charity stuff. Why not?
BD: I read you like to bird-watch. Is that true?
JL: I kind of fell into it. I was sitting on a friend’s dock at an estuary on San Francisco Bay and these ducks started to go by — one had a blue bill, one had an oversized bill, and one had all these colors. I realized I didn’t know any of these ducks, so I went to the local library and just got fascinated by it. I bought binoculars and a bird book and just sat there for three or four days looking at birds. Then I started hiking up in the hills. It was very soothing and interesting, and I just never gave it up. It’s also an excuse to go to exotic places. I’ve gone to Costa Rica, all through Central America, around Europe, Iceland, Canada, different parts of America. Even if you don’t see any birds, you’re out there in the woods, you’re exercising, and you’re being more contemplative. It’s a very good way of getting back to nature.
BD: You also read a lot?
JL: I read everything. I’m one of those kids who read the cereal boxes when eating breakfast. I read a lot of novels. Lately I’ve been reading biographies and some history books. Sometimes I read crime novels if feeling like I don’t want to work too hard.
BD: Do you look forward to playing in Connecticut?
JL: We’ve always played places in Connecticut because it’s somewhat contiguous with New Jersey — part of a cycle, of playing around, in Manhattan, New York state, Philadelphia, New Jersey. It was early on we started playing in Connecticut. We’ve played a lot in New Haven through the years. I lived in Stamford awhile. It’s a very beautiful state.