SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY & THE ASBURY JUKES, who play at the Galaxy Concert Theatre on Monday night, rescued me from the '70s. Southside Johnny Lyon had some help—Tom Waits, Commander Cody, Randy Newman and a few others worked his corner—but Southside was the guy throwing vicious musical uppercuts and right hooks at wuss rock on one side and punk rock on the other, while rhythm and blues refereed.
Southside Johnny kept tuff stuff alive at a very untuff time in history. The '70s were a weird season indeed: on one hand, you had that whole awful mellow California-rock thing going on, as personified by such shit merchants as the Eagles, James Taylor and the Doobie Brothers (at one point on his '81 live album, Southside threatens to "play some mellow West Coast rock" as guitarist Willie Rush strums the opening chords of the Eagles' "Take It Easy." Amid a thunderous chorus of boos from the audience, he says, "Naw, we don't do none of that" as the band crashes into a ferocious version of "Trapped Again" with enough power to disembowel the population of greater Newark). On the other hand, nascent punk rock threw out some great bands (like the Clash and the Ramones), but the anti-skill stance essential to punk was a cancer on pop music that has yet to be excised. Coming up the middle was (brrr!) disco, that soulless, retarded din.
And then you had Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes—one of the great (and I mean great!) unsung bands in rock & roll history—playing with the savagery of the snarliest punk and boasting the best chops coming out of the Jersey shore scene and the tuff/tender soul of the finest vintage R&B. Southside wasn't a technically great singer, but he was no slouch either. His real strength was blue-collar dedication and substance; he was as real as a shot of rotgut bourbon. When he sang, he felt it—deeply—and you knew it, and you shared the pain and triumph. The band—made up of guys with hoody handles like "Clams" and "La Bamba" and "Miami Steve," with lots of vowels ending the surnames—had the meanest horn section in the biz and played tighter than James Brown's 1965 slacks. These were trashy white boys from the wrong side of town. They meant well, but they drank and stank and rumbled and mumbled and left stains on the furniture and put cigarettes out on the carpet and cussed in front of your parents and tried to bone your kid sister. Goddamn it, they were beautiful.
Roots cred? When Southside Johnny called in artists to guest on their albums, they didn't dial up the crme of the current scene; instead, they secured the services of forgotten R&B singers like Lee Dorsey and Ronnie Spector (perhaps early rock & roll's ultimate bad girl). Songs? No less a figure than the Jukes' Asbury Park running partner Bruce Springsteen contributed many of the best tunes, including such smoldering nuggets as "The Fever," "Trapped Again," "Hearts of Stone" and "Talk to Me"—and this was in the days before Springsteen became "Brooce" or "The Boss" and turned into a caricature of himself. Miami Steve—who later became Little Steven and made some fine albums of his own—was a Juke early on and wrote songs like "I Don't Want to Go Home," "This Time It's for Real" and "I Played the Fool" that were nearly as badass as Springsteen's contributions. And when these guys tackled a cover, they pulled obscure gems from the treasure chest—Sam & Dave's "Broke Down Piece of Man," Sam Cooke's "Havin' a Party," Aretha Franklin's "Without Love"—rather than going for these acts' more familiar hits.
Sadly, the sheen wore off the Jukes by the mid-'80s. They never gained the popularity they deserved. Little Steve had left; other personnel changes followed. The material started to suffer, and the band began to sound tired. Same old story. At least these guys knew when to pack it in: their last album, the relatively woeful—and perhaps prophetically titled—At Least We Got Shoes, was released in '86. Southside later emerged with a couple of solo albums, but the old goods weren't there. Almost nothing was heard of Southside Johnny Lyon during this decade.
So here we are in mid-'99, and something billed as "Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes" is touring again. A new album is planned. Predictably, Lyon, 51, is the sole original Juke. Can this work? At all? Can any old magic be recaptured? From talking with Lyon recently, it was apparent that, at the very least, the old attitude remains—and let it be said that this would definitely be an essential component of a successful comeback.
"I don't care about record labels—fuck that," Lyon remarked when asked who would release his new album. "I'll put it out myself if I have to—do it and get it done. The business has changed so much you don't even need a record label to put it out anymore, which is one of the great godsends of all time. I don't care if it sells or anything; I just want to get it done. It's a great feeling to know you don't have to fucking sit down and eat lunch with someone that, in a normal world, you'd just kill 'em if you had to talk to 'em."
And why, at this stage and after all these years, is Lyon endeavoring to get back into the biz?
"I don't have any ambition, if that's what you mean," he laughed. "I guess I was brought up all wrong. I still have to work to make the mortgage payment. I don't feel like I have to make some grand statement. All I want to do is experience that golden moment when you're up there onstage and there's no more ego, the person is gone, and the music is a communion with the audience. It's not something you achieve every night, but it's the only thing I've ever really wanted. It's a very expensive drug."
Lyon says he'll be playing some of the old Jukes (non)hits, and he has a full brace of new material to lay on us, "kind of like old Jukes music, but a little darker-toned in some cases," he said. "I'd like some of it to sound like that old Memphis Slim stuff, blues stuff from the early '50s. But I don't wanna get retro. I want it to sound like the band capturing the essence of those days."
If Southside Johnny Lyon can capture the essence of 1976 (not to mention '56), a time when his music stood apart from the pack like some avenging warrior of cool, that'll be more than good enough for me.
Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes perform with Michael Ubaldini at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600. Mon., 8 p.m. $23.50.
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