For those of you who know nothing about Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes other than singles like “Trapped Again” and “The Fever,” Southside Johnny is/was a great Soul influenced band that more or less peaked by 1980. They still tour to this day, but folks who don’t know anything about Southside Johnny are missing out. They are from New Jersey (full disclosure; so am I) and for that reason they toiled in the legendary Bruce Springsteen’s shadow, but they have an awful lot of really great tracks that nobody knows. You heard me right too; great was the operative word. They were a very good bar band that sort of made the leap to regional fame, but never really to national fame. It was easy to confuse them with Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes if you had never really heard either band’s music. I think most people think of them as something on the level of John Cafferty & The Beaver Brown Band. That’s a real shame. Next stop The Commitments I suppose. No offense to those other bands intended, but Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes were really very good. Don’t quote me, but but I think the last time I heard them, notice I didn’t say saw them, was outside of The South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, MA maybe four years back. I’m totally guessing, but I remember sitting about 30 yards away sitting in my car in the parking lot listening to them warm up Robert Cray or Little Feat. I had arrived fairly late, for me anyway, and I felt like enjoying a couple of beers in the car that nobody was whacking me $9.50 for. THE SSMC is a great venue in case you’ve never been. I don’t know what capacity is, but it feels like 750. It’s buried among a bunch of tall pine trees in a picturesque New England South Shore community about 15 minutes from the beach. It’s a pain in the neck to drive down to from Boston; better give yourself an hour even if traffic cooperates, which it almost never does. I guess my point is I never even bothered to go in and actually see SSJ. I just listened from my car.
I’m actually unclear how many times I have seen SSJ. I seem to recall catching them at The Channel (R.I.P.) in Boston maybe 25 years ago, but I can’t find any proof. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t there, but I usually have my ticket stubs…althought it could be taped to one of my old albums. That’s what I used to do before I stuffed them in the back of the jewel box of CDs. It’s much neater and cleaner these days. Although it’s murder trying to tack one of those print at home tickets (e-tickets I guess they call them) to an MP3 file. I felt bad about not going into see Southside, but I wasn’t expecting much to be honest. I have no idea if any of the members are original or whatever, but I lost interest in them years ago. I’m sure they have released some good records since 1980, but I don’t own any of them. I can tell you I really enjoyed their output between 1976-1980. I never saw them at the fabled Stone Pony in Asbury Park or anything, but I couldn’t really tell the difference between Southside Johnny and other artists back then. I didn’t know they were a fledgling bar band trying to escape The Boss’s shadow. I didn’t know Steven Van Zandt wrote their signature song “I Don’t Want To Go Home.” I only knew they were played on the radio and that my roommates back then, Tim & Steve from Wilton, CT loved them. So did another roommate named Richard I lived with after those two. I knew Southside Johnny (John Lyon) didn’t write “The Fever,” but he made that Springsteen song his own in a big way. I also didn’t really understand that they were more or less propped up musically by Bruce and his band for a time. I’m sure John Lyon doesn’t feel like that at all; after all he’s the one he toured his brains out and made it work, but that is sort of the public perception unfortunately.
I know we in the Northeast had ten times the exposure to Southside Johnny than the rest of country did, but no matter who wrote what material they did a great job of performing the songs. “Trapped Again,” written by Bruce Springsteen, John Lyon & Steven Van Zandt remains a brilliant track. It had he feel of those old songs from the Stax era like Jean Knight’s “Mr Big Stuff” or The Staple Singers “I’ll Take You There.” Those songs still sound flat awesome to these ears all these years later. “Trapped Again,” with all the horns and urgency sounds, well, very much like Bruce Springsteen. Not such a bad thing, except when you are trying to stand on your own. Still, Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes had three solid, if unspectacular, LPs in 1976′s I Don’t Want To Go Home, 1977′s This Time It’s For Real and 1978′s Hearts of Stone before being dropped by their label. Even with the backing of the mighty Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes just couldn’t seem to take off. In 1979, it’s record company, Columbia Records, pulled the plug on them. Picked up by Mercury Records shortly thereafter, Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes released two very good records almost nobody heard in 1979′s The Jukes and 1980′s Love is a Sacrifice. One thing nobody who saw them could deny is that they put on a good show. There were a handful of good bands with prominent horn sections in those days like Tower of Power and Chicago to name a couple and people genuinely loved the mix of horns and Rock or Pop music as far as I could tell. I know I did. Should I try to do some more…25 or 6 To 4…know what I’m saying? In 1981 Southside Johnny chronicled their live prowess with an album called Reach Up and Touch The Sky, but even though they went on to release several more records with different iterations of the band, that ended an era right then and there. Still, I’ve always been a fan.
I only thought of Southside Johnny yesterday because I was listening to Graham Parker in my car. I know what you are thinking; what do these two artists have in common? Well, actually it was horns that triggered my SSJ flashback. The horns were in Graham Parker tunes like ”Heat Treatment” and they got me to thinking about Southside Johnny for some reason. That’s how I listen to music sometimes these days. I hear a sound, think of another band and off I go. I was watching that Springsteen Rockumentary about the making of Darkness On The Edge of Town a couple of months ago and Steven Van Zandt (Little Stevie of East Street Band and Sopranos fame) was talking about how he loved old Soul, Motown and Doo-Wop. It definitely dates those of us who agree with him, but I was watching a baseball game just now and in between innings The Foundations “Build Me Up Buttercup” was playing in the ballpark while the announcers were talking. One announcer was making fun of the other one for digging the track so much. I thought that was amusing for what it’s worth. I’m trying to think of comparables for Southside, but while I’m sure there are many if I just took the time to comb my collection, it’s hard to think of one for the moment. I mentioned Beaver Brown & The Commitments earlier, both bands seem kind of fictional to me even though I realize they weren’t. Southside Johnny was (I say “was” because I’m referring to a band from a five year span in the late 70′s as opposed to a band that just won’t die…and I mean that with all due respect) a real live touring machine that just couldn’t get over the hump. Beaver Brown seemed to swoop in with two mid 80′s hits called “The Dark Side” and “Tender Years” with almost no nation wide history. It’s like they had no social security number. The former was a quasi rocker and the latter was a sappy ballad. Much better songs that I had first wanted to give them credit for, but what else did they do exactly? “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” as Dada once said…
I know many of you don’t get or care about Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, but that’s precisely why I posted about them. Scores of bands are every bit as good as Southside Johnny, but never got as far as they did. Yes it was extremely helpful to have Bruce Springsteen as a song benefactor, but these guys were highly entertaining and I still love listening to their music every so often. Part of that is the Jersey connection, I have no doubt, but I always felt, under different circumstances, they could have made some real coin. Don’t get wrong, I’m sure they are much more well off than I am, but for all their hard work I wonder if they play the what if game themselves. The music business is wild now; how do artists even make it today? I loved those big old album covers that did much of the advertising for a given artist. They were like mini billboards. And you could actually read them. If you carried them under your arm, people could see and identify them. Now? Invisible MP3s dominate the landscape. That doesn’t take into account radio formats, the lack of risk taking among the record labels left and the fact that bands are breaking up because nobody is signing them to big advances anymore. Even with record moguls ripping off even the best bands back in the 60′s and 70′s there was so much money flowing bands could still get rich. Now you either tour full time or you are as good as Coldplay. It’s why I buy CDs at every small show I go to even if I never listen to them. It just seems like the right thing to do. As for Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, they had their day in the sun even if things didn’t work out exactly as they would have liked. They still have fans out there like me who still listen to their records. That’s gotta count for something doesn’t it? Next time I get the chance to see them, if I do, I’ll make sure I go inside the venue out of respect.
Buy or Download The Best of Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes From Amazon Here.