The band played rhythm & blues music with the addition of a large horn section. Early records were produced by Steven Van Zandt and contained songs written by Bruce Springsteen. The band’s third record, Hearts Of Stone, was once named one of the Top-100 albums of the last 20 years by Rolling Stone Magazine.
Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes have been touring and recording music for over 25 years. Through the years, they have built an extremely large fanbase around the world. Many of their fans have made trips to Asbury Park to see the town where the band got its start. Several hundred fans got together in 2002 for the first ever Jukestock - a Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes fan convention held at a hotel in nearby Tinton Falls. Later that year, the bands released its latest record, Going To Jukesville.
I caught up with Southside Johnny during the band’s annual summer shows in Point Pleasant. We met on the boardwalk in Asbury Park. It was a beautiful beach day, but the beach was empty. It was almost too quiet for a resort town, but a perfect time to talk about Asbury’s past.
Tell me about the early days of Asbury Park.
Well, we weren’t making any money, but there was an instinctual knowledge that what was happening with the Upstage Club, Student Prince, Stone Pony and all the other clubs and all the bands - all the jamming was just great fun and not everybody gets a chance to do this.
Nobody was thinking about getting deals. Bruce was still trying to figure out which way he wanted to jump, you know. He was writing songs way before anyone else and he had all those bands: Child, Earth and Steel Mill. He was just trying to figure it all out. Eventually he did. And I think we all were trying to find our way, but not to make earth shaking records but more to make it so we could have a career so we could continue. And that’s a very difficult proposition. I know from my own personal experience with my father. I didn’t know whether I had the stamina to do it, so I never took it that seriously as far as a career. But I took it seriously as I wanted to get it right. I guess that kind of tenacity stood me in good stead. But in the beginning it was just a laugh.
“Band of The Week” we used to call it. Garry or Steven or me would put the band up and we’d pick whoever was available. Big Bobby or Vini Lopez. Garry was usually the bass player but Vinnie Roslin was there and there was other guys. And there’s a lot of guys whose names I don’t even remember that I was in bands with. From a perspective of people who didn’t go through it, it seemed like this crazy, verdant scene of wild experimentation and open arm stuff, but it really wasn’t. It was a struggle to get anybody to do anything.
There’s a lot of people that remember you playing bass back at the Upstage. How long did you play bass guitar?
I don’t really remember. I was kind of forced into it. Garry played bass so I bought one. Sonny Kenn said come and sing in my band, which I never thought of doing really. He wanted to play blues after playing rock and roll for so many years. And he knew I played harp and sang because I used to hang around with those guys. But I never thought of being in a band or anything, just personal amusement. And then one time he said we need a bass player you’re going to have to learn how to play bass.
So I bought a bass and Garry helped me out a bit. But it’s very difficult to sing and play bass at the same time and I never really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the attitude of it. I love playing bass and I love singing, but doing them both together was just impossible. And so later, we got a bass player. We got this kid like 16 years old. He didn’t have any idea of the songs we were playing we had to show him everything. But it’s fun and that’s the basic idea, it was fun. It wasn’t this huge ambition like I’ve got to make it.
How did the Jukes come about?
There was a band called Blackberry Booze Band and that was David Myers and Paul Dinkler and Kenny Cutler. So these guys had this band. They did a lot of just jamming, you know. It was a four piece guitar/bass. A guy named Paul Greene, who was a friend of mine, was a harmonica player but he didn’t want to sing he just wanted to play harp. And I was at a loose end. I was playing in a band called Bank Street Blues Band, which had a guy named Stu and he wanted to do all the singing and he just wanted a harmonica player. So I got to sing like two songs a night, and, of course, that’s not what I wanted. As much as I like playing blues harp, I really wanted to sing. So Paul Greene and I one day decided, “This is stupid, we’re in the wrong bands.” So we decided to switch and we didn’t even tell the other bands because he showed for one gig and I showed up for the other gig.
Eventually I took over that band and it was the nucleus of the Jukes. Actually, I only kept Kenny on drums. But I hustled a gig from the Stone Pony. I think they gave us Thursday nights or something like that for $90 bucks a night to split between the four of us. And that was the beginning of my run-ins with the owners of the Stone Pony. It was a constant battle to try to get enough money to actually live on. I tried to get more nights, but then I added Kevin Kavanaugh on keyboards. Steven was working jackhammer and playing with an oldies group, the Dovells but Chubby Checker was the band leader and he just got sick of the whole thing. He came and lived with me and my first wife for a while.
So, any way, the long story even longer... Steven and I started adding pieces. I’d always wanted a horn band. Steven was really into the idea of expanding the R&B and rock and roll combination that we had been exploring for a long time. So, we started looking for horn players and that was a nightmare. I mean, the weirdest people came and went. We found a sax player and he was completely insane. Found a trumpet player and he couldn’t play. It was really tough, but we were determined to do it.
What was the hardest thing about that period of time?
We couldn’t get booked. None of us could get booked in the big clubs like D’Jais. I had the owner from D’Jais come down to the Pony when we were doing 600 people there in the middle of winter.
I said, “look, I know you don’t know these songs.” He sat down for two sets and said, “I don’t know any of the songs you played. I can’t book you.”
“What’s the matter? I got 600 people to come see me. Give me some off nights,” which is what we did with the Pony. We could never get weekends.
“No, I can’t take the chance that you’re gonna alienate the people coming to see people do top-40 songs.”
It was like that for years. There was no money to be made, no recognition, no real respect. So, to me, it’s not like this wonderful thing, although I loved it. I’m so grateful that it was that way and I could do the things I wanted to do because there was always an audience for it. It just doesn’t seem like Paris between the wars or San Francisco in 1965.
The early eight years of Asbury Park are what they are. And then when the Pony started booking Elvis Costello and all those different people it was because they needed a night to play between New York and Philadelphia. The economics of it was that every night you had off was a night you were losing money. You had to pay the hotel rooms, per diem for the band and transportation. So any place that was transitional between big cities that was a club you wanted to play and the Pony became the transitional club for a lot of people.
Music history kind of gets beyond what people can comprehend. You’ve got a couple million people taking vacations to visit a house in Memphis each year and people running around Liverpool looking for places where the Beatles once were.
Yeah, that’s true. And they don’t know the realities of that life. But it’s just weird to be part of that because I just don’t think of myself in that way. I mean, I’m always looking at what I’ve got to do next week. What do I want to do in the few months ahead.
What was it like when Steven Van Zandt left the band?
I don’t really remember how the whole thing happened, but the transition was fairly smooth. In other words, Billy (Rush) was ready to go with that at that point. So he didn’t just abandon us or anything like that, he made it very smooth. Also the year before that Bruce was going through all of this upheaval. Steven and Bruce always had their heads together as far as they had this kind of comradeship that made it them against all these other people that were trying to scrape off pieces of Bruce and all of us. And, they had talked about it and all this...
I said, “You know you’ve got to go. He needs you a lot more than I do. I mean, he’s the one that’s being hounded by all these fucking sharks and these monsters from the depths that were just trying to manipulate him and use him and you’re the voice of sanity in his world. You both can figure it out.” And it was more that than really anything else.
Tell me about making your first record.
It seemed a tempest in a teapot, you know. I didn’t think they were gonna let me make a second album once they’d heard the first one because it wasn’t like a lot of things that were going on, and I thought nobody’s gonna want to hear this shit. I mean, here’s this skinny white guy from Ocean Grove, New Jersey, a Methodist retirement community, singing blues with this horn section that we kind of cobbled together from Philadelphia.
Those were the days of guitar bands like Boston and Cheap Trick and all that. I looked around and went, oh, I’m gonna make a record... Big deal. To me, it was just something to do to say I did. And I figured I’d be playing in this area for the rest of my life although that’s not what I wanted.
I wanted to see the world. I wanted to travel, which luckily I got to do. We went on the road. Once I got the chance I said, “Great - book me anywhere! I don’t care how much money we lose.” Which came back to haunt me too because you know how record companies are they charge for everything. But we did, we got to go over to England. We played with Graham Parker a bunch of dates in England.
Do you remember performing on the “Rockpalost Show”?
Yeah, we did “Rockpalost” at that time too. It was 1977 or something like that. The first one, I vaguely remember, there was a lot of different bands. They were all kind of predictable guitar bands. And we came on with the horns and everything and everybody was dancing. It was the kind of rock and roll that just lends itself to having fun. No hero worship. No deep cerebral activity. Just yeah, let’s have fun and they really responded that way. And, I think, that’s what people remember the most from that show is that there was an audience that really just kind of let loose. And that’s what we’ve always done. I mean, that’s what I started out doing.
It’s funny all the different viewpoints you have of what rock and roll’s become. You listen to the early Chuck Berry stuff, Bo Diddley, Little Richard - the real progenitors of rock and roll, other than the R&B guys that came before, and then Elvis Presley - it’s all fun. It’s all kind of wild, abandoned teenage nut-ball stuff. And even though that’s not the only route I have, it is one that appeals to me greatly because I also come from Winonie Harris and Big Joe Turner and that’s all fun. It’s like this big party that’s happening on your radio or your record player. That’s what I thought I wanted to do. For all of my reading and all that stuff, really when I get on stage, I want to just blow my brains out. I don’t want to be anything other than a conduit for emotion. I don’t want people looking at me. I really don’t feel comfortable. I feel comfortable on stage, but outside the stage I don’t feel comfortable with that stuff.
Nils and I played a bunch of those shows together before he joined the E-Street Band. He was one of those guys who really didn’t fit in any niche just like us so they would put us together with all those kind of acts that nobody really knew who to put them with. He put on great shows. The music wasn’t like what we were doing, but we really got along well and we did do “Rockpalost” a couple of times, I think.
What was your favorite album to work on?
Oh, I don’t know, there’s good memories in just about every one of them. Maybe not Trash it Up, but just about every one else. And there’s tough times too, but that’s alright. Those are the things you go through, you know. You look back and it all seems funny as somebody once said. But it wasn’t funny at the time. It was a nightmare, but that’s okay.
I’m not a big guy to stay in the studio for twenty hours at a stretch. I get bored. But the first album was fun. I mean, no one knew what we were doing. We hadn’t a clue. Jimmy Iovine was supposed to be engineering and he had three projects going at the same time so he would sleep in front of the console.
Dave Thoner was the assistant engineer and he pretty much ran the sessions as far as making sure everything went to tape and all. And Steve and I, we knew what we wanted to do, we knew what most of the material was going to be, we just weren’t sure how we wanted to record it. We ended up doing a lot of the stuff just live. Live vocals and everything like that. I don’t really look back all that much. It just doesn’t further me any to look back.
Could you ever have imagined Hearts of Stone making Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Best Albums of the Last 20 Years?
It was bizarre. That album came out and was doing well until I got hurt and we had to cancel the tour. The record company said screw it. They really weren’t into us. There was a transitional period when top management like Ronald Luxonberg and Steve Popovich left. These were the guys who were on our side pretty much. New guys came in and they’re never on your side unless you’ve already sold records because you’re just a burden to them. And even though the album got some fairly good reviews and it was doing pretty well, 125 stations were playing it which is a lot, once that tour stopped they lost interest. Not that they had a lot in the beginning anyway.
So years later somebody shows me this Rolling Stone Magazine, says you’re in the Rolling Stone. I said for what? And they show me this thing where they had - I guess we were next to a Doors album, I forget what one. One of the top 100 albums of the last 20 years. What a bunch of crap! You know, I can name... I mean, I like the album and I think Stevie did a magnificent job on it and I’m happy with a lot of my singing, but Tom Waits wasn’t on that list. God, I could go down the list of people that weren’t on that. There’s a lot of albums I looked at and went, “Yeah, right, that’s one of the top 100 albums of the last 20 years. It’s a piece of shit!”
I’ve never been part of that. I’ve never been a part of the teen rock and roll scene. When everybody was digging the Beatles, I liked the Stones and the Animals but I wasn’t a big hero worshipper. Eric Burdon was a good singer. He did a lot of stuff, and the Stones too, that we were listening to. I mean, my brother and I were into rhythm and blues because of my parents. So we had R&B songs and we had albums by blues guys like John Lee Hooker. Then when these English guys started doing this stuff we went, “Hey, that’s pretty cool.” Same as John Hammond, Jr. and Paul Butterfield. Here are these white guys doing this stone black stuff. Maybe it’ll be ok for us too, you know? And you felt like you weren’t alone anymore at that point.
It’s hard to believe a seashore town could ever get run down like this. Does seeing the state of Asbury Park today upset you?
Yeah, sure it upsets me. It’s upset me for years since 1971-1972. I mean, when we were playing the Pony the place started to deteriorate and I thought what the hell’s going on? They fought us tooth and nail. There was a lot of city councilmen that didn’t want any rock and roll in Asbury Park. And I thought, we’re the only thing on a Friday night that’s open and people are here. It’s insane. I mean, it’s like they fought it off. And, of course, the theory was and I subscribe to it was that a lot of people bought up property cheap hoping that gambling would come in and they could cash in. So they really wanted to drive the city down as far as it could go so they can plead poverty and say we have to have casinos to save the city. Fortunately, they didn’t get it. I hope they all lost a ton of money too.
Yeah, it bugs me. This used to be a great place. This is my childhood here. Ever since I was a kid I was coming to Asbury Park to get in trouble and play pinball and ride the rides, get people to buy us beer when we were 16. The Pony used to be Mrs. Jay’s and my friend Buzzy, who was a nut, was fifteen years older than all of us. Buzzy Lubinsky, his father was Herman Lubinsky from Savoy Records. He was completely insane. And all of us young 14 and 15 year olds would hang around with him because he had music and he had a car and he would take us into all these places. He would say take this speaker and pretend like you’re bringing in equipment. So there we were, we’d be hanging in these bars.
What do you see as the connection between Asbury Park and rock and roll music?
Well my perspective of it is that I’ve played so many cities like this with 30-50,000 people and I see the people going to the clubs and they’d be a thousand posters of all these different bands. They didn’t have Bruce and Bruce broke it wide open. That’s really what happened. If Bruce had not come... if the first two albums had been it and he sold 20-30,000 copies and settled into whatever life and touring and we made an album people wouldn’t be coming here. But the fact is it’s Bruce Springsteen and you get kind of attached to that.
I think the focal point is really that Bruce became this monster star. I mean the record company just went full bore to promote him and he was good enough to deliver. The thing is you can put that kind of promotion in front of somebody and then put them on stage but if they don’t deliver they could be big stars for a couple of years and then be gone. And Bruce is just one of those guys that just will not be denied. So there it is.
I was very proud of Bruce because there was that little transition period when he was doing a lot of stuff in New York - and it was like, “Oh he’s going to be the East Coast kind of New York/New Jersey.” And they were trying to edge him into that. I think he just put his foot down and said no. Greetings from Asbury Park... And, of course, he’s like James Joyce in that this is where his material is.
I think that we all, and Jon (Bon Jovi) is really adamant about that, and I feel that way too - it always used to piss me off to watch Johnny Carson or something and hear the jokes about Jersey. And, of course, in the early bands before Bruce recorded and all that stuff, Sonny and I tried to get booked in New York in some places like Cafe Wha? Forget it. “Where are you from? Jersey?” And it was like that for years. So when we finally got a chance to shove it in their faces we really wanted to shove it in their faces. After all those years of being the butt of the joke it was nice to be able to say, “Oh yeah, and by the way, I’m from New Jersey.”
Do you think Asbury Park will ever come back?
Yeah, I think it will. I think in the next ten years you’ll see a big change. I hope that’s what happens. It seems like they’ve got a good plan. I mean, I know a lot of people say gee it won’t be their honky-tonk town. Nothing stays like that forever.
Anything is better than this and what happens is... I had a film they gave me from the thirties about this area and north of Asbury Park and it was all residential, real nice. And this was very gentile down here. It descended into honky-tonk in the 50s and 60s. So they’ll start as gentile again and in another 20-30 years it’ll be honky-tonk again.