Southside Johnny interview: ‘Live From E Street,’ Billie Holiday, ‘Soulfire,’ Gregg Allman and more

Southside Johnny and his Asbury Jukes will perform at the Stone Pony Summer Stage in Asbury Park, July 1.

“This band is the best band I’ve had,” says Southside Johnny of his current Asbury Jukes. The group (keyboardist Jeff Kazee, guitarist Glenn Alexander, bassist John Conte, drummer tom Seguso, trumpeter Chris Anderson, saxophonist John Isley and trombonist Neal Pawley) will back him at his annual Fourth of July Week show at the Stone Pony Summer Stage in Asbury Park, July 1.

As usual, Southside, 68, had a lot of other things to say, too, about his recent Live From E Street vinyl EP (featuring covers of Bruce Springsteen songs, recorded at the Stone Pony); his upcoming Billie Holiday tribute album; Steven Van Zandt’s recent Soulfire album (which includes some Van Zandt-written songs originally recorded by the Jukes); the late Gregg Allman; and even the state of the world.

We started off with some small talk about politics and other things before getting into the interview.

Q: Is it hard to concentrate when such momentous things are going on in the world? Is that kind of a distraction?

A: What happens with me is I get on the computer in the morning, because I have emails to answer and things like that to do. But then I’ll turn to the news and all of a sudden I’m wrapped up in people’s responses to things. And you have to take a break sometimes, because it will scare the bejesus out of you. Just the stupid things that people say, all over the planet. And you just go, “What’s going on?” It seems like we’ve descended into some sort of strange madness, where everyone is 6 years old.

I mean, when you think of the gravitas … I grew up with Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson and even Nixon and all the rest … these were serious people. And now, you’ve got Theresa May in England, you’ve got Trump, and Putin. It doesn’t seem like there’s an adult in the room.

Q: And this is a rock ‘n’ roll artist saying that.

A: And not only that: The lead singer, who’s not supposed to know anything.

The cover of the ‘Live From E Street’ EP.

Q: Anyway, with the Live From E Street EP that you put out … are there any plans to put that out on CD, or an expanded version?

A:  My problem with a lot of that stuff is that it’s kind of in the past now. What is it, two years old, or something like that? A year and a half. Or whenever we did it. That was a live-at-the-Stone Pony thing and it was just something to break up the winter for people. We always try to do something different, so we did Bruce, and the band was great. I wasn’t totally pleased with everything because he writes so many damn lyrics … whatever happened to “Baby, baby, baby,” you know! (laughs) But anyway, people have been on me about that, but I’m trying to write the next Jukes album, and we’ve got plans for other things, too. I really don’t want to go back and go over things. If somebody wants to take that burden, I would be glad to give it to them. But I don’t think anybody is. (laughs)

Q: Of course, it came out on vinyl. Are you a vinyl purist?

A: I am not a purist by any stretch of the imagination. I listen to stuff on CD, and over the Internet, and Sirius radio and the rest. But I do collect vinyl, and I have since the ’60s. I just bought a couple of Muddy Waters, very early singles. You know, things to fill up the collection. I’m trying to find stuff to buy. … I went out yesterday with my friend Phil the Kingpin, and we looked at a bunch of records, but there was nothing there for us. But you still go on the hunt, ’cause it’s fun. It gets you out of the house. You go to flea markets and yard sales.

I believe vinyl sounds better. People will tell you that that’s a myth. But so what? It’s like a placebo. If you’re in pain and they give you a pill that’s just a sugar pill, and you stop being in pain, who cares why it works?

Q: And of course some people find the whole vinyl listening experience to be comforting and nostalgic.

A: It’s the process, too. It’s a more intimate thing. Sitting in a chair and listening to an album … you listen to it and have to turn it over.

I find a lot of people listen to music while they’re driving or doing other things. My parents didn’t do that. When they came home from work, they put on music and they listened to music. And I always thought that’s what music was for: It was “the moment,” instead of part of all these other moments.

Q: The Billie Holiday album … is there a firm release date for that yet?

A: No. But we are at the last stages of it. A lot of work is being done. It’s going to be mastered soon. We’ve done all the sequences … it’s such a complicated thing these days. I’ve got to make vinyl. I’ve got to make a CD. They want some TV mixes. Sirius wants one song. So you’ve got to do all these different things instead of just going, “Hey, we made a record.” But all those processes, John Isley — my saxophone player and the guy who’s producing this record, and whose idea it is — he’s handling all that stuff. I just have to learn the lyrics and the melodies.

Southside Johnny was among the performers at a Billie Holiday tribute concert at the Apollo Theatre in New York, May 16.

Q: I wasn’t able to go to the Apollo show (a multi-artist tribute to Billie Holiday at the Apollo Theater in New York, May 16), but how did that go?

A: That was fantastic. What a great experience. I had been to the Apollo before to see things, and I knew how small it was. But we got onstage with just an upright bass, drums, a guitar and a saxophone, and the people loved it, and it was just a thrill to be on the stage. It just was so fulfilling to play that kind of light, quiet music — very intense, very soulful. William Bell was there, and so many different people. We all really loved it. So, it was a great moment for me. One of the big moments of my career, to tell you the truth.

Q: What songs did you do?

A: “Crazy He Calls Me,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “Billie’s Blues.”

Q: And those are all on the album, I assume?

A: Yes, they’re all on the album. And Billie Holiday is someone I’ve known since I was a baby, ’cause my parents played the records, and her voice was always very soothing to me, and I guess I got caught up in the honesty of her singing. There are certain people that reach you even when you don’t understand the words, and she was one of those people for me.

Q: Gregg Allman recently died, of course, and I know you’ve sat in with the Allman Brothers Band on occasion. Were you a friend of his?

A: Well, we met them back in the ’60s, believe it or not, when they came (to the Sunshine In in Asbury Park) to play, and we had Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom — Bruce’s band — and we opened up for them. They were great. They were southern boys, and they partied. (laughs) But I used to run into Gregg every so often when we’d do charity things, and of course when he played the Beacon (Theatre in New York). We did a couple of shows with them … they have their own little festival down in, I guess, Georgia. You know, I’d just run into him occasionally. I didn’t know him real well, but he knew who I was, and he always wanted to play me his latest tape. “Listen to this, Southside! Listen to this!” And I’d sit there and we’d listen to it, and he was really proud of all the things he did.

I really liked him. I never partied with him or anything like that. He was just a guy backstage who was a fellow musician.

Q: Was the Allman Brothers Band (musically) influential at all, on you?

A: I guess they were, in a way. Bruce and Steven both loved them, as far as guitar playing and the soulful blues/rock ‘n’ roll approach. I think everybody got a lot from that: the idea that you can have a great singer and develop Allman Brothers songs, but still make it sound like rock ‘n’ roll. They had their own way of doing that. They were like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band or the Stones. They opened the door to understanding other types of music — R&B and blues — and making it your own. It just was one of those beacons, where you could really see that there’s a way to do things, and make it your own, and still encompass all the music that you love.

Q: Speaking of which, the opening band at the Stone Pony will be The Weight, which includes people who have been in The Band or worked with Band members. Was that something that other people put together, or did you want them there? How did that come about?

A: I don’t usually have anything to do with the opening act unless I really want to promote somebody. But when I heard that, I said, “Yeah, that’s a great idea.” And it’s entirely possible that things might happen — jamming things. But I don’t know those people. Jeff Kazee, my keyboard player, played with Levon (Helm) up the Ramble, so he probably knows half of those people. I may know some of ’em too.

COURTESY SSJ

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes at the Stone Pony Summer Stage in July 2016.

Q: The current version of The Jukes is very stable. What is it about this version of the group that makes it cohere so well?

A: There’s stable and there’s stable. We are very stable as a band. Mentally, I’m not sure! But I just think we all enjoy playing together. This band is the best band I’ve had, and I just get the vibe that everybody is enjoying playing off of each other. There’s no little cliques or anything like that. And that’s great. It’s a lot of work, so everybody’s just kind of hunkered down, and ready to do that work.

I’m still willing to work. I’d like to slow down at some point, but right now, I’m ready to go. I made a deal with myself a million years ago that I would keep playing as long as it was still fun and I still thought I could do it well. You may still want to do it but if you’re not any good at it anymore, you’ve got to hang it up. Or, you may still be really good at it but you’re not enjoying it, and that’s probably time to quit, too. But I’m not at any one of those places yet. Everything is just going along the way I want it to, and I intend to continue doing it until things change.

Q: What do you think about Steven’s album (Soulfire), and is it gratifying to see him resurrecting some of those songs?

A: Yeah, I think so. I love Men Without Women and this is a good followup to it. The first song, “Soulfire,” is great. I love that song, and I’m actually thinking of learning it.

I’m happy he did those songs. They’re his songs. He wrote them for a specific time, and it just sounds terrific to me. And also, I can listen to those songs and not hear me singing! So I can enjoy those songs. I can’t do it if I’m singing, because I’ll go, “Ooh, bad note.” I’ll hear all the flaws.

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes perform at the Stone Pony Summer Stage in Asbury Park, July 1, with The Weight opening. Doors open at 5 p.m. Saints in the City will perform inside the Pony at 5:30 p.m., the Nick Clemons Band will perform inside the Pony between the Weight and Jukes set, and the Eddie Testa Band will perform at late show inside the Pony, after the Jukes, at 11 p.m. Visit stoneponyonline.com.

Here are videos of Southside singing “Billie’s Blues” at the Apollo Theater, May 16; and performing with Steven Van Zandt and the Disciples of Soul in Amsterdam, June 25.

 

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