Imagine an alternate universe, in which Southside Johnny is a cabaret act, and not the leader of a large, horn-fueled rock/R&B band. That alternate universe existed, briefly, at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum in Morris Township, June 27, when Southside performed a rare duo show with Jukes pianist Jeff Kazee.
The show, which was presented in conjunction with the opening of “Bob Gruen: Rock Seen,” a marvelous new exhibition of rock photos by Gruen at the museum, was in a stripped-down — you might say “unplugged” — format that allowed every note and every nuance to be heard clearly. The audience remained quiet and attentive throughout the entire show; for maybe the first time at a Southside Johnny concert, I didn’t get any beer spilled on me.
Southside (who also played harmonica) and Kazee (who added frequent backing vocals and occasional lead vocals) performed Jukes material such as “I Don’t Want to Go Home,” “Hearts of Stone,” “Love on the Wrong Side of Town” and “Trapped Again,” as well as covers like Buck Owens’ “Together Again” and Mink DeVille’s “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl.” As a tribute to the late Dr. John, who had a huge influence on Kazee’s piano playing, he and Southside performed Dr. John’s “Such a Night” and New Orleans standards “Tipitina” and “Iko Iko.”
It was a wonderful way to hear Southside and Kazee, and I hope they do it again.
And as a nice bonus for me — and, I hope, for those in attendance — I got to conduct a short onstage interview with Southside to kick off the evening.
I started by congratulating him for being selected for induction into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, and asked if he was working on his speech already.
“No, I’m trying to ignore it,” he said, with some of his usual sarcasm. “Actually, this very good friend of mine said, ‘Just remember, you’ll wake up tomorrow, and it will all be over.’ ”
He said he’s “not a big hall of fame person. It seems … if you’re in the same hall of fame as Thomas Edison, something’s definitely wrong. … It’s like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They’re all in a hall of fame with Madonna, and the Mamas and the Papas. Now, the Mamas and the Papas are fine, but that’s not rock ‘n’ roll, you know.
“So anyway, just, to me, the whole thing … it always seems like someone else’s idea, instead of the artists themselves. But I’m very honored and flattered, and it’s wonderful. Everybody I asked, everybody that knew about it said, ‘You’ve got to do it.’ My wife said she’d hit me if I didn’t do it. Jon Bon Jovi called me up and threatened me, too.”
I mentioned some of his upcoming appearances, including one at the Rock, Ribs and Ridges at the Sussex County Fairgrounds in Augusta, June 30, and his show at the Stone Pony Summer Stage in Asbury Park on July 6, where E Street Band bassist Garry Tallent will be one of the opening acts. Southside and Tallent have known each other since they were both students at Neptune High School, in the ’60s.
“I grew up in Ocean Grove, and Neptune High School was built the last year my brother was in high school in Ocean Grove, in this crappy old building,” he said. “But anyway, they built a new thing, so I got to go there all four years. And I think the second year or first year, there was this guy walking down the hall, and he’s got two-toned shoes on, pink and black. He’s got this checked shirt on with the wide lapels, and these tight jeans. And I go, ‘Who the hell is that?’ And it was Garry Tallent. He had just moved up, I think from Tupelo or Memphis. His parents moved around a lot. It broke my heart later to find out he was born in Detroit. … But we became very good friends, because we liked all of the same kind of music: Rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, blues. You know, that kind of thing.”
While there is no Southside Johnny photo in the “Rock Seen” exhibition, Gruen has photographed him. A publicity photo of Southside and his rootsy side group, The Poor Fools, is to the right.
Johnny said that that shoot was not the first time they met.
“I think I met him at CBGB: I went to see The Ramones, and he was taking pictures, but I don’t remember (for sure),” Southside said. “I met him just in passing, you know.
“But we grew up, all of us — Steven (Van Zandt), Bruce (Springsteen), Garry, all the rest of us — looking at these pictures, in Rolling Stone and all the other magazines … Crawdaddy … of these guys, who were the coolest people on the planet. Keith Richards — beyond cool. And none of us could ever say, ‘Ooh, I’m going to look like that someday.’ ”
But when Gruen took a candid picture of Richards, Southside said, “he looks like us. Bad skin, scruffy, slouchy … those pictures really gave us just a little bit more hope in our dreams. They just showed people backstage, or onstage … even though they were icons, they looked human. I know that made me feel a lot better. ‘Cause every time I saw Elvis Presley, I went, ‘There’s no chance.’ ”
Gruen, he continued, “is a great hang. And that’s why all of those people … John Lennon, and Ike & Tina Turner, and all the rest of these people … The Clash … They liked having him around, because he’s a good guy to hang around with. And so he got some really good photos, and he knew how to edit and pick out the best ones.”
Kazee has been a member of the Asbury Jukes since 1998. All the current Jukes, in fact, have long tenures.
There have been times in the band’s history, of course, when the lineup has been more volatile.
Southside said that “when you have 12 guys, with crew and all the rest of that, who all are snipers — who are all sarcastic, and all funny — and you’re not part of that … if you can’t deal with that, and then go onstage and give everything you’ve got, you’re not a Juke. So a lot of people join the band and I say, ‘Well, he plays pretty good, let’s see how he does.’ And you get like two weeks into the tour, and you realize, ‘He’s out.’ But these guys I got now, they all get along well, and they’re all funny, and interesting, and they all give it up onstage, and they’re all great players. So I hope it stays stable for a little bit longer.”
Kazee has also become Southside’s right-hand man in the band — the Jukes’ musical director as as well as Southside’s songwriting partner, and an occasional lead vocalist at the band’s concerts.
Southside’s past right-hand men have all been guitarists, not keyboardists.
“It’s changed things a lot,” Southside said. “Bobby Bandiera and Steven (Van Zandt) and Billy Rush are all guitar players, and it brings out a different aspect of a song. You may have a lyric, you may have an idea of how a song’s gonna go, but once the guitar hits, it turns it into a little bit more … I don’t want to say rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s not as lush an instrument. And once you hear the piano, you realize you could take it into a lot of other levels, a lot of other spaces. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not. But for Jeff and I, it’s worked out very well.”
He said he and Kazee are working on songs for a new album, though “we’re kind of bogged down, but we’re gonna work through it. We have a new Jukes album in mind. We’ve got some songs started, we’ve got some songs finished. But sometimes the inspiration isn’t there, and I hate to force it, because I know something good is going to come, eventually.”
After the interview and before the performance, Southside took some questions from audience members, including one about the possibility of doing a duets album (he said he’d like to, and that he’d particularly love to do a song with Bonnie Raitt) and another about why he stopped performing annually, during the summer, at Martell’s Tiki Bar in Point Pleasant Beach (“because I never got a raise in 15 years!” Southside said).
Another question had to do with if there was a “moment,” early on, when Southside knew that music was “his thing.”
“Not until later,” he said. “I was hanging out at the Upstage Club. I was singing in bands, just piecemeal. I wasn’t paid. Of course, I had met Garry before. But I met Steven and Bruce and a bunch of other people … and they all were serious about it. But I didn’t think I had the talent to do it. These guys all played instruments, and I played the harmonica, which … I read a classical dictionary once, and it said, ‘Harmonica — semi-legitimate instrument.’
“But eventually, I realized I loved doing it more than I liked anything else. It was better than sex. It was better than anything. It took me out of myself for however long I was onstage, and I really felt like I had accomplished something. And what career did I have in mind? English teacher? Not to knock the English teachers here, but for me … I never felt that it moved me as much as singing to an audience, and getting a response. It’s like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’ And if you talked to those other guys, they’d say the same thing. It’s still a miracle to us.”
Another audience member asked if he’s ever had a New Year’s Eve off.
He said in 1982, he was planning to take the night off and just stay home with his wife. But then, he said, “I got a phone call a week before. Steve Van Zandt. ‘I’m getting married on New Year’s Eve in New York at the Puck Building.’ … So we still had to go into the city. It was great. Little Richard did the wedding ceremony, and Percy Sledge sang a song. And Little Milton Campbell was playing guitar. It was a great night. But that’s the only New Year’s I’ve had off since I was, like, 18 years old.”
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