Southside Johnny has performed in concert so many times, over the decades, that he doesn’t remember details of many shows. But the Asbury Jukes’ May 2, 1977, concert at the Agora Ballroom & Theater in Cleveland, which will be released in CD form on June 3 (with a vinyl release following in November), stands out for him.
Steven Van Zandt, who had helped the Jukes develop their sound and record their first two studio albums, was a full-time member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band in ’77, but joined the Jukes for the entire show, and Ronnie Spector made a guest appearance, singing her new single of the time, Billy Joel’s “Say Goodbye to Hollywood.”
I recently talked to Southside about the CD, which is titled Live in Cleveland ’77; the band’s July 2 show at The Stone Pony Summer Stage in Asbury Park (which will continue the Jukes’ annual tradition of celebratory Fourth of July Week concerts in Asbury Park, and feature an opening set by Jake Clemons); and more.
Q: I was wondering if you remember a lot about that 1977 show?
A: That is one I do remember. Steve Popovich from Epic Records, who signed us to our first contract and was a real music lover … his son is putting out (on the Cleveland International label) some of these shows from the Agora Theater in Cleveland, which was the first place we really played outside of the New Jersey/Philadelphia/New York area. It was an amazing show. I mean, we had gotten played on the radio there and we were popular. We didn’t even know we were that popular, but it was sold out, and of course Ronnie Spector was there, so it was a really memorable evening. I remember just walking out onstage and people cheering, even though I had never seen these people before, and they had never seen us. But they were into it. It’s true that Cleveland is a real rock ‘n’ roll town.
Q: Was Ronnie Spector doing the whole tour or just this one show?
A: She was on tour with us for a few months. I don’t remember exactly how long. But because she sang on our first album (1976’s I Don’t Want to Go Home), Steven just said, “Well, let’s take her out on tour. People will love it.” And they did. And she was great. She rode on the bus with the rest of us and she was fun and just a delight to be around. And, of course, once she walked onstage, you know, I could have been a piece of chopped meat on the stage (laughs). But it was great, because I got to be a Ronette.
Q: You and Steven both got to be Ronettes, I guess.
A: Yes, and LaBamba (trombonist Richie Rosenberg) was the third Ronette, even though there were only two Ronettes (along with Spector).
Q: Did she do other songs on the tour, besides “Say Goodbye to Hollywood”?
A: Yeah, we did “Be My Baby,” and “You Mean So Much to Me,” which was the song she did on that first album. And a couple of other Spector Era things. I don’t remember exactly. But she had a good 20-, 25-minute segment at the shows. It was great. It elevated the excitement even more.
She was a tough act to follow once she left the stage. But we survived.
Q: Now Steven, of course, was in the E Street Band then, although they obviously weren’t touring at that time of this show.
A: Steve Popovich and Steven Van Zandt became fast friends, and when we were going to play at The Agora, I think Steve Popovich said, “You should come out, too.” And he did, just because Cleveland is an important town for us. We’ve played there just about every year, sometimes twice a year. And a couple of years, three times a year. It just is our home away from home, in a way. So I think Steven and Steve Popovich kind of concocted the whole thing. Of course, I wasn’t informed. I was just the singer.
Q: Was it unusual for him to do a full show with you at that point?
A: Yes. He had transitioned over to Bruce, and it was all cool. I was glad he went with Bruce. I think Bruce really needed somebody he could talk to, who understood, and didn’t want anything. You know, I was just happy to be on the road. I can handle myself onstage. So I was glad he went with Bruce. I think that was a really important moment in Bruce’s career.
Q: One thing I think is really cool about the new live album is that you and Steven seem to have a real Sam & Dave dynamic going on, on a few numbers, trading vocals like they did. And there are a couple of Sam & Dave covers on the album (“Broke Down Piece of Man,” “You Don’t Know Like I Know”).
A: Well, we went to see Sam & Dave. We went late at night to … I’m not going to remember the name of the club. But it was a notorious club where the owner shot the speaker cabinet of, I think it was Humble Pie, because he said they were too loud. So it was a real kind of … I don’t want to say mafia. But it was questionable club.
Q: This was in New Jersey?
A: Yes. Maybe the Satellite Lounge? And we went to see Sam & Dave, and they were just great, and Steve said, “We’ve got to do some of that stuff.” And of course, it was fine with me. And so we did have that kind of dynamic. But we wanted to do a lot of other things, too. At that time, Steven was getting into reggae music, which, of course, was something I didn’t know. But we wanted to do blues and rock ‘n’ roll and a lot of R&B, just kind of mix it all up and try to find our own way through.
But Sam & Dave were very important to us because they were just so electric onstage, even though they hated each other. And, you know, we skipped that part (laughs).
Q: I did a little research and found out that about 10 days after this Cleveland show, you had two shows scheduled for The Count Basie Theatre (in Red Bank), which was actually still called the Monmouth Arts Center. And you got sick.
Q: So they did a show, for two nights, with kind of the combined forces of the E Street Band and the Jukes, with Steven and Bruce sharing lead vocals.
Q: So I guess you were still feeling fine for the Cleveland show, and then got sick a little later?
A: Yes. I’m just sorry I missed the show. I guess I had the flu or something. I really don’t remember how sick I was, but I know if I missed the show, it must have been pretty damn bad. But it was great for those guys to step up. And of course, once again, I’m a chunk of chopped meat on the stage.
But it was a beautiful thing, and it kind of shows the dynamic of Asbury Park people. We weren’t in competition. We supported each other. It was just a beautiful upbringing: We were teenagers in the Upstage Club, and the Student Prince, and we got a chance to play and learn about each other and learn each other’s styles of music and it was a great support system. And it still is.
Q: The Stone Pony show you have coming up is being opened by (Clarence Clemons’ nephew) Jake Clemons. Do you know him going back a while, even before he was playing with the E Street Band?
A: No. I know him. We’ve met, we’ve talked. But I didn’t know him growing up. Clarence and I were good friends, but we were all on the road constantly back then. So I didn’t know him as a child. But he’s a good guy, and a good player, and he stepped into mighty big shoes. He’s doing a great job.
Q: Anything else you can tell me regarding the Pony show?
A: I’m just hoping to remember the lyrics! No, I don’t have anything special. We’re gonna have extra horns. But I have no idea what’s going to happen. That show is always a great time and it just kind of carries itself. So we’ll come up with a couple of things. Some new songs, or some old songs. But then you just kind of let what happens, happen, on a night like that. Anything could happen, and you have to be open to that.
Q: Sure. I know you’ve been working on a new album for a while. Is that getting any closer to completion?
A: No (laughs). After they canceled all the shows (in 2020), I said, “All right. This is a good time to write.” And we were writing. And then, just like everybody else, the old ennui kicked in, and it’s like, “I don’t really want to get up out of bed just yet.” And you just lose all momentum and all ambition. It was a terrible thing to realize, but there was a lot of wasted time. I was supposed to learn Spanish. I was going to do this, I was going to do that. But I didn’t do anything. And there’s a lot of people I’ve talked to who’ve gone through the same thing, you know. They have all the ambition in the world, but it just kind of faded with the lack of momentum in their own lives.
I mean, we’re going to try to make another (album). You know what, I think I might make an EP. You get hung up on the idea that you have to have 10 to 12 songs before you release anything. We have a number of songs. We could go in and record them. You’re not going to sell them on CD that much. Everybody’s going to download it. So why couldn’t you put out one or two songs at a time. Just like the old days: You put out a single and a B-side. I think I’m going to explore that.
Q: Do you miss that, in a way: When the world was more album-centric? Even though it’s a burden to come up with an album. It’s certainly the way that I grew up, learning about music, and I imagine it’s the way you did. I still think in terms of albums, in a lot of ways.
A: Well, I grew up with the 45: Like, the (Rolling) Stones will put out a great song and then there’ll be an interesting B-side. And you could buy these things cheaply and see what all these different bands were like. I like albums, but it is a burden: It could take years. Whereas if you get a great song and you really want to do it … do it, put it out, put it on your website.
For more on Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, visit SouthsideJohnny.com.
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