Southside Johnny interview: New Year’s Eve, ‘medicine,’ Chuck Berry and more

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Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes (from left, Glenn Alexander, John Isley, Jeff Kazee, John Conte, Southside Johnny (seated), Neal Pawley, Tom Seguso and Chris Anderson).

Proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test will be required, and attendees will be asked to wear masks throughout the show. But after having to skip their traditional New Year’s Eve concert at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank last year, because of the pandemic, Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes will be back there, this year, on New Year’s Eve.

I interviewed Southside last week, in advance of the show. And as you can see below, I asked members of the Facebook Southside Johnny fan group, Jukebox, to suggest questions. I got about 100 responses and asked about 10 of them. Some I asked verbatim; others I put into my own words. But thanks to everyone who made suggestions. (I did not the include the names of the people when asking the questions, but have included them in brackets — that is, these things: [ ] — below.)

The show takes place at 9 p.m., with the Lakehouse Music Academy bands Mannequin Arm and Good Morning Beautiful opening. For tickets, visit The Jukes performance, at 10 p.m., will be broadcast live on SiriusXM satellite radio‘s E Street Radio channel (channel 20).

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Here is the conversation.

Q: It’s funny: We’ve talked several times since the pandemic began, and I feel we’re at the same place we were at the beginning. People keep thinking things are going to get better, and then there’s another surge and people start canceling shows and stuff. A number of shows in the last couple of weeks have been postponed, or the opening act has dropped out because someone in the band got sick, or someone in the crew got sick or exposed. So, it’s a mess again.

A: Yeah, it’s weird. I mean, I really wanted to travel in this part of the (pandemic), because things opened up. But now Europe is shutting down again. I was supposed to go to Africa: That shut down.

We’re still out working. I mean, so far, we haven’t canceled any shows. But you can tell that people are a little trepidatious. Fortunately for us, we’ve got some loyal fans who will come and risk the plague to see us (laughs). And everybody’s gotten their shots by this time, I would think. And there are certain places — like in Connecticut, and some in Massachusetts, some in New Jersey — where the audience still wears masks and it doesn’t seem to bother them that much.

Q: Once you have your mask on and you’re there, you forget about it, you know.

A: Yeah. You adapt. That’s all you can say. And I’m fortunate that we’re back and playing. It was a little awkward at first. I didn’t quite know how to … I forgot how to do it, sort of. Until the music started. Then I just put it into automatic pilot, kind of. But there were some anxious moments before the show: “I don’t know if I’m gonna remember the words.” There’s a certain momentum you get when you work all the time, and that was broken for 14 months. And that’s not an easy thing, to get back on the bike.

Q: So beyond the New Year’s Eve show that’s coming up, what are your plans for next year?

A: Well, we have a lot of shows booked. But I don’t have anything in January, and I was hoping to either go to Costa Rica or Ecuador … I guess I can, but the worry is getting back in. You have to take tests and all. I’m sure I could do it. It’s just, it takes a lot of the motivation out of traveling because you are worried about these other things. But I’ll do something. If not, I’ll go look for records in Texas and Louisiana or something like that.

Q: You go to record stores, or record conventions?

A: That, but also junk stores and flea markets, yard sales, everywhere. It’s the thrill of the hunt. It’s great when you find something, but it’s more just getting out and talking to people and looking through their garbage (laughs).

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Q: Will you do a Stone Pony show, like you usually do in February?

A: Yeah, mid-February, and I’m going to have to think of a theme for it. That’s usually just to break up the winter for the fans.

Q: So I guess any touring after that is still up in the air?

A: Yeah. We have dates. I mean, we still have a lot of make-up dates all around that we couldn’t do once we got shut down in March, I think it was, of whatever year that was … 15 years ago, it seems like. But we really want to go to Europe and play. We haven’t played in England or France or Amsterdam in quite a few years now. And, you know, that’s one of the perks of being in the band. You get to travel.

Q: So, maybe in the spring or summer, or maybe not, depending on how things go?

A: Yeah, well, that’s the thing. We can make all the plans in the world. But if countries shut down, if new variants come out, if people don’t want to go out … there’s nothing we could do about it.

Q: Any recording projects you’re working?

A: Yeah, I’ve got songs. Jeff (Kazee) and I have songs. But I can’t seem to get off the mark, because everything seems so up in the air, and the truth is that I like sitting in my chair and reading all day (laughs). You get lazy. I’ve got to bring myself out of it, though.


Q: Now, I’ve done something a little unusual … there’s a Southside Johnny Facebook group called Jukebox. And I went there and said that I was interviewing you and if anyone had any questions, I would ask them. I got about 100 replies, so I won’t ask them all, but I would like to ask some of them, if that’s okay.

A: Sure. I mean, is anybody asking for the money I owe them or anything like that?

Q: Nothing like that. There were some very specific ones, though. But anyway, here’s one [asked by Sean Guess]: Would you ever do a Christmas album?

A: We’ve bruited that about a couple of times. Yes, I’ve thought about that kind of thing. I even wrote a Christmas song, believe it or not: “Mr. Bah Humbug.” I wrote that many years ago. But I don’t know. It seems like there’s such a surfeit of Christmas songs. And now, when I go out shopping, I always hear new ones. Especially the country artists: Every one of them seems to have put out a Christmas album. So I don’t know. Is it really necessary for me to make another album? Do people really want to hear even more Christmas songs? It seems to me like there’s enough Christmas out there already. But you never know.

Q: Maybe you can do the first anti-Christmas album.

A: Believe me, I’ve thought of that, too (laughs), but then the band kind of said, “No, even through you’re Scrooge, we’re not.”

Q: [Albert Abatemarco Jr.] Did Chuck Berry really slap the harp out of your hand before a show?

A: Yes.

Q: Where was that?

A: I think it was in Richmond or someplace like that. Bruce (Springsteen) was very popular. I guess this was maybe after the first album (Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.), or right before the first album. He had the band, and they were going to open up for Chuck Berry, and then it was going to be Jerry Lee Lewis. So Garry (Tallent) said, “You gotta come down and see this. I mean, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis.”

So Bruce said, “Come on up onstage and play some harp.” So I started playing harp, and I was way off the microphone. And (Berry) came over and slapped the harp, and then he picked it up and said, “If you wanna play, play!” And he drags the microphone stand right up in the front of the stage and says, “Play!” And so I started playing. And he turned to Clarence (Clemons) and said, “Well, I guess he’s been hanging out on the wrong side of the tracks,” which I took to be a compliment. But Chuck Berry was not the nicest of persons. He was not the most gentle of souls.

Q: [Mike McFadden] Why don’t you play “All I Needed Was You” more often?

A: Because I don’t think of it. If they want to hear it, I’ll play it. You know, with our shows, if they call out the song, we’ll play it, if they really want to hear it. It’s not that I don’t like the song. It’s just that I’ve got over 200 songs and I’ve got to pick the 20 that we’re going to do. So it depends on what happens during the night. We don’t really have a complete setlist. We just have suggestions (laughs). It’s like the traffic rules in New York City. They’re not really rules. They’re just suggestions.



Q: Well, I guess you can consider that one requested for the next show.

A: Okay (laughs).

Q: [Eric Schirch, Chrissylee Jersey] Any plans for more (acoustic side project) Poor Fools?

A: No. I’d love to do it but it’s got to be on the back burner. The Jukes come first. So right now, no. But at some point, I’d love to do it again. I really enjoyed it.

Q: [Frank Capaci, Tom Bykow, Doreen Pietropaolo] What’s in the red cups onstage, specifically the one with the black tape on it?

A: (laughs) Medicine!

Q: On that one, some people had their own ideas of what it was.

A: What did they say?

Q: I think one said watered-down Jack Daniels.

A: Well, you know, it could be.

Q: I think someone said she tasted it and that’s what it was.

[Tom Rosendale] Is there any artist you would really like to collaborate with in the future?

A: Yeah, sure. Bonnie Raitt. Jesus, there are a whole lot of them. I’d love to play with Ry Cooder, but I don’t know if I’m up to that level of genius. But I’d like to hum along with it, at least. There are so many musicians that I admire and you listen to them and think it would be great to play with them. Like Willie Nelson. I really love the way he sings. He doesn’t sing anything like I do and I learn a lot from him.

But Bonnie Raitt, I would love to sing a duet with. I’d really like to do “Hearts of Stone” with her. But I’ve never asked her about it. That shows you how ambitious I am.

The cover of the Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes album, “Missing Pieces.”

Q: [John Santamaria] Will there be any more archive releases like Missing Pieces?

A: I don’t know. Hood (Andrew Kafafian), my 30-some-year roadie, died (in 2020), and he was usually the archivist. We have a storage locker full of stuff that he had collected over the years, all sorts of memorabilia, awards and all the stuff they give that you’re like, “Where am I going to put it?” So we’ll see if there’s anything there. I think most of the stuff has been released. But I don’t know. I’ve made a lot of recordings over the years that haven’t been released because you make demos, or you try different songs and different configurations, but I don’t know if there’s any much more left. I’ll have to find out.

Q: Just a few more of these. [Julie Chaz] If you hadn’t been a musician, what would have been your next career choice?

A: (laughs) I don’t know. It didn’t choose music so much as it chose me. I got asked to join a band and sing, and play harmonica, and that’s ’67 … that’s 55 years ago. So it was easier to do that than actually learn how to do anything else. Because I already knew the lyrics to the songs, and singing is not … you know, I take it seriously, and I’ve worked at it, but it wasn’t as though I had to pass some kind of test, or go to school to learn how to sing and play harmonica.

I really had no idea. I thought maybe I’d be a writer. But as anybody who writes knows, that’s not really a career. You really have to work at it and you’re lucky if you get paid anything for it.

Q: A lot of times being a writer means being a professor who writes on the side.

A: Yeah. And I don’t want to teach. I never thought about being a teacher. So I would be the struggling artist in the garret with no food and no heat. And that’s really not much of a career.

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The cover of Steven Van Zandt’s memoir, “Unrequited Infatuations.”

Q: Have you read Steven’s book (Steven Van Zandt’s “Unrequited Infatuations”)? And [Stephen Orel] if so, is it accurate in the parts that he wrote about you?

A: I have not read it all. I’ve had people read parts of it to me and I did see the passage where he says I’m manic depressive, which I am not. But if Steven says I’m manic depressive, that’s good enough for me. But no … he thinks I’m crazy. And I won’t say that’s not true. But I’m crazy in a way that works for me.

Q: Maybe you have certain manic depressive tendencies but you’re not a full-blown manic depressive?

A: No, I’m not. I haven’t been institutionalized yet. So I guess I’m doing okay.

Q: [Pete Carey] Did you ever think about writing your own memoirs?

A: Yeah, people ask me about that, but my memory is not good. A lot of the things that I remember having happened, probably people remember differently. Such is the nature of memory.

A lot of things pass me by because I’m trying to concentrate on what I’m doing and I’m not even aware of half of the things that go on in the audience or onstage. I’ve got my eyes closed and I’m singing, and that’s the only thing I’m really concentrating on. Certainly there are things that happen offstage — on the bus and so on, in the studio — but I really don’t remember that, that accurately. It all seems like some strange, surreal French movie from 1952.

I’m not sure what’s real and what isn’t, is what I’m trying to say. I mean, there are things I remember that people go, “That never happened.” The other day, we were somewhere, and this guy met up with us and he was going to be the driver to take us to some festival or whatever. And he said, “Oh, remember the time you broke your leg onstage?” And I would remember that. I mean, maybe not remember everything. But I said, “What are you talking about?” Well, one of the big promoters in Cleveland tells the story about when I was onstage and I broke my leg and had to be carried off in a stretcher. Well, that never happened.

But that’s what I mean. It’s all kind of … What’s real? What’s not real? What’s the dream you had that seems real? What happened that you forgot that people go, “I remember that so vividly.” It’s just too much for me.

Q: I think a lot of these rock books are like that: half true. And the writers acknowledge that their memory is hazy and this is just one version of the truth.

A: The thing to remember, too, is that we were all in rock bands in the ’60s. So our memories aren’t that good, anyway, from all of the indulgences that we had back then.

The cover of Barbara Tuchman’s book, “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.”

Q: This is the last of these questions. You mentioned before that you read a lot. [Ann Williams Behrer] Are there any books that you’ve read recently, that stand out for you?

A: Jesus, so many of them. I can’t remember. I’m reading Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror,” about the relationship between France and England in the 14th Century. That’s good. It’s got a lot of details. There’s one called “The Longest Line on the Map” (by Eric Rutkow), which is about building the trans-American railroad line from Canada all the way through South America, which is good. It’s fascinating to me but I don’t think a lot of people would really enjoy it. And some fiction: James Lee Burke and all those people.

Every time someone asks me that, my mind goes completely blank. I’ve got the Kindle and I’ve got about 40 books on it, which is great. I can take that on the road and I’ve got whatever I want to read. But it all becomes a blur.

Q: So you read a lot of historical stuff?

A: Yeah, a lot of fiction, a lot of historical stuff. Some poetry, some biographies. Just about everything, really. I just love to read, I always have. It stops me from deep diving into the depths of my own mind, which is not a place anybody wants to go (laughs).

Q: So, regarding the New Year’s Eve show … is anything unusual planned?

A: Well, I think we’re just going to try to do the best Jukes show that we can do. I don’t think we have any special plans. We have relearned some of the older songs and we’re going to do some of those, and we’ve got some newer covers of things that we’ve been trying out. But you know, whatever happens on the night, is what happens. I don’t try to program these things. I like to see what happens in the spontaneity of a rock ‘n’ roll show.

But I guarantee they’ll have fun! I’ve got to promote now. Everybody will have a great time, I guarantee ya!



Q: Well, I think people know that already.

A: I know, but I’ve got to say those things so I can say I promoted the show (laughs).

Q: [At this point he asks about how I’m doing with this website, which I started independently in 2014, and we talk a bit about the ups and downs of that.]

A: I know that when I left all the record companies and said, “Screw it, I’m not going to do that anymore,” it was scary. I had to finance us on the road, and I had to finance the records. I didn’t have that much money yet. But it all worked out. It’s nice to be your own boss. You have to work hard. But at least you don’t have people breathing down your neck about stuff you don’t care about.

As long as you’re doing it and enjoying it … even when it’s not enjoyable, you know you can get through the tough stuff. It’s no fun anymore riding five hours in a car, to go to a gig. But you know you’re going to have those two hours onstage. And for you, you’re going to get some response to what you’re writing and you’re going to actually make it the way you want to be. So it’s a nice position to be in, I think.


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