“It’s not self-indulgence to make music,” says Southside Johnny, who will soon bring his Asbury Jukes to the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank for their annual New Year’s Eve show. “It is a balm for other people. You have to remind yourself about that: That there are people who rely on you to take them out of their troubles.”
I talked Southside, 71, by phone in mid-December, and, as usual, had a lot of interesting things to say, about subjects such as his New Jersey Hall of Fame induction in October, his 2020 plans, the state of the world, and why “retirement,” for him, is a dirty word.
Q: I know it’s been a busy year for you …
A: We’ve been working, but not a whole lot. And I’ve got January off. So I’m going to go somewhere tropical, ’cause I hate this weather. I mean, it’s been gray for over a week now. A little sun wouldn’t be bad.
Q: So are you going to do your usual Stone Pony show in February?
A: Oh, no one’s talked to me about that yet. Yeah, I guess so. I mean, I haven’t heard anything. I’ve got to come up with some kind of idea. (Jan. 1, 2020 Update: Details are now available for this show, here)
Q: I know you’ve done love songs already (as a show theme), and Springsteen songs …
A: We did soul, we did obscure. Maybe we’ll do a polka thing.
Q: Polka. There you go! So, in general, what’s on the schedule for next year. Are you going to be doing a new album?
A: Well, I’m hoping. Jeff (Kazee) and I are supposed to be writing. It’s just slow going, because of all sorts of family things. And just, it’s kind of doldrums, I’m in the doldrums, so if I don’t get out of them, I don’t know how … I mean, we’ve got some songs written, and we have a couple of covers I think we’d like to do. Hopefully we’ll get it done this winter. It’s just, I need someone to kick me in the butt.
Q: Is it something where, Jeff could come up with some stuff, and kind of jumpstart it a little?
A: Well, when we sit down together at his house and start writing, it usually comes pretty well. I’ve got lyrics, I’ve got ideas. I’m sure he’s got the same. It’s just getting it done, you know. It’s like, “Oh God, I wanna lay in bed.” (laughs)
Q: Does it get harder over the years, or does it go up and down?
A: It’s up and down. It’s not harder over the years. Actually it’s been very easy with Jeff, easier than with most. It’s just getting the motivation to do it. Because we’ve worked a lot this year. It just gets to the point where I want to have some time off. But if you want to have a career, you have to keep moving along. I don’t have the energy that Bon Jovi and Bruce have. I don’t know: I guess I’m out of vitamin D or something.
Q: Looking back a couple of months … you were inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame. I know you weren’t really looking forward to it but I hope it wasn’t too painful for you. How was that experience for you?
A: It’s was actually very good. Everybody enjoyed the night. Jon (Bon Jovi, who inducted Southside) did a beautiful job. We met a bunch of people that I knew, but I also met a bunch of people that I didn’t know, and everything went very smoothly. I mean, I’m glad I did it. It is an honor, and it’s something where you’re thinking, “Wow, I really accomplished something in my life.” As you live, you don’t think about that. You just go along, trying to keep working and doing things. You don’t think about what you’ve done in the past so much. And it was really kind of a reminder that your life hasn’t been spent in vain — or idly, as my father probably worried about. “He’s never gonna do anything.” (laughs)
Q: I hope you don’t need that reminder at this point. But I guess it’s nice to have.
A: Well, as I said, you don’t think along those terms. I don’t think, “Look at all these magic things I’ve done.” You know, Ozymandias: “Look upon my works and tremble.” I just think, “What am I supposed to do this week?” and “What am I supposed to do next month?” and “What haven’t I done?” It’s just an ongoing life, that … you push yourself. I guess we’re all so suffused with guilt that we just feel like we have to keep doing more.
Q: Would you ever consider retirement: Just saying goodbye to it all.
A: You know, that’s one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me. Many years ago, I thought, “In three or four years, I could retire.” And once it got into my mind, it kind of became a stumbling block. I don’t want to retire. But I got the idea: I kind of had a down time, a depressed time, and I thought, “Screw it. I could retire any time I want.” And once that word gets in your brain, it just starts eating away. And it slows you down. You don’t need any motivation to make art other than, you’re an artist. But to continually work and go on tour and do all those things … you need to really want to do it. And one of the motivations is, you know, you need the money. I’m not rich: I’m not a millionaire or anything like that. But I could not work and still live, because I live a very inexpensive life. It’s just, I don’t want to.
Q: No time soon, at least.
A: Well, we’ve got a bunch of dates booked for 2020, and, you know, you want to keep your mind off what is going on in the world.
Q: I was just thinking: It’s a difficult time in the world for everyone to live through. There’s so much going on, and we’re so aware of it, all the time. Does that contribute, at all, to what you called the doldrums before?
A: No, I don’t think so. I think it happened before that. What it does remind you is that you have a job to do. And that’s for two hours onstage, giving people a chance to get rid of all that stuff, and enjoy life, and remind them that music is one of the things worth living for, and there are great things in life, and it’s not all worry and fear and that sort of thing. And that’s an important job that other people do for me: They make music or they write books, so that I can lose myself in what they do. So I have to do that, too. It’s not self-indulgence to make music. It is a balm for other people. You have to remind yourself about that: That there are people who rely on you to take them out of their troubles.
Q: Speaking of which … you have a New Year’s Eve show coming up, which is a perfect way to do that. Do you have anything special planned for this year, or do you just go and wing it every year?
A: Well, we try to do something special every year. But a lot of times we don’t. But we have some other songs we can do. We’ve been practicing a few different things. But mostly people just want us to play the songs they know, and have a good time, and kid around, and do those kinds of things. I mean, I’ve tried over the years to add stuff, and I can tell that they’re appreciative of the effort, but mostly they just want to hear the songs that they love. And why not give them that?
Q: I guess with any veteran artist, you have to strike a balance: You know there are certain die-hards out there who are going to want at least a few unusual songs — a couple of surprises — but then you’ve got to do your usual stuff for everyone. So it’s a balancing act.
A: Yeah, I went to see somebody not too long ago, and it’s an act that’s been around for longer than I have, actually, and …they played all the songs from a new record they have coming out … I mean, these guys have 15 hit records, and they played four or five of them. And I don’t think that’s fair. There’s plenty of time for new material, you know. But you have to give people what they want, or else you’re being self-indulgent, and you’ve already done that with making your new album. Certainly you want to play three or four of your best new songs. But the whole album? Unless you announce that’s what you’re going to do.
Q: You could always do side projects, too, like (acoustic side project) the Poor Fools. Do you think you’ll be getting back to that anytime soon?
A: You know, I’d love to do another Poor Fools record. It’s therapy for me. But I gotta do the Jukes (album) first. So if that happens … I have some things for the Fools, too.
I really enjoy that. It’s also the camaraderie of having the U-Haul trailer, and everybody brings in their own amps, and we set up our own equipment, just like the old days, when we were just starting out. It brings you back to the idea of, you are going to make all the effort to make music. You don’t have all this cushion around you.
Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes will perform at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, Dec. 31 at 9 p.m., with students from the Lakehouse Academy in Asbury Park opening. For those who can’t make it, SiriusXM satellite radio will broadcast the show live on its E Street Radio channel (No. 20), beginning at 10:30 p.m., with a rebroadcast Jan. 1 at noon.
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