In the 60’s and 70’s, Asbury Park, NJ was crawling with musicians, long-haired, bleary-eyed hopefuls, who would jam well into the wee hours of the morning just for the hell of it. This was party music, high-powered soul and maximum R&B made for dancing.
While Bruce Springsteen may be Asbury Park’s most famous export, Southside Johnny Lyon and his Asbury Jukes remain the truest crystallization of that time and place, and they’re bringing it to The Coach House Apr. 7 and the Whisky A Go Go Apr. 8. It’s their first trip to the West Coast in over 10 years and for anybody looking for live music that’s the real deal, this is not to be missed.
Though he’s a Jersey boy through and through, Lyon actually likes it here and even lived in San Clemente for a while. “We don’t play out there that much,” he explained over the phone, “It’s just too expensive to cart this great big band around.”
He may have moved back east, but he still loves The Coach House, calling it “one of the good places to play in the world.” His sentiment makes sense, considering the well-worn, unglamorous atmosphere of The Coach House, along with its reputation of booking veteran, road-warrior musicians, makes it a perfect match for the working-class ethos of Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes. When I point out the “institution” status of both the venue and his band, Lyon interjects, laughing, “So you’re saying I should be in an institution? Is that what you’re saying?!”
His latest album, Soultime, a throwback, 70’s R&B album, has garnered him some of the best reviews of his career. Something he takes little notice of. “I don’t read reviews. It could be really good, and then they’ll say one thing they don’t like, and I go, ‘F—k you!’ [laughs]. It’s irrational, but that’s me.”
Songs like “Looking For A Good Time” and “Spinning” are filled with fat, Stax horns, funky rhythms, and a groove that’s straight out of 1972.
“I was in a liquor store and “Superfly” came on by Curtis Mayfield, which starts with this great, sinuous bass thing, and then the horns go “Duh-na-na” and people were moving and bopping. Everybody in there was subconsciously caught up in the groove. I said, ‘Ah-ha! That’s what I need to do next. Make music for people to groove to’.”
Lyon has been fascinated by this groove his whole life, growing up on his parents’ unusually hip record collection filled with blues and R&B greats. As a teenager, Lyon’s older brother Tom would take him to the city to catch whoever was in town, an education that he never forgot.
“We saw Muddy Waters, John Hammond, Cream at the Cafe-A-Go-Go—a little 200 seat club— we would go all the time. We saw the Jeff Beck Group at the Fillmore East, Albert King, Tim Buckley, Frank Zappa and the Mothers. Bands would come to Asbury Park, too. We saw Ray Charles there, The Stones when they first came over. We were young and music was the only thing that really mattered.”
Never taking himself too seriously, Lyon remains one of the most normal musicians around. He’s never been one to kowtow to the powers that be, he’s never envied the more visible and profitable success of Springsteen—who he counts as a friend—and he’s unapologetically who he is. After a floundering recording career spent jumping from label to label, Lyon started his own, Leroy Records, and built a career on the road, making a living up on stage, not in the studio.
Decades spent on tour took their toll, burning Lyon out and taking all the fun out of performing. He briefly relocated to Nashville where no-strings-attached jamming with local musicians brought him back to the start. “It became real to me again. It became something I loved to do. It’s still grueling traveling on a bus for 15 hours, but still, you get in front of an audience, and it makes it all worthwhile.”
Lyon co-founded the Jukes with “Little” Steven Van Zandt, who would shortly switch over to join Springsteen’s band. In his book, Born To Run, Springsteen even describes the night it happened, when he first rolled into the Upstage Club to try and jam. Lyon, who read and enjoyed the book, also remembers that fortuitous night.
“He had long hair, his gold Les Paul, and he was doing this song about the nuns teaching him the meaning of the blues. He was not their favorite student, they used to beat him, and he took a lot of crap from them. But one day, one of the nuns brought in a B.B. King album and played some stuff.
“So he’s singing the song, and he’s playing, and he’s got this charisma, and I’m going, ‘Who the fuck is that?!’ He was in my club, singing on my microphone [laughs]. But he was great, it was unbelievable, he was almost fully formed. You could tell right there that he was somebody to be reckoned with.”
The two quickly became friends, and have been entwined ever since, with Springsteen contributing some of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes’ biggest songs like, “The Fever,” “Hearts Of Stone,” and “Talk To Me.” And while Lyon may not have nearly the same notoriety, they share a working-class philosophy and an electric stage presence, born out of the hours and hours they spent in dark smoky clubs, and their Jersey upbringings.
“I wouldn’t have a career if I wasn’t part bulldog. That’s part of the Jersey thinking. There’s nothing subtle about it. You’re gonna do it, you’re gonna do it the way you want, and if there’s people that don’t like it, screw ‘em. It’s that blue-collar thing again. We know what it’s like to work, we’ve seen our parents work, we know what work is and we’re not afraid it. There’s always an audience for what you want to do as long as you do it honestly.”