By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit July 1, 2009)
“I’d wish you a merry Christmas,” said Southside Johnny Lyon to the crowd at last December’s Hope Concert in Red Bank. “But it would be out of character.”
Maybe Christmas and Southside Johnny are an uneasy mix — this, after all, is the guy who Springsteen introduced as The Grinch when he sauntered onto the stage — but you can hardly call him a holiday humbug when he’s got one, maybe even two, all to himself.
There’s the long-running Asbury Jukes concert every December 31 at the Count Basie — a tradition that by rights should net him the title of Mr. New Year’s Eve. But there’s also another, warm-weather complement, in that for the past several years it’s become a tradition for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes to return to their old Stone Pony stomping grounds on or about the Fourth of July, for a concert on the club’s adjoining SummerStage (actually the grounds of the long-gone Mrs. Jay’s, for all you old-timers). It’s a tradition that continues tomorrow evening, Thursday July 2nd.
So you see the man is about the season of corn-on-the-cob and sparklers just as much as the season of highballs and noisemakers. We call that well-rounded, and if you’re searching for a way to tie it all together thematically, may we humbly nominate Johnny Lyon for Toastmaster General of the United States, a ceremonial office that’s been vacant since the death of (once famous, now forgotten) George Jessel.
Still residing in his hometown of Ocean Grove (”although my girlfriend lives in Europe”), still exploring new facets of his big R&B sound (check out Grapefruit Moon, his recent album of Tom Waits interpretations with LaBamba’s Big Band), Johnny Lyon nonetheless doesn’t overexpose himself to local audiences. An Asbury Jukes concert is still an event; a destination attraction worth peeling your summer-sticky flesh off that vinyl seat with that awful sucking noise, and heading out to be part of the party.
Always a fun interview, Southside Johnny spoke to Red Bank oRBit here on the eve of the Pony show. Continue Reading for best results.
RED BANK ORBIT: Southside Johnny! Thanks for calling in. How’s by you?
SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: Life is good!
You know, for anybody who knows you, that doesn’t read like something you would say.
Life is good, because I’ve been dead for so many years, there’s no pressure.
That’s more like it. Now you’re gearing up for the big Fourth of July show, the companion piece to the big New Years show at the Count Basie.
An act that I stole, as you know, from the late Guy Lombardo.
And yet when you show up at the Christmas benefit shows you get teased by the other guys onstage as The Grinch. But when it comes to the Fourth, whose mantel are you inheriting? Who would have been Mr. Fourth of July?
That would have to be the fireworks family — the Gruccis! And when they find out they’re gonna come around and try to blow me up.
Now you’ve been doing these July 4th shows at the Pony for what, five years now?
I actually don’t keep track of things like that. I’m not interested in chronology — only when it comes to old records. I’m really not a nostalgist, and my attitude is, let’s move on.
But so much of the appeal of your live shows comes from the old songs, not just your own, but other people’s songs that you’ve made your own…
When we do the Pony show, we’ll be playing some things from our new album, which isn’t even finished yet, plus some old songs that people have been requesting. But mostly we go up onstage and see what happens.
I did “Shout” for the first time ever the other night, if you can believe that. But it really worked out well; the band just really got it. And these guys weren’t even born when that song was a hit!
So you actually don’t approach these shows with a set list? You must be the only nine piece band in existence that can just wing it like that.
I don’t know if it’s any looser than usual — it’s just that we don’t have everything all mapped out. We allow for some surprises — people are invited to jam with us onstage, as long as they know what they’re doing. So, no, we never do a standard set list for these shows; I try to read the crowd instead — if they’re feeling angry, we’ll give ‘em something a little more dark like “The Fever.” But the guys in the band are all pros, they can hit my curveballs.
I gotta hand it to you, keeping the big-band thing going all this time. Just the whole logistics of getting everybody from one place to another on the bus is something that very few people are set up to do.
Well, Roomful of Blues is still out there, with that big lineup. But once you get horn fever, it’s hard to break away. We actually aren’t playing as much as we used to, and we don’t use a bus anymore — it got too expensive. We usually take vans, I just round up the band members, fill ‘em out with thorazine and throw ‘em on the van. It works out well. And I continue to pay for everything myself — I pay over and over and over.
Ever regret that you didn’t do the small-band thing? You would have pocketed way more scratch that way…
That’s right! I shoulda had a power trio!
Alrght, lightning round. All the guys of your generation get asked these questions. First, who was the greatest New York area kiddie show TV host?
Zacherley! Ha! Oh, I guess I’d go with Soupy on this one.
Greatest New York, New Jersey area discount store?
That would have to be John’s Bargain Store — for the reason that, for just 39 cents, you could get five records inside a plastic bag. You’d be able to see the ones at either end of the package, but the three in the middle were a total mystery. And sometimes there would be a real gem hidden away from view in there.
Greatest disappeared make of American car?
That’d have to be the GTO! That was just the coolest car when it first came out. And not only aren’t there any more GTOs, soon there won’t be any Pontiacs at all.
Did you drive one back in the day, or buy one later on when you finally had the chance?
Well, you know, I didn’t learn to drive until I was 40! So the first car I bought for myself wound up being a Toyota Celica GT. Unless you want to count the car that I bought for a girlfriend, a 1961 Ford Falcon. It ran for about 30 minutes. There was no engine to speak of. Only a rumor of an engine.
I know that Ocean Grove wasn’t a very car friendly town back in the day, but I’m kind of taken aback that a young band guy would not have made cars and driving a priority…
Back in the 60s and 70s, let’s just say that there were a number of other activities that you could get involved with, that might be seen as a distraction. Anything that would preclude your paying attention to the road! But when I lived in Asbury Park, I could walk to a lot of my gigs. I can even walk home from the Stone Pony, if it’s not too grueling a night for me.
One more. If you had the chance to buy the old Upstage building, what would you have done with it?
I wouldn’t buy it. I don’t have a problem with preserving old buildings, but really, what is there to preserve here? The appeal was all about a certain bunch of people in a certain time and place, and beyond that we’re just talking about an old Thom McAn shoe store.
I should mention here that my father in law was the manager of that Thom McAn back in those days. He was the one thumping the broomstick against the ceiling when things got out of hand upstairs.
He should have come up and jammed! He was always welcome. Still is!