Southside Johnny's story is one of resilience, perseverance and making music for the love of music. It leaves you with a strong feeling of respect.
Even though his friends Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi achieved more fame, Southside Johnny's unmatched dedication will be remembered forever. The singer-songwriter and the frontman of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes is known for influencing what critics call the "New Jersey sound," but if you ask him about it as I did, he would tell you that this sound does not exist. He believes every musician has his or her unique sound. What about the "New Jersey magic" that transforms musicians into stars? Find out as you read our phone conversation.
You are all about raw and honest music, and I think this takes a lot of heart, and also takes a lot of courage; you put all of yourself into music. Do you agree that it takes a lot of courage?
SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: I think it's just natural. I don't know if it's courage. You set your sights on making the best music you can and not try to be a star or make a lot of money. Those things were never really that important to me, but what was important was, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted onstage or in the studio. Some record companies understood that. Some didn't, but now I have my own record company, so I'm free to do what I want to do and I take whatever direction I like. That's the kind of freedom that you don't really think about until somebody asks you about it. It's something you just naturally do. I don't know if it's courage so much as it's just stubbornness.
I think it is courage because you put all of yourself, all of your heart in one direction. You probably never asked yourself, “What if?”
SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: No. Early on when we were teenagers, I think we understood that we were given a great gift of making music. Music was so important to us when we were young. We listened to it all the time, and when we started being in bands and started thinking about making records, we realized that we were very lucky, and we didn't want to give up our chance by taking some side job. Most of us didn't go to college for a career. We were musicians and we were going to make a go of it one way or another, even if it meant playing in local bands on the weekends and getting a job during the week, but the main thing in our lives back then was music. It was so overwhelming that other things just didn't matter as much.
Wow. When did you discover that you were lucky and had a gift?
SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: Well, I didn't really believe in it until I had been doing it for a number of years, because most of the time back then, guys wanted to be guitar heroes and play 20-minute guitar solos, and the singer was just somebody that sang in between the guitar solos. So that was my job, but I made it a point that we would do a blues song because that was my first love, blues music.
They got to play guitar and I got to sing the blues, but after a while, you realize that people were actually listening to you and that maybe you did have that talent. Maybe you could make a go out of it. You could make a career out of it. Then once that idea got into you, you never wanted to let it go, because what are the alternatives? Going to school, becoming a teacher, working at the Pepsi Cola bottling? There was nothing that was attractive other than music, so that's what you did … You were tenacious about following that one opportunity to do the one thing you really loved.
Another thing that is interesting about you is that you didn't plan your career or your life, which you mentioned in one of your interviews. But because success is associated with planning, as they always tell you that although you don't have to follow the plan, you have to plan; can you explain your success to me?
SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: Well, you plan in a vague way that you want to get another album done, but even if you write the songs and you know which way you want to go, when you take it to the band, sometimes they change a little bit and they may shift it a little bit in a different direction and you go, "Oh, I like that," or you don't and you say, "Let's not do it that way. Let's do it this way," but it's the same thing onstage. I have a vague idea about what I want to do and I'd like a set list, but if at any moment I want to do a different song, I'll just call out the title of the song or the opening riff and we'll do it.
To me, the spontaneity of making music is the beauty of it, instead of this idea that you're going to program everything and everything's going to work out right. I like that--really just let it go and see where the night takes you, and I don't know...I've always been that way where I trust in the people around me and I trust in myself to not go so far that I'll lose my career or my audience, but they understand that I'm not going to do the same thing over and over. I think that most of the people who come to see us want that. They don't want us to be the same set list every night. I think that would be boring. That'd be as bad as working in an office.
This is a must-ask question: What is it about New Jersey? Three big musicians: Jon Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen and yourself come from that area, and you all know each other.
SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: Yes, we're all pretty good friends. I think that the main thing about being from New Jersey is that it's so blue collar that if you don't work hard onstage, they won't respect you. If you are lazy going through the songs, you won’t have an audience. You have to really put your heart and soul into it. That's the common thread of almost all of the bands, even the younger bands that are coming up. It's just natural that you work hard onstage, because it's your chance to make music… You don't just go, "Oh, I really don't care."
You care very much because you know that if you don't make music, you're going to have to get a real job, and who wants that?
The three of you influenced each other, so how did Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi influence you?
SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: They have such confidence onstage and such delight, and I was always impressed by people like that, like James Brown and Jackie Wilson, Sam & Dave. You're a little bit timid the first couple of times you get onstage, but then you see those guys really just having a great time and confident that the people that love it are going to go, "That's where I'm going to be." Why not? They really inspire you with their command of the stage. You think, well, that's what you have to do. You can't go out there and hope people like you. You’ve got to work hard to prove that you belong there, and once you do that, they're on your side.
How do you think you influenced Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi, who acknowledged you as his “reason for singing”?
SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: I think just the dedication to it, kicking ass every night even if there's only 20 people in the audience...You go out and do your two hours and you play as hard as you can, and it really doesn't matter. Also, I was the blues guy. A lot of those, Steven and Bruce and those people, had not heard a lot of Chicago blues, some, but not a lot of them. I collected that kind of music, so they would play their English kind of invasion music and garage bands and I'd play blues. Gary Tallent would play rockabilly, so we absorbed all those different influences and they all come out in the music.
We have very eclectic taste. Everybody likes a lot of different things. There's not just one thing, and I think that's reflected in all of our music.
Can I ask you about your mother and your connection to her?
SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: My mother and my father were great readers of good literature. They loved good music and they had great senses of humor and some sarcasm. I learned a lot from them and that there was a certain sophistication that wasn't really prevalent in the area I grew up in, so they were very unique people, and I'm very grateful to have had them for parents because they taught me how to read good literature and how to laugh and how to listen to music.
I read that your mom let you stay home and listen to music instead of going to school.
SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: That's correct. I used to clean the house. She worked along with my father. They both worked, and when she had the day shift, she worked at a telephone company as an operator back in the day when they used to have them. If she worked the day shift, I'd say, “Mom, I'm going to stay home today and I'll clean the house, do the dishes, make the beds, vacuum, do all the different things,” and she said, “Okay, of course.” You know, I hated school and I wasn't really getting a lot out of it.
You'd go into a literature class in high school and you've already read all the books, so you go, "God, this is going to be a long season here."
Tell me about the women in your life. Do you feel that you understand women? Do you connect with them?
SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: I do connect with them. I've always respected women. I never have looked at women, except for about 15 to 16, 17 years old, as sex objects. Do you know what I mean? You can be attracted to a woman, but once you start talking, they become a human being and you become a human being to them, and if there's a human connection, that's one thing, but I've never really been attracted on a surface level. I have a lot of women friends. It's just to me that it's a unique vision of the world, a unique take on the world, and of course, I hang around in my career with guys, guys, guys, guys. It's like being an athlete. You're always with men, and we've had women in the band and all, but I just like when I'm not with the guys, I like sometimes to hear somebody else talk.
But connecting with a woman in a romantic relationship is probably something else.
SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: Yeah, I can't just be superficial.
I agree. Did you have this kind of connection that is not superficial?
SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: Yeah, many times.
SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: I have a wife I'm still married to, but we're separated, but I go and visit her. We're very close. We email each other and send pictures, and I have a number of women friends that I do that with. It's not odd to me to have women as friends, and it's almost always been that way. I don't know why. There's a fascination with the other gender in that you just see the world differently than men do, and I'm always fascinated by that.
Let me ask you about Nashville. Why did you decide to move to Nashville at one point in your life?
SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: I kind of got fed up with the record business, the music business, and I didn't want to work anymore. I didn't want to have anything to do with any record companies, so my friend Garry Tallent, who was Bruce Springsteen's bass player for all those decades, he and I went to high school together and he said, "Come on down to Nashville and meet some people. There's some really nice people down here," so I did. I really liked it and I moved down there, but I didn't move down there because of the music. I moved down there because of the people that I have met. It was so great.
Then of course, I started meeting a lot of other musicians and I started jamming. I realized once again that music is fun and fulfilling. It's a very satisfying thing to do, so I started playing with a lot of different people and writing songs and just got back into the business.
In one of your interviews, you described this age as the golden age for musicians.
SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: I think it's a great time to be a musician because you don't have to pay $1 million to go into a studio to record. You can do that at home or you can go to a studio and do it quickly. All the facilities are there, but the internet makes it so that you can disseminate your music. You can put it up on the internet. You can link it to other sites. People can hear it. They can download it, and you're so in charge of everything. There were times when you needed a record company to get international recognition, but unless you're the top priority for the record company, you might as well do it yourself because you're not going to get that much out of them. I just think it's a great time to make music, and you can communicate with musicians around the world.
If you made a friend in Germany who's a guitar player and you got this song, you can send it to him and say, "What do you think? Put a guitar part on it," and you can do it with anybody around the world. It is a unique moment in time.
Are you excited to be coming to The Birchmere?
SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: Yeah, I love The Birchmere. I always say this. It's one of my favorite places to play. They treat us great. It brings out a slightly different show in that it's so intimate and we do different songs, but we still rock out. It's just the perfect stage for us in some ways.