Some 30 years ago, when Springsteen released his seminal Darkness on the Edge of Town, John Lyon, better known as Southside Johnny did the same with his Hearts of Stone. Though the album didn’t sell all that well at the time years later Rolling Stone magazine would vote it as one of the best albums recorded at that period of time and it has since achieved some kind of cult status. Those in the know recognize Hearts of Stone as one of the best Rock and Soul albums of the late seventies. I sought out Southside Johnny to talk to him about that unrecognized master piece and was thrilled to find the man is as much a fan-boy like his audience. Throughout the interview Southside remained charmingly humble about his achievements and his talent, coming across as a man who is simply thrilled that he’s still able to perform in the shadows of his heroes on stage.
Southside Johnny first started to make his mark at the Upstage, a club down the Jersey Shore. Which according to Southside was more or less a musicians bar, “after all the clubs had closed, we used to just come there and jam into the night,” he recalls some 40 years down the road. Because of its loose atmosphere the Upstage was a draw for musicians from all over the garden state. Southside lived not to far from the club so he would walk up there nightly. Pretty soon he was the constant factor on stage, “because I knew how to sing all those songs,” he explains today. Southside Johnny had been spoon fed Jazz and R&B by his parents. “There wasn’t any Monteverdi or anything like that in our house,” he remembers “they would come home from work and open a beer, have a great time listening to Big Joe Turner or Ray Charles.” His love for R&B made him a perfect match first for Garry Tallent, Springsteen’s future base player, and later for Miami Steve, whom he met at the Upstage club. Southside knew Tallent and Vini Lopez, the first drummer from the E-Street Band, through school, but Miami lived in a whole different area. So if it hadn’t been for the draw the Upstage had, Lyon and Van Zandt might never have met. With a similar sensibility to music his friendship with Miami would later prove key to Southside’s early career as van Zandt became his producer and manager.
The Asbury Jukes, as Southside’s band is called, didn’t form over night however. Southside recalls today that most of the time, whenever somebody scored a gig at the Jersey shore club scene, bands were just formed then and there for the occasion. Lyon was the logical choice to do the vocals, again because of his encyclopedic knowledge of the R&B classics. “It was all less formal than having a band just trying to make it, we were all just musicians learning,” Lyon explains “Nobody was really ambitious, we just wanted to make music and do things.” Things changed when Little Steven started to work in construction, “he was working on the New Jersey turnpike, working a jackhammer, he had been working the guitar for years and years, except there was no money and he had to do something.” Steven had no place to stay, so he was staying at Lyon’s, “one day he walked in, he was covered in asphalt,” Southside remembers “I looked at him and said, Stevie you can’t do this.” Realizing that day jobs wasn’t what was going to make them happy Steven and Johnny started to get serious about music again.
Right around that time Springsteen finally got his big break with Born to Run. Southside got offered a record contract in the slipstream of that success. Something he still is baffled by today. Lyon remembers he was convinced that “they are never going to give us a record contract, they must be crazy! But they did!” Adding with a laugh, “up to this day I don’t know why!!” Steven and Southside went into the studio before all the formalities were taken care of, convinced the record company would change their minds. “We kind of sneaked into this recording studio, the Record Plant, and we didn’t have any money,” he confides today. Jimi Iovine, who had engineered Springsteen’s Born to Run, aided and abetted. “There really was a lot of pressure on us to go out there and make this happen right away,” Lyon explains “Once Born to Run hit, Bruce was swimming in a sea of sharks, he really needed somebody close who he could rely on and relate to, and that was Steven.” So it was also a matter of the Jukes signature guitar player being swooped up in the circus that Springsteen’s career would soon become.
By lucky coincidence Ronnie Spector made a cameo on that very first album. “Jimmy Iovine was engineering that first album, sneaking us into the studio” Southside elaborates, “He had just come of from working with John Lennon on that roots album. Phil Spector produced that, and Jimmy met Ronnie Spector.” While in the studio working with Johnny, Jimmy got a call from Ronnie. Jimmy seized the opportunity and asked Ronnie if she would be interested in recording a duet with Southside. Much to the latter’s excitement, she accepted, “for us she was just a Goddess from our youth!” That fan mentality, the sheer love of the music translated well unto the album and, for that time, it sold very respectable, some 250.000 copies, “so the record company looked at us with some favor” Southside laughs. Yet ’75 proved to be a watershed in the music business, just before the mega million sales started to dominate the market. Southside’s debut was released at the same time as Boston’s first album, “they broke right out of the box office!” Lyon recalls. “We did some shows with them,” he elaborates, “and we were the better band. But they sold 12 million copies, so now the record company is looking at us……”
With the company aiming to repeat Boston’s success, Southside Johnny’s relationship with them would soon sour. Always convinced the record company wouldn’t allow him to do another album, by the time Lyon started working with Steven on Hearts of Stone, this fear was rapidly starting to become reality. To top it off the recording sessions for Hearts of Stone didn’t exactly go as smooth as planned, “we already recorded eight songs, but then decided that they just weren’t what we wanted. It didn’t sound right, it didn’t feel right, so we decided we had to start all over again. The record company by this time was fed up.” Complicating matters was the fact that Miami and Southside had already ran over budget even before they started working on the new batch of songs. “The record company was very, very unhappy with us. They didn’t like the music, they didn’t understand the music, they didn’t really like us. A regime change had happened, people we didn’t know, people who had no history with us. So I told Steven, it’s over”
Hearts of Stone was recorded Southside’s and Steven’s back against the wall, literally on their way out. It was possible that this was their last shot at ever making an album together. “We were under such pressure to make this record that it came out as an intense emotional experience” Lyon reflects on it now “it was one of those moments where you realize that making music is more important than anything else in your life, it made me dig deeper inside myself”. The difference between Hearts of Stone and its predecessor is indeed striking. Where This Time it’s For Real was still laden with stylistic exercises (complete with a Leiber and Stoller pastiche featuring the Coasters), strings and sugar sweet blue eyed soul, Hearts of Stone became a whole different ball of wax. In little under 35 minutes all the anxiety and frustration from dealing with the record company, combined with the sheer love of the music, just comes poring out. Hearts of Stone is at the same time jubilant as it is uneasy, brimming with mixed emotions. Steven’s stiletto like guitar slashes though the Motown Soul with raging love. Lyon delivers a vocal performance of a man who is trying to cling on to the love of his live as she’s walking out of the door. In what sounds like a clash between the Four Tops and the King’s Men, Miami and Lyon delivered an album that is a text book case of how a Rock album should sound, a feverish exorcism, a raging celebration. But without the support of the record company, the album sank like a rock.
Despite all that was going on, Southside Johnny remembers that working with Steven on the album, the latter being notorious for his headstrong views on how music should sound and be recorded, was easy. “Because we had faced the adversity of the record company, it gave us the inner strength to say; we know what we’re doing, so we’re going to go out and do it and come hell or high water we’re going to go do it the way we know it should be done,” he reflects on it now, “and of course Steven and I had the same view point on how recording should be done, that it should be a visceral experience, that it should be honest music. So that part was pretty easy, except it was late nights and I’d come of the road, the tour bus would drop me off at the studio and I would sleep on the studio couch.” Despite Hearts of Stone turning out to be one of the best Soul albums recorded after ’75, Lyon doesn’t feel he trumped his heroes, “we paid the best tribute we could” he humbly says today.
When Hearts of Stones was released, Lyon was swimming against the current with his music. “It was actually a time when music had become a little bloated,” he explains “and I think we were part of the reaction against that.” Southside explains that “all the records that I love are moments caught in time, they are not as produced and structured.” From that perspective Lyon was able to relate to the punk movement as well, even though his brand of music (and the Asbury Park scene) was quite a bit more sophisticated. Lyon acknowledges they had different roots, “but we certainly understood each other. Steven and I used to go and see the Ramones in CBGB’s and they were great! Holy shit! The punk scene to me was kind of a breath of fresh air too, for some reason we managed to get along with them. I think there’s a real bond between people who are not part of the system and don’t want to be part of that system.”
With Hearts of Stone sinking, the Jukes were threatened with a life in the bar scene again. Southside Johnny admits that he resented it at the time, “I felt we were better than that.” Lyon was determined not to give up and continued to keep touring while his career hang on a thread. “We just kept going and that’s 30 years ago” he laughs at it now. Lyon elaborating on how he “just want to have a chance to be me and be honest about what I feel,” might just be the key to why he continued to struggle with record companies. Lyon is not the type of artist to compromise his music in favor of current trends. He is first and foremost a fan of music like his audience. Lyon is capable of recounting is first James Brown concert in the early sixties in a fashion that makes it sound like he just stepped out of the venue, still brimming with excitement. Record executives concerned with sales figures, big sales figures, have a hard time following that train of thought. “Most of the people in the business have nothing to do with music,” Southside claims, “and that’s an immediate alienation for most of us.”
It is the same fan boy like admiration that seeps through on his latest project, Grapefruit Moon, a big band take on the songs of Tom Waits. On the surface Waits’ music might seem like a big leap from the R&B records by the Drifters Lyon loves to collect, but as Southside explains, “I think there a real connection between that, there’s a little Howlin’ Wolf in Tom, there’s certainly a lot of cool Jazz like Charles Brown. There’s a real R&B background in Tom, you can really feel it,” adding with a laugh, “he sounds like he’s down on the street, where he belongs.” The big band project first came into fruition when Johnny met Tom after an Amsterdam show Waits just gave. Lyon sprang his idea on Tom and Waits immediately warmed up to it, “so I said ok, if he can understand it, than I’m alright.” Lyon admits that covering Waits was a challenge, “it had been done but it had not done very well. Not to be cool or anything, but I knew if we did it the way I wanted to do it, it would be different” Eventually Lyon got up the courage to ask Tom if he wanted to sing on the album, Tom agreed. “It was a great moment, I was standing in this funky little hippie studio in California, and it was one of these little moments in your life where you just say I’m grateful to have this opportunity.” Southside Johnny’s drive to approach music open and honest, maybe surprisingly, makes Grapefruit Moon an artistic success. The album is as much about the love of music as the music of Tom Waits.
Lyon’s career has been rough and bumpy, and as he admits not without regrets. “I’ve regretted it many times. I hate to be blunt about it, but its true. You know, pulling up four o’ clock in the morning at a gass station where they have a little lunch counter and you know you’re gonna eat a chili cheese dog at four in the morning and be sick, and you’ve got a gig to do that night and the next night, with ten hours of driving in between and you just think, What the fuck am I doing.” Still he is quick to add, “once you get on stage, it all clears up, you understand what you do.” With charming humbleness Southside admits that his aspirations were modest, “I just wanted a chance to tour, a chance to see the world, it may not see like much to most people, but that’s what I wanted.” The audiences all over the world still respond with a fervor to the Jukes on stage. Southside explains “mostly what I wanted to do is have fun. I know that seems like a small ambition but I never wanted to be a R&R hero. I wanted people to come to the shows and have a good time, just enjoy themselves.” Southside in that sense is R&R’s foremost anti-hero. Standing on stage in a plain jeans shirt and small sun glasses, he looks like he just stepped out of an auto parts shop or the construction site Little Steven escaped all those years ago. As such Southside Johnny is easier to connect to than most of R&R’s super stars, maybe even easier to connect to than Springsteen, in whose slip steam he got his first break. “I didn’t think my fans had to worship to any throne or anything like that,” Lyon says about it himself, “I wanted it to be like the music I used to see, where you would go and see the Drifters and just enjoy yourself, I never wanted anything more than that.” Going by that standard you might just say that Lyon’s career has been a great success, a success in honesty and love of music.
“Gotta Find a Better Way Home”
From Hearts of Stone
About the author: I started blogging out of a fascination with Soul music, Bruce Springsteen and Americana in general. Over at Boss Tracks I'm blogging on Bruce Springsteen and the songs he covered. http://bosstracks.blogspot.com/