Friday, January 13, 2012
Tonight, I turn back the clock.
I'm going with Mike Jedziniak, one of my oldest and dearest friends, to see Southside Johnny and (not the Asbury Jukes but) the Poor Fools, at a church in Pennington.
Now, according to Wikipedia, Southside Johnny Lyon turned 63 years old on December 4th. That means the first time I saw him and the Jukes perform he was 31 years old.
It was November of 1980, my junior year in high school. Bob had graduated Princeton the previous spring, but was living at home and still going back to Princeton to hang with friends on a semi-regular basis. He scored the tickets, which seemed like a big deal to me a the time. It was my first concert of any kind, so I was pretty excited.
Understand, this was around the same time Bruce Springsteen was on his River Tour. And back in 1980, getting a Springsteen ticket was about as easy as getting a Super Bowl ticket. It was not like the post Born in the USA years when Bruce would play 10 shows at Giants Stadium, or do a run of shows at the Brendan Byrne/Continental Airlines Area/IZOD Center. He'd blow into town for two shows and be gone, on the wind.
Southside was the next best thing, though as I learned that night at Dillon Gym, his shows were as furious as they were unpredictable. Johnny would forget lyrics, disappear back stage from time to time and drink brown liquor like it was Snapple.
In my senior year of high school, empowered with a driver's license, my friends and I set out to follow Southside to all the local venues. Drew University. the Meadowlands Race Track, South Mountain Arena, The Pier in New York. So many good times.
It really wasn't until college that I began to appreciate what a great and soulful vocalist Johnny was and is. With a Walkman and headphones I'd sit in my dorm room late at night listening to his covers of Springsteen's "The Fever" and "Hearts of Stone."
When Bruce released these songs later on (Johnny did them first as they were castaways from Springsteen's marathon recording sessions for Darkness on the Edge of Town), for me, it was incredibly unnecessary. Johnny and the Jukes, with the full horn section providing the perfect background texture, did these songs so well, there was nothing, nothing that Bruce could do. Nothing he could do to make these songs better.
I introduced many friends to Southside during my days in North Carolina (Jedziniak being from Toms River, needed no introduction), and we even got "I Don't Wanna Go Home" into a regular late night rotation at Purdy's, a Chapel Hill club that would be best-described as a disco. I had a roommate named "Skee" who played the trumpet. During songs like "Talk to Me" and "I'm So Anxious," we'd talk Skee into playing along. Later on, Skee didn't even need coercing. He'd stand, trumpet at the ready, doing the back-and-forth dance steps like a real Juke, then join in on cue.
It's got to be five or six years since I last saw Johnny. It was at Bar A in Belmar. A hot afternoon and Johnny was playing the outdoor bar. He didn't have a whole lot of voice. Years and years of singing from deep in his soul (and presumably some hard living) seemed to have taken its toll. At the time, I figured that would be it.
Last year, when Springsteen released The Promise, it was simply amazing how many of the songs sounded like they were written for Southside. Listen to "One Way Street" and "Spanish Eyes" and tell me you can't imagine Johnny laying down those vocals. One day, after listening to the album in my car, I actually sent an email to Johnny. He lists an email address on SouthsideJohnny.com and someone told me he answered letters.
Basically, I thanked him for helping to form my taste in music. But mostly, I thanked him for the brotherhood I was able to form with so many great people while enjoying the sound of his voice. He didn't answer my email. Oh well.
I'll thank him again tonight.