New Jersey’s Southside Johnny has been the frontman and lead vocalist for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes since the 1970s. Like his contemporaries Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Van Zandt, the latter of whom was involved, at one point, with the Jukes, he’s often considered part of the “heartland rock” movement that emerged in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The Jukes mix their rock ‘n’ roll with soul and R&B for a distinct blend that’s earned them a dedicated fanbase for all these decades.
On Saturday, June 3, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes return to one of their favorite venues, The Birchmere. I caught up with Johnny in advance of the show to talk about his love for The Birchmere, getting through the pandemic shutdown, the history of Western philosophy, and the joys of collecting vinyl records.
The Birchmere is beloved by every artist who’s played there, and Johnny is no exception. Sometimes, he told me, a room can feel “cold” and he doesn’t sense a “connection with the audience.” “I’ve never had that problem at The Birchmere,” he declared.
Naturally, we discussed how Johnny dealt with being forced off the road by the pandemic. At first, he told me, the respite offered by the pandemic was welcome, but he became frustrated and somewhat bored after a while. I offered that, if you’ve been busy, it’s nice to have a break, but eventually you start to miss the structure of work, and you find yourself with too much time on your hands to fill.
“We’re a working band,” Johnny told me, and he was eager pretty quickly to get back to work. “There’s only so much you can read,” he said. I cited the science-fiction author Gene Wolfe’s comment that you can “really only write for a couple of hours a day.” I also asked him if the shutdown had been difficult for him emotionally. “Emotionally, no,” he answered.
The writing process, Johnny agreed, is as much about the time when you’re not actively writing, allowing your brain to process things and work out problems. An avid puzzle solver, he shared that he’ll often go to sleep with some unresolved problem, only to wake up and figure it out the next morning, like “my brain’s been working on it while I sleep.” I mentioned my friend Dan Chaon’s observation that “staring out the window is part of the job,” and he concurred.
Watch Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes perform “Talk to Me” live for Front and Center on YouTube:
We also connected over a book Johnny told me about reading, The Closing of the Western Mind, which recounts how Plato’s influence came to dominate medieval, especially Christian philosophy. (This book is not to be confused with the similarly titled conservative screed The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom.) Having a background in philosophy, I was familiar with the general story of how Aristotle’s work was the principal influence on the Hellenistic Greeks and Romans, and how Plato experienced a sort of rediscovery in the Middle Ages. Johnny observed how the orthodoxy of the period led to persecution for thinkers who didn’t toe the line; I observed this was still an issue in the early modern world, with Galileo being treated quite harshly by the Catholic Church.
I asked Johnny if the band experienced any rust when they went back on the road. “None,” he said. “As soon as we got on stage, we could feel the music flowing.” The band started playing as soon as they were allowed, beginning with shows where people came in their cars to a drive-through.
We finished our conservation talking about the joys of vinyl collection. “It gets me out of the house,” Johnny said, and he enjoys “the interaction with people.” I mentioned how I often walk the four miles to my nearest and favorite record shop, that it gives me an incentive to get exercise that I otherwise might not. There’s also a certain joy, I noted, in going discount diving and being surprised with what you find as opposed to going shopping for particular records, in going in without a plan and letting yourself be surprised with what you find.
Right now, Johnny told me, he’s on a two-week break from touring, during which he’s going down to Arkansas for a pig roast and benefit for a charity started by his guitarist. While he’s in Arkansas, he told me, he plans to find some of their record stores and see what they’ve got. “I’ve hunted for records all over the country,” he said.
As Johnny said, “It’s always good to talk to another philosopher and record collector.”
Make sure to check out Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes at The Birchmere on Saturday, June 3.
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes
Saturday, June 3
Show @ 7:30pm