The Second Disc

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Review: Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, “Playlist: The Very Best Of”

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Southside Johnny PlaylistWhen Bruce Springsteen gave the green light to officially release his 1973 recording of “The Fever” on 1999’s 18 Tracks, The Boss’ decision was rightfully greeted with acclaim.  But many of us Jersey boys were in on a secret: Bruce wrote it, but “The Fever” belonged to Southside Johnny Lyon and his Asbury Jukes.  Springsteen’s torrid evocation of a burning blue-collar romance, as produced by “Miami” Steve Van Zandt, was the centerpiece of the band’s 1976 Epic Records debut I Don’t Want to Go Home.  And it’s one of fourteen freshly remastered slabs of red-hot R&B – both live and in the studio – on Playlist: The Very Best of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes (Epic/Legacy 88765 48611 2, 2013).

“The Fever” – with its unforgettable bass vocals from a pseudonymous Clarence Clemons – is one of three tracks from I Don’t Want to Go Home on the new anthology.  Playlist focuses just a single five-year period of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes’ long career, but during those years of 1976-1981, it was entirely possible that the Jersey shore was the epicenter of pure rock and roll.  And the sound of the Jersey shore was, in large part, the sound of the Jukes as fully formed on I Don’t Want to Go Home, the first of three landmark Epic albums.  It was an exultant open invitation to a bar that never closes, with Lyon (vocals/harmonica), Kenny “Popeye” Pentifallo (drums/vocals), Kevin Kavanaugh (keyboards/vocals), Billy Rush (guitar), Alan Berger (bass), Carlo Novi (tenor saxophone), the future Little Steven (guitars/vocals) and The Miami Horns providing the blood, sweat and tears.  (The Jukes’ lineup would be fluid on the albums represented in this set with innumerable guest musicians and singers popping in.)

The band’s spirit was epitomized in the opening lines of that LP’s title track written by Van Zandt and reprised here: “Oh I know that it’s getting late, but I don’t want to go home/I’m in no hurry, baby, time can wait/’Cos I don’t want to go home/Listen to the man sing his song/But I don’t want to go home/I don’t mind if they take all night long/’Cos I don’t want to go home!”  Southside’s whiskey-soaked rasp instantly conjures up the time and place.  In the year of Born to Run, Lyon, Springsteen, Van Zandt, engineer Jimmy Iovine and co. were synthesizing Stax horns, Drifters strings, Four Seasons pathos, and The Rascals’ blue-eyed soul into a vibrant style that either transcended the familiar tag of “bar band” or significantly raised the, um, bar for all of the other such groups out there!

There’s more after the jump!

It’s no slight to Southside Johnny to state the importance of his friend Springsteen’s role in shaping his music.  Five of the fourteen songs on Playlist came from The Boss’ pen (either in full or in part), but they weren’t mere cast-offs.  Springsteen and Lyon shared a similar musical sensibility, and both men found an ideal foil in Steven Van Zandt.  For The Jukes’ three Epic albums – the crux of this compilation – Van Zandt served as singer, songwriter, arranger, guitarist and general foil to Lyon.  Steve and Johnny once claimed to have shared the stage in 48 (!) bands together prior to finding mainstream success.  Their paths crossed often with Springsteen’s.  Individually and collectively, the three men created a true alternative to disco as well as punk.  Lyrically, these songs were often in a good-time vein, with empathy for the underdog, but there was also a real underpinning in the blues of “rhythm and,” as evidenced by the cover version here of Solomon Burke’s “Got to Get You Off My Mind” from the Jukes at the Bottom Line promotional LP.  Another of the many highlights here is “Broke Down Piece of Man,” with Lyon and Van Zandt more than respectably subbing for Sam and Dave.

Persistent piano and scorching guitars join with the exuberant horns for Van Zandt’s raucous “This Time It’s For Real,” the title song of the band’s 1977 sophomore effort.  But the most iconic song off that set might be another Springsteen/Van Zandt co-write “Love on the Wrong Side of Town.”    It’s heard in a live performance from Los Angeles’ Roxy just days after the song’s single release.  While the choice of a live version over the studio original might keep this disc from being a so-called “definitive” collection, the Jukes always came to life before an audience, and this track (first aired in the 2007 box set Jukebox) is no exception.  A kiss-off to a cheating lover never sounded as delicious as it does here, with the tasty sax solo doffing its melodic hat to “Up on the Roof.”

In his new track-by-track liner notes penned especially for Playlist, Lyon recalls hearing Aretha Franklin perform “Without Love” at a New Jersey supper club.  He attended Franklin’s concert with Springsteen, Van Zandt and Garry Tallent, and “saw Stevie’s eyes light up” during the song.  Its boisterous Jersey shore makeover from This Time It’s for Real is another one of the well-chosen cover versions included here.

Three highlights have been plucked from the Jukes’ Epic swansong, 1978’s Hearts of Stone.  That album showed off the various sides of the band but was very much a transitional album.  Van Zandt and the Jukes would soon part ways, and Hearts was very much Miami Steve’s parting gift.  He had a hand in writing every track other than two solo offerings from Springsteen, in addition to his usual producing and arranging duties.  “Trapped Again,” by the Lyon/Van Zandt/Springsteen team (“I wrote a lyric, Steve and Bruce straightened it out and revamped the song,” writes Lyon) is a tight, crisp rocker about another painful relationship, while the breakneck “Talk to Me” is Springsteen at his most pop-oriented.  Bruce was also tapped for the sublimely soulful title track, sung by Lyon with an ache in his voice as Van Zandt supports him on sympathetic lead guitar.  “This is the last dance, the last chance,” Lyon croons in the song.  It’s a fitting valedictory for the Epic years.

Two tracks have been licensed from Mercury, one from each of the band’s first two post-Epic albums.  The brassy “All I Want is Everything,” written by Lyon and fellow Juke Billy Rush, is one of the more in-your-face tracks here, and “Why is Love Such a Sacrifice” is tough and dramatic.  “Everything” was produced by renowned keyboardist Barry Beckett for the self-titled The Jukes, and recorded south of the Mason-Dixon Line at Beckett’s home base in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  Beckett brought a more polished, less rough-and-tumble sound to The Jukes.  The band returned to New Jersey for the West Orange-recorded Love is a Sacrifice, with Patti Scialfa and Soozie Tyrell among the participants.  Jukes guitarist Billy Rush was the group’s principal songwriter by this point, but inspiration wasn’t in the air.  These two songs are both solid inclusions, but they’re the “odd men out” as they’re sonically removed from the previous cuts.

Playlist reprises nine of the ten songs issued on the 1979 compilation Havin’ a Party, but it’s a few short of the 19 tracks that featured on 1992’s Epic/Legacy release The Best of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes.  That disc offered one choice B-side and more highlights from the Bottom Line, and included the entirety of Hearts of Stone save one song.  For a packed overview of the Jukes’ post-Epic career, Rhino’s 1993 All I Want is Everything is still the ultimate collection, with 18 songs from 1979-1991.  Playlist is a solid retrospective of the Epic years plus, and a must-have for the new and long overdue remastering by Mark Wilder.  Johnny’s notes are also a welcome addition.

The spirit of the Jersey shore, battered and bruised but far from down, is captured in the alternately joyous and gritty music of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes.  The band will be bringing its high-energy shows to various East Coast venues this summer including dates at home in Atlantic City, Beach Haven, and yes, Asbury Park.  There’s always a seat open at the bar!

You can order Southside Johnny’s Playlist at this link!

Written by Joe Marchese

June 3, 2013 at 10:36

4 Responses

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  1. Nice review. It doesn’t sound like there’s much for the long-time fan, but it sounds like a solid introduction for the neophyte, and at this point I’m just glad that Sony sees fit to keep a Southside Johnny title in print. One minor point: “I Don’t Want To Go Home” is a Van Zandt composition, not a collaboration.

    I always felt that if “Hearts of Stone” had become the hit album it deserved to be, Van Zandt would have remained in the Jukes’ producer’s chair. I think that the complete commercial failure of such a well-reviewed album caused Steve to step down, and, of course, led to the end of the band’s affiliation with Epic (interviews over the years with both Johnny & Steve pretty much confirm this). The Jukes were also effectively cut off from material from both Van Zandt and Springsteen for the next 13 years, and they never really recovered, artistically or commercially. Truly a shame. They were a wonderful live band.


    June 3, 2013 at 11:49

    • Ron, thanks for your contribution here! I’ve clarified the authorship of “I Don’t Want to Go Home” – which *is*, alas, credited in the PLAYLIST booklet to Steve, Bruce and Johnny – above. I would hate to slight the one and only Little Steven! 🙂

      Joe Marchese

      June 3, 2013 at 16:13

      • Thanks, Joe. Credits do sometimes get changed, of course, but I remember the original was credited to Steve, and that at the first Springsteen show at Brendan Byrne Arena (32 years ago!) Bruce introduced the song as Steve’s and then let him sing it. Love your blog, please continue your most excellent work.


        June 3, 2013 at 17:20

  2. This review really downplays the amazing remastering here. if you are a Southside fan, you have never really heard this material sound great on cd before now


    June 3, 2013 at 12:52

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