A Conversation with Southside Johnny
Mike Ragogna: Johnny, hey. Tell me a little something about this new Playlist collection Sony released. Did you have any input?
Southside Johnny: I had some input in that they asked me what I didn't want on it. There wasn't anything I really didn't want, so most of the songs are things that I'm glad to have remastered and put out again.
MR: Let's do a quick history lesson. How did Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes come together?
SJ: I had gone to Richmond, Virginia, because there was a scene down there, and I moved back from there in '71-'72. I needed to start a band, so I joined one and eventually took over, as us emperor types do. We started adding the horns; Steve Van Zandt came aboard, and it turned into what I'd always wanted, but never had, which was a horn R&B band. It's been like that ever since. You know, we do rock 'n' roll, blues and all sorts of different things, so it isn't any one style that we adhere to, but that's what it started out as.
MR: You go into quite a bit of detail in your historical liner notes.
SJ: I hope they're historical and hysterical. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) They are. Tell me about your relationship with Bruce Springsteen.
SJ: Well, we were teenagers all of us -- a lot of us. In the Asbury Park area there was this club called The Upstage club that opened, and we would all gravitate there after our teenage gigs because we didn't want to go home. We wanted to go play more, jam, meet other musicians -- and girls would come there too, you know? We all met up there, and we would hang out 'til five o'clock in the morning jamming, talking and playing records for each other. It was just sort of this enclave of musicians that became sort of a lyceum. I had a lot of blues records that they hadn't heard, they had a lot of garage band records that I hadn't heard; Steven liked reggae... It was just this cauldron of different musical styles, and we were just soaking it up like a sponge. I guess we influenced each other, and those bonds that you form when you're seventeen, eighteen and nineteen years old, when you're determined to do something... But you don't know if anyone's going to pay any attention -- you don't lose those bonds. Those are things that you go through together and they last with you forever. When Bruce has a song that he doesn't think fits on an album -- or at least he has done in the past -- he's given it to me, which is a great, great gift. I remember when he gave me "The Fever," I couldn't believe it. I said, "This is going to be a hit record for you." He said, "Ah, it doesn't fit the album." He didn't have to ask me twice. (laughs)
MR: And that song has become one of your trademarks. Even though, as you say, you have a sound that encompasses a lot of different musical influences, you have a style that has been pretty consistent over the years.
SJ: I don't know about that. We've done the Tom Waits big band album, a solo album, a folkish album, we've done a blues album -- you know, you try to do different things. But The Jukes are The Jukes, so when you make a Jukes record, it's going to have horns on it, and that takes it into a certain territory. On Pills And Ammo, our last studio album, there was a lot more rock 'n' roll guitar solo things featured. So it's a very versatile thing, having a horn section, as long as you don't let it control you. It adds a great excitement and a great texture, but you have to make sure it's doing what you want it to do at the time. Otherwise, it does take you into soul and R&B territory, which I love--I'm not against that--but I want to be versatile enough to do other things too.
MR: Everybody thinks of a certain moment in time with Asbury Park. Do you look at Asbury Park now as having a specific role in delivering folks like you and Bruce Springsteen? Was there something so strongly happening there that it just couldn't help but become a national phenomenon?
SJ: I think mostly there were a lot of places to play. We had lots of bars, and especially during the summer, people wanted to go dance and drink, so we got to play in a lot of places even though we didn't do Top Forty and those sort of things. The Asbury Park audience, and all through New Jersey, were very open to hearing what we wanted to do. Bruce was lucky that way, I was lucky that way. They always let us play what we wanted to on stage, and if they liked it, they let us know, and fortunately for us, they did like it. We didn't have to conform to anybody's expectations, and I think that freed us up to become what we have become. I've always been very grateful to the Jersey audiences for being that open-minded. When Bruce first started to write songs to play with his band he had before The E Street Band, people would want to hear all these songs. Of course, he was a great performer, but not everybody gets a chance -- a lot of times people will walk out if they don't know the material. So, hats off to Asbury Park. They gave us the chance to create our own music.
MR: Looking at the music scene right now, are there any new artists or albums you've been listening to lately that have really popped out?
SJ: I always hear stuff. I listen to some college radio stations off and on, and some more eclectic radio stations, and you hear things. But you don't always catch who it is, so I have a hard time. There is always something interesting going on. I like The Wood Brothers, but they've been around for a while. I heard something the other day that I really like, Colin Linden. There's a lot of good music being made out there. Some of it is rootsy, some of it is very experimental. I'm not big on the electronic sound, so dance beats don't really move me all that much, but no matter what era it is somebody is making good music. You just have to be open to it.
MR: Your love cover of "Having A Party" is incredibly popular. What would you say is the most iconic thing about your live performances? Like, what is it that makes somebody say, "Only those guys can do that"?
SJ: (laughs) That's a loaded question, Mike. I think it's the free wheeling attitude we have on stage, where we don't follow a set list. If someone shouts out a song that we don't really know, we could try to play it. We've even written songs on stage. We try to let the music come out and lead us, and lead the audience to wherever it is they want to go. It's very much a collaborative effort, but it's also very spontaneous. It's not so much that we jam for long solos all the time, but we're willing to try any kind of music, and on the night if someone wants to play a cha-cha, we'll do a cha-cha. We are open to our own impulses and other people's impulses, and I think that's key to keeping it fresh, lively, and making sure the audience doesn't see the same thing over and over again. Also, the band doesn't want to play the same thing night after night -- we never have and we never will if I'm in charge.
MR: So you literally are "Having A Party" all the time.
SJ: Yeah, we're trying to make music. The way you make music is by letting it come out. You can rehearse until you're blue in the face, but if you're not open to some breeze that comes across the stage and blows you in a different direction, then you're really not making music, you're just putting on a show. I'm not in showbiz, I'm a musician.
MR: That's a nice way to put that. I've been looking at Playlist, and of course, there are all these fan favorites included. Are there any tracks on here that are a particular favorite, either from the studio side or performing live?
SJ: Well, "The Fever" opens us up to a lot of things. You can do it slow, you can do it fast, you can play different styles. "The Fever" is one of those great songs that can lend itself to a lot of different feels. I have a small acoustic side project, and we do that just with acoustic guitar and harmonica sometimes, and it really works that way too. That's one of those songs that you can do forever because you can always find something different in it. It's a great, great song.
MR: After "The Fever," we've got "I Don't Want To Go Home."
SJ: I always loved that song. Even if I don't want to do it, when they start it and the audience starts yelling, I'm lifted up. I mean, I'm there for that too. I'm not there to put something over, I'm there to get lifted up emotionally from the music and the audience response too. There's still a barrier between us and the audience, so I'm trying to break that down every night. If people want to hear it, and when they start to get involved in it, I get involved in it too.
MR: Playlist also includes "This Time It's For Real."
SJ: That's a great rock 'n' roll song. That's the song you pull out when you think things are flagging a little bit, or if the audience isn't quite responding. It's such a kick ass song that it gets people on their feet and gets your juices flowing too. You see, I get to do these songs live, and I know how they work, so they're all my favorites. I've been blessed with this material. I'm not going to s**t you, I'm lucky to have these songs. I could do a lot of things -- I could do blues, I could do my own songs, I could make up stuff -- but as long as I have these kind of songs to rely on, I know that I can never go wrong because I can always pull one of those out.
MR: A couple of my other favorites that were included in this collection were "Broke Down Piece Of Man" and "Without Love."
SJ: Yeah, "Without Love" works with the horns. They love that. They get to come up front and play, and the audience cheers, then I go, "Okay, get out."
MR: (laughs) And then there's this interesting track called "Love On The Wrong Side Of Town."
SJ: Yeah, that's a true story -- that's a Steven story. I think we've all been through that -- inappropriate relationships, or at least society thought they were inappropriate.
MR: And that leads us right into "Why Is Love Such A Sacrifice."
SJ: That's another subject we've all been through. We don't do that song as much as we used to -- I don't know why. You know, when you have over twenty albums and two hundred thirty songs that are recorded -- and the band knows another hundred songs just off the cuff, anything from "Mustang Sally" to "Brown Sugar" -- if I were to call any of those songs, the band would be able to play it, even though we've never played it together or rehearsed it.
MR: You have had quite an extensive body of work. Do you ever feel like you're now in a mentoring position?
SJ: (laughs) I'm no role model for anyone. It's like Lawrence Taylor used to say, "Look, I get paid to hurt people. Why would you use me as a role model?" (laughs)
MR: (laughs) Okay, regardless, what advice do you have for new artists?
SJ: Just love it. You're lucky that you get a chance to play. It's a tough grind, and it's a ridiculously hard business. A lot of times there's just no joy to be felt from people and there's a lot of negativity. A real musician knows, when they sit down to write a song with someone, or when they play in front of people and they get lost in it, that's what they should be doing. So even though the rewards can be scant at times, when you hit that golden moment, when you've sung a song or written a song that works, that's the reward. Stardom, money, all of that is peripheral. Really, the best thing you can do, if you feel it when you perform or when you write, don't listen to what anybody else says, just go ahead and do it. You can always go work at the Post Office.
MR: Nice. How many days a year does the band perform?
SJ: I don't know anymore. We used to do two hundred fifty. I think maybe it's one hundred now, or one hundred and ten, then you add side projects, charity shows and other stuff, so I guess one hundred twenty or thirty.
MR: I remember that you used to be playing literally nonstop. You'd always see an advertisement for Southside Johnny & The Asbury Park Jukes everywhere.
SJ: Yes, we would play five nights a week for months and months at a time. I don't want to do that anymore because at the end of six months, you have no idea who you are or where you are. It's not fun, there's no reward; it's just complete fatigue and burnout. I don't need to get burned out anymore, I've done that.
MR: Do you miss the early days, the sort of awe of it, doing it all for the first time?
SJ: Not really because it still is exciting to me. One of the things I promised myself years ago is that if I didn't like it anymore, I wouldn't do it. I'm still doing it, so I must like it. It was great when we first went on the road and we got to play in all these odd, beautiful places like Pittsburgh -- Cleveland, Akron, Ohio. We just played last month in Burnley, England. I had never been to Burney, and it's great. I mean, you go into a place that you've never been to before, and a lot of them have never seen you, so it's still the same thrill.
MR: England must love you because of the whole Northern soul thing.
SJ: Yes, we get a lot of that, but they've always liked us. When we first went in '77 and toured with Graham Parker, they thought we were the typical American band. They thought every band had a horn section, so it was kind of funny. We had a great time, and we still do.
MR: Is there anything about Southside Johnny or Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes that we need to know that we might not?
SJ: You know, I don't think you need to know anything, but I'm a bird watcher.
MR: I never knew that.
SJ: I've gone all over the world to look at birds. I take my binoculars with me when we go on tour, and then when we have down time, I get in a plane, get in a car, and drive, or I go to Costa Rica or Spain and I look at birds. You get out in the woods, forest, rain forest or desert and you're away from everything. The only thing that exists is you and the environment. You don't even have to look at birds, you're just away from all the worry and concerns. It's great therapy for me. I just like it as a chance to get away. You could ask a lot of people, "Do you want to go bird watching with me?" And ninety-nine percent of them would say, "No." And that's the answer you want.
MR: (laugh) Right, more room for you! Thank you so much for your time, this has been great, Johnny.
SJ: Thanks. Bye.
1. The Fever
2. I Don't Want To Go Home
3. This Time It's For Real
4. Got To Get You Off My Mind (Live)
5. Broke Down Piece Of Man
6. Without Love
7. Love On The Wrong Side Of Town (Live)
8. Trapped Again
9. I'm So Anxious (Live)
10. Talk To Me
11. All I Want Is Everything
12. Why Is Love Such A Sacrifice
13. Hearts Of Stone
14. Havin' A Party (Live)
Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney
A Conversation with Brett Morgen
Mike Ragogna: Brett, how are you?
Brett Morgen: I'm good.
MR: How did the Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane get started?
BM: I got a call from Mick Jagger sometime at the end of '11, and he was interested in putting together a movie to coincide with the Rolling Stones fiftieth anniversary. He wasn't sure what form he wanted it to be, he just knew that he wanted it to be a movie and not a mini-series. The first question is, how do you do a movie about a story that unfolds over fifty years? My thought at the time was that you can't do fifty years in two hours. The only way to pull that off is to find a story, lock onto it, and go into it with the understanding that you're not going to get everything in there. The other thing is that he wanted it to be a movie. Having read pretty much all the books about the Rolling Stones and seeing all the documentaries that have come out, the one thing that I felt wasn't represented was the sort of journey of the Rolling Stones -- the foundation of the Rolling Stones and how they came to be. The other thing he wanted to do was to tell the story in a way that is uniquely cinematic, that fully takes advantage of the medium that you're using to tell the story. So when we set out to make Crossfire Hurricane, the narrative that I locked onto was about how the Rolling Stones went from being the band that everyone hated to the band that everyone loved. That journey took us from '63 to somewhere around '81. It's a movie about how these guys played the role of the anti-Beatles, how they eventually sort of became the roles that they were playing, and then how those characters that they were playing nearly devoured them. Ultimately, they survived, just as The Rolling Stones have done with any obstacles or adversity that has come their way. I also wanted the film to not just be about the Rolling Stones, but to sort of try to make an experience -- so that you're not just hearing about an experience that happened to them, you're experiencing it.
MR: And you do that partly through the interviews you had with the guys. You have Mick, Keith, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood talking on camera. You also have Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor, so everybody is adding to this story. It seems like you've had the most access to the most amount of material about The Rolling Stones that I think there's ever been.
BM: I did the most extensive interviews with the band; we had around eighty hours of interviews. All the interviews were conducted one on one, with just a band member, myself, and a tape recorder. They were done over the course five months, and there were no subjects that were off limits. Basically, I'd lock myself in a room with one of them for three or four hours -- they were quite intimate -- and I think, to a certain extent, therapeutic.
MR: With all the research and time you put into this project, I imagine not only your knowledge about The Rolling Stones grew and changed, but also maybe your opinions and perceptions of the group. Did that happen?
BM: Of course, in the sense that prior to starting the movie, I was a fan of The Rolling Stones, but I wasn't a scholar of The Rolling Stones. For the last twenty-five years, I've listened to their music consistently, but I hadn't ready any books about them. I'd seen a couple of movies, but I hadn't read any books. So a lot of the story was really new and fresh to me. A lot of the time, if I like a band, it doesn't mean I want to go study up on the band's history. For me, the making of the film was illuminating every day. I was constantly coming across things I hadn't known. I think that I have a greater understanding as to why The Rolling Stones have survived the way they have, and why they were chosen to carry the mantle of The World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band.
MR: Can you explain more on that?
BM: Well, I think it's pretty complicated and loaded. I think every guy in the band has a role, and they each understand their role. I'm not talking about the band in the Bill Wyman era or Mick Taylor era, but... You know, if Charlie Watts had more ego, the band probably would not have survived. Everyone played their role. It's just as we were saying at the beginning. Just as they all played their roles as the anti-Beatles, they also all played roles within the band, and Charlie is like Switzerland. If he wasn't, and if they didn't have that stability and that foundation, in my mind, The Rolling Stones wouldn't be around today. Charlie is so grounded he almost borders on self-deprecating. Each of them in the band would say that he is the key to the whole thing. Charlie is the constant Zen master presence. Then if it wasn't for Ronnie, I don't think the band would have survived because Ronnie really brought this energy and enthusiasm that I think inspired Mick and Keith. On top of that, prior to being with The Rolling Stones, he had written one of the greatest rock 'n' roll songs of all time. So he wasn't just a guitarist, he was somebody that could contribute musically in a way that other people hadn't. Bill Wyman was the only sober guy in the band, and they loved him. Bill left the band first because he had a fear of flying. He's a guy that really likes to be grounded. He played the bass and created a foundation for the band, and I think if he was more of a partier, it might have disrupted the equilibrium of the band. They needed people like Bill and Charlie to be the rhythm section, and be comfortable standing behind the lights. One of the problems with Brian Jones was that Brian, I think, wanted to be up front and center in the band. The problem was that he was neither the songwriter nor the singer, which sort of pushed him off into the margins, and ultimately, I think, led to his early demise. Brian was also instrumental in the early days of the band because Brian was an incredible musician who brought a lot of amazing things to the group. Then, of course, you have Keith and Mick, and they balance each other off. I mean, they're complete yin and yang, they're polar opposites. I guess one thing that was surprising was, having met Keith and Mick, it's amazing that they have been bonded together for fifty years because of this band since they could not be more different. It's true like it is on any sports team. Everybody has a role to play, and if you don't accept your role or understand your role, there's going to be problems. I don't think the guys have always gotten along, but they also have shared an experience that nobody else in the world has shared. It's kind of like the Apollo program. So I think that cemented their bond, but I also think that the tension that has existed sometimes in the band is also heard in their music. That's one of the secret ingredients of The Rolling Stones, the music is really dangerous because it feels like it could fall apart at any second, and I think that tension and the competition, perhaps, is what really propelled them to go fifty years.
MR: What's funny is that Keith and Mick were seen as the anti-John and Paul, just as The Rolling Stones were the anti-Beatles, but the relationship between the two pairs seems quite similar in that they were very opposite people.
BM: I think in terms of lyrics, when The Rolling Stones came out, The Beatles were writing "I Want To Hold Your Hand," and The Rolling Stones were writing "Stupid Girl." The Stones clearly were writing songs in the spirit of the image that they were projecting out into the world. I think that The Beatles and The Stones shared a very similar sensibility. I think the difference in those early years really had to do with Brian Epstein and Andrew Oldham. Andrew encouraged them to be a bit raunchy. He wanted to separate them from The Beatles to create their own identity. Keith once said to me that sometime in '65, he was speaking with John Lennon and John said, "God, I wish I could be in your band. I bet it would be a lot more fun." I think what he was seeing was that The Beatles from about '63 to '65 all had matching uniforms, and The Stones refused to wear matching jackets and were allowed to be more individual. It's not that Mick had a darker sensibility than John Lennon, they were just allowed to express it.
MR: The Stones had many reboots. I think it could be argued that Tattoo You is a reboot, and Some Girls too, among others. It would seem that part of their longevity is due to their ability to reinvent themselves, and yet they still maintain that image as the world's greatest garage band.
BM: I think the one constant is that The Rolling Stones are a band's band -- they've always been a band's band. When they first started playing clubs back in '62, the place was moving. The difference between a Rolling Stones show and other shows then was that people would go to a Rolling Stones show to dance. So if you follow their music through the years, they've always been able to maintain that, even through the '70s stuff and Some Girls, or Black And Blue, which is basically one of the only rock albums that you can actually dance and shake your ass to. Of course, they've had their ballads, but that's really been the constant with The Rolling Stones, and that's something that Mick talked to at great length about with me, how he's always perceived them to be a band's band. I think though they've gone through these various, as you say, "reboots," there is more commonality between "Harlem Shuffle," "Miss You" and "I Want To Make Love To You" than meets the eye.
MR: What were the things that you learned in your research that surprised you the most?
BM: Those are really about the band and the individuals. Going into it, I had no idea that Mick Jagger was as funny as he was. There were times where I'd be sitting, and he can't help but be the entertainer, so he'd be doing imitations of the other guys in the band and really just putting on a show. It was absolutely hilarious. Keith is probably much more sensitive than people might think. I think Wyman's encyclopedic knowledge of the band is almost freakish. I think everyone knows that Charlie is a gentleman, but Charlie is like the Dalai Lama of rock 'n' roll. I think in terms of the band itself, I never really understood what happened to Brian Jones, or why he ended up how he ended up, and those were some of the more emotional and interesting interviews, the ones that centered around his contributions to the band and ultimately his demise. That was really illuminating to me.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
BM: The thing about The Stones is that rock 'n' roll should be provocative. I think one of the things this film shows is that even though they were getting rich along the way, they still knew how to provoke and to engage, they thought there shouldn't be rules and barriers. I also think rock 'n' roll should be theatrical. It is entertainment. It's called show business for a reason. I think what The Rolling Stones have that no one else had is the greatest front man in the history of music. So beyond the music, there was always something to look at, a show to see, and I think that combination was the key to their success.
MR: It's been ten or eleven years since The Kid Stays In The Movie was released. What are your thoughts on that film now?
BM: It's funny you should mention that. Somebody was just writing me about that this morning. You know, I felt at the time -- maybe not when we were making it, but definitely when we premiered it -- that we had created something really special. I also knew when we were making it that I wasn't going to have any reference points. It wasn't going to be like "this" film or "that" film because we were doing something that hadn't really been done before. I'm not just talking about the visual effects, but story-wise, with a guy telling a story while standing off camera for ninety minutes. It feels to me like one of those movies that you're lucky to do once in your lifetime; it was a perfect storm. It had an amazing way of describing that life, and had an amazing way of visually describing that. Those three things -- having the life, being able to describe it and then having the voice to carry it -- are a rare trifecta. I'd be surprised if there will ever be anybody like Bob, who can carry a story the way he can. It's something that I'm incredibly proud of, probably more so as the years carry me on and I see that the film still feels as current to me today as it did when it first came out. Anytime a film uses visual effects, often times, you go back ten years later to watch it, and they seem really dated. But there is a timeless quality to the scenes in this picture that I think will keep it in people's hearts and minds for years to come. There was a point.
MR: What's up next?
BM: I'm working on a movie about Kurt Cobain at the moment.
MR: And you're doing it from within the..
BM: ...yeah, it's an officially sanctioned film. We have access to all the music and all of his work. So, people can look for that I guess sometime in '14.
MR: Nice. Brett, this has been wonderful. Thank you so much.
BM: My pleasure man. It was fun.
Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney
photo credit: Courtesy of Badman Recording Co.
"I CAN'T FEEL YOU ANYMORE" WITH AINA HAINA
"It's better than the new Van Halen," says Badman Recording Co. founder, and drummer for Aina Haina, Dylan Magierek. The group Aina Haina has a vibe reminiscent of classic rock bands like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd that both band members grew up on. "Both Mike and I have been writing songs and producing for years, so we approached the album like we thought producer Mutt Lange might, with an emphasis on strong songs and catchy hooks. We tried not to get too emotionally attached to anything that was not ultimately making the song better," says Magierek.
Check it out for yourself, here's the exclusive for "I Can't Feel You Anymore."