Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Brooklyn roots of Chicago, and some Garden State rock: Smithereens and Southside Johnny

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've discovered in Eliot Wagner someone whose musical tastes are almost eerily similar to mine. One thing I especially like is that we have, from a rock critics' consensus point of view, the same lapses in judgment. Eliot has sent me several CDs of podcasts he's done over the past year or so, and on them I've found, among other things, some mostly critically despised oldies that I nevertheless love. Consider the clip above of the band Chicago doing "Twenty-five or Six to Four". Chicago is one of those bands, like the Grateful Dead, that critics love to hate. For example, here's my late Bells of Hell drinking companion, Lester Bangs, dishing on their live album Chicago at Carnegie Hall (from Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, the posthumous anthology of Lester's writing edited by Greil Marcus; this review originally was published in Creem, February 1972):

In fact, I've only played [Chicago at Carnegie Hall] once since I got it, and never intend to play any of it again. ... Does it really matter that the songs sound exactly like they do on the studio albums except for being immeasurably more sodden and stuffed with long directionless solos? Or that the brass arrangements sound like Stan Kenton charts played backwards? Or that as technically competent as Chicago may be, there are just too many times when you can hear all the parts better than the whole?
I'm not enthusiastic about some of Chicago's stuff, especially Color My World (my taste in prom belly-rubbers runs more to the likes of My True Story by the Jive Five, or "Hearts of Stone" by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, about which more below), but I've found "Twenty-five" captivating since I first heard it during my third year of law school. I was surprised to learn that Robert Lamm, Chicago's keyboardist and vocalist, as well as the writer of "Twenty-five", "Saturday in the Park", and several other of their hits, grew up in my neighborhood, Brooklyn Heights, New York, and began his musical training in the Grace Church youth choir, where he was a contemporary of balladeer Harry Chapin. Since neither Chicago nor Chapin was much liked by critics, I've taken to calling Grace Church the "Rock and Roll Hall of Shame".

For the next critically despised piece that Eliot and I both like, here's a band from Carteret, New Jersey:


Smithereens Behind the Wall of Sleep by Celtiemama (a commercial comes first).

Sometime in 1986, when my clock radio was tuned to WNEW-FM, then an AOR station, I was awakened by a group I'd never heard of, the Smithereens, doing a song called "Behind the Wall of Sleep", from behind which wall it abruptly transported me. I immediately liked the song, both for its balls-to-the-wall style and for its intriguing lyrical references: for example, to the swinging mod London that was a cynosure of my youth ("hair like Jeannie Shrimpton"), and to a hint of androgyny ("she stood just like Bill Wyman"). Critics complained that the Smithereens sounded too much like the Beatles or the Byrds (not a bad rap, in my view), though to me they sound like neither. They aren't as good as, say, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, but they're good at what they do.

Thinking about the Smithereens led me to think of other Garden State rockers, and to depart from Eliot's play list (though I'm sure he'll approve of what follows). Two great rock acts emerged from the Jersey Shore in the early 1970s: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes.

"Southside Johnny" Lyon got his nickname from his early love of Chicago blues that he heard on a Newark radio station while growing up in the Jersey Shore town of Neptune. He later became a fan of Memphis style R&B, with its strong rhythmic base and horns accompanying guitars and keyboard. This provided the template for his band, the Asbury Jukes. In their R&B roots and use of horns, they were like the group Chicago; unlike Chicago, they were critically acclaimed but never a great commercial success. This may have been because they were overshadowed by Springsteen. There is not, and never has been, bad blood between Southside and The Boss. They have performed together and, perhaps most significantly, they have shared band members. "Miami Steve" Van Zandt and Max Weinberg have both performed with the Asbury Jukes, as has Patti Scialfa, who became Springsteen's wife. When the Jukes' third album, the 1978 Hearts of Stone, rated by Rolling Stone one of the top 100 albums of the 1970s and 80s (in my opinion it's one of the top ten rock albums of all time, and the only one I've loaded onto my iPod wholesale, as every track is magnificent), failed to sell as well as expected, CBS Records' Epic unit dropped them. Since then, Southside and the Jukes have soldiered on, with many personnel changes in the band. Perhaps the only constants have been saxophonists Stan Harrison and Ed Manion, and trombonist Richie "La Bamba" Rosenberg. Christina Black's article, "Lyon in Winter", from New Jersey Monthly, December 2007, reviews Southside's career post Hearts of Stone, noting his difficulty finding a new record deal because of his reluctance to do what the labels' A&R people wanted him to do. To free himself from such demands, he's now established his own label, Leroy Records, and has recently released a new album, Pills and Ammo, on that label.

The clip above, courtesy of handsatlanta, shows Southside and the Jukes doing the Springsteen-penned "Talk to Me" (originally released on Hearts of Stone) at Lake Como, New Jersey, as broadcast on the Mike and the Mad Dog Show in 2007. Southside manages to coax a lovely though reluctant harmony vocalist, wearing--God bless her--a pink Mets cap, to join him onstage. One of the Jukes is wearing a Mets jersey. You can see why I love this video. I figured Southside and the Jukes were Mets kind of guys.