It was thirty years ago this year (does anybody really know what date it was? Does anybody really care?) We’re almost halfway through the year, so I’m as close to right as a wild guess can be) that Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes released one of the best albums in the history of rock and roll – Hearts of Stone.
The Asbury Jukes were a flash in the pan on the national popular chart scene – “Hearts of Stone” got on the Top40 Album charts, and their only Top40 single, “It’s Been A Long Time”, didn’t happen until 1991, with the help of Bruce Springsteen, Miami Steve “Silvio Dante” Van Zandt and Jon Bon Jovi. But they’ve flitted about the edge of the scene for over thirty years; they were the frat party band in “Adventures in Babysitting”; the band, or at least its horn section, “La Bamba’s Mambomen”, are the heart of the “Max Weinberg Seven”, on the Conan O’Brien Show (and Weinberg has sat in with the Jukes many times – but more on that in a moment).
But that was now; “Hearts of Stone” is then.
The Jukes are a fossilized remnant from an almost-forgotten era; a horn-based rock and roll band that slathered itself in Stax/Volt-era Rhythm and Blues. Their first two albums were loud, horn-driven party rock, laced with covers and throwaways – think a Lamont Cranston band album, if you’re from the Twin Cities. They remind the casual listener of the J. Geils Band, which was from a very similar genre (Geils had to rent a horn section – and while John Lyon is a great harmonica player, Geils’ Magic Dick is the Stevie Ray Vaughan of the instrument). And, most importantly, they came from the Jersey Shore, where throughout the late sixties and early seventies the various members mixed and mingled with the cast of characters that fans of the scene know well, and the casual listener probably only knows via Bruce Springsteen. The Jukes, led by “Southside Johnny” Lyon, were a long-time mainstay in the bar scene on the Jersey Shore; to read the tales second-hand in books like Dave Marsh’s “Born to Run”, Jersey Shore bands were like Twin Cities’ leftyblogs; eventually everyone played in every other band. Several E Street Band members, in fact, sit in on “Hearts”. Max Weinberg plays drums on several tracks; Steve Van Zandt played in the band until Springsteen called him over to to the E Street Band during and after Born to Run; his distinctive, leaky, sloppy Strat playing accents several cuts on Hearts (“Got To Find A Better Way Home”, the title cut, “Light Don’t Shine” and others); Patti Scialfa hung out with the band for years before joining the E Street Band and, eventually, Bruce’s nuclear family.
Growing up in North Dakota, the Jukes were something you caught from the occasional zealot; her husband (and her brother in law) was the only other person in the history of Jamestown North Dakota besides yours truly to have actually heard of them.
The problem with the Jukes was that they were a great bar band; at their best, they were amazing live performers – on stage. And like a lot of great bar bands, it took a really good producer to get “their best” off the stage and into the studio. “Miami Steve” Van Zandt was, for a few years, that producer; he married the band’s tight ebullience with the best material the band ever recorded; although Hearts has been called “the best album Springsteen never released, Bruce only wrote two songs – the title cut and the album’s single, “Talk To Me”, and co-wrote a third (the claustrophobic but propulsive “Trapped Again”) with Van Zandt and Lyon. Van Zandt penned the rest of the album, and rode herd on the band in the studio. The end result was that rarest of artifacts; a great bar band making a great record. (Van Zandt repeated the feat two years later, with his uncredited production (along with Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson) of most of the Iron City Houserockers’ classic Have A Good Time (But Get Out Alive)).
As to the individual songs? Where do you start when every song is a highlight? The first song, “Got to Be a Better Way Home”, is a frantic rave-up with an off-kilter beat (that is begging for a ska remake); it pops up as a bumper on the NARN occasionally. Others – “This Time Baby’s Gone for Good”, “I Played the Fool”, “Take It Inside” – are in the same weight-class; big beefy bar-room raveups with glorious, horn-driven choruses; in an era when people thought Chicago was great music with horns, the Jukes showed the world how it was supposed to be done. If this album doesn’t make you do something – dance, drive too fast, smile – then you must be dead.
Along with “Got To Be…”, though, the standouts are “Light Don’t Shine” – a weary, guitar-driven breakup song that sounds like cigarette smoke and too many boilermakers and too much heartache:
They came to shake my hand
I don’t want them to touch me now
They said, “Congratulations” but it’s too late now
Where were they when I called?
How could they forget it all?
Didn’t you get what you need?
The fight was lost, it wasn’t meant to be
It isn’t as hard for you to leave
There’s no easy way for me
And of course, the title cut. “Hearts of Stone” was a Born to Run-era Springsteen song that never quite fit onto one of Bruce’s albums. Slow, smoky, launching with a classic Van Zandt guitar solo over tinkly last-call piano, it reminds me of Springsteen’s “Racing In The Street”, which came out the same year on Darkness On The Edge Of Town – maybe less symbolic, but more personal:
You stare in the mirror at the lines in your face
And you try so hard to see
The way things were when we were at your place
Everyday was just you and me
And you cry because things ain’t like before
Well, don’t you know it can’t be that way anymore
But don’t worry baby
I can’t talk now, I’m not alone
So put your ear close to the phone
This is the last dance, the last chance
For hearts of stone
It’s the best album the Jukes ever did – and it’s well within Steve Van Zandt’s top ten, and probably up in Springsteen’s top 25, too.
So if you like the genre, check it out. I have no idea if you can find the album on CD, anywhere in the world; I know the album is on ITunes (because, dang skippy, I bought it).
Anyway – happy anniversary, Bruce and Steve and John. Whatever date it actually came out.