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Southside Johnny Isn't Taking It Easy : Rock music: The performer says he still loves being onstage with band the Jukes even after almost 20 years of gigs. They'll play tonight at the Coach House.


At the start of a concert captured on his magnificent "Reach Up and Touch the Sky" album in 1981, Southside Johnny Lyon gave his fans a good scare.

"Hey listen, it's gonna be one of those relaxed nights, you know?" he began. "Y'all had Jackson Browne in here last night and the Doobie Brothers, so we're gonna put on our earphones and just sort of relax, take it easy. Play a little West Coast rock."

Whereupon guitarist Billy Rush started strumming the familiar opening chords of Browne's "Take It Easy," and Southside joined in, crooning lazily:

"Well I'm a-runnin' down the road trying to loosen my load, I got . . .

"For -GET IT!"

The crowd breathed a collective sigh of relief, the staccato high-hat/bass intro to "Trapped Again" cleared the remaining weirdness from the air, and the band kicked into a heated rendition of the song potent enough to have singed the eyebrows off anyone within a few square miles of the stage. Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes had come home.

That singular performance of "Trapped Again" embodied all the great soul, unbridled energy and precision musicianship that made Southside and the Jukes--who play tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano--one of the finest touring acts of the '70s and '80s.

Signed to Epic Records in 1975, in the wake of fellow-Asbury Park, N.J., resident Bruce Springsteen's first rush of notoriety, Johnny and the Jukes played Rolling Stones to Springsteen's Beatles: They were funkier, sweatier, hairier and a whole lot less friendly-looking than the so-called "Boss" and his E Street Band.

"We wanted to blend rock 'n' roll and R&B and Chicago blues," Lyon recalled recently on the phone from his home in Connecticut (he's back on the East Coast after a couple of years of living in San Clemente, a town he and his wife found a little too suburban for their taste).

"Back in the '60s, Steven (Van Zandt, who went on to join Springsteen's band) and I had an apartment together with some other musicians and we listened to a lot of Otis Redding and Ray Charles, Muddy Waters and Elmore James, and also a lot of Rolling Stones and Yardbirds. We wanted to put together a band that would combine all of these things, but also have horns. Traditionally, horn bands didn't have the big guitar sound, and we wanted to try that. We liked it loud ."

With Lyon's earnest blue-eyed soulman vocals punctuated by Motown-derived arrangements and the tightest, toughest horn section this side of the Bar-Kays, the Jukes struck a distinctly East Coast groove that could be as foreign and threatening as a Bed-Stuy punk with a switchblade.

Lyon, Rush, Van Zandt and Springsteen himself all wrote songs for the early Jukes albums, coming up with such classic fare as "Trapped Again," "I Don't Want to Go Home," "The Fever" and "Vertigo." It all seemed radio-friendly, but the record sales never matched the band's achievements and the Jukes never really rose above journeyman status, though they remained a popular concert attraction.

"The records we made didn't really fit into any category," said Lyon, now 44. "That's been one of the hard parts for record companies to deal with. They go, 'Who do we sell this stuff to?' But that's never been my concern."

Well, almost never. In the later part of the '80s, a discouraged Southside went solo, making an ill-advised and artistically disastrous foray into the world of dance music.

"That was a terrible mistake,' he now admits. "It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it really got out of control. You know, I go through periods where I really hate record companies. I mean loathe, abominate, pray to weird gods for them all to disappear. My budget for black candles is incredible.

"But I needed to make a new record in order to be able to go back out on the road, economics being what they are. Anyway, Billy Rush had some ideas, Nile Rodgers wanted to produce it, the record company was real excited about it, so I just kind of went with it and 'Trash It Up' was the album we made. I didn't feel like I was in control, and I think it showed. It's my fault, though. I never should have let it happen."

In 1991, Johnny teamed up again with Van Zandt and many of the original Jukes and came roaring back with "Better Days" (Impact Records), an album that effectively recaptured the uncompromising sound of the band's early years. But it met the same fate as its predecessors, winning praise from critics but failing to make a dent in the charts. (As if to illustrate the hard luck that has plagued the group, Impact Records since has ceased to exist.)

Undaunted, Lyon is writing new songs to pitch for yet another Jukes album. He says he gets his greatest thrill, though, from performing rather than recording.

"I can't complain, because I've made a living at music for the last 20 years and not a lot of people can do that. It would have been nice to be able to file some money away and pay the band more, but hey--whatever. I didn't get involved in music because of those reasons. I became involved as a teen-ager because I loved the music, and I still do.

"I still sweat like a pig onstage; it's one of my more endearing characteristics. There are few times in life when you really get to transcend yourself, when you can get outside of your own ego. Onstage is one of those times when you can really hit it, if everything's right. It's the best high in the world and I'm a junkie for it. You can't get that every night, but that's what I always try for."

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes play tonight at 9 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $21.50. (714) 496-8930.

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