At first glance, Southside Johnny Lyon and Tom Waits might seem at disparate ends of the musical spectrum. New Jersey native Lyon is a progenitor of the Jersey Shore sound with its brassy, party-time fusion of rock & roll and rhythm & blues. California’s Waits came into prominence during that state’s singer-songwriter boom, touching on folk before settling into a piano-based, jazz-influenced sound that he would ultimately jettison in favor of a more experimental and avant-garde direction. Yet Lyon and Waits (born just a year and three days apart on opposite coasts) found common ground on Southside’s 2008 release Grapefruit Moon. Recording live in the studio over four sessions with Richie “La Bamba” Rosenberg’s 17-piece big band – Rosenberg arranged, orchestrated and conducted – and producer-engineer Dan Gralick, Southside cut twelve of Waits’ finest compositions and remained true to both his own legacy and the songwriter’s. Now, Grapefruit Moon has been polished up for a new CD reissue with one bonus track on the Pacific Records label, and it’s sounding as punchy, fresh, and imaginative as ever.
Instead of drawing primarily on Waits’ 1973-1980 Asylum Records period in which he was regularly turning out future standards for the saloon crowd, Lyon, Gralick, and Rosenberg have instead concentrated on his more adventurous, post-1980 work for Grapefruit Moon. In doing so, they’ve rediscovered the beating heart of these songs (many written by Waits with his wife Kathleen Brennan) that might have been obscured for some listeners by the offbeat instrumentation or rough-hewn vocal delivery on Waits’ own LPs. Their selections recast the songs in a new light, playing to Southside’s strengths as a swaggering, full-throated showman while bringing out the nuances in Waits and Brennan’s justly-hailed songwriting.
Grapefruit Moon opens with “Yesterday Is Here,” one of three songs from Franks Wild Years, the album based on Waits and Brennan’s 1986 musical staged at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre under the direction of Gary Sinise. Franks‘ depiction of a down-and-out dreamer found Waits (who also starred as Frank) in the tawdry, whiskey-soaked milieu of his early albums; the New York Times noted that the show’s score was “a sort of vaudevillian instrumental mélange dominated by cheap horns and accordion.” There’s nothing cheap about La Bamba’s expansive arrangements here. He’s playing Nelson Riddle to Southside’s Sinatra, and the orchestrations are big, bold, and brash with ample room for the instrumentalists to stretch out and solo. (Happily, the soloists are credited on the back cover.) The charts frequently go in unexpected directions, as with the joyful explosion of Latin music on Franks‘ “Temptation.” (CHIC’s Fonzi Thornton is among the background vocalists on this track.)
Waits creates characters even when not writing for the theatre, and Southside Johnny embodies them on Grapefruit Moon – whether the sad, wounded romantic of “Please Call Me, Baby” (“And I wish to God you’d leave me/Baby, I pray to God you’d stay/Life’s so different than it is in your dreams…”) or the defiant ex-lover of “All the Time in the World” (“You’re the ditch in the road where the wheels keep spinning/You’re the same dead cat, clawing its way back grinning…”). The latter is reinvented by La Bamba with a throbbing, insinuating orchestration appropriately dedicated to John Barry as it conjures up the feel of the ’60s James Bond film soundtracks. “Johnsburg, Illinois” is as elegantly simple as “All the Time in the World” is bombastic, calling to mind the understated beauty of Randy Newman’s best work.
The material is varied throughout, from reflective ballads (the wistful “Grapefruit Moon”) to boisterous rousers (“Down, Down, Down,” on which Southside is joined by singers including Gralick, Rosenberg, and Jersey music mainstay Bobby Bandiera) and story songs (the gleefully sinister “Dead and Lovely”). The singer and bandleader handle them all with confidence and aplomb. Southside’s rock and roll spirit fits The Heart of Saturday Night‘s “New Coat of Paint” like a glove. From the same album, he invests the melodic ballad “Shiver Me Timbers” with sensitivity and adds its evocative harmonica over La Bamba’s bed of brass and woodwinds. With recordings by James Taylor and Waits’ onetime girlfriend Bette Midler, “Shiver” is probably the most famous song here, as Lyon and Gralick avoided the more familiar likes of “Jersey Girl” or “Downtown Train.” It’s also one of the strongest cuts on Grapefruit Moon.
Waits joins Lyon for the delightfully dark romp “Walk Away.” Their gritty voices – Lyon’s with the burnished rasp of experience, Waits’ almost impossibly guttural – prove complementary; indeed, the rapport between the two men is obvious as they trade lines over the backdrop of woozy muted trumpets and barrelhouse piano. For the 2021 edition, one bonus track has been added: Southside and La Bamba’s energetic live duet on the Franks Wild Years pastiche of a Las Vegas showstopper, “Straight to the Top.”
The remaster is simply packaged within a six-panel digipak containing full credits for the musicians on all four sessions. The original album was mastered by the late, great Doug Sax; this new remaster by Sascha Peterfreund honors the spirit of Sax’s original work.
“Now I’m smoking cigarettes and I strive for purity,” sings Southside on “Grapefruit Moon,” “and I slip just like the stars into obscurity.” Neither Southside Johnny nor Tom Waits have to be concerned about fading into obscurity. Grapefruit Moon – a swingin’ tribute from an interpretive singer to a songwriter – is testament to their enduring artistry and the surprising closeness of their musical worlds. “Grapefruit Moon, one star shining, shining down on me…Heard that tune and now I’m pining, honey, can’t you see?” We’re pining for more, too.
The remastered Grapefruit Moon is available now at the Pacific Records store.