You can always tell a Jersey musician without really having to open Wikipedia. Maybe it’s the gritty realism of the songs a la Springsteen that shines a light on the 70s Mustang-driving underdog. Or perhaps it’s the witty storytelling ability a la The Front Bottoms of street-level observations that wallow in the mundaneness of suburbia. Or maybe it’s the blue collar lifestyle a la Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes that would rather drink and smoke under the boardwalk. But whatever is in that Jersey water, it flows through every Jersey musician’s veins… You can practically smell it.
Asbury Park-born and bred singer songwriter Sammy Kay is no different. With a gravel-studded voice reminiscent of early Darkness on the Edge of Town Springsteen and a similar flair for sentimental tales of the underdog, Kay weaves a story so immersed in the suburban Jersey tradition with his new single “Methamphetamines” that you’d swear his boots were previously worn by John Easedale of Dramarama. It’s the sound of the deserted Seaside Heights boardwalk in the winter, abandoned by the summer tourists from the city, steeped in the creeping depression of the vacated Jersey shore. It’s lonely but poignant… It’s music you want to listen to but not live through.
Retelling a harsh reality once lived when he was a punk in his younger years, “Methamphetamines” is a not-so-nostalgic look back at a drug-fueled, troubled life of a musician trying to survive. Now a reformed and much-more-together “new” parent, this is Kay’s personal story behind the song.
Recently married and relocated from Asbury Park to Bakersfield, CA with two new step daughters to keep him grounded, the Jersey boy-isms inside him are still clawing from within to be heard. The song may have the mature foundation of a West Coast grown up, but its heart is still in Jersey. “‘Methamphetamines’ was written around Christmas of 2019,” Kay reminisces fondly of the origins of the sepia (or is it piss)-drenched song. With a continent of land between the memory of his past as a firebrand and his current life as a mature dad, his priorities may have shifted, but the storytelling remains the same. “It was my first Christmas as a parent, and all I wanted to do was spoil the girls, being their new stepfather.”
Like most indie musicians living in the money-draining paradigm of the current music biz, Kay’s last trek on the road started off with big hopes and ended with empty wallets. “The tour I had just gotten off of hadn’t gone as planned, and money was tight,” he recalls. “Jokingly, I turned to my wife and started playing [what turned into ‘Methamphetamines’], reminiscing of the rent-controlled apartment I lived in in New York City.”
Instead of bright lights and marquees lit with “Sammy Kay” in bold letters, the raspy realism wasn’t so rosy. Instead of eating lobster at Carmine’s and having drinks at The Russian Tea Room, his world consisted of eating dollar pizza on Avenue A, drunk, stoned or probably both. “Well that was when we were young and dreaming of that old New York / Lay away your dying wish for a C note every month,” he sings of the hardship and bleak romance of his guttersniping past. But following the path blazed by Sid and Nancy was not in his cards, so he escaped and cleaned himself up… and wrote a song about it.
“The comedy of it was me trying to write a John Prine song, and the chorus was an attempt to have an epic Leonard Cohen chorus,” he laughs of his artistic attempt.
Anchored by the majestic horns of Ray Mason (My Morning Jacket, Deer Tick, Weezer) who happened to be in town when Kay was tracking, “Methamphetamines” is an epic song filled with militaristic drum rolls and pedal steel, sonically dreamy yet poundingly pragmatic… It’s Billy Bragg mixed with Tom Waits… but only if both grew up in Asbury Park.
With his drug-addled East Coast past behind him and parental duties now beckoning on the West Coast, Kay can’t shake the Jersey rocker dust off his boots, not that he wants to. “The concept of old New York is a constant in my life, always looking back at the years I was an addict and a heavy alcoholic, trying to always push forward in recovery,” he muses.
This reclaiming of his life and, ultimately, his sanity is a journey he is happy to have embarked on, but the grappling of that lifestyle did a number on his mental health which he readily admits to. “You can struggle and live a very poor life. Sometimes, you’ve got to go and do it and not be in pain. Some people say suicide is ‘selfish,’ and I see it a lot,” he explains. “What sounds to be a pretty love song, with how we did it with the mellotron and the pedal steel, it’s a love letter that’s also potentially a suicide note.”
As bleak as that sounds, Kay has thankfully made it through the tunnel. With a new life ahead of him and new adventures as a dad to explore, that Jersey-ness won’t ever leave. Like the drugs he quit that echoes in the stories that he tells, the gritty ability to mix basic storytelling with tales of the underdog is still very much part of him. With witty street-level life observations in check, he ends “Methamphetamines” with a couplet with such typical Jersey realism you can practically smell it. “You know I quit doing methamphetamines / holding out for your forgiveness, or just a pack of smokes.”