When it looked as if Matt Juliano might die of COVID-19, people the Juliano Brothers didn’t even know started sending priests to the hospital. Lying in bed, Matt Juliano had no idea. At one point, he thought he was in Cape May, not Willingboro.
Just thinking about it, finally at home Thursday in Gloucester County, not even there for 10 minutes, the eyes of this teddy bear of a Jersey Shore lead guitarist with a day job welled up with tears, and he gulped back sobs as he gulped in oxygen.
“I’m just a guy from Jersey,” he said, surrounded by friends and family as if he were Dorothy back from Oz.
Just a guy in a band from Jersey, actually. A Jersey bar band, the kind that plays dead-on covers that send their fans back in time, with followings from Sea Isle City to Philly to Key West.
So what if they’re not the E Street Band. This crazy months-long coronavirus odyssey that nearly did the Juliano Brothers all in, spread to six more of their friends and family, and hit with a vengeance, in particular with Matt, 59, but also to bass player Greg, 51, and drummer Mike, 62, taught them all something incredible. Their fans are crazy about them. And don’t want to lose them.
Greg said they received about 30,000 well wishes, have raised about $28,000 for medical expenses, and are still talking about the people who sent bottles of Padre Pio Holy Water to Matt’s room. Matt spent 102 days in the hospital, much of it in a medically induced coma.
In retrospect, would longtime fans of this beloved Jersey Shore cover band, or maybe any Jersey Shore cover band, be expected to do any less?
“I fought for all of youse,” Matt said Thursday at his kitchen table in National Park, a homecoming spread of meats and cheese and champagne in front of him. “So hard.”
Meanwhile, in Sea Isle City
As all this drama was playing out, Greg posting Facebook videos first from his hospital bed, then from home, still gasping for air, then getting better, then the triumphant (no dancing, no bar stools) return to the Laughing Fox Tavern on the White Horse Pike in Magnolia, two of the three brothers back in the saddle since January, their longtime home down the Shore was literally biting the dust.
The brothers started playing with their parents as teenagers, in a band called Family Affair. In the last decade and a half, they solidified their place in the pantheon of Shore cover bands in such bars as Keenan’s Irish Pub in North Wildwood and, most iconically, the Springfield Inn.
That landmark Sea Isle bar that held so many memories for people had already closed, and a sale was pending. On Feb. 8, an excavator tore through the main building and Carousel beach bar on 43d Street. There was little resistance left in the old girl.
“They tore down the Carousel with one hook, they just grabbed it and pulled it right down,” said Mike, as he waited for Matt to arrive home from Marlton Rehab.
“We were lucky, we got some of the bar stools out,” he said. “They’re down the Shore at a friend’s house.”
Greg was getting messages and videos about the demolition, but he could barely take it in with all that was going on. The band had already moved on to the Ocean Drive, another iconic Sea Isle bar. They’d said their goodbyes after a 15-year run, and were happy for the owners. Terry Eidenberg, one of the sisters who ran the Springfield for decades, made sure they would be welcomed at the OD.
Greg’s wife, Diane, who is corporate director of nursing at Jefferson Stratford Hospital, and kept close watch on the hospital stays of all three brothers, said she is looking forward to seeing the sisters who ran the Springfield “on the other side of the bar, actually enjoying themselves.”
After decades of being there for people turning 21 at the crowded Springfield, and then being there as those same people endlessly reminisced about that first time, it should have been no surprise to the brothers how devoted their fan base is. But it still was. They had already lost others in their musician circle to COVID-19. They don’t take anyone’s prayers or well wishes for granted.
In the hospital, Greg was inundated with messages and took to Facebook, shirtless and hooked up to oxygen, decades of being a nice, relatable lead guitarist in a Jersey Shore cover band making the intimacy unremarkable. “It became easier to quote unquote address the crowd,” he said.
“We’re not rock stars,” he said. “It really solidifies the fact there are some really wonderful human beings out there. They were offering help any way that they could — that was from everyone. From bars we haven’t even worked at for years.”
Eidenberg says the Springfield’s new owners, who also own the Point in Somers Point, plan a beach-bar concept. Unlike the Springfield, the Point at Sea Isle will close at 11 p.m.
Mike the drummer got it first
The Juliano brothers used to joke about being 1,200 pounds of jukebox, but in truth, they had all lost a lot of weight since those days. But all three ended up hospitalized with COVID-19.
Mike Juliano contracted coronavirus first. Even though the band played gigs all last summer and into the fall, indoors and outdoors, they say they have contact-traced Mike’s exposure to a hospital stay for a foot infection in late October.
From there, he spread it to his sister, and then, it lit a fire through the family’s inner circle. Matt got it the worst, spending 60 days on a ventilator. At one point, the family was told he had a 1% chance of survival.
“Michael was in the hospital for a week,” said Diane. “He recovered. Meanwhile, the rest of us were getting diagnosed one by one, as we were having symptoms.”
Matt went into the hospital on Nov. 23, and Greg was hospitalized Nov. 26, Thanksgiving morning.
At the kitchen table on Thursday, Matt, a woodworker, said he was still winded, and a shoulder problem would keep him from lifting his guitar.
“He’ll be fine,” said Mike. “He was already moving his fingers. He’ll be back.”
‘I prayed for his brother’
At the Laughing Fox, the show went on Thursday night, the same day Matt came home. Two of the three Juliano brothers took the stage. Sitting in for Matt were two other veterans of the local band scene: Carlo D’Alessandro of That 70s Band on the keyboard and Danny Eyer of AM Radio Tribute on lead guitar.
“We can’t wait to have him back,” Eyer said before the band’s opening set. Still, he said he was glad to have the work.
The band started off with a cover-band classic, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” Greg’s vocals taking on a slight tinge of British with his Jersey accent, a smooth Steely Dan by way of Juliano spreading out over the tavern for the pandemic-starved audience. They’d later cycle through the Doobie Brothers, Procol Harum, and Jethro Tull. “We forgot to smoke pot in the parking lot,” Greg joked.
Greg told the audience Matt still was not out of the woods, and would be going to outpatient rehab. They’re hoping for a full Juliano Brothers band this summer.
“It’s gonna be one heck of a reunion show when Matt finally gets back on stage again,” Greg had said earlier in the day. The family has already decided on the first song: Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town.”
Shing Chiu, the Laughing Fox owner, said all the money from the night’s raffle would go to Matt. It was Chiu who persuaded Greg to bring the Matt-less Julianos back to the Laughing Fox, fresh out of the hospital. Chiu knows he’ll lose them to the Shore come Memorial Day.
“I really don’t pray that much,” Chiu said, “but I prayed for his brother.”