and the Devil himself...

and the Devil himself...

Sunday, July 4, 2010

4th of July, Asbury Park

A few years ago, I had a rather remarkable opportunity to visit and write about the Stone Pony, one of the best known rock venues in the world. Birthplace of the influential "Asbury Sound", it's one of the only venues in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Springsteen has played there since the 70s, usually unannounced, (and he's played there more than anywhere else in his career). 

When I asked the doorman about the people he'd met, ("Pocket" who I was soon told had virtualy volunteered his supervisory services for over a decade, just because he likes to), he said laughingly, "I knew Bon Jovi before he was Bon Jovi and Sebastian Bach before he could drink." To call it a club seems, well, just right actually. It helped define the term. 

The walls are covered with memorobila; here Bob Dylan's stage pass, there a photo of the Bacon Brothers, (featuring Jersey native Kevin Bacon), everywhere a piece of history. The stage is small and so close to the ground that it's almost like the band is an extension of the audience.

One side of the place opens to the ocean; even when you're outside, the performers are only a short distance away. I'm talking Mike Ness with Bruce Springsteen within 10 feet folks. The experience changed the way I look at music and the way I play music, for good.

I arrived late in a late summer Friday afternoon. It was only reluctantly that I left on Monday, having come very close to legends, going native and death by hurricaine. What started as an interview turned into a immersive crash-course in Rock and Roll. I think I learned as much in those four days as I have in some years.

Some of the staff were setting the stage, (including Ratdog's former sound-man). As I talked to them about the town, I discovered the place where the Pony stood had been an artery of American music since Ragtime.  These days you wouldn't think of a trombone player as particularly daring. Back then, however, an Asbury Park man named Arthur Pryor literaly revoloutionized music with one.

Pryor, I learned, got in a fight with Sousa soon after inventing the slide trombone and quit his then top band, (he'd been the star player). To Sousa's great dismay, he started an even better, more popular band and played on the Asbury Boardwalk. In fact, he literally died doing so around WWII. A perfectionist known for his temper, he had a fight with a band-mate that was more than, at that age, he could stand.

As the staff and bands trickled in they told more tales of the history of Asbury and the Pony. I learned firsthand about the legendary Asbury Jukes, heard sometimes shocking and always unexpected antecdotes of  bands gone wild, of what Asbury was like when it was a major film-making spot, (Dianne Keaton and Woody Allen were regular fixtures), of how Johnny Cash used to own a floor of a nearby hotel, and of course of Springsteen.

Rumors were ramapnt that he was going to show up that night. As everyone around me began expounding upon reasons why it was so, citing past examples as evidence, Springsteen's some-time bandmate Soozie Tyrell began setting up.

Promoter Kyle Brendle, long a fixture at the Pony, kindly offerred the use of the office and I got an inside glimpse into what goes into keeping a five band show on a likely Springsteen night at the Stone Pony running smoothly.  It took a collective, sustained effort that sped non-stop from the early evening straight through to dawn, then began all over again around noon.

The phone rang ceaslessly. A revolving door of staff and managers spun echoing with questions and comments. The back hallway was full of bands and more managers and staff. Food needed to be ordered. There were coastal flood warnings. Springsteen probably wasn't coming...  Just then Elmo, an elusive, omnipresent figure who darted in and out doing a little of everything and keeping it all running smoothly, stuck his head in,

"The guy on-stage just broke a string," he said. "He wants to know if he can go get his other guitar. I don't think we have time, what do you think?"

"He doesn't have another guitar on stage?" Kyle asked.

Just returned from a week of Appalachian string festivals I couldn't help but interject, "If he can't play with five strings he doesn't have any buisiness playing at the Stone Pony."

Kyle laughed and said, "Get him off the stage."  I heard more laughter behind me. Encouraged, I began expounding upon strings, Appalachia and Springsteen's Seeger Sessions, soon finding new friends in a pair of men in black outside the door.

When they left I discovered I'd spent the past 1/2 hour talking with Paul Ossala, former SNL Band bassist and Brian Mitchell, keyboard player for the Levon Helm band. The whole weekend was like this. It really was pretty mind blowing. Quite a change from the preceeding week in a tent in Appalachia.

I left the frenzy of the office for the frenzy of the club. The music was amazing. The energy was inimitable. I could tell that the Stone Pony is a place where musicians truly enjoy playing; everyone, in spite of the pace, was very casual, laid back, truly like a family. Don't get me wrong, it was hard and fast and gritty and mean too; every side of rock and roll you can imagine, and a lot of them you can't, is present there. It truly feels like it always has been.

The only thing missing that weekend was Springsteen and he very likely would have been there if it hadn't been for the hurricaine. We were all having such a good time that we didn't notice it until it started blowing rain into the sound board.

That stopped the show but by no means stopped the bands, staff and friends. Everyone braved the torrential downpour, (the body-hurling wind didn't set in until the next morning), and went to the famed Johnny Cash hotel, (the Berkley), where we partied till the sun rose over a rather foreboding and somewhat angry-looking ocean.

When I went to my car the hurricaine that had brewed all night was blowing like a Tornado waiting to take me to Oz. 

There's more to tell, much more so this is...

To Be Continued...

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