The Stone Pony: Eddie Lives!
If you grow up in Jersey, spending your summers "down the Shore," you're predisposed to a certain sort of nostalgia. It's a nostalgia straight out of an unreleased Bruce Springsteen song, and, wherever you may go, however cool and hip you become, you still harbor a secret yearning for cotton candy scented breezes, the clamor of a boardwalk throng, and sand seething under your toes. Even if you've traveled, seen the glorious white sand stretches of the Carribean, the desolate beaches of Maine, the glitz of Miami Beach, there's something that will always be perfect about Jersey in July. Something you won't really talk about, because you're embarrassed, but if you grew up summering at the Jersey Shore, you'll keep a secret copy of John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band's Eddie and the Cruisers Soundtrack in your glove compartment just in case you find yourself cruising Ocean Avenue some Saturday night. It may be all indie rock and obscure bands when you're in the East Village, but you can't quite shake your secret love for classic rock guitars, a gritty voice, and a pseudo-soulful saxophone.
I grew up in Jersey and I'm lucky to still have access to a family owned house at the Shore. It was my grandmother's, now it's my mother's, and I join the throngs heading South on the Garden State Parkway every Friday and hightail it out of the City, cause as Tom Waits wrote it and the Boss sings it, "Down the Shore everything's all right..." There's none of the pretension of the Hamptons, you can leave your Prada beach tote at home, and the nightlife, well the nightlife, is pure Jersey. There's still big hair around, there's still Camaros cruising the parking lots, and there's cover bands at every bar who can get the crowd all misty singing "Thunder Road."
This past Memorial Day Weekend, part of Jersey Shore and Rock n Roll history was revived with the reopening of the Stone Pony in Asbury Park. Best known as the place where Bruce got his start, the Pony played host to a number of great bands in the 1960s and 1970s. For bands on the rise, it was a stop between New York and Philadelphia, and when he wasn't on tour, there was always the possibility that Springsteen would be sitting at the bar, maybe even willing to join the bands on stage. For part of that time, Asbury Park was a thriving coastal city. The amusement pier stretched out into the ocean, it's ferris wheel glowing against the night sky as it slowly spun necking couples up and out into the night, seemingly over the ocean. Barkers called from the boardwalk stalls, hawking games of no-real-chance with highly flammable stuffed toy prizes, and the skeeball machines bitterly spit out tickets for the winners. The art-deco motels around the beach were full, and the Pony as well as its neighbors The Saint and the Fast Lane, throbbed with music every weekend night.
My mother was a regular at those bars during her mildly misspent youth, and when I was a kid she used to tell me about dancing the night away to Springsteen while sucking down Rolling Rock and Budweiser 7 oz nips. But, like many American cities, Asbury Park was ripped by race riots in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and parts of the city literally burned. Combine racism, stunning levels of government corruption and a failure to rebuild anything, and the city slowly began to shut down. The ferris wheel still spun when I was a kid (I got stuck all the way up top for about half an hour one night when it broke), but the tourists, and their money, stopped coming. The motels closed up shop, downtown boarded up, jobs disappeared. At some point, a suspicious fire claimed the amusement pier. By the early 90s, Asbury Park looked like other resort towns in the off season-almost totally vacant and menacing-even at the height of summer. There was crime, drug related violence, rampant car theft, and hookers. The Pony held on for a while, unable to bring in those up and coming bands anymore, local bands ranging from bad to worse took the stage. Finally, in the mid-90s, the doors were shut.
But recently, with real estate prices suddenly rising in the more genteel (read white) towns south of Asbury Park, people have begun to realize that there are millions of dollars worth of beach front property just sitting gathering graffiti in Asbury. New nightclubs, many aimed at the growing gay and lesbian community in Asbury Park and Ocean Grove opened. There's been talk of reviving the pier. There's a lot of construction down by the beach. And, this past winter, an entrepreneur from Jersey City bought the Stone Pony building and re-opened the doors on the Friday before Memorial Day.
That first night, he brought in John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band to open for old time Pony stalwart, Gary U.S. Bonds. That's right kids, Eddie and the Cruisers played the Pony, and for the nostalgic Jerseyite in all of us, nothing could have been better. Eddie and the Cruisers, for those of you who somehow have reached your late 20s or early 30s and don't know, is the seminal, 1983 B-movie that mixed the Bruce Springsteen sound with the Jim Morrison legend. It helped to launch the careers of Ellen Barkin and Tom Berringer and its soundtrack let mediocre classic rocker John Cafferty send his kids to college. You remember, don't you, "Dark Side," "Summer Nights," "Tender Years." It's horrible stuff, cliche ridden, derivative, boring. And totally addicting.
My sister, girlfriend and I arrived at the Pony after a two bottle of wine dinner. We were, to put it nicely, in a very, very good mood. We also brought the median age in the packed room down by about 20 years. Mom and Dad are rocking the Shore tonight! When John and the Beaver Brown Boys took the stage (damn, they look old), they really couldn't have disappointed the well-lubricated, middle-aged crowd, but man, they were good. John was a madman, dragging his guitar and mike cord through the crowd during the Eddie standards, playing from atop the bar, kissing some new baby's grandmother as he danced back to the stage. I'd seen my brother-in-law's horrendous metal band at the Stone Pony a few months before it shut down. The sound system sucked, the beer wasn't really cold, and the place felt like Asbury Park looked. No more. We're talking arena quality sound system, loud as fuck, with the Marshall stacks touching the ceiling. We're talking crisp sax blowing over modified blues riffs and thundering low end from the bass. We're talking John Cafferty's voice in all its gravelly glory crooning its way through "Tender Years" and landing right on your spine.
By the time John and the Beavers got through their hour-plus-long set, we were drenched with sweat, almost too drunk to stand, and happy as proverbial clams. By the time Gary U.S. Bonds (below) took the stage, we were just about ready to pack it in and leave it to our elders. He told a great story about a Springsteen gig he missed at the Pony in the late 60s (Incidently, Gary appears to be in his late 60s himself) because he was playing Vegas and made sure to let us know how glad he was "that the Son of a Bitch is in Vegas and I'm at the Stone Pony toniiiiiiiigggggghhtttttt!" (He didn't mention that Bruce was playing an arena and he was playing the same bar he'd played 25 years ago and how he felt about that...).
We stuck around for a couple of tunes (he's got a crack horn section that should shame any of today's poser ska bands), and stepped out into the night.
The air had cooled, it felt like sweater weather, and the breeze was lightly salted off the water. I closed my eyes, listened to the sax solo coming out from the thrown-open doors, sniffed the air looking for cotton candy, and took my baby's hand. Down the Shore, everything's all right.
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