Sunday, July 02, 2006

So We Beat On...

Life sends you things that you don't need when you don’t really want them. And then it sends you exactly what you need when you don’t even know you need it.

Last night I went to see Southside Johnny at his old stomping grounds, the Stone Pony in Asbury Park. A lot of my friends from the old days don’t come out much any more; it takes something like this annual Fourth of July Weekend bash to get them to hire out babysitters and get out from under. Walking into the Pony at the annual event is (as my good friend Lori said last night), like coming home. It’s like walking into your living room and someone has organized a surprise party for you and all the most important people from you life are there. Only it’s different ‘cause you’ve been going there for 20 years and every square inch of the place holds memories. I have loved and lost here; I have seen the best rock’n’roll has to offer grace this stage—its legends, its upstarts, its stalwarts. I have fought with my best friend here. (I made so many friends here over the years. And lost a few along the way, too.) I have felt my heart swell with sorrow and anguish at what the years have done to people. And I have felt it swell with joy and pride and happiness watching musicians—my friends now—get up on that stage and make magic happen.

Last night was one of those nights. You have to understand, the Pony was where everyone hung out. When they weren’t up on the stage, musicians hung out in the back, shot the breeze, exchanged gig information, gossip, and girlfriends. It was where deals were made and hearts were broken. Where beers were consumed and love was found and lost. Down here on the Shore, there once was a thing called a musicians’ community; so much great music happened here. In the beginning, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes were the friggin’ house band!. There was Cats on a Smooth Surface and Joey and the Works and John Eddie and the Front Street Runners and John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band and La Bamba and the Hubcaps. And those were just the regulars. Every Saturday night was national act night, and you could see legends like Gary U.S. Bonds and Ronnie Spector and Gregg Allman. You could see established acts like Dave Edmunds and Graham Parker and Ian Hunter. You could see up and comings like the Smithereens and Concrete Blonde and the BoDeans. And every now and then Somebody Famous would drop by. Somebody who lived right up the road and was on the cover of Time and Newsweek. You wouldn’t recognize him from seeing him walk around the club, for that was when he looked like just another face in the crowd, just another Jersey Shore musician out for a good time. But when he got onstage, which he did every now and then, he was magically transformed, as though someone had plugged him into an electrical socket and turned him into the very Spirit of Rock’n’Roll. This happened fairly regularly for a while, and when it did and you were lucky enough to be there, it was enough to get you through the week, through your shitty workaday job, your boring ass life. The Stone Pony was where the magic happened; it was where your life changed forever. It was the only place to be if you were a music fan, the only place you wanted to be, the only place that mattered.

But those days are gone. They came to an end, as all good things must. We grew up and got older and the music changed and people moved on. But every now and then, on nights like last night, you can go back again like Peter Pan and be young again.

Last night, one of my very favorite young bands, maybe pete, played on the indoor stage opening up for Southside Johnny. This alone meant the world to them. You see, they would not be playing music if it were not for SSJ and his world-class band of misfits and geniuses. Frankie and Kelly met and fell in love over this music; they used to sneak into the Ritz in NYC when they were 16 to see their heroes in person. And now they were sharing a bill with them. But that was not enough. Previous to their set, Jukes guitarist Bobby Bandiera had run into Frankie in the men’s room and asked if he could sit in. Frankie agreed, not really believing that this was going to happen. Life deals you many cruel hands as a musician, and you learn very quickly not to get your hopes up. So they played their set as always, and when it came time for their closing number, a cover of the Stones’ version of “Just My Imagination,” Frankie called for Bobby to come up. For a minute or two, nothing happened. And then suddenly, through the crowd came a diminutive, instantly recognizable figure. It was Bobby, and he was going to play with them. It wasn’t earth shattering, it wasn’t transformative, but for a moment there, I thought my heart would burst in two seeing my friends up there so happy, so in the moment, with their hero giving himself so generously (as he always does; he’s just that kind of guy) and making their night special, giving them something they could take with them from this place for the rest of their lives. I spoke with them after the show and they still couldn’t quite believe it. I do believe it will take them weeks to recover.

Oh yeah, there was an amazing Southside Johnny show after that. I’ve seen him a lot and it was a Top 5 show for sure. My ears are still ringing and my feet and legs are sore and I am hung over and a bit sad that it is all over, that the reunion has come to an end for another year. But that’s not important. What’s important is that, in some small way, people like Bobby Bandiera make the Stone Pony magic continue.

There will never be another place like the Pony. When it is finally gone, it will leave a huge gaping wound in my heart. For there was where we were once young and alive, and anything seemed possible. It is a place out of the past; its best moments are long gone. But people like Bobby know what it has meant to us, what it continues to mean. He understands. And so, on a night when we were all carried back into the past, Bobby helped bring the spirit of the Pony into the future.

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