Thursday, August 03, 2006

Bring the Rock

I had planned on trekking into the city last Saturday night to check out Walter Lure’s Waldos at the Continental in the East Village. Sometimes you just need that fix. But to paraphrase David Jo & Co., something happened on the way to Manhattan…

It was very hot and humid last Saturday afternoon—the kind of heat that makes you stick to the furniture. The kind where no matter how many beverages you drink, all your energy is consumed in just being. It’s hot like that, and we are sitting outside in the middle of downtown Long Branch, N.J. in a parking lot. This part of town is heavily Mexican; small groceries and taquerias line the street. For this afternoon gig outside the Shore Institute for Contemporary Arts (S.I.C.A.), an asphalt lot outside a converted warehouse has been transformed into a music venue, and as they run their Saturday afternoon errands, the locals wander by and pause to listen as various bands make their glorious noise. For many, this is probably the only live music they can afford. The sight of a band standing in the middle of a parking lot is even enough to lure the occasional car to pull over and listen. Live music just doesn’t happen in this part of town very often.

The sun blazing above them, the last band of the afternoon sets up in the lot by a brick wall. Outdoor shows are a unique challenge for any music outfit; you never know what the conditions are until you get there and start setting up. Today, this particular band is met with a performing space where the ground slopes slightly, and the drum kit keeps sliding towards the street. The smallish sound system is just barely enough. Undaunted, they have the soundman crank it as high as it will go, and they’re off. “Can’t Hardly Wait” opens the set. This song means everything to me, and I am fairly particular about where and when I hear it. I have heard plenty of bands cover the Westerberg classic, including two of my favorite bands ever, the BoDeans and Marah. It gives me goosebumps every time I hear it, and often brings tears, too. It’s just one of those songs. Today, instead of closing the set with it as bands so often do, Jersey Shore stalwarts maybe pete choose to open with it. An unusual choice, but it works.

Most bands work up to peak intensity level by the end of their set; maybe pete has it -- on a 90 plus degree-day -- from the beginning. This is professional show business, kids, and not for the faint of heart. Strap yourself in. And on and on they go, driving through one song after another, their faces flushed with heat. Amongst the original material is a rocking cover of Abba’s “Dancing Queen,” which I have also heard other bands do, and which I don’t recognize until Frankie, the lead singer, opens his mouth. This is a band that will try anything, knowing that their audience, which is seated somewhat incongruously across from them at white picnic tables, is always right there with them.

Cars continue to pull over to take in the proceedings. Folks stroll by in small groups; moms and babies, fathers and sons, groups of young men wandering aimlessly. They stop to listen, talking amongst themselves. They can't quite seem to figure out why this particular brand of entertainment has come to their neighborhood, why it is that today, they can hear this stuff for free. The music of maybe pete, which is loud even for a parking lot, is a deft mixture of Joey Ramone power and Jersey Shore passion. It draws a small, devoted following down here on the Shore, but Long Branch is a bit off the beaten path; usually to hear this music you have to drive down the road apiece. It is an odd audience for this show, the devoted fans and the casual observers, but somehow, it is exactly what is required.

After about 40 minutes, the set ends, and after a brief pause, it’s time for an encore. They play “Exit 140A,” a driving song about disappointment and survival. The beat picks up, and the song reaches its apex with a furious guitar duel between (husband and wife) guitarists Frankie and Kelly. The latter walks out into the parking lot towards the paying customers, while her husband edges closer and closer to the low wooden fence that borders the parking lot to his left. He is eyeing the fence—no, he is stepping up on it while he continues to wail on his guitar like a madman. He stands there, precariously balanced atop the fence, completely in the moment. We all hold our collective breath, convinced he is going to fall. He is tall and thin and ungainly, and does not appear to have the physical coordination to survive this foray unscathed. But in the blink of an eye, he is down off his perch on the fencepost and onto the sidewalk outside the parking lot, where a startled group of passers by stands transfixed. He is standing inches from a small boy, motioning to him to strum the strings of his guitar. The boy doesn’t quite get the message, but Frankie doesn’t care; he continues to wail away on his Fender before the startled throng. He walks back into the parking lot, and turns to face the band, feedback raining down around him as he puts his guitar down on the ground at center stage. Kelly has had enough; she hands him her guitar and walks off to the snack bar to get a well-deserved drink of water. Her husband increases the cacophony by adding her guitar to the mix before, at last, turning again to signal the song’s end to his band mates, leaping in the air and collapsing in a heap. Sweaty and red-faced, the remaining band members slowly walk off in search of liquid relief. Frankie finds his way to a chair and sinks down, shaky and drained.

Some days you just need the music. You need someone to bring the rock, to lift you up and out of the mundane. I had been anticipating this feeling all week, waiting for Saturday night so I could go into the city and rock it with Walter and his Waldos, waiting to come to life once again after another week of drudgery at work. But even on their best nights, Walter and the Continental represent a bygone era. They are figures from the past, their best days behind them. When I got home Saturday evening, I thought about whether I had the energy and the inclination to make the one hour-plus trip into Manhattan. It didn’t take me long. After that hot afternoon on the Jersey Shore, resurrecting the past no longer seemed necessary. The rock had been brought to the people, right there on the street--where it started, where it belongs. The spirit of Johnny Thunders and his Heartbreakers was alive and well in the present in a parking lot in Long Branch, N.J.

I’m sure Walter was great; he always is. But I never did make it into the city last Saturday night. I didn’t need to.

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