Sunday, December 10, 2006

You Can't Buy Magic

Last night I attended a benefit concert honoring the founders of the Asbury Park sound. I skipped what I knew was going to be an amazing show—the annual Marah Christmas extravaganza in Philadelphia—because I knew that this would be a once in a lifetime chance to see some these people all together on the same stage. They’re not young guys, after all, and who knows how much longer any of them will be around.

They had gathered because one of their own—Johnny Shaw—had died of a heart attack last spring, and they decided to honor him by getting together and staging a reunion show of sorts. They also dedicated a memorial plaque that honored people that made it happen. Some of the names on the plaque—Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt—were famous. Some were virtually unknown outside the Jersey Shore. But they made it on there because they were once a part of something really special—the Asbury Park scene.

A lot of us, myself included, were too young to have been around in those days. (As Doc Holliday said at the beginning of the night, “If you remember [the Jaywalkers] you should be in bed.”) But if you cared about this music and were curious about where it came from, you came to Asbury Park and you learned. You hung out at Mrs. Jay’s and the Stone Pony and you watched and listened, and gradually got to know some of those faces and the names from back in the day: Big Dan Gallagher, Norman Seldin, George Theiss. And if you spent enough time in Asbury, you even got to meet some of them and get to know them a little bit. Asbury was unique even in the early 80s—a forgotten town left behind and abandoned, a place out of time. But it was a place where musicians famous and not so famous could be themselves. It was a bit of an insular world. I remember walking into the Stone Pony wide-eyed and awestruck and feeling like an outsider. I was sure everyone was staring at me. There were so many regulars there—it was a hangout spot like any other corner bar, and everybody knew everybody. So you felt like a bit of an interloper. But you came back because you loved the music, and eventually you were accepted. You began to know people, to make friends. And soon you were one of the people in the back bar gossiping with the musicians who hung out there. You were part of it in some small way. It was a special place, a special time. So though I wasn’t there in the 60s, I understand what those guys were talking about last night. How everyone was equal, everyone helped everyone, people looked out for each other, supported each other’s music,. And when someone like Bruce or Southside made it big, they applauded.

But times change and people move on. The Internet happened, and people now have all sorts of information they didn’t have before. In the old days it would take weeks for you to find out that Bruce had played at the Pony if you didn’t live in the area or weren’t a regular on the scene. Now you can get reports from events as they happen; there is no mystery, no suspense. And Bruce had a “reunion” tour for all the fans—and there were many—who had never seen the E Street Band before, and people loved it. But somewhere along the way, they began to realize what they had missed, and so they began to grab onto any little shred of the Bruce magic that they could. They jostled and fought for tickets to his shows, for spots in “the pit.” They lined up outside the Stone Pony and pushed and shoved, not understanding that a Bruce appearance is not a guarantee but a gift. They wanted—no needed—it to be 1982 again. They know they missed something very special. But those days are never coming back, and deep down, they know it. And so they whine and complain and “feel cheated” when Bruce doesn’t show. But what they don’t know, what they don’t understand is that you can’t buy your way into that world—you have to earn it. You have to show up and support the scene. You have to be in love with the music and the people and the place. And then, only then, if you are lucky, lightning strikes, magic happens.

There were people there last night that had flown in from all over the country, and spent thousands of dollars on airfare and hotels and tickets—all for a $15 benefit show. And they stood there staring at the stage like zombies waiting to be led off a cliff. They weren’t really watching the show, weren’t really listening. And as the night progressed, the hostility in the room became palpable. But the musicians didn’t care; it was their night, and they were not about to let these people ruin it.

For me, it was a great night of music. It was disorganized and shambolic and raw, just like a late night jam at Asbury’s famed Upstage. And I saw three original members of the E Street Band on the stage: Vini Lopez, who has clawed his way back to re-establish his music career on the Shore scene. Garry Tallent, the ageless wonder standing stage right all night with a smile that lit the room. And David Sancious—still looking suave and sophisticated, his grey hair reflecting the stage lights. But the best part of the night for me was watching those original Asbury guys onstage together, enjoying each other’s company and musicianship, and finally getting some long overdue respect and acclaim. There will never be another night like that at the Pony and those guys knew it. They are spread far and wide now; many no longer live in the area. And they’re not getting any younger.

So last night while the pretenders, the people who continue to take from the Asbury music scene and never give anything back (and who ironically call themselves a “community”) complained or looked bored, I enjoyed myself. It wasn't earth-shattering, it wasn’t mind-blowing, it wasn’t profound. It was just another jam night at the Pony, just like the old days. And those are the nights no amount of money can ever buy, because the Asbury scene is not and never has been for sale. You can never know when lightning is going to strike, and you can’t buy magic.

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