Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day Past and Present

It's been a weird Memorial Day Weekend 2008. Let's see:

On Friday night, I was supposed to meet up with some friends for the reopening of The Wonder Bar but I fell asleep after drinking a couple glasses of wine.
On Saturday afternoon I was in the sun too much with my sunglasses on and now look like a raccoon.
On Saturday night, a guy who had to be 20 years younger than me tried to pick me up in a bar by discussing Dave Matthews.
On Sunday night, I drank more Coronas than I should have while listening to a Springsteen cover band (Hey, they were $1 till 5, $2.50 after that. C'mon, now).
On Monday I had to work. Then I came home feeling like shit. I was supposed to meet up with some friends in the city and go to The Living Room. Didn't happen. Went to bed instead.

Well, I still feel like shit but I can't sleep. (Noisy neighbors.) So I'm playing on the computer for a while and I come across this piece. It's been 8 years already. Wow. Anyhow, there have been a couple memorable Memorial Day Weekends here on the Jersey Shore since I wrote this (not the least of which was a Southside Johnny/Graham Parker double bill at which Bruce showed up and played for a good 45 minutes despite a tornado warning). I originally wrote it for Backstreets magazine, but it never got used. So since I'm not feeling particularly well, I'm delving into the vault for today's post. The piece is a bit gushy but I'm too lazy to fix it. Whatever.


Tonight I'm Ready to Grow Young Again

Memorial Day Weekend 2000 was a special one in Jersey Shore music history: the legendary Stone Pony, scene of many a magic night, staged a “grand re-opening” celebration featuring names and faces from the glory days such as Lance Larson and Paul Whistler. Many of my friends decided not to make the pilgrimage. Some told me it was due to of lack of funds, but several I spoke to commented that the whole thing was not going to be any good because there was no resurrecting the past, that there was something happening in that time and place that could never be repeated. In some ways, I agreed with them, but nevertheless made a last-minute decision to head north to the Jersey Shore. Some of it was admittedly curiosity, but this whole affair came at time when I was questioning a lot of things in my life and needed to remember some of the steps I had taken along the way.

I hadn’t seen either of Saturday night’s acts in many years, and feared that time would have taken its toll on both John Cafferty and Gary U.S. Bonds. In addition, there was the fear that the Pony would be nothing like its former self. There was definitely potential for major disappointment on both counts. Filled with eager anticipation as I drove down Kingsley Street, my heart sank as I took in the decimated surroundings. While Asbury had been frightening before, it had now assumed the feel of an abandoned war zone. This was not blight, it was catastrophe.

We made the turn onto Second Avenue, and there was the Pony, same as it ever was. The new owner, Domenic Santana, had rented searchlights for the weekend’s activities, and they illuminated the sky in front of the club, lending it the aura of a Hollywood theater on premiere night. We had left late, and surprisingly, the parking lot was almost full. Being veterans of this place, my husband and I braced for the inevitable ill treatment we had come to expect on entering the club, and were pleasantly surprised by the friendly and efficient staff that greeted us at the door.

Inside was mostly as expected: an improved sound system, clean bathrooms (at last!), minor changes to d├ęcor, but it was undeniably the same old Pony. Much of the same photography graced the walls, and there was still that same old uneven black and white tile floor that had always lent it the careless air of an amusement park. There was a feeling of anticipation in the air, and as we walked through, we saw many familiar faces from the old days. As always, there were musicians hanging around the back bar. We thrilled to see John Cafferty and several of his bandmates walk right past us, looking the same as they ever did. There was always something about this place: you never knew who was going to walk in, and some nights, you could just feel the magic.

Amongst the more notable changes was the absence of the Stone Pony’s DJ extraordinaire, Lee Mrowicki, who always seemed to play the right song at the right time. The place wasn’t particularly crowded, so we headed outside-the new owner had preserved the previously installed outdoor patio, which provided respite from the heat and smoke (how had we ever withstood that?). At the outside bar, a few feet away and looking slim and happy, stood Gary himself, happily chatting up a local reporter. It struck me how unusual this place was in terms of the respect given to musicians who graced its stage. Previous to 1984, Bruce Springsteen used to come in and sit at the back bar virtually unnoticed. Here was a place where you could see the artists as people, and you truly felt like one of them. The value of this lack of distance between performer and audience cannot be overestimated in terms of the level of intimacy and trust that existed at those storied nights at the Pony . I am convinced that this was a major factor in the consistently high level of performance we had witnessed within these hallowed walls.

Introduced by Lee Mrowicki himself (to our surprise and delight, he had been invited back for opening weekend), Cafferty & Co. took the stage, and we hurried back inside. An enthusiastic crowd greeted them, and they responded with their usually high-energy set, which featured both the hits from the “Eddie & the Cruisers” film soundtrack, as well as the usual well-chosen cover. Cafferty leapt down from the low stage and into the crowd, climbing on top of the bars to perform with the energy of someone half his age. He told us that he had cancelled an appearance in his home state of Rhode Island to be there, and jokingly wondered how many disappointed fans would show up that gig. It was worth the risk, he said-who would turn down a chance to play on this stage again?

There was a short set break, and Gary took the stage. He looked and sounded great, and the band , which featured Joey Stann on sax and Gary’s wife and daughter as backup singers, was tight. It was crowded and hot, but something drew me to the front of the stage. Gary told us a story about when Bruce had first contacted him about working together. He was playing some cheap place in Las Vegas, and Bruce was taking time off at home in New Jersey in the midst of a major US tour. “How ironic,” said Gary, “tonight he’s playing Vegas, and I’m in Asbury Park!” His joy at being there again was evident in his beaming face and his unique voice, which was stronger and more versatile than ever. It was just like the old days--the fans knew all the songs, and sang along vociferously, often drowning him out. I think he was even a bit surprised--he had started a call and response, and muttered “holy shit” to himself at the boisterousness of the crowd, and we all picked up on it and started singing that phrase back to him. During the quiet moments between songs, a bemused look would appear on his face, as though he couldn’t quite believe this was really happening, a feeling that was shared by those of us in the audience.

As I stood there under the hot lights, breathing in the smell of sweat, cigarettes and stale beer, I knew that there was nowhere else on earth that I would rather be at that moment (well, maybe front row center in Vegas…). All the years melted away, and I was youthful and innocent again, free of the responsibility and the regret of decisions made and things left undone that had made me feel old and useless. Let the word go forth to a new generation of Americans: there is still no better music venue in the country than the Stone Pony.

Rock’n’roll at its best is the great liberator. It frees us of our inhibitions, of our self-doubt, and of the social constrictions that keep us apart as people and indeed, as a country. Its powerful spirit lifts us up and gives us hope. The Stone Pony’s resurrection may fail, and it may fall victim to the seemingly inevitable decay afflicting the once-proud seaside resort of Asbury Park; that would be a shame. Those who love this music can only hope that this does not happen. We should try desperately to keep this special place and this transformational spirit alive for others to experience, if only for nights such as this one. When I had lost faith in myself, at a time when what passes for popular music is nothing more than soulless product, the Stone Pony gave me the greatest gift I could possibly have received--a chance to be young again, if only for one night.

1 comment:

  1. thanks, Lisa... nicest things anyone's ever said about me.

    feel free to stay in touch...

    Lee Mrowicki