Jersey Beat Music Fanzine


Gary Wien:
"It's A City Of Dreams..."

Gary Wien is an author, journalist, historian, and entrepreneur with deep ties to Asbury Park. His book Beyond The Palace tells the story of the city and its music scene; he was a founder of The UpStage alternative newspaper, and still runs, an online radio station.

Q: Where did you grow up, and how did you wind up living/ working in Asbury Park?

I grew up in Lincroft just outside of Red Bank. I was probably one of the last generations to go to Asbury Park on a regular basis as a kid. From the age of 6 or 7, my family would go to the boardwalks of Asbury Park or Long Branch every weekend. The Palace Amusements building was something of a Utopian paradise for me. I played skeeball, video games, and rode the rides as much as I could. As a kid I also loved miniature golf and growing up Asbury Park had about four courses at its peak (and a great batting cage across from the Stone Pony).

My first time actually working in Asbury Park was once with the old WNEW shows on the beach. I was fortunate enough to work at the Lincroft Inn (a restaurant owned by Debbie Harry's family) where a waitress once heard me playing John Eddie on my boombox. She said John played at her wedding and I should meet her husband who was really into music. Turned out her husband was one of the biggest sound guys in the northeast and his crew worked the WNEW shows. When I met him, he offered me a job working the show. My friend and I wound up working about four WNEW shows and earned union wages for the final two.

Q: Big question: What do you like about Asbury Park? What's good about being a performer or fan or promoter there? Venues, audience, promoters, the beer... the proximity to NYC and Philly... whatever.

On a local Jersey Shore level, the best thing about Asbury Park is that it is one of the few (if not the only) Jersey shore towns immune from the cover band phenomenon. It's always been a haven for original music. While cover bands have worked from time to time (most notably at the Stone Pony in the 80s), I've seen places spend and lose a fortune (Harry's Roadhouse for example) booking the biggest cover bands in the area. People in Asbury Park just love original music and I love the fact that they do.

On a tri-state level, the equal proximity to New York City and Philadelphia has definitely helped bring many of the biggest acts in the world to Asbury Park. Things were obviously better in the 60s and 70s before the mega-promoters came in and took things over, but Asbury Park still gets some of the best acts. In fact, there are dozens of national acts that have started their tours in Asbury Park over the last decade. The Saint is pretty respected in the NYC area and the Stone Pony is very well known. Even Asbury Lanes is getting some people to kick off their tours there because people dig the vibe of the bowling alley and music.

On a national level, the Stone Pony not only still holds respect with folks but the venue is on a rather short list of places that most music fans around the country - if not the entire world - know by name. I'd say nationally, Asbury Park is best known for three things:

1) music
2) the beach/boardwalk
3) its days as looking like a cross between a ghost town and Beirut

Q: Bigger question: What is wrong with Asbury Park? What's the first thing about the city you'd change if you could?

Well, considering I'd work for the city tourism department in a heartbeat if they could afford me, the first thing I'd do would be to create a music tourism department. The city has ALWAYS downplayed the role music plays with its tourism. I know Bruce Springsteen does an awful lot for Asbury Park through donations that nobody ever hears about, but my first move would be to rename a major street as Springsteen Ave. Do a big publicity event to kick off a series of moves meant to promote music as the city's biggest tourism draw.

While most people know about Bruce, Asbury Park's musical history goes FAR BEYOND Bruce Springsteen. For example, the band shell that stood above the old Howard Johnson's building was named after Arthur Pryor, a trombonist who played with John Philip Sousa's band early on and ultimately led his own band in Asbury Park. In the 1904 season alone, Pryor directed his band in 269 concerts before a total audience estimated at no less than 300,000 people in Asbury Park. The town also had venues like the Orchid Lounge on the west side which had special "drop in" shows by many of the biggest jazz performers in the world - names that would floor you! And, for rock and roll fans, it doesn't get much better than the original Upstage Club, which helped young artists named Springsteen, Southside Johnny, Vini Lopez, Billy Chinnock, Little Steven, and David Sancious (among many others) hone their craft until 5am.

So, I'd push music and entertainment big-time. Set up a yearly calendar with special events throughout the year like the Wave Gathering Festival, E Street Weekend, Count Basie Weekend (yeah, he lived there as well), Danny Devito Film Festival, Abbott & Costello festival (yeah, Bud Abbot was from town as well), Stephen Crane festival (yup, him too)... Well, you get the point. Asbury Park has no shortage of writers, musicians, actors, and artists to promote. They just need to start promoting the history. Promote the history and they will come.

Q: Clearly Asbury is a city with a storied past that's been mired in a sort of murky present for a long time, with (supposedly) a bright future. I am reminded of Hoboken. Musicians and artists flocked there in the Eighties because the town was a dump, but a cheap place to live and a great place to be a musician. Developers moved in and then it became not-a-dump but a modern commuter city, but the rents were no longer cheap and it wasn't such a great place for musicians and artists. So: Can urban development and gentrification come to Asbury Park and NOT wipe out everything that people in the music scene like about the place? Is there room for a "new" Asbury that leaves room for the Wonder Bar and Asbury Lanes and the Stone Pony?

Not really, no. I had high hopes that Asbury Park would/could be different from the normal story we hear all of the time. Unfortunately, the Town Council didn't want to listen to us when they had the chance and voted to go the route of condos. Many on the Council didn't want the town to be known for tourism, they wanted a nice safe place to raise their kids. Personally, I think you can do both but it was said many years ago and it's been seen to be true - "residential and entertainment do not mix next to each other." The idea was floated many years ago to set up an entertainment district in advance. It didn't happen and we're already seeing the problems along Cookman Avenue where several venues have had to reduce the amount of live performances, reduce the sound volume, or simply stop booking entertainment.

The Stone Pony should survive along with the Convention Hall/Paramount Theatre. Other than that, I could easily see the Wonder Bar, Asbury Lanes, and even The Saint (once they start fixing up Main Street) hitting the history books.

Sad, but true. Unless a town council has visionaries who truly believe in the arts or in historical value, these things will happen everywhere.

Q: Name some acts from the 'scene' (they don't have to live in Asbury Park, just play there regularly) who could be on the verge of breaking out nationally, or at least making a musical impact locally?

Well, a lot of places can claim him for their own but I think Val Emmich deserves a nod in Asbury Park's history books as well. I'd say Val Emmich will ultimately break; Nicole Atkins, The Parlor Mob, and April Smith & the Great Picture Show have all somewhat broke in recent years, but I think both have just started scratching the surface as to how far they can go. Arlan Feiles and Rick Barry are two of the most talented performers I've ever heard or met and I'd love to see them break. Cara Salimando was recently signed and her performance last year at the Wave Gathering Festival blew me away. My favorite local bands right now include Status Green, Maybe Pete, and The Amboys; my favorite local record of recent times was Keith Monacchio's (formerly of The Commons). I think Jerzy Jung could break nationally as an adult contemporary artist as well. Names not quite as known that I'd keep an eye on include Matt Wade and Eryn Shewell

One band that sorta broke that could become mega big is deSol. With the changing demographics in the country, I still feel those guys could go off the charts someday due to their music luring in all ethnicities to their shows.

Q: Pretend I am a 15 year old kid in Nebraska reading this and all I know about Asbury Park comes from the lyrics of a Bruce Springsteen song. What is the most important thing you want to tell me about your city?

It's a city of dreams.

Even while it was buried in abandoned buildings, there was a sort of gritty, urban beauty to it. Just a few blocks from destruction always stood the beach and the boardwalk - surrounded on one side by the Casino building and the other by Convention Hall and the Paramount Theatre like two giant bookends. It's hard for artists not to feel inspired walking down that boardwalk. I always get a sense of the history and the artists who walked those same steps years or decades before. It's like one giant haunted beach town full of dreams - some that made it and many who didn't. But as Bruce Springsteen sang, "Struck me kinda funny seem kinda funny sir to me/ Still at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe"

Asbury Park always gave me a reason to believe...

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