FROM ASBURY PARK, PART 3:
"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 www.ThePenguinRocks.com, 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.
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
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:
2) the beach/boardwalk
3) its days as looking like a cross between a ghost town
Q: Bigger question: What is wrong with Asbury Park?
What's the first thing about the city you'd change if you
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.
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
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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