Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Springsteen’s earlier music: cover songs or not?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The stunning part about listening to earlier Springsteen bands is learning how much he struggled to find his own voice, and how much a part of his time period he actually was before he broke free.
I discount his one night stand with The Rogues, and look a bit at his first real gig with the Castiles (a slot he got because of his chameleon-like ability to learn other bands’ songs quickly.) From what I can gather, this was primarily a cover band – meaning they primarily performed songs by other bands, as opposed to Steel Mill, Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom, and The Bruce Springsteen Band which supposedly did mostly originals.
When I first listened to Steel Mill, I thought the band suffered from what most original material bands do – its material even when not a cover – sounded like bands from the radio and record.
As good as Still Mill was, it was all over the place, sounding like every other band of the era from Vanilla Fudge to Cream, which some Santana, Doors, and some psychedelic lesser known bands thrown in – band that came to fame and faded away as quickly as they came.
But after listening to the follow up bands to Steel Mill, I came to realize just how unoriginal early Springsteen bands were – even when they professed to be original, they were not.
What is most noticeable about the three pre-E Street Bands – were their ability to radically change with the rapidly changing musical scene.
Springsteen was clearly searching for a sound that was uniquely his own, and yet, everything he did with those bands sounded like some other band. While this made them extremely popular with local audiences since the bands he imitated were extremely popular. At first, I thought this was accidental, but the more I listened the more I realized that Springsteen’s bands were deliberately duplicating what they heard, perhaps seeking a road to finding their own voice eventually.
I originally marveled at Springsteen’s remarkable song writing ability to adapt so quickly to the changes by writing songs of his own.
Springsteen apparently understood the need to develop original material. Cover bands make a lot of money because people want to hear live versions of popular songs, but they often do not advance out of the clubs and into a recording studio. Even the most popular cover bands of that era such as Smile, faded away for lack of original songs.
Springsteen needed to provide new songs to feed the perception of original material. While I am less familiar with the bands Steel Mill imitated such as Vanilla Fudge, I recognized how close their sound was to the original, and caught a lot of clichés from bands like the Doors, Cream and other bands. From the recordings it is difficult to tell whether these songs were imitations or covers. But with Dr. Zoom and the Bruce Street Band there is no doubt. Many of the songs that appear on the surface to be original are actually nearly note for note duplicate songs of what would later become classic songs by bands like the Rolling Stones or Alman Brothers, even Bob Dylan, with lyrics changed.
Like any good cover band, Dr. Zoom and the other bands were able to adjust so quickly to the new reality by learning the new songs, not creating them, and so Springsteen came off as a much more prolific song writer than he actually was.
All these changes in so short a time, it is impossible to just where Springsteen’s E-Street Band material came out of.
Most likely, Springsteen did a mash up of other people’s songs.
From all of his experimenting, it seems clear that Springsteen struggled to find a voice that was authentically his own, and played with other styles in the earlier versions of the band. At times, in the recordings I’ve heard, we get some hint of the later Springsteen. Indeed, his first two albums with the E-Street Band were rightfully described at Dylanesque, clearly because he was hugely influenced by Dylan, and in both Dr. Zoom and the Bruce Springsteen Band, did songs that were largely Dylan with new lyrics.
The other most dramatic change between the earlier bands and what finally emerged was the political tinge. In all the previous bands, Springsteen reflected the radical opinions of the times – something only mildly reflected in later efforts such as Born in the USA. These radical opinions clearly reflected also the college audience at the time. While Springsteen retained his liberal leanings, politics changed from public to personal when E Street Band came onto the scene, partly I supposed to reflect a more mature and growing conservative blue collar audience he had begun to attract.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Is Asbury Park ashamed of being blue collar?

September 28, 2014

We came to Asbury Park this week with no expectations except with the vague idea to seek out those remaining icons of the Asbury Park we missed because we mistakenly believes over the long years that the cultural heritage of the Garden State was in Cape May, and so we missed seeing the last decade of what really was, here closer to home.
Whereas Cape May pretended to preserve its heritage, it quietly turned its historic landscape into a themed shopping mall. Asbury Park’s city fathers abandoned all pretenses and simply bulldozed what could have become a remarkable revenue source in the vain attempt to become upscale.
This is not a new concept. Most of New Jersey is ashamed of its working class roots, especially after the highways allowed large swaths of former farms and rural towns to become bedroom communities to New York City.
The opening of the Garden State Parkway did more to destroy New Jersey’s self image than any other single entity, ripping open the state north to south allowing developers to sell the illusion of upscale to dim-witted, simple-minded little town officials. Everywhere suburbia cropped up like mushrooms so that sprawl spread from Lyndhurst to Tom’s River and clogged highways with cars and fumes for the daily commute to and from jobs in the big city. This is a similar con-job colleges sold to working class kids, saddling them with debt enough to last a life time even if they managed to get the upscale jobs they so desired.
It is too easy to blame I-Star, even if I kept thinking I’d meet Darth Vader when I came to their offices on the back side of the boardwalk, offices that face the legendary circuit Springsteen sings about, and even though I-Star plans for the continued destruction of the last vestiges of the old life such as The Stone Pony and the Wonder Bar the way the city managed to demolish all those other seaside icons that made Asbury Park unique.
The city fathers were so ashamed of their blue collar heritage that they would destroy the city in order to keep it from becoming another Wildwood, an icon of an American culture that celebrates the grease under its fingernails.
Racism played a huge part as well, feeding fuel to the fires of riot that plagued the city in 1970. It is still evident as city fathers seek to embrace a largely white upperly mobile population, while life on “the wrong side” of the tracks continues on as it always has.
The symbols have simply changed. Now the arcades that had once served white populations from elsewhere are vacant lots – with more vacancies being made each year after labor day when developers can move it, clear away people’s memories before the nostalgic people from elsewhere return the following Memorial Day, surprised the way people on an extended vacation are surprised when they come home to find that they’ve been robbed.
Inept, bumbling and sometimes corrupt city officials got seduced by developers such as I-Star the way Adam and Eve got seduced into believing there was a better paradise elsewhere and so lost the paradise they could have rebuilt and marketed, especially when musical icons such as Springsteen had put Asbury Park on the world map.
Yet even as they tore down the past, the city fathers included much of what wiser real estate experts knew: the development frenzy was coming to an end and the market was about to collapse. And the city fathers – like the last investors in any Ponzi scheme – found themselves holding the bag and taking the biggest loss – a loss they could have prevented and fixed had someone even opened his or her eyes to the reality of contemporary development.
But these city fathers wanted to create an upscale community, not a tribute to what had been, and so still cling to that concept even as physical reality makes it unlikely. Asbury Park may not be as remote as places like Toms River, but it is harder to get to off the Garden State Parkway, even if social changes weren’t making it a less desirable place to life year round for upscale people.
Toms River succeeded because it was the destination of a massive white flight movement from the north, as working class kids fled city’s with racial issues for Mecca of memories from their shore vacation as kids.
Even if the trend was still the same, whites aren’t coming to Asbury Park, because unlike Seaside and other fantasy islands, Asbury Park is a real city and has its own share of racial issues.
Worse the city father’s plans to destroy old Asbury Park is the change of trend. Kids aren’t running away form the cities, but back to them – now that monstrous laws put a huge portion of the black population in prison, allowing even more monstrous developers to plow down old neighborhoods to make room for upscale living.

The question now is who will rush into Asbury Park to live when they can move to places like Hoboken or Jersey City?

Killing of Asbury Park

Sunday, September 28, 2014

I listened to Steel Mill on the trip south to Asbury Park on Saturday – The Matrix recording from early 1970, not the one from the Sunshine Inn a little later in Asbury Park when Springsteen opened for Cactus and Black Sabbath. Springsteen’s pre-E Street Band music is a lesson in how to find voice, sounding like every other major band until finally, he came up with his own sound. Oddly enough, I was also back on the East Coast when Springsteen got shut down in the famous swim club concert at which he supposedly met Janis Joplin.
Hearing his music as he had played it back then – and the subsequent bands such as Dr. Zoom and The Bruce Springsteen Band helped shape part my reaction to seeing his city in ruins when I got there, even though I had seen it again and again over the last few months.

I recalled the story of the teenage werewolf he told during the 1978 Madison Square concert when he jumped off the Ferris wheel and rushed down Asbury Avenue to the Parkway – leaving Asbury Park by the same route we came by.
Part of my reason for returning each week is to find some icons of the past that might still exist after I-Star and the city did their best to destroy it. Instead of Badlands, we found flatlands – vacant lots the developer plans to turn into luxury housing. Even The Stone Pony and Wonder Bar are at risk.
Had we come more often to this place back when we went to Cape May instead, we could have seen some of what was left. Now, there is largely nothing: a boardwalk void of attractions, a parking lot where the amusement park once stood.
We walked towards the old Casino, passed the building where two weeks ago we saw a groom and bride taking pictures. There were even more bridal parties this week, two side by side filming among the ruins of the Casino, more down the beach, and later in the echoing hall of the casino itself, we saw two brides conversing.
Free of rain and with temperatures over 80, the boardwalk was again full, as people moved up and down between the ruins at one end and the Convention Hall at the other, where a crafts fair was underway, and we paused for coffee. In-between, we got to see many of those regulars – the magician, the portrait artist, the drummer, and the crooner with his tiny guitar. We even got to see Madam Marie’s granddaughter.
Then, we made our way to Sunset Beach, crossing the large open area (that was actually designed to be open) to the waterway, squinting against the harsh sunlight before taking refuge in the side street to view some of the classic buildings such as the Zionist church and the library, before heading across more ruined landscape towards downtown and dinner.
Last week, we stopped in the mall, and wandered through the odd shops, full of crafts and icons from India and elsewhere. This week we ate and then made our way back along the lake to the powerhouse for another walk around the boardwalk, killing some time before we went to The Saint for music.We’ve been visiting a number of the clubs, including The Wonder Bar and The Stone Pony, trying to hear as much music as possible since developers still haven’t managed to destroy that aspect yet, despite knocking down many of the places where Springsteen and others played.
We walked Ocean Avenue back – discovering the offices of the I-Star but did not see Darth Vader, and went back to the Boardwalk to sit and watch as people came passed us, a parade of characters that still cling to this place – and I could not figure out why. During this circuit, we found the monument of SOAP near the convention hall – Save Our Asbury Park – in which some famous people tried to preserve what was left of what had once been one of the great sea side icons.
George Harrison once wrote “all things must pass.” Yet some things fade away naturally. Some die an ugly death. But Asbury Park was murdered.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Call of the sea (Aug. 3, 1980 )


A cool ocean breeze whips into the shore, its brisk slap hinting of autumn -- still a good month and a half away. An alley glows in the early morning light, full of bottles and trash, and perhaps a few bodies hidden beneath, a cool moon still lingering in the sky while gently yellow light creeps in from the rising sun. I turn down one alley, the round top of a temple floating ahead like one huge sea shell waiting to be drawn out with the tide. It's shell of tan and green painted metal bears the faded red message of ``Jesus Saves.'' They even have that here, I laugh, but the salt air robs even that of its freshness, making the message seem like a 1930s languishing emblem like the Coca Cola sign or the Coppertone naked bottom.
 The ocean roars loudly with the early morning sun, an infuriated nocturnal lion enraged by the end of his reign, its breath vacuuming up cups and sandwich wraps and loose gull feathers. There is little lack of these as the wobbling, clumsy creatures stumble into unhurried flight, leaving a trail of feathers as they squabble over scraps.
 A terrible loneliness reigns here in the morning -- though any place can be lonely, even with the crowds. I have walked many sand bars feeling this way while around me millions buried themselves in sand, or struggled to catch wildly tossed Frisbees in their grab for happiness.
 Yet this loneliness has a different touch, resounding in my footsteps as they stride over the concrete onto the wooden planks of boardwalk, their thud echoing hollow in my head as I walk. It is emphasized and underlined by the laugh of irreverent gulls and the watery giggle of the pigeons, bobbing at my feet. The tanned faces of the few wake strangers offer no relief, their hard eyes struggle to stay open after a night at the clubs. They wince and crawl by me like snails whose shells have grown too heavy over night. Each refuses to even look at me as if each had pennies over his eyes.
 Even the lovers do not look, cuddled onto benches with limbs entwined, cooing like excited pigeons as I pass. I envy them. Years ago, I spent a week lost on beaches such as these, looking to coo like that, looking to make some poor girl's eyes as sore as my eyes felt. Sore as a gull's cry. Sore as a stone locked into a beach and beaten by the repeated ways. Sore as the pull of my pants and throb in my chest. Even that had a hollow sound as I think back. The pain has not completely vanished over time, it has simply faded like the Coca Cola sign into a scar that only bothers me now and then, when I hearing the ocean calling.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A return to The Stone Pony (with Jody Joseph Band)

 Sunday, September 21, 2014

Baby carriages and grand parents crowded this historic music venue, shoulder to shoulder, as if coming to a grammar school talent show, watching kids climb up onto the stage to fill the shoes of people like Bruce who had made this place famous, belting out pop tunes they had learned as music lessons. Some were so small you could put them in a tea cup and still have room for cream, big voices trying to fill the air, shrill voices of yet to mature into what they will eventually become, management seeing this as a kind of pre-school American Idol, while the ghosts of the big acts clung to the walls with the lines of guitars, not quite cringing, but clearly puzzled.
This was my first time through these doors since the glory days when Hank and I came here to catch the aftermath of the Bruce era, when all the lesser bands like Salty Dog tried desperately to cling to the coattails of the boss to make their own mark on the world, and never did. I had forgotten what it looked like inside until I got there again, and then in a flood of recollections, I remembered where I’d sat and how I’d felt, and sort of felt that way again, except that I felt older, and slightly put out by movie cameras trying to capture this thing being done here, this music miracle being enacted in a place where music had been born.
Nothing makes you feel older than being confronted with succeeding generations, and to be hit over the head with the geriatrics of middle class America in a place that had done its best to reject all that suburban tripe – this place always the enclave of the suburban rebel, complete with its thunder road outside. But instead of switch blade lovers on the circuit with girls promising to go under the boardwalk to unbuckle their jeans, we got kids. This was no Blues Brothers reunion movie, although Jody Joseph, the teacher and the band leader (who haunts these roads in the shells of burnt out Chevrolets) had found a way to blend two aspect of life, and seemed to symbolize that dramatic change from when I was last here, this Jesus-freak revolution that had turned rockers into religious fanatics, and one-time cutting edge into family-friendly, and for this night, created a strange mixture of feelings in me as if robbing that cutting edge that this place always created for me, by turning it into a school auditorium which just happened to be decorated with rock emblems.

This is a somewhat unfair comparison since top rock acts still come to this place, and people still pay good money to get in. Last week, it rocked with a Bruce tribute band while we stood outside in the rain. More big bands with cutting edge sounds are scheduled for the near future. But having come for children’s night, I find it hard to get back what was lost.
Jody’s band when it finally took to the stage as one of the two professional acts following armature hour also brought me back in time to when cover bands were in vogue. Jody Joseph’s band was not all cover, but they performed only one original during this night of nostalgia. Their act – especially with Jody dressing up for Fleetwood Mac songs, and Janis Joplin tunes – also brought back that era when costume was part of such acts, sometimes to make up for lack of musical talent.
This was not the case with Jody Joseph.  She had plenty of talent – her voice as good as any I’d heard over the long years.
Vocals carried the band, despite a few break out songs such as one cover of Santana. And the cover material was everything you would expect from a classic bar band, one of those hard-working, under appreciated night-after-night groups that played every club from the Chatterbox in Seaside to Dodd’s in Orange when I was on the circuit, all with the hopes of somehow ending up here, in this magic place, where someone important would take notice.
This was not Jody Joseph’s first musical venture into the theater of absurd. The band had been part of my friend Sid Bernstein’s schemes about a decade ago, another bit of musical nostalgia. Sid often wrapped me up in such schemes, and I loved him dearly for it, recalling his effort to exploit Sinatra’s legacy in Hoboken, and my meeting him by accident a few times in the city (once when David Peal sought to exploit him). I once brought Sid back together after 30 years with the Rascals, who he had managed 30 plus years before.
Sid was always on the hunt for talent, a new Beatles he could bring to the public eye, and was always telling me about his plans whenever I called him or met him, or when he sought me out for a story.
So it was no surprise that he would gravitate to this place and make use of it, and those who still clung to the ghosts that haunt this place.
The children’s hour, however, was not one of his schemes, but could have been, as the band and its remarkable singer tried to raise money to film a documentary about the healing power of music. They were even giving away the band’s CDs if people donated to the cause.

As if to get the feeling of old age out of my head, I stayed on for the next band to perform, “The Machines,” which only furthered this feeling since the band leader with his super whitened teeth looked too much like a member of the Tom Hank’s created band, “The Wonders,” from the movie “That Thing You Do.” The band had the audacity to even play a cover version of a Bruce song, a daring move, but one fully appreciated since the loud music helped drive out the grand parents and baby carriages, and made the club seem like a rock club again.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Night at The Saint

Sunday, September 14, 2014

What makes a trip to The Saint in Asbury Park without the effort is the mix of music. For the most part, I get to hear a number of bands in a variety of styles, each doing a set as if a mini-Woodstock.
I get some of this up north at WFMU’s performance space, and formerly at Maxwell’s in Hoboken. But the Maxwell’s we all knew and loved is gone, and WFMU is an infrequent venue, and so I came south to get some of it. Even then, I thought such a smorgasbord of music was something rare until I discovered The Saint.
Wonder Bar did a great set a couple of weeks ago giving voice of a number of local bands. But for the most part in most bars you get stuck with one band, and if you don’t like it, you’re stuck, or if you leave you’re out the admission price plus the cost of drinks.
The Saint’s routine allows you to wait out one band until the next band comes on, and sometimes, you even surprise yourself by getting to like a band you did not like at first hearing. Most often the better bands come on the later the night gets.
All this was not completely true over this last weekend. The better bands were the middle bands of the four that played.

Amy Malkoff & The Moonshines opened the show at about 8:30 p.m. and it took me a while to get to like the band. At first, I thought Amy’s voice was too shrill, degrading from an otherwise very talented rock band as to make it sound a little like bubblegum music. But then some people said as much about Michael Jackson when he started with the Jackson Five, showing just how much many of us actually know about talent. Maybe it simply took a while for me to get used to the voice before I realized just how remarkable a range Amy had, and still better, she was a solid lead guitarist.
While there are some notable exceptions, rock is a genre dominated by boys and even when there are girls in a mixed band, they tend to get regulated to the unenviable position of band up singers.
So it was refreshing to see a dominant female figure in the otherwise all-band, and the more I listened the more I liked it, especially when she got down and dirty on the guitar and played as hard on it as any boy guitarist could.

St. James and the Apostles that came on an hour later, I loved right from the start. The band was out of Philadelphia, not a place that I would have associated with Southern Rock or religious revival music. But like those amazing Irishmen from that fictional movie band, the Commitments proved, soul is inside of you, not where you come from, and St. James had so much soul I first mistook it for a Christian Rock band when it opened – but not one of those cheesy imitation rock bands so typical of Christian Rock. This band stomped on your head and your balls with both feet and never stopped, even delving into some classic blues. But this was no retro band. They used classic rock, blues and soul as a launching pad the way Janis Joplin did, and threw in guitar work at tough and vicious as Slash from Guns and Roses. And they managed a stunningly full sound with only one guitar, an organ and a madman on the drums. The organ played the bass parts and whole lot more.
Far more complex and arguable the best band of the night, Elephant Stone from Montreal revived psychedelic rock. Not the obtuse psychedelic and Hendrix derivative Robin Trower version, but more based on the foundations laid by The Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Again, my first impressions were wrong. The opening song seemed mushy and the lead singer tepid. But the more I listened, the more the textured sound weaved around me, and I began to hear the various levels and rhythms the band had incorporated into its music. It was overwhelming even in a place like The Saint where hard core rock bands banged out their music for masochistic fans. This band incorporated two, sometimes three guitars, drums, and a keyboard when one player wasn’t playing guitar. But it was when the lead singer sat down to a sitar I became convinced, although here, too, I expected to get a simplistic repeat of George Harrison (and I am a George Harrison fan), and was delighted when I did not. This band rocked, even on a sitar. I nearly fell out of my seat – explaining perhaps why I knocked over my beer and required the deft rescue by the barmaid in cleaning up my mess.

The last act, The Savants, didn’t impress me even though they were from Brooklyn. This might have been because I was tired and arguably a bit drunk. The show had started an hour later than usual, and so I didn’t have time to let them win me over, and was stuck with my first impression that the well-crafted music was brought down by weak singing. The singing and material might have advanced later, but I was already on the road back to Jersey City for a short night of sleep.
This won’t keep me from going back to The Saint, of course, provided it continues to put on shows over the winter. I still haven’t figured out the impact the change of season will have on the music scene in Asbury Park.

Clarence’s marker

Sunday, September 14, 2014

We finally found the marker on the way to The Saint – on this rainy Saturday in September when summer finally gave up its grip on Asbury Park and we had to dress for the occasion, the limp edge of my dollar store umbrella dripping with the steady heavy drizzle.
This was the second week in which we had encountered rain, but last week, it was a squall that came and went, this rain drenched the world and cleared the boardwalk except for the heartiest few like us.
We had looked for Clarence’s marker on each visit, the tribute left on the back of the boardwalk benches to loved one and musicians, but we were unable to find it for the few half dozen trips. Benches moved mysteriously, gathering in groups like flocks of geese, and sometimes, we could not read them all or could not see them in the dark.
This time, we had eaten at first arrival at a burger and sports bar on Cookman, before taking the ritual stroll down along the lake and onto the boardwalk.
As with all the previous weeks, we encountered the remainders of wedding ceremonies, even in the downpour, a bride and groom taking photos near the old arcade, a whole line of wedding goers inside the abandoned casino cavern at the south end, and a bridge holding in court in one of the boardwalk bars.
We took refuge at the northern end, and then walked back slowly in the rain, pausing to look at the benches on the off chance we might find it this time, and in the rain, we did.
Drops of water dripped off the metal plate like tears, and as we should have guessed, his was located near where the boardwalk came closest to the Stone Pony, though legend had Bruce and Clarence meeting at one of those in-between dives that the nasty corporate developers had already demolished.
We had thought to come south this week to see a Springsteen tribute band called “Tramps like us,” at the Pony, but decided to go to The Saint instead – partly because of our hunger for less famous music, partly because we had come to love the people at The Saint, owner and bar maid, the varying and wonderful souls who drifted in with each new band from places far and wide.
But being near the marker felt as if we had come to pay homage at Clarence’s grave, an overdue tribute that we were willing to get soaked in the downpour to make. And then we heard strains of Springsteen music drifted across the boardwalk at us, like a ghost strolling along the mist as if waiting for us, or serving to guard his marker. It was an hour or more too early for the show at the Stone Pony, but as we wandered in that direction, we realized the music was coming from there, a sound check filled with breaks in the songs, and repeated passages, and yet we stood with sagging umbrellas on the sidewalk taking in every note, every rise and fall of the Springsteen-like voice, and the wailing, wonderful tones of a Clarence-like horn, until it stopped, and we were left with only the rain, and the lights rising up on top of the pavilion a block and a half away.

We did not go in. We had received a gift from the gods, and so made our way to The Saint where the barmaid greeted us like old friends, and the music stirred up feelings of what Asbury Park must have felt like before “the boss” made it, when Thunder Road was still Thunder Road.
I watched the barmaid move up and down the inside of the bar, her grand gestures like that of an actress, sometimes donning the army helmet kept behind the bar for some ungodly reason, sometimes, she came out from behind the bar and juggled. The owner moved around the place, although it was the sound man and the woman at the door that seemed furiously busy, as bands mounted the stage and patrons came and went, the music, the scene, the people filling me with something that the rain could not wash away, this place, this moment, almost a tribute to a way of life that no tribute band could duplicate. I felt warm and wanted, and perhaps just a little drunk, waiting just long enough into the early morning for the safe drive north, to home from home, going between a new family in The Saint to the routine of the north, knowing that I would feel the aches and pains of it this morning, but also the afterglow.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Rockin’ The Wonder Bar

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Wonder Bar didn’t have Dos Equis so I had to settle for Corona instead.
Corona like tequila is so foul you can’t drink it without a lemon or lime. Which still makes me wonder why I continue to settle for it when bars don’t carry the beer I want.
The same thing cannot be said about the Wonder Bar itself, even though it was not our regular hang out in Asbury Park.
Located a block off the boardwalk near the northern Pavilion and the space ship like former Howard Johnson’s, The Wonder Bar is on the same street as its much more famous sister, The Stone Pony, and among a handful of iconic rock and roll institutions that make Thunder Road a viable music Mecca.
This brought out a central disagreement about rock clubs in general. The Wonder Bar is a classic rock/dance venue – although for the four hours we were there, we only saw two women dance and only as half a joke. The venue is split between the bar area, dance/dining area with a stage in the corner, and outdoor café area. While dark for the most part, the bar had significant illumination, especially near the stage (which caused the lead singer of Kenya to ask for the lights to be dimmed in order to let him “get sexy.” The bar area had a number of TV screens for sports viewing, and the small kitchen near the front door seemed to be the busiest part of the place with one poor woman preparing classic bar food (mostly for band members waiting their turn to go on stage) and then the vast clean up that seemed to have her scrubbing for the whole last set.
I prefer the much funkier atmosphere of The Saint, partly because it is much more intimate, and by default, already quite “sexy.” But being in the audience in The Saint is like being inside one of sound stacks, you don’t just hear the music, you are consumed by it.
But it wasn’t the sound system that brought us to The Wonder Bar that night, but the bands. The Wonder Bar was hosting a night of truly local bands – the kind of stuff that is pure New Jersey. The Saint sacrifices local flavor for extremely good quality, but sometimes, you miss the intricacies that come from local bands. We got a little of it a few weeks earlier, when two Hoboken bands played The Saint, but The Wonder Bar was giving us a glimpse into what is happening now in Jersey, similar to the role The Stone Pony played prior to Bruce Springsteen being discovered, when the E Street Band and South Side Johnny were only the headliners in a string of bands that including more comic performers like Salty Dog.
This proved to be true last night when Dark City Entertainment presented five local performers, ranging in quality and sophistication – the best of which were Those Mockingbirds and Kenya, although each band brought something special to the stage. A solo acoustic performer with roots in Woody Guthrie and Americana opened the night, filling the space with the mood of old Greenwich Village or of the coffee house era out of which acts like Springsteen’s had risen.
The pre advertising was a little confusing since it indicated that one of the other bands would include Smalltalk. What we got was a three piece called Climbing the Walls, an emerging talent with original material, but a raw edge that gave the room a lot of grit after the somewhat soft introduction West provided. This band provided something of a gateway to Prehistoric Forest – for which there really was no adequate introduction – a four piece with a wild man for a lead singer, and a stage show that could have used a traffic cop to keep performers from falling over each other. The lead singer leaped and fell, sometimes performing on his back on the floor, a well-groomed act of a drunken, out of control performer – which evaporated before and after he took the stage. This was raw and powerful performance, mixed with elements of a three-ring circus. Near the conclusion the drummer was actually standing on his own drums.
Kenya, which came on next, was just as powerful, but was also totally opposite in its need for utter control. Every element of the performance was orchestrated, and resembled very much the range of music Prince once exuded in the early 1980s, even down to the women back up singers. This is not to say Kenya was without grit, but it weaved elements of pop and something else into its hard edged performance, a sexual tease that took you from soft to hard, and back again, but didn’t let up until the band left the stage.
It was hard to imagine anything that could compete with Kenya that night, but in some ways, it was like having listened to South Side Johnny only to have The E-String Band come on next.
Those Mockingbirds were THAT good, and somehow managed to sum up the evening in a way that I did not expect. They were straight up rock and roll, and had as much edge as Prehistoric Forest, but also contained many of the more controlled orchestration that was evident in Kenya. The female keyboard/violinist gave it a unique texture. She and the drummer also provided back up vocals, a kind of surprise since usually, back ups in rock and roll come from the lead guitarist and bass players. But both of those musicians had plenty enough to do, especially the guitarist.
Those Mockingbirds knocked down the walls of this place – groomed but not too groomed, the way The Beatles must have seemed in those early days at The Cavern, something inside waiting to explode, and they managing not just to tease audience by going soft and hard, but to ride it, driving the point home hard, and then backing off, only to do it again and again so by the end of their set, you know something had knocked you down and rolled you over, and you ached for them to do it again – only there was no encore

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The never never land of Asbury Park

Thursday, September 04, 2014

It’s already days after our last visit to Asbury Park, and so, the details tend to mingle with previous visits.
I like to keep track of these things, because in retrospect, the details are sometimes important.
Traveling south in fair weather on Saturday, we ran into very little traffic – with the exception of the usual jerks, who treated the parkway like a raceway, weaving around slower moving traffic with the audacity of knowing no cop will catch them.
This trip solved one small mystery that has plagued me for a few weeks. During a recent trip, we found a detour off the highway between the parkway and the beach, a two block shift that oddly enough we did not encounter on the trip back in the dark.
This time I realized that we don’t take the same highway all the way back, but are diverted at a light, and that there are two entrances to the north bound lanes of the parkway. We get off on the northern most of these and encounter the detour, but on the way back, we access the parkway on the southern entrance.
Our goal this visit was to explore some of the side streets near Cookman Avenue, something of a disappointment since all of these are angled and the only real life in that part of the town is along Cookman or Main Street (where the city splits between tourist and poorer neighborhoods). We wound up returning to the boardwalk for a short stroll along the beach at a time of day when some of the poorer people occupied the area. This may be due to the fact that the beach becomes free after 6 p.m.
One important difference between this sea shore resorts and others like Sea Side Heights is the larger amount of people of color. Sea Side for the most part is an enclave of white people, a vacation spot for all those post World War II babies, who when life got tough in the northern part of the state eventually moved in mass to places like Toms River – explaining the hard right wing mentality of that part of the state.
This beach and its boardwalk tended to be mixed, and full of a different kind of while population, as if a retreat for the post hippie generation – a fact that made this even more attractive to me, even if this place lacked the memories the white enclaves had.
Unlike previous weeks, we saw no weddings on the beach or boardwalk, although I’m certain some must have taken place with the weather so fine, and we eventually settled into one of the eateries on Cookman where we had to wait only ten minutes for burgers and wraps as opposed to the hour and half projected wait we encountered during an earlier visit.
Then we went to The Saint for music, and ran into a comedy troupe which had run longer than expected. Comedy is always tricky, a matter of taste and timing, and this troupe largely reflected bar humor, less obnoxious than some, but filled with the same juvenile humor – which likely explained the large crowd that had come to see it, and why the crowd thinned significantly when the music finally started.
The four bands that followed included one that had some of the comedy troupe members, and this was also the least satisfying of the bands – partly because like the humor, the original material tended to have nothing of significance to say.
The other three bands we caught (we didn’t stay for all) varied in talent, but all were competent, most of them older, the saddest of which was the aging punk rock band (with a young female bass player) that tried desperately to recall the rage that had made punk rock popular. Another band was also of the geriatric variety, old men trying to relive their past as all old rock and rollers, successful or not, do.
The best was a hard core more or less heavy metal band so grungy, they seemed utterly authentic, rocking the house for their set until they had to step down to make room for the next band. I could have listened to them all night because they seemed so real.
All this extended our stay, though when we left, the staff thanked me for a story I had written about the club and the Hoboken bands that had played there the previous week.

I guess, I miss writing about music. It has been a long time. And so the trip back that night seemed like a trip back from Never Never Land, from a dream world to the harsh reality we all must face.