Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey
On the Jersey Shore, Once Distressed Asbury Park is a Musical Mecca
By Christopher Ludgate
The vibrant panorama view from the open rooftop bar of Watermark at the southern part of the Asbury Park Boardwalk reveals the thriving resurgence of this historic major music hub on the Jersey coast.
Multiple venues stretched into the distance before us easily claim legacy and grandeur. The Paramount Theater, Convention Hall, and The Stone Pony each possess a seemingly endless roster of impressive legends that blazed trails through here over many years.
And the Asbury Park roster keeps growing. This trifecta of landmarks is located along the wide 1.5-mile boardwalk which is also peppered with booming venues offering live acts varying from traditional rock to jazz and blues, alternative, and punk.
There’s also cabaret and karaoke – and a couple of places with DJs spinning it out, all welcoming patrons to weave through, indulge their senses and quench their appetites with an array of menus, shops, and diverse boardwalk flair.
It would not be a stretch to describe Asbury’s music scene as New Orleans-esque or Nashville meets beach town – with cocktails and cruising in and out of jam sessions exploring more of what the burgeoning and sundry seaside destination has been evolving into in recent years.
Clocking in at about an hour from Philadelphia – or a bit more from NYC – via car, rail, ferry, or bus – it is an easy-access getaway. It’s a very foot-friendly and bike-able town, too. So, once there – it was check-in, park, and play.
Legends and Legacies
While my friend and I imbibed beyond happy hour absorbing the rooftop views, a local band rocked the stage in the enclave between the boardwalk below and MOGO Fusion Korean Tacos, one of the local sponsors of Asbury Park Live, the collaborative concert series. Yards away, encircled by a diverse gathering of lounging families, couples, and friends, a dazzling bonfire danced on the sand as the tides ascended along the jetties.
The Stone Pony and its Summer Stage, which has a slew of big name concerts happening into autumn, were under way with their sound-checks. Inside the historic Pony, its quintessential rock & roll vibe and rich history have to be experienced to be truly appreciated. Acts like BUSH, Echo and the Bunnymen, Violent Femmes, Lifehouse, Dark Star Orchestra, Quincy Mumford, Pixies, Prophets of Rage are just a few gracing the stages at the Pony this season.
And you never know what surprise guests will show up for a jam session. Given that The Boss’ debut album is titled ‘Greetings from Asbury Park’, he’s been known to pop up. Lots of Jersey Shore legends called this place home.
Beyond the Frankie Valley Legacy
In the ’50s and ’60s, the town was all the rage with Frankie Valley and the like. People would cruise the circuit in their shiny big Chevys and Chryslers, as they did back then. Unfortunately, riots chased people away in the ’60s.
What is now the Pony was one of the popular diners of those days. A couple of local musicians took over the place and the venue first opened its doors in 1974. Still, after questioning the future of being in a dilapidated beachfront town, the venue closed its doors in 1991.
A ray of hope to redevelop Asbury in the early 2000s turned things around with the help of music legends who recognized the value of the venue and the potential for Asbury’s resurgence.
The Stone Pony is now partnered with the biggest concert promoter in the world, Live Nation. Developers, Madison Marquette, are ensuring its preservation in Asbury’s rise as a destination with year-round establishments.
The Pony has indeed earned its place in the Asbury comeback. Asbury’s six national music venues sold 200,000 tickets in 2015, so business is apparently booming!
Convention Hall and Paramount Theater
Almost as if jutting out from the sea sits the majestic structure housing the city’s Convention Hall and Paramount Theater havens for multiple events. The circa 1930 structure has welcomed the likes of Elton John, Frank Sinatra, The Clash, Pink Floyd, and Rolling Stones to name a few. The Hall’s marquee glows inside the Arcade, highlighting the boardwalk’s 300 annual events.
Events like Surf Music Festival, Punk Rock Flea Market, Vegan Pop-up Show, Indian Summer are just a few on the current calendar.
During a behind-the-scenes walking tour of the grand Italian/French architectural landmark designed by the team who did New York’s Grand Central, Adam Nelson, Madison Marquette’s Director of Communications, revealed “One of the projects in the eight-year phase of renovations is to keep all of the ornate décor. We are also reprinting some of the many posters from the concerts that were playing here then to create a gallery. This one,” he motioned, “Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, Eddy Arnold, The Byrds… Not a bad Summer.”
Another poster depicted Jim Morrison being escorted through the hallways by the police there. I was surprised to learn that Led Zeppelin turned down Woodstock to play here in 1969!
Adam led us on to a non-public terrace atop Paramount Theater where we got another panorama with Wonder Bar in site. Wonder Bar’s history has its unique spot in the lexicon of local musical icons. From the deck we could see the venue’s new popular Yappy Hour getting under way in their outdoor area with four-legged friends and people that love them.
The Saint and House of Independents are two other live music clubs not to be missed in this music hub. They attract big crowds and names with a following a bit further up from the boardwalk.
Dining, Drinks, and a Serenade
On either end of Convention Hall are restaurants. The Anchor’s Bend, on the north side, features Asbury’s only bar on the beach and a promenade bar with sweeping beach views. One afternoon, my friend, Pascale, and I wandered into the promenade and met up with Felipe Rose, a founding member of the Village People. We talked new upcoming projects while he enjoyed Anchor’s famous rum bucket. Rose has been a resident of the area for a while.
“When I’m touring and start to get fed up with the whole lifestyle and business, because it’s exhausting as much as I love it — I come here to the beach — to Asbury, and it just clears my head and rejuvenates my soul, you know? I’m home, and I feel better again,” Rose revealed.
And upon discovering it was my birthday, I was jaw-droppingly honored with an impromptu serenade of the birthday song by the youthful and gregarious Rose.
The Anchor’s apropos nautical-themed interior features an array of talented bands and an open mic night for comics who want to try out new material. Manager James Douglas juggles the Oyster Bar inside the Arcade as well as the Beach Bar, a walk-up promenade bar with light bites, on the south side of the arena. Beach Bar hosts Atomic Tuesdays dance night among other events.
Other boardwalk eats we checked out include High Voltage coffee, where I found fresh juice from the Juice Basin, rustic pizza at Stella Marina, Pop’s Garage for some Mexican, Robinson’s Ale House, situated just below Tim McLoone’s Supper Club, which is the old Howard Johnson’s – slated to become the next musical pavilion to get a makeover.
Fun & Games
Silverball Museum on the boardwalk was a blast of fun & cool air on a sweltering 100 degree day.
A huge colorfully lit-up interactive collection of pinball games circa 1930s to Atari’s ‘Pong’ and an array ’80’s video games that can get anyone – any age – carried away for a while. As a former game junkie, I could barely get enough of that rush. Refreshments are also available inside.
Upper Deck Shuffleboard Club in a newly renovated section inside Convention Hall offers up re-discovering an old favorite beach pastime – no experience necessary. It has gorgeous views and a new lounge bar area if you want to just watch.
The new Athletic Club on the north end of the boardwalk offers a variety of activities for today’s fitness oriented travelers. Bowling is another option to beat the heat with fun, family, and friends at Shore Lanes.
Revamp, Reinvent, Revitalize
On the south end of the boardwalk, a killer skater park called Fourth Union has embedded itself inside the famed 1920’s heyday era, Asbury Park Carousel. Ramps, and spray paint, and thrashing music filled the dome as young skaters whipped some amazing, impressive moves.
The acoustics inside the open structure of the adjacent Casino attracts musicians. An echoing and ghostly version of REM’s ‘Losing My Religion’ lured us in as an audience stopped to listen beneath the construction scaffolding that afternoon.
Adam explained the revamping idea of the interiors is to “re-imagine in the name of preservation” the canvas of the dramatic looking historic Casino – which once housed amusements and the bumper cars – into retail and event spaces.
On the walls outside, a big new attraction is the colorful and prolific eye-popping exterior gallery of murals called the ‘Wooden Walls’ project.
Co-curator, Jenn Hampton, of local Parlor Gallery explained, “I wanted to make sure there was a well-rounded vision or cross-section of artists that the public won’t find too niche or experimental.”
Harmonious Community Development
While the very foundation of the area’s heritage is extensive, its notoriety as a creative hub and entertainment nucleus is a big part of what makes it continue to grow and thrive. Many venues along the boardwalk, boast a music calendar full of variety on just about any given night.
The bustling Langosta Lounge and its cultural rock & roll character boasts a ‘vacation food’ menu. Langosta owner and community advocate, Marilyn Schlossbach, just in from a day at the farm, elaborated about her youth initiative, ‘Food for Thought by the Sea,’ whose incentive is to “help the community grow and prosper …with a concentration being in the culinary arts and cultural development.”
The Asbury Park Music and Film Festival is also emerging on the scene celebrating the role of music in film. With premier music scene photographer Danny Clinch among other board members, the festival benefits the under-served children in Asbury Park by providing music education.
With many implemented initiatives taking off that include The North Eats Food Trucks, prospects are plenty for a community that promotes each other.
A crane jutting up into the night sky confirms Asbury’s emerging destination status as another new hotel rises up near the new Asbury Hotel which is described by management as a “mash up Asbury Park’s Victorian-era history, rock-n-roll present, and shiny future into a new kind of social hub.”
The Berkeley Oceanfront Hotel circa 1920s still retains a grand art deco feel in the lobby while the rooms have been stylishly renovated with a contemporary and comfy look. Johnny Cash actually used to live here. I imagine the commute when he performed at Paramount Theater across the street was pretty sweet.
The Empress Hotel thrived as a family resort in the ’60s with acts like Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli. Its iconic sign is pictured on Springsteen’s 1976 Hungry Heart album sleeve.
Although experiencing a heyday back then, it had more glory days ahead when in 1998, music producer, Shep Pettibone, bought The Empress and opened a nightclub and restaurant within it.
With its outdoor pool and balconies, it’s been thriving since 2004, luring visitors from remote Fire Island as a gay travel destination. LGBT urban-ites began buying real estate in the area in the ’80s, so naturally, gay culture is given a nod when it comes to Asbury’s vibrant resurgence in recent years.
Christopher Ludgate is a freelance travel and culture journalist and photographer, as well as an award winning producer, director, and writer living in New York City. Click on his name above to visit his website.