Of Mad Dogs and Musical History In Asbury Park
“Upstairs a band was playin’, the singer was singin’ something about going home…”*
~ Bruce Springsteen, Incident on 57th Street
I’ve long contended that if the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame wasn’t situated in Cleveland, it should be in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
This isn’t just some NJ jingoism at work – Asbury Park is steeped in musical history and tradition, far beyond the reaches of local son, Bruce Springsteen and his E Street bandmates. More on him in a minute, though.
The Sound of Asbury Park (S.O.A.P) is real, and commemorated with a bronze plaque outside Convention Hall. Big band, doo-wop, R&B, and yes, of course, rock ‘n roll – all was instrumental (no pun intended) to the musical development of Asbury Park.
And while The Stone Pony is arguably the more well-known rock clubs in Asbury Park (and, well, America), an older venue is steeped in even more musical history: The Upstage.
Located in a windowless third-floor of a building at the corner of Bond & Cookman Avenues in Asbury Park, The Upstage’s musical pedigree is unparalleled. Many, many musical acts would get their start – or build their reps – playing long, sweaty sets at this nonalcoholic venue, then owned by Tom Potter. Most importantly, perhaps, though, The Upstage gave birth to one of the true some rock ‘n roll legends. As Tom De Poto wrote in a recent NJ.com article: This is where Bruce Springsteen met most of the original members of the E Street Band and jammed with them. It’s where Southside Johnny Lyon and Steve Van Zandt honed their skills and later created the Asbury Jukes.
Now, though, the Upstage and all its history is about to vanish. Current Upstage club owner Rich Yorkowitz has to sell, and the building will soon be gutted. The only thing left will be musical ghosts. So, when Chris Phillips of Backstreets contacted me to ask if I would like to join a small group to tour the Upstage for the last time and shoot some photos for Backstreets, I quickly said yes. (Well, as quickly as I could after finding a babysitter for the evening.)
The leader of the last tour of The Upstage was local DJ and music impresario Rich Russo. This is Holy Land to Rich. To commemorate this event, Rich held a contest for listeners of his radio show. As he said on his blog: “If you are a fan of the great music that Asbury Park has given us, stepping inside the Upstage is our version of visiting the Cavern Club in Liverpool, but this is even rarer, since it’s not a museum and hasn’t been readily available since it shut down in the 70’s, it’s truly something that money can’t buy, and it will be free to about 20 contest winners via my radio show.”
So, on a chilly Friday night, I joined a small band of folks in the lobby of 700 Cookman Ave. Many were contest winners, some were special invitees. A few were media from near and far. There wasn’t much to see in the lobby of the old Thom McCann building, unless you’re excited by the detailed tin-pressed ceiling above, or some decades old graffiti (which I was. I’m trying to find the person who scrawled this to shoot their portrait now.)
As we waited, we received our wrist bands from Security, and, in groups of five, proceeded up the narrow, dimly lit wooden steps that led past the Green Mermaid coffe house on the second floor and up to the third floor where the club was. I wasn’t sure what to expect and, rather than use a Speedlight, I put on my Neewer LED Light on my 50D. Worked pretty well, and helped me pick up some script on the stairs that was passed by thousands over the years.
Once upstairs in the small area, amid the peeling day-glow paint and cracked windows, it was a little hard to picture this as a music club with such heritage. But then I remembered some of the little venues I’ve spent time in, like The Paradox in North Plainfield, NJ, or Fred’s Tavern in Stone Harbor, NJ, and I bet they wasn’t much bigger than this. I just never saw them with the house lights up. Our crowd – and we were a crowd now – filled the space. Someone produced a few bottles of wine and some beer and the nonalcoholic Upstage rule was broken for the first time on the last night.
Joining the group was a special guest, drummer Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez. Vini was a long-time participant in the New Jersey music scene, playing with Bruce in one of his first bands Steel Mill, then drumming on Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, The Innocent, The E Street Shuffle albums. Such are the winds of fate, though. After getting in a disagreement with the band’s manager in 1974, he was fired from E Street. His interesting life continued though, as a musician, a surf board shaper, and even a PGA golf caddie. He’s also continued to play with Springsteen on a number of occasions, including when he and the rest were inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.
Standing on the small Upstage stage for perhaps the last time, Rich and Vini chatted about the musical history of this place, then he signed his name on the back wall. I was honored to be there on that stage with him. Hopefully this wall will find a rightful home someplace. (This is the image that Backstreets used with Lisa Iannucci’s profile of Vini. Scroll down here.)
I also was happy to get a shot of Vini with members of the Friends of Bruce Springsteen Special Collection Kevin Farrell, Melanie Paggioli and Shawn Poole.
It was a big weekend for Vini, not just because of his appearance at the Upstage, but because he also had his first gallery show – The Life And Times of Vini Lopez – next door at the Asbury Park Where Music Lives gallery. (More on that in a bit).
The night saw people from near and far revel in seeing the club for the last time. The paint was peeling and many folks took pieces of plaster as souvenirs (Russo: “Don’t blame me if there’s asbestos in that plaster.) They did whatever they could to remember The Upstage for one last time.
The site has been untouched since the early 1970s, and there was much evidence of that.
Another special guest stopped by, percussionist Richard Blackwell. Richard also played on The Wild, The Innocent, The E Street Shuffle, and was a good friend of Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, the famed E Street sax player. Richard, too, signed the wall, while telling me a story about how once time, Bruce charged across the stage during a song, catching Richard and his bongos by surprise. He literally fell off the stage. That was just Bruce being Bruce, getting caught up in the music, Richard said.
I also had a chance to make a new friend, Alberto Engeli. Milan-born Alberto is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and, when I first saw him and his video camera, I thought he was with local media. Turns out, he was one of the contest winners. Came all the way from Santa Monica, California, where he lives now to be here for the event. His production company is called Dr. Zoom, a nod to an early Springsteen band, Dr. Zoom and Sonic Boom. I was happy to shoot a portrait of Alberto holding a Dr. Zoom ticket (the ticket is owned by blogger and music historian Dan George.)
Alberto is hoping to use this footage in a documentary about the Asbury Park music scene, and hopefully I can help him with that.
As I mentioned earlier, Vini’s gallery showing was opening next door. In time (and because I was on the babysitter clock), I had to leave the Upstage as I wanted to hear Vini pound the skins.
It’s hard to see but in TV screen above Vini, it’s him on stage with Bruce and the E Street Band at the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame induction (here Vini is playing with Paul Whistler and Jon Sebastian Brice.)
I shot some video of the band hard at work. Please disregard the fact that it’s crooked. I had my little Canon S110 propped on my bag while I shot stills. Sure, I had two tripods with me, but why use them? That would be to easy. (Forgot about them, actually).
There is movement afoot to save The Upstage. Hard to say what will happen, but I was honored to be there for what could potentially be the last stand at The Upstage. It was a great night, and I hope I did a good job capturing the essence of the evening.
Thanks for hanging with me for this long post.
(* I always wondered about that line in Incident on 57th Street. Why would a band be playing “upstairs”? Most clubs, bars are street level, no? Now I wonder if Bruce was thinking about The Upstage. Maybe he was once sitting in the Green Mermaid and heard a song and it stuck with him. Maybe this is a reference to The Upstage. Who knows. When I one day shoot Bruce’s portrait, I’ll ask him.)
(c)Mark Krajnak | JerseyStyle Photography | 2015