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When Asbury Park burned

Springsteen fans will love a new documentary about the glory days of the place where he honed his New Jersey sound – and the riots that nearly burned it to the ground

By Nikki Tranter |
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Bruce Springsteen band Asbury Park film
Photograph: Supplied

Asbury Park was built to entertain. In its early 1900s heyday, the New Jersey seaside town thronged with grand theatres, amusements, and concert pavilions. It would host some of the biggest musical acts of the day, and became the cradle for the big-band blend of blues, pre-Elvis rock and doo-wop that would become known as the Jersey Sound.

The town thrived until industrial developments of the 1940s and ‘50s, including construction of the Garden State Parkway and nearby shopping malls, saw business directed away from the town’s centre. Tourism waned and unemployment grew. The marginalised and segregated African-American community was deeply affected by the downturn. Tensions rose, and on Independence Day in 1970, a riot would break out on the streets of Asbury Park that would leave parts of the town in ruins.

Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock’n’Roll tells the town’s story, from its religious beginnings, through its emergence as a musical centre. It details the divisions that paved the way for the 1970 riot, and touches on the corporate mishandling of the town’s properties in the 1980s and ‘90s. The film’s focus, however, is on the music that crossed social and political barriers, with an eye on how entertainment remains key to the town’s revitalisation.

The documentary’s director, Tom Jones, grew up near Asbury Park. The boardwalk fascinated Jones, who worked a summer job as a teen amid the glorious and dilapidated town centre, delivering Pepsi-Cola, and envisioning a renaissance that wasn’t to be. At least not at that time.

“I remember running about those buildings with cases of soda, and thinking these places will open again, but they never did,” Jones tells Time Out. “When I got a chance to dig into the story, I jumped on it. It's a great place to tell a story. It's a seaside town divided by railroad tracks, and on the coastal side were the haves, and on the inland side were the have-nots, and no-one ever really crossed those tracks for any reason except for music.”

Music, Jones says, was the driving force of the town. Before the riot, Asbury Park housed more than 70 music clubs in just one square mile. One of those clubs, the Upstage, was where musicians performed original material into the early hours of the morning. It was a place for all, where punters were instructed via a sign on the door to “leave your anger and hatred outside with your booze and your drugs”. Among those found jamming at the Upstage were then-unknown icons of the Jersey Sound: Steve Van Zandt, Garry Tallent, Dave Sancious, Clarence Clemons, Southside Johnny Lyon, and of course, Bruce Springsteen (whose 1973 song ‘4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)’ would allude to the riots).

The film features never-before-seen photographs of a teenage Springsteen and his future bandmates on stage at the Upstage, with hundreds of club-goers packed into the tiny venue. Interview segments with Springsteen and Van Zandt take place in the old Upstage building, which has remained abandoned but intact since its closure in 1971.

Photograph: Supplied

In the film, Springsteen recalls the Upstage as the place where he first recognised his own ability to command an audience. “You can tell when suddenly you’ve got everybody’s attention,” he says. “I could feel that moment happening.”

“There were a lot of terrific musicians in the room,” says Jones, “and while Bruce was the guy that made it out, there was a fine line between stardom and almost-stardom.”

The Upstage would last just three years, closing in the wake of the riot. In a particularly affecting scene, Jones’s camera follows long-time Springsteen guitarist Van Zandt up a set of rickety stairs, into the main area of the venue, where the neon-painted walls appear as bright as they did in the original pictures. Van Zandt’s recalls the week of the riots that would see almost 200 people injured. “I remember guys that I used think were nice, sweet guys, getting rifles and standing on the roof like it was hunting season,” he says. “It got weird for a minute there."

But even as the streets shook, music, again, edged through the fray. Guitarist and former Springsteen bandmate, Albee Tellone, recalls in the film that amid the gunmen on the rooftops stood a lone Philadelphia muso playing bagpipes as shots rang out. No matter the situation in Asbury Park, it would seem, the band played on.

This message of hope lies at the heart of Jones’s film. Five decades on, and that renaissance Jones longed for as a youngster is at last underway. The film looks at the communities reviving the town, and the music programs offering opportunities to the local kids. “It’s great and timely story for what's going on in the country at this time,” says Jones. “The beauty of music is that it's a connecter. It connects people like nothing else really does, and at a time when we're being pulled apart, I think that’s a valuable thing to look at.”

Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock’n’Roll is in cinemas on Wednesday May 22 for one night only. Find a local screening at asburyparkmovietickets.com.

 

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