Greetings again from the darkness. Ask most people what they think of when you mention Asbury Park, New Jersey, and the vast majority would answer Bruce Springsteen. In today’s global music climate, it’s rare for a musician to be so closely associated with a city or geographic area. Perhaps only Elvis and Memphis eclipses The Boss and Jersey. However it’s important to note that this documentary from director Tom Jones (no, not that one) is not the story of Bruce, but rather a historic tale of a divided city whose music defined a generation.
New Jersey radio personality Big Joe Henry narrates the film, and we learn Asbury Park was founded in 1871, and became a town literally divided by railroad tracks (not the proverbial kind). The East side was populated with well-off citizens and tourists, while the West side was comprised of working class and minorities. Though only 1 square mile in size, the city’s division and segregation was clear and beyond question. Of course, the one aspect those tracks couldn’t stop was the music.
What happened in the 1960’s was a blend of jazz, soul, R&B, rock and blues. Music acted as a uniter in the evenings after the daytime maintained the line of demarcation. We hear the stories from the local musicians who thrived during the era: Steven Van Zandt, Southside Johnny Lyon, David Sancious, Max Weinberg, Garry Talent, Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez, and Edward Carter among others. To top it off, we get New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen casually lounging on a chair (well-lighted, mind you) within the walls of the infamous Upstage Club, deserted for more than 40 years, but looking pretty much the same as it did when a young Bruce and all of the previously named musicians played there.
July 4, 1970, changed everything for Asbury Park. Race riots, police, destruction, and fire. The city went through some dark times. Urban blight prevailed on the west side, and to this day it has not recovered. On the other side of the tracks, the east side has bounced back with music, the boardwalk and resorts leading the way. The Empress Hotel features The Paradise Club, a favorite establishment for the gay community … a community that has been behind much of the town’s resurgence.
It’s quite fascinating to have these local musicians recalling their own memories, and how the artistic freedom provided by The Upstage allowed their music to blossom. Asbury Park is described as “the Liverpool of America”, and through these passionate interviews, we get a taste of how. Not much actual music is included in the film, though near the end, we see clips of Springsteen joining Steve Van Zandt on stage with some young students from the local Lake House Music Academy. The film is co-sponsored by Jersey Mike’s and Halo X media, with much of the proceeds going to youth music programs. The only way this could have ended better would have been Bruce playing Ten Years After’s “I’m Going Home” … for 30 minutes.