It’s heavy. It’s not my brother or a hard rain but the old Upstage Club in Asbury Park, NJ, USA A Memorial? April 12, 2015 By Calvin Schwartz
This op-ed blog or whatever it is, structurally, is best designed to be that stream of almost absurd consciousness that I’ve grown accustomed to these past few literary years. Suddenly, last summer, I heard The Everly Brothers singing ‘Bye Bye Love’ in a pinball amusement place on Ocean Avenue in Belmar, New Jersey. It’s 1957 and my parents rented a bungalow for August. If I behaved all week, watched my three year old sister Hildy, walked her in a stroller around the block every weekday morning, then when my father came down by Jersey Central rail train on the weekend, the family would go to Asbury Park’s boardwalk on Saturday night. My first experienced love of the city.
I’ll get to the Upstage. What I’m doing now is creating the background to suggest I am eminently qualified to deliver all kinds of coinage (two cents) about the city of Asbury Park and this special place on Cookman Avenue that launched a thousand musical ships, future careers and dreams. Well maybe not a thousand. Let’s cut to four years ago. Suddenly, during the summer of 2011, I became a journalist covering all aspects of Monmouth County life. The epicenter of that life for me was Asbury Park. I’ve covered the President visiting the boardwalk, Zombie Walk, Jersey Shore Dream Center (food pantry & kitchen), NJ Hall of Fame Induction, Light of Day, Hurricane Sandy, Asbury Lanes and Dr. Sketchy, all the historic music venues, Asbury Park Musical Heritage Foundation, Asbury Park Comedy Festival, Bamboozle, Food Bank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, Jersey Shore Arts Center (the old Neptune High Building, hmmm?) and have spent countless days and nights, seemingly full-time becoming a denizen of the boardwalk.
As much as four or five times a week, I absorbed music all over the city; even a collection of indigenous drummers, percussionists and hula-hoop purveyors on the boardwalk, before police would chase them away, all reveling naturally in self-expression before a setting summer sun. Yes, the ingredients of a real music city.
A few years ago, I got off a tour bus in Asbury Park, part of the Springsteen Symposium at Monmouth University, and heard local historians/journalists(Jean Mikle and Stan Goldstein) talk about Bruce, Convention Hall and the Stone Pony. Later, we stood in front of a building signed ‘Extreme,’ (back in 2001, the first floor was a shoe store) the top two floors, windows extant but covered over with concrete, like deliberately sealing a part of its past; a sarcophagus perhaps. They explained the hidden floors were the old ‘Upstage Club,’ founded by visionaries Margaret and Tom Potter, where Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny, Little Steven Van Zandt, Vini Lopez, Garry Tallent and Danny Federici were all regulars from 1968 to 1971 until it closed permanently. The door was padlocked and the last four decade history was explained to the group. Actually there is no history just endless abandonment and rumors that it might be torn down for condos. Back then, it was an almost all night (no alcohol) club where creative young musicians performed and explored until early morning hours. It was all for music’s sake; a brilliant concept and launching pad of expression and destiny. How synchronistic; the granddaughter of Margaret and Tom Potter, Carrie Potter Devening, published this wonderful book, ‘For Music’s Sake’ giving the history of the Upstage Club. I was haunted standing there, looking up, imagining what it must’ve been like all those years ago with incredible musical talent that has gone on to the global stage. This was my first ‘Upstage’ exposure and the early particulates of the molecular energy that birthed my love affair with the building, its history, founders and supporters.
I was smitten with sentimentality and history. On several occasions, over the years, around midnight,(like the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere) I went to Asbury Park on a meditative sojourn, stood outside the Upstage Club, looked up to a snow flurry or a starry summer sky and dreamed what was and what could be. I took pictures of the silence of the building and posted on social media. That’s when Carrie Potter Devening saw my posts, pictures and we became friends.
My dream collection process was accelerated; why couldn’t Asbury Park take its place as an international music destination so that one day it would be impossible to find a parking space on Cookman Avenue in the dead of winter; the city would be frenetic and alive with the sounds of music and the Upstage Club would again become that creative purist musical mecca. If you want to make it in New York, you have to make it at the Jersey shore first. If the club was crowded, I’d even sit on the floor, stare at vintage art on the walls and dreamily listen to music until 4 am, with just a cup of espresso. The music closed my eyes to dreams. I remember Robert Kennedy’s quote, “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” The streams of consciousness remind me of a scene from Henry Fonda in ‘Mister Roberts.’ What’s this I hear, that so many in the Asbury Park concentric circles of commonality, are letting the concept of Margaret and Tom Potter, musical creativity and even the brick and mortar of the Upstage Club disappear.
More streams. There’s a skeleton of a building, concrete pillars and a make-shift fence surrounding the massive property; a project started and quickly abandoned years ago. It’s on Ocean Avenue, a few blocks from Convention Hall. Of course, it’s an eye-sore, but for me it dramatizes a part of the Asbury Park experience. On several occasions, I conducted tours of Asbury Park and explained to foreign visitors, this was actually a commissioned sculpture depicting the future rising of Asbury Park. I can’t remember if I ever finally told them the truth. It doesn’t matter. The only truth is there are so many circles (‘interest’ groups) that want Asbury Park to finally arrive, but with so many different agendas on pastel brick roads.
It’s really not my place here to talk about the haunting history and emotional evocation of this magical place, The Upstage Club; so much has been said, written, talked about on radio or in restaurants up and down our Jersey shore. It’s the lighting of a fire, somewhere (someone) and installation of commitment to keep the concept within the city alive (or perhaps a block away?). Carrie Potter Devening has been tirelessly working for the past ten years to keep it alive; perhaps make it a museum and night club (without alcohol) again. There are efforts to raise money to buy the building, petitions to all those circles rolling around.
In 2012, on the boardwalk in Asbury Park, was the Asbury Angels first induction ceremony. The Angels are people who’ve passed, but contributed much to the rich musical history of the city going back way before Margaret and Tom Potter, who were also inducted that September day. Music came to Asbury Park basically from the day it was born in 1871. From John Phillip Sousa and the city’s own Arthur Pryor, one of the greatest trombone players, to the clubs along Springwood Avenue on the city’s Westside where the likes of Billie Holiday (who would’ve turned 100 as I’m writing this) Count Basie, Lionel Hampton and many other jazz and blues greats performed, to the Upstage, and right up to today, music is Asbury Park.
I met Carrie at the Angels Induction Ceremony, after her book, ‘For Music’s Sake’ signing in Convention Hall Arcade and later she facilitated my first visit to the Upstage Club. The building owner had graciously opened (for a few) the top two floors, left absolutely intact since 1971, with the walls still replete with unique psychedelic art. In the men’s room, I saw scrawled on the wall, ‘Steel Mill 1971.’(Springsteen’s early band). There was a strange silence walking around; one of those hard to explain moments. I stopped in front a brightly painted psychedelic wall and posed for a picture by a photographer who took the same picture of Bruce Springsteen just a year earlier, when he stopped by for ostensibly the last time. Sentimentality crosses barriers of time, space and people.
Walking around in the sounds of silence of the Upstage, I asked questions of a few who were there when it mattered. Tom Potter wanted a place with no peer pressure, where you can refine your skills and play music if you were too young to play at bars; the beauty of a non-alcoholic stage and the fact the Upstage was never a business just a club. I wonder who wrote the book of love and if all the ‘circles’ realize this. Jam sessions would seemingly never finish. Vinnie Roslin once started a song and it lasted 140 minutes. Things happened fast at the young club. Sometimes before a band could come up with a name, the band broke up. But those days are long gone. Things are different now; sound, technology, smart phones, fracking and internet.
My impulse as a sentimental journalist (oxymoron?) is to find a way to save this part of Americana and musical history. ‘You Can’t Go Home Again,” by Thomas Wolfe rings in my ear like a troublesome tinnitus. Perhaps you really CAN get home despite his admonition; so I’d like to believe. That’s why I’m doing this writing. Then slowly I turned around, came full circle and an epiphany (it was that strong) slapped sense and sensibility which means inevitability and probability. I heard what one of the E-Street Band members said that The Upstage is only brick and mortar and the memories last forever; some truth and maybe not an evasion. But what’s really important is the future of Asbury Park, NJ, USA. The concept of the Upstage Club must never fade away like an old general. The spirit must endure so today’s young musicians have something to propel Asbury Park into the future and a place where they are nurtured. And the future is slowly getting there. I have that dream of seeing Asbury Park as a global musical destination. Another ingredient is a first recording studio which is now here. So to my ‘now’ epiphany, if its only brick and mortar, that’s alright ‘Mah’, we just have to keep the concept alive. The Upstage could find a different format if or when all the ‘circles’ decide to let the old tired walls come down.
Sometimes I ask myself, whom I’m going to call now. Ghostbusters or all those ‘circles’ I know of? A few weeks ago, I received an invite to presumably the last walk through of the Upstage. Then the best; I went back to the future when Vini Lopez, Paul Whistler, Joe Petillo, Rich Gulya, Jon Sebastian Brice and Sharon Lasher took the stage with all the holes behind them, paint was peeling from ceiling and walls and they jammed for a last time like there is a tomorrow. A box of plaster pieces for souvenirs rested to stage right; we stuffed our pockets with history; a Berlin wall? I closed my eyes for a few seconds while the band played on. I dreamed again. Being there fueled my writing this piece. I’ve now said my peace. One final thought as the clock on my computer approaches 4:44 AM Sunday morning. There’s a wonderful historic building a block from Asbury Park that used to be the old Neptune High School a long time ago. Now it’s the Jersey Shore Arts Center. I wrote a feature article about them for NJ The Shore Thing last September. Yet another Calvin epiphany hit me a year ago; a new Upstage Club? And I wonder who really wrote the book of love.
Post script: Watch for acclaimed director Tom Jones’ film about The Upstage Club to be released next year.
Carrie Potter Devening book link: https://www.facebook.com/pages/For-Musics-Sake-Asbury-Parks-Upstage-Club-and-Green-Mermaid-Cafe/127404970667418?pnref=story
GoFund Me to raise money to buy the building: http://www.gofundme.com/6d1l6k
Sign the Petition at change.org to save The Upstage Club: http://chn.ge/1aGM1Zs