As far as boardwalks go, this is a pretty good one.
In fact, in my experience of boardwalks, I’d say it’s the best.
This is the boardwalk in Asbury Park
, New Jersey.
Bruce Springsteen describes it as his “adopted hometown”, the town that has inspired lyric after lyric – songs laced with stories of the girls, greasers, cars and arcades of this beaten up beach resort.
I’m no expert of the seafront promenade world, but it does look good, doesn’t it?
If you’re anything like me, you’ll have pictured Asbury every time you listen to ‘Spirit in the Night’, ‘Sandy’, ‘Born to Run’ or ‘Something in the Night’ – those are just the start. You’ll have heard him sing about Madame Marie’s Temple of Knowledge, the Palace amusements (beyond the Palace
etc), the Kingsley Street circuit.
It’s a place that loads of Americans will have visited – friends from Philadelphia go there for the weekend, and Manhattanites day trip from New York city. To many it’s nothing more than a beach town, a good place to escape the city heat, have a beer and an ice cream.
But if you’re a Springsteen fan, no matter how far you’ve travel, it’s a much bigger journey. Mine is from my home in London, and I’ve daydreamed about visiting this American seaside town for years.
If you’re a Bruce Springsteen, fan this is your pilgrimage. And in December it was mine.
Of course I picked the worst time of year to visit the Jersey Shore: mid-winter, ridiculously cold, blow-you-over windy. It should have been grim – grey and bleak. But I got lucky – the sky a vivid blue, not a single cloud to be seen. Fresh. An Atlantic Ocean kind of breezy.
And completely f*cking brilliant.
Some visitors may head straight to the legendary Stone Pony
, or the Asbury Park Convention Hall
. But pilgrimages of such epic proportions require some serious fuel, and I never skip breakfast.
is a little local spot in the town – friendly vibe, smiley waiters, and buff pancakes and bacon (US folk this may be a standard thing for you, but pancakes are not that accessible in London – so I feel obliged to order them whenever I see them). But you need to try the corned beef hash and biscuit too.
A few blocks from the sea is Frank’s Deli
– a retro American diner that makes an appearance in the Rocky Ground video, but is more famous as a local food lovers’ institution.
|Walking down to Frank’s from the Asbury Park boardwalk
Sitting at the counter here is an insight into the every day life in the town – families catching up over mammoth breakfasts, an old dear taking payment at the counter, Jersey girl waitresses topping up mugs with filter coffee. There’s a proper 70s vibe going on – not because that’s a trendy way to do interiors, but it just hasn’t been updated. It’s fuss free in all senses: the counters are sticky, the walls tinged yellow with a permanent layer of grease. I *love* it.
I went for the pork roll, a New Jersey staple. I didn’t really understand what it was until I saw a massive sausage-shaped piece of meat being sliced up and fried, before it was stuffed into a bread roll and topped with cheese and egg. Dunked in a bit of chili sauce it’s a warm, comforting little breakfast package.
Fed and watered, I could now get down to Springsteen business, and I headed off to meet a local guy called Stan Goldstein. I know I always bang on about how I love meeting other Springsteen fans, and Stan’s another to add to the list. He’s a local NJ journalist who runs a Rock & Roll tour of the Jersey Shore – his knowledge is off the scale and he delivers it in the kindest, most enthusiastic way, driving you around the NJ spots that have influenced Springsteen’s writing and career. If you’re looking to see more of Monmouth County then Stan is your man, with an answer to every music related question you may have.
From E Street, to the tree on Parker Street (where Bruce posed for the BITUSA album lyric sheet), to his homes in Freehold, his knowledge of the area is unrivalled. I can’t even begin to go into the detail here – Stan’s written a whole book on it
, that’s how much there is to say.
But oh my – E Street! I’m sure loads of you know this story, recounted in Clarence’s book Big Man. The reason the band is called the E Street Band is when they went to pick up the group’s original keyboard player (David Sancious) for rehearsals, they’d park up outside his house on E Street and sit in the car waiting for him for ages. He was always always running late, leading Bruce to say “we’re on this street so much, we might as well be known as the f*cking E Street Band”.
“There you go,” replied Clarence.
|With Stan at the corner of E Street and 10th Avenue in Belmar
The rock & roll tour takes you to some of Bruce’s first homes, his schools and places that inspired many of his songs. We passed a factory near Freehold, which Stan mentioned might be the factory mentioned in the song ‘Factory’. I’d always pictured a car factory, but the one we passed in Freehold is actually a huge Nestle building, plumes of chocolatey smoke wafting out over the surrounding streets.
We saw the house where Bruce home-recorded Nebraska, the place where he wrote much of the Darkness album, and we drove over the bridge that once had views of the Twin Towers, the 9/11 attacks provoking much for the content of The Rising.
You may have seen me say it on here before, but Born to Run
is the album that got me into Bruce, via my dad
, who is a big, although slightly more sane, Springsteen fan. I’d seen pictures on the internet when the house was for sale, but nothing could really prepare me for how I felt outside number 7.5 West End Court, Long Branch, New Jersey.
It’s modest. Sitting between two big houses on either side you realise how tiny it is – one room at the front (although a second has been added at the back more recently), small porch, battered, damp roof. But obviously, it’s perfect.
|The Born to Run house
I stood there for a few minutes, taking pictures, and ya know, *thinking*.
Long Branch is near the water, and we spent a bit of time driving along the coast to see the other seaside towns, many of which were completely ruined by hurricane Sandy (remarkably Asbury survived relatively unscathed). Stan tells me in July the beaches are packed, the promenades swarming with locals.
Today it’s blissfully peaceful.
After the tour Stan left us to explore Asbury Park on our own. This place is seriously interesting, and honestly, not just for Springsteen fans. I get that it’s not everyone’s bag, but there’s something about a town going through a regeneration process that fascinates me.
The casino is an empty shell on the south of the boardwalk.
And the town is dotted with buildings looking for some TLC – blocks of flats left abandoned since the July 1970 riots, apartments half-finished after investment money has run out…iconic venues demolished (the Palace Amusements referenced in Born to Run are long gone).
The Fast Lane is another example. Formerly the second-most-famous nightclub in Asbury Park, in the 70s and 80s the Fast Lane was the place to hang, played by bands including U2, Jon Bon Jovi and the Ramones.
It’s now been knocked down, but luckily the neighbouring Asbury Lanes
is still there (although sadly closed when I visited – oh I’ll just have to go back).
A vintage bowling alley and live music venue, this little institution has been rocking Asbury Park since the 60s. Shore residents in their 20s and 30s go for the psycho, rockabilly, outlaw country and garage rock, attempting a bowling session while also watching a band play in the middle of the lanes. Effing cool.
Madame Marie’s Temple of Knowledge is still there, a little concrete square on the edge of the boardwalk (did you hear the cops finally busted Madame Marie for tellin’ fortunes better than they do…). It’s now run by her family after she passed away a few years back.
Sitting proudly at the northern end of the boardwalk since 1930, the Convention Hall is one of the biggest music venues in Asbury Park – the Clash and Bob Dylan have played there over the years.
It’s still used for performances today, but during the daytime (and when I visited) it was crammed with little market stalls and artisan coffee shops.
Attached is the Paramount Theatre, one of the most dramatic examples of seaside architecture on the east coast of the US, and a 1,600 capacity venue with stellar sound attracting gigs from Lou Reed, and obviously Springsteen.
As far as I can understand there’s a slightly controversial redevelopment process going on here: the buildings are owned by one central body who control much of the town’s future. As much as I loved seeing the regeneration of a potentially fading town, it unnerved me a little that buildings so important to Asbury Park’s identity have been bulldozed over the years, in favour of an upscale waterfront that could, in theory, be anywhere (apparently there were/are plans to make it into a Miami-esque resort town, which, as much as I had fun in Miami, fills me with horror).
I kept being told I was visiting at a bad time of year, but even in the slow off-season, when the boardwalk was quiet, and the beach empty, I loved it.
Particularly the museum – aka the Pinball ‘museum’, where we found sanctuary from the cold and played on refurbished pinball machines from the 70s and 80s, competing against the Jersey Shore’s oldest and youngest residents (and losing, natch).
And the Stone Pony
! An unassuming low-rise concrete building, and arguably the most important building in the town, for Springsteen fans anyway.
|From one side of Ocean Avenue, looking at the Stone Pony
I stood outside trying to ‘find my angle’ before I gave up, accepting that my face probably looks fat not because of the camera, but because I eat too many burgers.
|Bloody bin ruining my picture!
Erm, speaking of burgers, I couldn’t come all the way to Asbury Park and not have one – so we headed to Bond Street Bar
, which was recommend by locals as *the* spot for patty and bun combos, patty melts and fried pork roll (yep, fried pork roll, because fried potato is old news).
|This doesn’t look grrrreat but that was a light/camera issue. Honestly, it’s fit.
|The sauce? No idea. Not a clue.
Stomach lined, it was time to take on the Wonder Bar
, one of Asbury’s most famous music and drinking venues.
Come in the summer and the back yard is filled with live music and a ‘yappy hour’ hot spot – sociable dogs in Monmouth County gather here for a pint and a bum sniff.
As it was mid-December we stuck to the inside, mingling with a boozed up Santa Convention, drinking pints of NJ pale ale, and watching a local band jam. The stage is backed by the iconic Asbury Park smile of Tillie – whose face was once the emblem of the now non-existent Palace amusements. Tille’s face also graces the walls of the exterior of Wonder Bar, wide eyes following you down Ocean Avenue as you leave.
Of course the final stop of the day had to be a gig at the Stone Pony
. It was a night of White Tiger – a revived 80s glam-rock band, playing together for the first time in 32 years. We filed in behind a group of leather-clad, long-haired men holding A4 posters scrawled with the bands’ name. “It’s in case they forget who they are,” one guy told me. I don’t think he was joking.
Inside it’s dark and dingy, but the walls sparkle with colourful electric guitars, lining the perimeter like art work. The side rooms are covered with black and white photos of rock legends who’ve played here over the years – Billy Idol (yes, a legend) Southside Johnny (probably one of the most famous NJ bands – and Stone Pony regulars since the 70s), and the Gaslight Anthem, etc. Springsteen has played in the venue on more than 80 occasions, his pictures scattered through the different rooms.
Obviously I would have been happy moshing with these aging rockers all night, but we had to make the last train back to New York.
There is so so much I could say about Asbury Park and the towns along the Jersey Shore. I could ramble on for hours on here, going on about the buildings, the history, the different parts referenced in Springsteen’s music. But really I just want you to see it for yourself.
I know I’ll be back one day. For a swim in the sea, and an ice cream on the beach.
New Jersey, I’ll be seeing ya.
Stan Goldstein offers a Rock & Roll tour of the Jersey Shore. It’s not intrusive, only informative, and a really incredible way to see the inspiration behind Springsteen’s music. If you can’t make a tour, his book is brilliant – and covers the history of Asbury Park, and the top sites, with loads of incredible pictures. njrockmap.com
The best way to get to Asbury Park is on the NJ Transit Train. It’s a 90-minute journey from NYC, with a quick change in Long Branch (tickets are around US$20). Virgin Atlantic (virgin-atlantic.com
) has flights to New York from approx. £600 return. It’s the price you pay.