A Very Unique Thing

An Introduction To The Asbury Music Scene

The once popular resort town, Asbury Park, is now an unpopular ghost town, by day. Like a very moody vampire, Asbury's a town that awakens at night. If you walk through Asbury you may only hear your own footsteps and see your own footprints, but by nighttime it's desertion goes away. Local music and music heard on MTV fill the air. Doormen stand close to the doors of the Saint on Main Street and the Stone Pony on Ocean Avenue, parallel to the Jersey Shore and its waters, empty at any hour, that used to fill with beachgoers looking to get away from their daily lives.

These days, on summer's nicest day you can find no one in those waters. One thing that stamps a place on the map of this former resort town now on it's last life is the night's music. The ghost of Asbury's glory days still haunts many new artists looking to make a name for themselves. They still hear stories of what it was like when Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny would play there R & B flavored tunes in Asbury.

"I see a lot of people trying to re-create the whole scene," said veteran Asbury musician Tony Amato. "The social times are a little different now then we had then. The town is pretty run down and it's hard for kids now. Now you've got the Stone Pony. Kids are like let's go to the Stone Pony and we'll make it, but that's not gonna happen anymore."

Amato came up with Springsteen, growing up three blocks from the Asbury boardwalk. Back then he played in bands like Ecstasy and Cahoots, starting at a place called the Upstage. "Asbury was like the Liverpool of the U.S.A. at one time," said Amato, now lead vocalist and keyboardist of Boccigalupe and the Bad Boys. "Little Steven used to say that. The Beatles came from Liverpool. Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny came from Asbury Park. It's basically the way we grew up as kids that made that sound." Liverpool in its quality of music, but something unique was developing. "Everybody was trying to be somebody," he said. "Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix was out. Everything that made rock and roll today was then."

Shore rock today has taken a different turn. Where artists used to stew together originals with covers, artists now mostly have to choose between them. Two shore bands that chose the lucrative cover market are the Nerds and Dog Voices. "It was a joke turned into a career," said Jim "Spaz" Garcia, bass player and lead vocalist of mega-popular cover band, The Nerds. Their punch line is slicked-hair, polyester shirts, and dark-rimmed glasses to create a look that Bill Gates has been trying to perfect for years. They also have a trait that some may argue for Gates, their product is as strong as their gimmick. Young adults swarming to shore clubs like Point Pleasant's Jenkinson's and Red Bank's Chubby's have most likely seen both of the these bands. "The club thing is still the biggest thing we do," said Garcia. "It's 80 percent of what we do."

Point Pleasant and Red Bank contrast from each other and from Asbury. This leaves local concertgoers the freedom and responsibility of choosing the right band and town. Point Pleasant, with it's long boardwalk, young crowds, and patented Jersey shore beach is a draw for Jersey people day and night, especially come summertime. Other bars like Martell's Tiki Bar will feature local night acts for people looking to get away from their arcade machines, or trade in their boardwalk funnel cake for whatever's on tap.

Tightly dressed young adults looking for good music and a buzz will brave the long lines at Jenkinson's to see the two previously mentioned cover acts as well as Big Orange Cone, the Zone, and Love Lies Bleeding. On a Friday or Saturday night, when one cover band isn't playing Jenks, they may be at Chubby's. Red Bank with its coffee houses, Irish bars, and jazz clubs is a hot attraction for celebrities. You may see Clerk's creator Kevin Smith or Clerk's star Jason Mewes down there. Stan Lee, creator of Spiderman, may be spotted. Parking lots and clubs will always fill-up. At certain times, Red Bank is one of Jersey's hippest locations with all types of people coming through both day and night.

The scene is ideal for singer Rob Monte whose band, Dog Voices, is another cover band that has found it's way to the forefront of the scene. Like the Nerds they had trouble drawing crowds to originals, so they play other people's music. According to Monte the seven-year old band is now a business that pays taxes and offers insurance. "It's gotten so busy as a cover band, it's a career," he said. "When people ask what I do, (I say) I'm a singer." Monte can be seen stage diving at Bar Anticipation in Belmar, and jumping on bar tops at Chubby's. He has heard stories of people doing crazy things on stage before. One includes a guy who would climb through Chubby's floorboards on their ceilings. "To be a band like ours you've got to evolve, you've got to respect music," said Monte.

Aside from playing cover songs with accuracy or their own special spin, Dog Voices will do whatever they can to get a crowd going. "There's no place in the whole country like the New Jersey shore scene," he said. "There's no place else where people, can play cover music (like this). That's where the stigma happens. You can go play at Jenks in front of 700 people and go nuts. New Jersey's the only place where you can make a living doing this without having to play weddings." Imagine Springsteen playing a wedding.

Amato can still remember how he, Springsteen and others grew up together with dreams of making it as musicians. "They didn't have a place where you could jam until two or three in the morning," said Amato. "All the young kids were suppose to leave, but we're not going anywhere." The start your set late at night and end in early morning mentally still exists today. Songs like "Whole Lotta Love", "Purple Haze", "Crosstown Traffic", and rhythm and blues music such as Sam and Dave played in the musical carnival that Asbury once was. Like then, today's cover bands will play what's popular. Cover songs today include songs from Blink 182 and Fuel.

Bands later moved to another Asbury club, The Stone Pony, and things picked up when Springsteen signed with Columbia Records in 1973. "All of the sudden Bruce got his recording deal," said Amato. "Then you've got all kinds of people trying to get on the scene. You've got Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, The Shakes, and Cahoots all trying to get record deals. It was an exciting time. Everything was there for the taking." The Jukes were signed to Epic records in 1976.

After Springsteen made his first record, Amato said he was eager to come back and jam with his friends. "Bruce was like, let's go and have a good time," he said. "It used to get boring for him." These returns drew attention back to the shore and helped bands and clubs there.

Garcia, whose band's been around since '85 gave testimony that changes in the types of music being played around the shore is evident in his bands music. "We came in at a time with what was called slam dancing," he said. "It went from the aggressive thing, to the hip-hop thing and the rock thing." The Nerds' set lists changed with people's tastes. Now there's a lot less pop music. A lot more hip-hop and hardcore rock. We just try to stay in the middle with good old party stuff. We added a lot of disco, swing stuff. Now we're doing rock, classic metal, and some modern rock." Things changed in the cover scene, when the drinking age was raised from 18 to 21, in the late '70's. Slightly newer to the scene, Monte noticed how changes music goes through nationally affects the music Dog Voices plays. "It's easier to do the music that's out now," he said. He added that cover bands have to be open minded and play popular music even if it isn't challenging as old Van Halen music of the 80's. "It's entertainment," said Monte. "It's not rocket science to play someone else's songs. It's how we do it." "We'll do Harvey Danger, we'll do "Kryptonite", we're leaning towards the grungy thing," said Garcia. "We don't claim to be anything groundbreaking. If it was me given a choice of going to a bar to hear a DJ or band, I'd rather see a band. Like anything else, there's good, there's bad and there's awful."

The Nerds play at clubs and private parties across the globe. They were house band at the MTV Ultimate Cover Bands Competition and later received 600 e-mails from people who saw it. They've also released three CDs two of all cover songs. "(The Nerds are) the epitome of what a cover band is," said Monte. The Nerds try to help upcoming cover acts. "We've certainly helped a lot of bands," said Garcia. Big Orange Cone for instance. We've done a couple of shows having them open shows for us. We've kind of put together a way of business. We want to help bands market each other in some way."

Jersey's original music scene is mostly in Asbury's places like the Saint, the re-opened Stone Pony, and West Long Branch's Brighton Bar, and Hooligans. The shuffle continuing down on the shore today has stumbled in the past. Matawan singer/songwriter Danny White or Asbury metal act turned straight ahead rockers Latshaw can testify to that. Playing in bands and solo, White still remembers his first acoustic gig at the Brighton. "When we first started doing that they had an open-mike on Sunday," he said. "That place was packed for like the first year. You'd see some different people there every week. I remember not being there for some Sunday's. I went back and there was three people there." Not an encouraging beginning, but things have picked up. "Asbury was pretty dead," he said. "Now there's a lot more places to play with Stone Pony being back. (Stone Pony Owner) Domenic Santana did a really good job. Asbury's got that stigma about it (again)."

Amato remembers how it was hanging out on the shore and thinks those times are long gone. "There's just not enough clubs in the state of New Jersey for the amount of bands that's out there, the mystique's not happening anymore," he said. He feels the original Jersey sound cannot be re-created. "If there was a sound it's because we were all doing R & B and everyone else was doing disco," he said. "It was just a different vibe, created by the way we grew up. Everyone was out for the music. We weren't there for the money." Amato describes the Jersey timeline in four generations. He said it began with bands like his and Springsteen's, moved to the next generation with Bon Jovi, then to the third with Cats On a Smooth Surface and the Farilanes. He said today's generation consists of artists like White.

The ghost of Asbury's past walked in on White when he was playing a benefit for Parkinson's Disease organized by Pittsburgh based Joe Gruschecky and the Houserocker's manager, Bob Benjamin. The event's purpose was to raise awareness for the Parkinson Diseases Foundation. Benjamin, a good friend of White's, suffers from the illness.

Springsteen, who has helped out many Jersey charities, came to support his friends and the cause. He approached White about playing some songs together that night. "I was standing on the side of the stage watching Joe Gruschecky and the Houserockers play when Bruce walked up to me and told me to come up and do "Twist and Shout" with him and Joe at the end of the night," said White. The Little Steven-penned classic "I Don't Want to Go Home" was added, as a whole bunch of other musicians approached the stage.

"It's always a pleasure to play with such great musicians," said White. "It's exciting and it just flows. It felt surprisingly natural to be standing up there singing with Bruce. Not intimidating in the least, just a tremendous moment." Amato recalls playing with Springsteen at that concert in a different way, it was a chance for him to re-unite with old friends. "I was on the road with Gary U. S. Bonds," he said. "When you get on the stage with people you don't know you look to see what other people are doing. When playing with the people I grew up with you don't have to look at them."

In the past, The Fastlane re-oppened, and T-Birds became the Saint. Asbury's big venues like Convention Hall and the Paramount now are used mostly for national acts, but these bands always draw attention to the whole area. The Saint has survived as a place where local bands can get exposure by playing with national acts. According to Co-Owner Scott Stamper, it opened at a good time. "All the clubs were going," said Stamper. It was a good time to start a new club. We got off on a real good first step. The scene was definitely thriving." Surviving the scene since 1994, it may be proof that Asbury is a diehard music city. The Saint played host to Jewel early in her career, as well as other famous acts like Ben Folds Five, Deftones, Cake, Joey Ramone, Everlast, and Incubus. Local bands like Psychedelic Oven Mit, The Lemmings, Brown, and the Outcry have also played there. The band Mothersound opened the club up on its first weekend, soon after G. Love and Special Sauce came in with two sold-out shows. The club didn't have a stage until February of '95. "It was a good decision to open the club and give attention to bands that was missing at the time," said Stamper.

Like the Saint, the Brighton is an exciting diehard place for young local bands and national acts to play. Run by walking shore landmark Jack "Jacko" Monahan, bands are set up and ready to go quickly and audience members are treated to its top-of-the-line sound system. Band stickers and painted murals line up the eccentric walls, and Monahan's bills feature a long list of great acts.

As clubs close, open, and re-open, what is the secret for lasting? The obvious answer is hard work. According to Stamper, developing a strategy and executing it is important. Stamper cautions that copying another's formula will make a promoter as unsuccessful as an unoriginal band. The fluorescent lit, sticker walled Saint differs in many ways to the straightforward Pony. "You look at other shows and try to do the opposite," said Stamper. "The Pony has jam Friday's, so I won't have a jam show on Friday." Monte said that shore clubs' changes in atmosphere and audience change just like bands do. Clubs are strongly affected by the economy and legislation. Stamper said local clubs now have to compete with the Internet and movie business and the business is two-fold with local and national bands surviving off each other. Monte gave an example of how legislation affects clubs saying that since the drinking age went up, some clubs only stay open from Thursday to Saturday, instead of all week.

Right now, White's career is seeing some solid success. Touring the east coast from Charleston, South Carolina, to Boston in support of the new compact disc, "Beautifully Preserved Wrecks". He recently had a spread for the New York Times and MTV will use his songs on their shows "Road Home" and "Making the Tour".

On Wrecks, White's managed to build a roots rock sound from a mixture of dynamic melodies. White's volume swelling guitar and vocals and sensitivity throughout the album give him a unique feel. His use of keyboards and harmonica bring the listener back to the shore's glory days. "Ten years ago when I first started there was nothing," said White. "Now there's plenty of places to play."

Asbury's history is more than the Pony, more than the Fastlane. In Asbury's rougher side is a landmark known as the Hot Dog House. This church turned rehearsal studio, protected by a police station across the street, holds memories for many bands, especially brothers Tom and Billy Latshaw.

Their band, Latshaw, shares something in common with the rehearsal studio, they're both survivors of the sweet and sour states of shore rock. "How could Asbury Park not recognize it," said Billy. "It's such a wealth of music." Now Billy likes to hear his influence in the younger bands he hears there. Sometimes, he may hear one of his own guitar riffs coming through the walls, being played by a younger band. "It's the only part of the history of music in Asbury Park besides the Pony," said Tom. In its early days Monahan used to run shows out of there. Bands can practice there for $350 a month from five at night, until five in the morning.

Latshaw recently added themselves to a list of shore bands attracting label interest. Their business manager sent record labels MP3's of Latshaw's acoustic demo in process. "Hopefully the band will get a record deal out of it," said Chris Bade, their Personal Assistant. "Latshaw has been together since 1988 so it's been a long time coming. The band has always been content about putting out their own demos and then CDs, but now they feel the material is at its best, so it was the right time to approach the labels." "We're just a real good strong unit," said Tom. "Jersey Alone has a name with Springsteen, the Jukes. I feel we're in that caliber 'cause of the debt we paid and quality of our music."

Changes of music stylings of bands at the Hot Dog House reflects changes in the scene. "Heavy music is going in a different direction," said Billy. "Now (at the Hot Dog House) there's so many different styles of music. They're all these bands. They're all good. Trying to develop and stuff."

The band considers themselves survivors of the Shore scene's sour state in the early 90's. When they started it was filled with glam acts inspired by Motley Crue and Bon Jovi. "We were dead set against it," said Tom. "Not like they weren't talented. We were on the other side." A lot of those bands did not last, but some like Ripping Corpse, now Dimak and Monster Magnet have turned into popular nationally known acts.

The band started out after the brothers, playing in rival bands, decided to join forces. According to Tom, Billy came out of the womb playing the guitar. By the time he was 11, he was playing in bands with 14 and 15 year olds. "We all are probably built from Billy," said Tom. "He's like the nucleus actually."

The band has been through seven singers and three drummers. Craig Otto is now the drummer, and new member Mike Affinto is the lead vocalist. Billy provides strong harmonies, and some sparkling clean blues and classical based strat laser licks, while Tom grooves with his thick-toned, psychedelic metal bass playing behind him. Otto is a song first drummer who adds some quick-even fills, while Affinto provides his top-toned, rough-edged grungy vocals. The band plans to continue with this line-up until the end.

Latshaw may have avoided label interest because of their refusal to cave into record company's requests. Tom said they want as much control of their music as possible and staying happy as musicians is important. "We've evolved around and appreciate music," he said. "If we're not happy about what we're doing why should we play?" He doesn't think the music business favors musicians. "We'd rather put our own albums out," he said. "If it picks up, it picks up."

Both brothers gave their opinions on how the scene has affected their music early in their careers. "As for the scene, it wasn't that great to follow," said Tom. "We always tried to stray from the pack." "Just knowing that other people were playing (the guitar) got me to play," said Billy. "(Local blues guitarist) Billy Hector, how can you not be into him?"

Other artists like funk-rockers Borialis and Brown, and acoustic singer/songwriter Virgina Traut hope for lightning to strike, which makes for a strong scene, but White says camaraderie is lacking. Both Garcia and Monte said there is strong camaraderie with cover bands. "Monte" says other bands such as the Nerds influenced Dog Voices. "They've been doing it such a long time," he said. "Playing at places like Carnegie Hall and the White House." He also sees his influence on other bands and now plans to look at managing. Garcia himself goes out to see the other local bands whenever he gets the chance. "In the early 80's there was a lot of competition. On any given night there was a lot of different kinds of bands you could be (like). These days there's one type of band. Bands try to take one thing and specialize that."

The shuffle continues down on the shore today, with many bands looking to repeat the success of Springsteen and the E Street Band and Bon Jovi. The recently signed shore band, Highway 9 (formerly Samhill), will release an album on Sony's Epic Records this fall. The band, features vocalist Peter Scherer and guitarist Gordon Brown, who both played in the nationally known acoustic act, Mister Reality. Brown's throaty leads and Scherer's melodic vocals were too much for industry executives to pass up, as the band showcased in New York without a demo. They have played the shore and other areas supporting local bands like Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and nationals like Matchbox 20, and Everclear.

Billy Latshaw is a strong supporter of Samhill. Both brothers are happy to see the success of their contemporaries. "It's nice to see bands get record deals, change names," said Billy. "Seeing bands stay together, put out CDs. We're trying just like them."

Jersey is again becoming a breeding ground for young bands, producing a nice crop of acts. Jersey, of course, is rich in music history with Frank Sinatra, Springsteen, Bon Jovi, and Lauryn Hill all coming from, as Springsteen calls it, "The Great State of New Jersey." "It's funny, there's the Bruce thing, Bon Jovi sold a ton of records," said White. "I think everybody's influenced by that. Everyone wants to do what they did. If you're into them or not. It shows there's a chance something can happen. They offer a kind of hope." Idaho grows and exports potatoes, Iowa corn, rock and roll seems to be Jersey's chief export. "New Jersey as a state has a remarkable music scene," said Garcia. "As an original artist, if you're trying to get an opening here, you know people will be receptive towards it."

Club promoters and musicians both run risks in when in a business that's tide runs in so many different directions. "We've had our rough times, but we got through them," said Stamper. "Has the scene changed or have I changed," said White. "Sometimes it's high tide, with lots of places to play, sometimes it's ebbing out." "It's at a point where you're trying to stick you're neck out and be noticed. Keep your product high and you will survive," said Stamper. "Places close, new places open up, others die out," said White.

White still pushes to bring himself to higher level in the music industry, and jamming with Springsteen at the Pony gave him some strong momentum. When speaking of it's relationship to where he is in his career he said, "It would probably sound strange or arrogant to some, but I really did feel like I should have been there and still do feel that way right now. Really there is no time to sit back and think of what you've done or accomplished, there will be plenty of time for that. Right now I have to concentrate on what still needs to be done."

White seems to be very inspired by the event. "Performing and being able to talk with such a talent and legend makes the dream seem even more possible." Garcia himself was strongly influenced by what Springsteen did 15 years ago. "I grew up a devoted Springsteen fan. The Beatles made me want to be in a band, Springsteen made me want to play in front of people." While Bon Jovi has been to a couple of the Nerds' shows Garcia had never gotten to meet Springsteen. He appreciates what was done before him. "That whole scene that they preserved absolutely played a big part. This is a very unique thing we have in Jersey. Very unique."

Josh Davidson
Josh Davidson has written music feature articles for Jersey Style and served as the Jersey Shore rock columnist for Steppin' Out Magazine. Other music writing credits include Aquarian Weekly, Jersey Beat, Backstreets and njcoast.com. He has written free-lance for the Asbury Park Press' Community Sports section and has written featured articles for its news section, as well as covering campus news and sports weekly for the Signal, the College of New Jersey's (formerly Trenton State College) student newspaper. He has worked as a staff writer for The Independent, and his work for Greater Media Newspapers has also been published in the News Transcript. He is a former beat reporter for the Ocean County Observer who presently is a news writer for Symbolic Systems Inc. supporting the US Army's Knowledge Center. His music writing covers a vast range of topics, from the current cover band craze, highs and lows of the original scene, to the early days of the Jersey Shore rock scene in Asbury Park. He is also a musician, having written hundreds of songs as a singer/songwriter, and playing them out as a solo/acoustic artist. He has also played with cover bands, including It Doesn't Matter, and several original bands, including as the guitarist for the solo project of singer/songwriter Dave Eric. He continues to work on solo material and is presently the guitar player for Jersey Breeze.
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