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An Inside Look At The Rock Of The Jersey Shore
The Stone Pony
There is a magic in the room. The presence of the great ones who have stood on that stage. If you are tuned into that and in any way meant to be part of that, you can feel it. It is a real rock n' roll club, equal to the historic ones you've heard of. - Danny White
by Josh Davidson
 [Chorus and Verse] The Stone Pony

One night after high school, future singer/songwriter Danny White and his friend were cruising around and heard the radio announce Southside Johnny was playing at the Stone Pony. They each had $20 in their pockets and never had seen a show there.

"(We) went up to the window to get tickets and they were $25," said White. "We thought that was it, got back into the car." Something inside them said not to turn away that easy. Bruce Springsteen had been known to pop in on his old buddy from his early days. What if he decided to do so that night?

The two teenagers got out of the car and played their hand in the ticket game. "We got back out of the car and stood on the street wondering what to do when some skinny dude walks up an says, 'you guys want two tickets for $20?'" Their luck continued as they viewed the show from the side of the stage as Springsteen, his wife, Patti Scialfa, and Jon Bon Jovi grooved with Southside Johnny.

Years later, after paying his dues at shore clubs like the Deck House, the Brighton Bar and the Saint White, the roots rocker from Matawan, has become as popular to some at the Pony as a drink special. That same high school kid that crossed his fingers hoping to catch the Boss at the Pony, recently caught him again, but this time it was on stage. There White stood again on the side of the stage, this time as an accomplished singer/songwriter watching Joe Gruschecky and the House Rockers. Springsteen was there to support Gruschecky’s manager Bob Benjamin. Benjamin, who has Parkinson’s Disease, organized the concert to raise awareness for it.

Danny White

Springsteen made his way over to White and asked him to join him on stage to play "Twist and Shout." A jam with other musicians later developed. "Performing and being able to hang out and talk with such a talent and legend makes the dream seem even more possible," said White.

Since 1974, the Stone Pony has played host to many national and local acts. The club on Asbury’s Second and Ocean Avenues was opened as a discotheque on February 8 of that year by founders Robert "Butch" Pielka and Jack Roig. After closing down, the club was renovated and re-opened Memorial Day weekend of the year 2000.

Lee Mrowicki is celebrating his 30th anniversary as the Stone Pony Disc Jockey. When Mrowicki began, Southside Johnny was playing with the Asbury Jukes three nights a week. They played their show Tuesday and Thursday. Sundays they continued their world famous jam session, which they started at Asbury's Upstage. In around 1976, the Jukes were morphed from a band called the Blackberry Booze Band according to shore guitar great Billy Hector.

Hector remembers those hot, sweaty nights. "Everybody would be moving from start to finish," he said. "Nobody (else) was playing R & B at the time.They were like the Commitments (movie about Irish rhythm and blues band) if you want to make a caricature of it." The Shakes eventually took the Jukes' three-night slot. Other bands were Cahoots and Cold Blast and Steel featuring George Theiss, a Springsteen bandmate from his Freehold days. "Every time I hear the music I go back to that time," said Hector. "There was a real scene. Bruce's music changed the way people perceived music in that time."

In the mid-70's, Hector remembers mainstream rock being in a bad state. Punk was becoming more popular because rock was beginning to lose its substance. Hector credits Springsteen for revolting against the norm. "He did change things at that point in time," he said.

After Springsteen had released two albums, Mrowicki remembers Father Fox covering one of his songs. He was standing next to Springsteen, as one of the members noticed him watching. "The guy started freaking out," said Mrowicki. "I just nudged him and said, 'see what effect you have on people.'" Since then, there's been a lot of music to come through the doors. The Pony has seen its share of musical styles including new wave, country rock, metal, blues, R & B, and of course straight ahead rock and roll. Local and national acts show up to play through their set or experiment with some new material. "There was a lot of different music that made up the sound of Asbury Park," said Mrowicki.

In the early days, Hector didn’t have as much trouble getting in as others did. "I was there more than I played," he said. "I saw the bands come in and out. I knew the staff." Hector saw the club gain national attention in Rolling Stone. He saw Boz Scaggs, a singer/songwriter of many genres, gain fame there. "It was fun, it’s a nice big stage," said Hector. "It was a big deal. The Jukes (had) just made it. We took their space in '77 with a group called the Shots. It was like Seattle when Seattle was happening." Hector moved into another rhythm n’ blues group called Whistler and the Wheels. After that, he joined Hot Romance, which eventually received airplay on New York’s WNEW. They split Wednesday nights with Lance Larson playing pop, rock, and blues. By '79 Hector was playing the Pony once a week. As the 80's approached Hector began playing straight ahead blues, which at the time didn't fit the Stone Pony’s style. It was too big, holding about 400 people and the blues wasn't drawing that type of attention on the shore then. Blues bands may have opened for others then, but for Hector it wasn't like the 70's.

In the mid-80's Jim Babjak remembers getting his start there, playing lead guitar in his band, The Smithereens. There they honed their craft playing Thursdays opening for Larson. "There were only two other clubs that liked us. Kenny's (Castaways) in New York and the Court Tavern in New Brunswick," said Babjak. "That's where I started to learn to play in front of people that didn't care. They were there to see Lance Larson. Lance was doing us a favor by letting us open up for him." It was a rough start, but once they got signed they started to pack the club.

Even the Smithereens had to play about 50 shows with Larson before becoming nationally known. Talent is key at the Pony, but it also takes work offstage. "In order to the play the Pony you have to have a certain level of talent," said Mrowicki. "No matter how much talent you’ve got, you have to be recognized by an audience and have people that support you." "The Stone Pony is just like any other club in the respect that if you don’t promote, they don't come," said Chris Masi, lead singer and guitarist of the Jersey funk-rock band Brown. Masi noticed that some clubs Brown has played like Red Bank’s Downtown Café are already filled with people, but in his experiences playing at the Pony his band brought their own crowd. Things still were easier in the early days when people would crowd Asbury's boardwalks by day and its clubs at night. Today, Asbury seems like a ghost town during the day. People come from out of town at night, but mostly to see a show that's already been promoted. "It may have been easier to do because people were walking the boardwalk," said Hector. "The music is such a great drug and people romanticize about it, but all and all you can't just write a few songs and get a good haircut and things are going to happen."

Funk-bass monster, T. M. Stevens remembers coming into the Pony for a gig and getting a history lesson. "I was with Little Steven (Van Zandt) and we went to the Stone Pony to do a sound check," he said. Van Zandt gave him a tour and described some of the pictures on the wall there. Springsteen later showed up for the show. "We played there that night and that was historical," said Stevens. "That was how I got my picture in there." Like the Hard Rock Café, the Stone Pony provides an opening act of history. "It's like a museum, you can feel the historical experience when you’re there," said Stevens. "I just love the vibe in there, it's really great."

Stevens has played there about six times and has been called on stage to join artists like Buddy Miles. "I opened for Kiss in there with my own band," he said. "We went on right before Kiss, playing Sly and the Family Stone and Hendrix tunes."

The Pony is set up in different sections. It has a bar, merchandise booth, outdoor area with stage, and indoor stage. The back wall area that used to be bleacher seating was replaced with tables and chairs. There is also a side restaurant section filled with pictures of artists who've played there and a pinball machine they've possibly played. When artists step on stage, they usually forget the whole history they see in the club. "When we were younger, we were just gung-ho about playing," said Babjak. "When you're up there doing your thing, you forget about that. As soon as you're on stage, you're doing your own thing." "I'm there to do what I have to do," said Masi. They seem to enjoy looking at the scenery before they play. "You look at the walls and look at Bruce, I just felt really honored to play there," said Josh Zandman, a local singer/songwriter who's gained national attention.

Josh Zandman performs in front of the legendary Stone Pony logo

A lot of the excitement for the performers comes from beyond the memorabilia. Babjak always liked hearing Pony crowds yell out obscure Smithereens songs for them to play. "In those early days it was exciting to play there because of the Jukes and Springsteen. They were exciting. We looked forward to playing there. Very few states have crowds like New Jersey. The Jersey crowd is pretty damn good." The only member Babjak saw from the early Asbury scene at a Smithereens show was E Street band bassist, Gary Talent. "If you ask the people on the shore to name the 10 best clubs on the shore, I guarantee, the name the Stone Pony would come up," said Tom Latshaw, bassist for Latshaw, "When it was missing I know people in the industry felt it."

Performers who've played the Pony said they were treated to a great sound system and professionalism from the staff there. "If you've played there once, you know the sound system is phenomenal," said Latshaw. "It sends out a tremendous vibe to the people in the audience." "The sound is incredible there," said Zandman. "The sound man they hire is really good. It has a great vibe. It’s definitely the best club in New Jersey I think as far as playing wise." "It's a good stage," said Masi. "It's big which is good for us because we're seven pieces. The experience playing there for me is based upon the crowd itself, not the club." "It's a place for performers to get real close to your audience," said Mrowicki. "I mean you're right there in their faces. You’re sweating with them."

Hector remembers bands bringing their own sound systems in the past. Since these bands needed the systems set up, they'd hire roadies. Hector said many of the roadies who worked with these bands later went on to bigger venues working for Bon Jovi, or Bob Dylan. Some other of the Pony's employees and concert promoters now work for television shows.

The Pony has suffered many times along with the shore scene in the past. Mrowicki was away from the Pony in the early 90's and noticed the scene wasn't good because there weren’t many places to play. It gradually got better as time went on. "Maybe the scene was wandering around with no cohesion to it," said Mrowicki of the mid-90's scene.

Just like the seasoned musicians who walk in, audience members there are seasoned too. Some move and sway as close to the stage as possible. Others go there to relax and take in the whole atmosphere. Hector remembers the audience of the Pony's prime. "They danced to the music," he said. "They danced all night, 10 to 3."

"If you're good they'll let you know and vice-versa," said White. "There is a magic in the room. The presence of the great ones who have stood on that stage. If you are tuned into that and in any way meant to be part of that, you can feel it. It is a real rock n' roll club, equal to the historic ones you've heard of." (The audience) is the greatest thing," said Latshaw. "Especially if you’ve got a full house." "It's always been a great crowd from the time we had songs on the radio," said Babjak.

As rumors circulate on the future of Asbury Park one man who's done his part in helping the city is Stone Pony Owner Domenic Santana. "When you go into the Stone Pony, you really forget about all of the abandoned buildings outside," said Babjak.  Ballparks across the country that were once landmarks have been demolished and rebuilt, but with this concert venue Santana has stuck to the true definition of renovation. In making the Pony a comfortable place to see local talent he fixed what was broken and left alone what wasn't preserving the history of this legendary place. "It's great, it reminds me of a Florida beach club in the back," said Zandman. "In the inside it looks so professional." As the music industry leans towards produced and polished work the Pony remains a symbol and provider of raw mainstream music. It's a place to play music once made popular and music that may become popular.

"I'm glad it's there, the Pony must have closed so many times its ridiculous," said Masi. "It is an important club. It gives everybody the opportunity to go there and do their thing. It's hard for original clubs to keep their doors open. I think it has to stay there forever." "We need more places like that in the US," said Stevens.

"It's real professional," said Latshaw. "It's gone through changes. It's real business oriented. They treat it like a concert. (With) the caliber of bands that have played there, they treat it like the caliber it is. It's the real deal."

Latshaw

Local performers not only go there to play, but also to watch and listen. Masi said Culture and T. M. Stevens gave his favorite Stone Pony performances. Latshaw, whose favorite is King's X, likes that even unknown bands can use such high quality equipment for their shows. "When you walk into the place you're most likely going to see a great band or possibly tomorrows stars," he said. He, too, couldn’t get in at one point, but now has played there over a dozen times. Zandman's favorite shows are Guster and Jim Raia. Babjak, who's played at the Pony over 65 times, has never gotten to see a show there. He tried, just like White, but his results weren’t the same. In the mid-70's he couldn't get in to a Southside Johnny show and had to listen from outside with about 100 other fans. Where was that skinny guy with the tickets then?

Mrowicki said he's noticed a graying in the audience. Older people may find the Pony more comfortable than Tradewinds and Bar Anticipation. "The audience is a knowledgeable and intelligent one," said White. "They love rock n' roll. It is more than entertainment or a night out for them. It's a connection to something much more important."

Babjak's (www.jimbabjak.com) riffs, barre chords and unrelenting guitar solos can be heard with his band, the Smithereens (www.officialsmithereens.com). They are playing their greatest hits and supporting their 1999 release God Save the Smithereens. They recently did a festival at a Chicago Naval base with Joan Jett and Cheap Trick. Hector (www.billyhector.com) bends strings until they beg for mercy at New York and New Jersey clubs almost daily in support of his release, Duct Tape Life. Last October, he was a house guitarist for the late Stevie Ray Vaugan’s band Double Trouble, in a tribute to Muddy Waters at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s currently working on an acoustic Compact Disc for a summer/fall release. Stevens (www.tmstevens.com) is considered one of the best bass players on Earth and any other planet. His discography includes playing with Billy Joel, James Brown, and Steve Vai. His latest releases are Shocka Zooloo, and the soundtrack for the Japanese movie Limousine Drive, in which he also plays the role of a limousine driver. White (www.jinee.com/dannywhite) dares to put the fun back in rock and roll, while creating groundbreaking material. After touring the East Coast in support of his album Beautifully Preserved Wrecks, his recent shows include one at the PNC Bank Arts Center with Chicago.

Psychedelic thrash-metal bass monger Tom Latshaw, plays with his brother Billy in Latshaw (www.latshawmusic.com). Recently, they have played locally with their new singer Mike Affinto. They have now taken a break from live playing to work on a four-song demo to shop for a long overdue record deal. Brown (www.brownmusic.com) manufactures their brand of take no prisoners funk at many local clubs like the Downtown Café and released a two CD debut, disc one titled turn the house lights down and disc two we ain't tired yet early this year. Zandman’s (www.JoshZandman.com) extremely innovative acoustic guitar playing and songwriting is too hard to describe with words. He is touring the country in support of Summer Album. He is a founder of Burlap to Cashmere, which has sold approximately 300,000 records worldwide. For more information on the Stone Pony, check out www.stoneponyonline.com.

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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