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A Personal History Of Asbury Park And Upstage
John Luraschi
And it was nice. You could grab your guitar and get on your bike. I would get on my bicycle or whatever, my motorcycle when I got a little older, and come here with my guitar. Walk in ... - John Luraschi
by Josh Davidson
 [Chorus and Verse] August 2002 Feature: John Luraschi
John Luraschi

There are few people who can say they were a part of rock and roll history. Even fewer can say they took a role in making the music that changed its course.

For John Luraschi, bass player for Boccigalupe and the Bad Boys, both are true. Heading back and forth from to Jersey beach towns Belmar and Asbury, not only did he witness a historic music scene being built, he played in it.

As a young kid, he traveled there on bike. As he grew older, he rode a motorcycle en route to Asbury Park. The latter’s future remains a question. Asbury’s streets are filled with abandoned buildings, but recently there has been talk and media attention for Asbury Park’s revitalization. No one knows where Asbury will be in a few years, but Luraschi is a true expert of its past. He still plays there to this day, at The Stone Pony.

For Luraschi, what we see as history holds a more personal meaning. It’s a place where a young kid, who lost his parents at 16, met a new family. Members of this family shared their common interest of music and grew together as human beings.

They saw the decay of the city where they lived and, in some cases, the decay of some of their friends. One can only wonder what Asbury would be today if there was no rioting and structural decay in the area. Those who were there caught a brief glimpse. Maybe the former resort town will one day again mirror what it once was.

In light of the rebuilding effort in Asbury Park, and the spotlight shining on the area with the release of Bruce Springsteen's new album, The Rising, Chorus and Verse wanted to present a more intimate vision of where the scene came from. Chorus and Verse took a trip with Luraschi to see what it was like where he learned to play his bass. The interview starts during a car ride from The Stone Pony, on Ocean Avenue, to where its spiritual predecessor, the Upstage, once stood, on Cookman Avenue.

[ In the car, making the turn towards the Palace Amusements. ]

Luraschi: All along here were lots of places to play. There used to be rides and arcades. Along here was Steve Brody’s. They used to have the Roman Arch. You used to have Mrs. Jay’s, which is now the Stone Pony. Used to be this whole corner.

[Publisher's Note: Mrs. Jay's Beer Garden used to occupy the area behind the Stone Pony, what is now the location of the club's outdoor stage area.]

Were there only rides in there [the Palace Amusements complex] or were there rides all around?

No. They had a sky ride all across here and a roller coaster and scrambler. All kinds of stuff to do. You know, when I was a kid and my parents used to go to Florida, I used to get mad because there was nothing else I would rather do when I was 10 or 12 except come down here with my friends. This was the best thing there was. We always used to come down here to get our clothes, around the holidays.

I’m Catholic, so we would come down here for Easter and get our suits. But there was always something to do.

Did you just like hang out here a lot during the day and then go play at night?

Yeah. Well, they used to have a saltwater pool here and they had a freshwater pool, right down here. Gigantic. They're closed now. They had one over there as well, where those machines are. That used to be a saltwater pool, too. That used to be the Grand Atlantic Hotel there. You used to be able to get a prime rib dinner for $2.99. All you can eat.

All through here there were clubs. Down this way.

How many clubs do you think were down here?

There was a lot! I mean, the town alone, I think, had like 60 liquor licenses. At one time, this was fun city, you know. There used to be a club right here. It’s called Club Phoenix now. Then, over on Bond Street there was one.

[ Pulling onto Cookman Avenue. ]

This used to be the main strip here. Steinbachs was here.

This used to be a big business town.

Yes. It was a bustling downtown. This is where everybody would come to shop before the malls, in Asbury Park. The Asbury Park Press was right here. They owned these buildings. This is a great building ...

This is where Steinbach’s was.

Yeah.

So they have nothing in there now?

Apparently, somebody’s been buying up the joint. A lot of it. They’re going to be going through a huge urban revitalization.

[ Pull up to the Upstage entrance on Cookman Avenue. ]

Right here is where the Upstage used to be.

[ Pull up to the Upstage site, where there is a steel grid on the door, keeping it barricaded. The rest of the interview takes place in front of the Upstage Club site. A local shoe store now exists under where the club once was. ] [ Publisher's note: the metal shutters that conceal the entrance the the second and third floors which housed the Upstage can be found at 702 Cookman Avenue in Asbury Park.]

There was a shoe store here then, right?

Yeah. It used to be Thom McAnn’s. I met one of my best friends in that doorway. This is where it all happened, man.

They used to have an early show from, like, eight to twelve [p.m.] and then they would close. And if you were over 17, you could get back in when it would open up; from 12:30 to three o’ clock [a.m.] It was the late set.

They would play all night long. People would come from all over. Margaret [Potter] had the house band here. Margaret and the Distractions. [Margaret was] Tom’s wife. And she would coordinate the jam. Built into the walls were amplifiers and speakers. They had it fixed up with Day-Glo paint and stuff like that.

And it was nice. You could grab your guitar and get on your bike. I would get on my bicycle or whatever, my motorcycle when I got a little older, and come here with my guitar. Walk in ...

John Luraschi Performs at B.B. King's (New York City)

Where did you live?

Over in Belmar. Like three towns away. I lived in Asbury Park for a while, but not when I was young. I was a Saint Rose in Belmar, Catholic school kid.

How many musicians do you think were in there in a night?

You probably would get, I would guess, at least a dozen. And a lot of times the older guys in the bars would come over with their bands and jam. People would be out partying. They didn’t serve alcohol here, so they could stay open as late as they want. You could come here for a cup of coffee and something to eat. Go to the kitchen for a while. There was a coffee house on the first floor. You could go upstairs to the second floor. They had music on both floors.

It wasn’t very big. You would think that its large, but it wasn’t. Two floors. And the guy built everything himself. He didn’t have carpenters come in. I would come here if I had a day off or something and help him wire stuff up. He’d scrounge speakers and amplifiers from all over. A real ma and pa operation, you know what I mean, but it was cool.

The speakers were built right into the walls?

Yeah. They were built right into the walls. You’d get drywall and instead of having a picture there. You would put a hole and a speaker there. For the time it was revolutionary. You’d have a little counter in front of the state, and all your amplifiers would be there. You’d have your bass amps, your guitar amps. You would just walk in with your stuff and go, ‘Oh, I think I want to use this one.’

And you’d go, ‘ba-ba-ba,’ and you’d say, ‘Is it working?’

Yeah, you could hear it out front.

We had a couple of monitors on stage, so you could hear what you were doing.

Have you seen any clubs like that, with the speakers built in?

No. I mean, not like this. No.

For the time, you’re talking the early 70’s, late 60’s, this was totally revolutionary.

What about with the clubs then, did they have a lot of this type of artwork? Were there a lot like that around? With the same kind of style?

Well, in New York, there was Café Wha. Places like that. CBGB’s. Some of those New York clubs were like that. Some San Francisco coffee houses were like that. This guy was an artist too, as well. So he’d go up there with his paint and, like, do all these murals all over the wall.

This was Tom?

Yeah. Tom Potter. They had artist friends who would come and do little things. They’d get, like, a mannequin and spray paint it with stuff all over it and hang it. They had black lights.

Did they change the artwork a lot?

No, they just kept adding stuff.

So, by the end there was a whole bunch of stuff up there?

Yeah. They would just, like, add stuff. They would never cover something up. Because all the walls were painted black. So, you could do whatever you wanted and it kind of stood out.

A lot of you guys were really young kids?

I was, compared to my peers, a young kid. My older brother used to bounce here. He used to check IDs. So he would look after me.

What was his name?

Eddie. He’s deceased now. But, all of those guys. They were really big guys too. They were all 6’6”, three-hundred-pounders. There was him, Danny Gallagher, who’s still around. Black Tiny. Big Bobby Williams who was a drummer. He’s deceased now as well. Big John, John Nicholson, he’s deceased as well.

Bobby Williams’s claim to fame was his drum solo in [Iron Butterfly’s] “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” He’d lay it down. He’d huff and puff and he’d sweat, but he’d play.

This is where I first met a lot of people. Southside Johnny. Sonny Kenn. Bruce and the guys. Vini Lopez. Garry Tallent. All the original E Street members. David Sancious. He plays with Peter Gabriel now, [played with] Sting. He was on the first three of Bruce’s albums. He was my next-door neighbor. We used to come down here on the bus and buy our bicycles down here. Very talented. Teaches in a conservatory in Austria now.

So, when it first opened up, was it really happening down here, a lot of people and crowds?

Yeah, after it caught on for a while. It got to be the place to go after the bar is closed and hang out. It was really something.

So, this whole area [surrounding the Upstage] was businesses and stuff like that?

Yeah. They would all shut down. I mean, the normal nine o’ clock, that was it. There’s a lot of history right here. Tom and Margaret were really lovely, lovely people. Always nice to the musical community here. Always gave me a few dollars for playing, so I could eat and do whatever I had to do. Always looked out for me.

Did they own any of the other clubs or just the Upstage?

No, just this. They had the hair salon. She would do hair during the day. They had the Romeo’s Landing. Margaret’s deceased as well.

Stevie Van Zandt would come here, Miami Steve. All those guys would hang out here and play. There were a lot of alliances made here.

This is basically where you guys first met?

Yeah, this is where I met a lot of great players. Everybody was trying to find there own way. They didn’t know.

Did a lot of bands form out of this?

Uh, that were substantial?

Boccigalupe and the Bad Boys

Did you meet Tony [Amato, a/k/a Bocciagalupe] here?

Yes. But I never got a band together with him here. I knew him because he lived in Asbury Park all of his life. I didn’t play with Tony until 1977.

What band was that?

Cahoots. A rhythm and blues band. That’s when I got on a daily basis with Anthony. I knew him on and off [before then].

Did you guys jam up there a lot?

Yeah. Any chance we could.

Did you and Tony play a lot up there?

Yeah, we’d get in there. We were young guys. These guys were all … They were driving and stuff.

Especially guys like Billy Ryan. He was playing down on the strip here with his band, the Jaywalkers. These guys were making four or five hundred dollars a week in 1968. They're driving around in new cars and girls. You know what I mean? Life was sweet for them. They were what was happening. If they’d ask you to play, you’d be thrilled. I remember Harry London pulled me in off the bar one day, I was on my bicycle.

I said, ‘Man, I really like your band.’

He said, ‘What, do you play?'

I said, ‘Yeah.’

He brought me in the bar and had me do a song with them. I thought that was really neat. We still talk about that, when I see him. From time to time.

Is that how you got in? You kind of played with the older guys who were more established?

Yeah. They were much more established. You would try and pick up what you can. That’s how interested I was in it, anyway. I never had any formal teaching, on bass. I taught myself. So, back then, there was one book on how to play the bass. I had it and I studied it. There was very little information on it. So, it was all touch and go.

Were there a lot of bass players around back then?

No. Everybody wanted to be the glory hog, with the guitar. That’s what you needed to get the girls, you know.

The reason, I started [playing bass] ... I had a guitar to begin. My brother ... we built a mini-bike and he traded the mini-bike for an electric guitar, which he thought was really cool. Then we found out that he was left-handed. So, after us doing all kind of things, switching the guitar around. He kind of lost interest and he gave it to me.

So, I would just sit there and the stuff would be on the radio. I would be able to start playing it on the guitar.

And he was like, ‘How are you doing that?’

And I was like, ‘I don’t know.’

I’d make up these little songs and stuff. Everybody could do it. So, I moved to a new neighborhood and they needed a new bass player. So, I was always too small for sports in school. I played Pop Warner and little league and stuff like that. But, in school, I was always small. I mean, I was 98 pounds until I was 23 years old. I was a skinny, small kid.

So, to get in with these guys …I always had a passion for music. I always loved music.

The first time I looked in the mirror and had a guitar in my hand, I looked and I said, ‘Yeah. This is great.’

For me.

I said, ‘I think I can get with this.’

And the rest was just bumping and figuring my way through. My mom and dad would support me. They didn’t shower me with things, but I always managed to get a guitar or an amp or whatever I really needed. My mom would take me to the practices. She would always give me a little bit of advice. So, it was, overall, pretty cool.

Before you got to the Asbury music scene, were you a pretty solid bass player?

No, I sucked. I sucked. I played with a little surf band, over in Belmar. We played surf music. Very little vocals. We were still trying to figure out how to play and sing at the same time.

But, yeah, I could hold my own. If somebody would say we’re in the key of G, I knew what it was. What went on when they were playing those keys, I couldn’t really tell you, but it’s like anything else, you keep hacking away, hacking away.

So, you just kept playing and playing?

Yeah. One thing led to another, you’d meet people and you’d move on. Somebody wants to give you a job with your band.

How many nights a week were you playing back then?

Like, when I was a teenager?

When you first came to Asbury. When you first came to this area. How many nights were you playing then?

When I lived here? In my late 20’s? I didn’t really start kicking it until I was in my late 20’s. Into my 30’s. [Then, ] I was playing 250 nights out of the year. When I got going. Nothing for me ever came easy. I never got any financial help or anything.

You know, organizing everything. Getting people that are organized, that are willing to put in the time and make something happen musically, was a lot. You’d go through a lot of relationships. A lot of disappointments. It’s not like you parachuted in there and you started playing. You had to get money to live. I always did anyway.

I lost my parents as a young kid. So, I was on my own, at the age of 16. I always managed to stay close to my music. It’s been my salvation. So, anytime I wanted to quit, my friends wouldn’t let me. My real friends. were always very supportive. I’m lucky. I’m a very fortunate guy for that. They’re like my family. I mean we fight like brothers, but we get over it.

We all love it, you know what I mean. When it’s good, it’s great. It’s all been good. I wouldn’t trade anything.

We used to line the motorcycles up down here. Good things. Fender guitars, Harley Davidson’s. We always knew what was good. Even before it was cool. We knew back [then] what was good. The older guys would tell us.

‘Well, that’s good, that’s bad.’

What was the first bass that you bought?

I had Kent bass. Then I had a Segova bass, which I got from Frank’s TV around the corner here. They're not here anymore. I got the Kent bass and brought it home and polished it up. And the guy gave me five dollars more than I paid for it. I brought it back to trade it in on the other bass. It was like a constant upgrading thing, that went on for about a year and a half.

I would get them and fix them up and clean them up. After a while, I got myself a good bass. It took a long time. I always wanted that Fender. You know what I mean?

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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