Of all the musical landmarks that once existed in Asbury Park, the most important of all is still standing; a tiny club that fostered the talents of Bruce Springsteen and the band mates that would comprise the original E Street Band. According to legend, Springsteen got his big break at The Stone Pony, but locals know that Bruce and his friends actually came of age playing at The Upstage Club- a short-lived venue on Cookman Avenue that may be as important to American music history as The Cavern is to Britain.
Located on the third floor of an old Thom McAn shoe store at the corner of Cookman Avenue and Bond Street, The Upstage brought the sights of San Francisco psychedelia and the sounds of Greenwich Village together in an endless array of all-night jam sessions. The building still bears the Thom McAn name in some sort of industrial paint that will never die. Although the club, owned by Tom and Margaret Potter, only existed for a few years (1968-1971), its role in shaping New Jersey's rock and roll history is unmatched.
The list of musicians who used to play The Upstage reads like a "who's who" of the Garden State's rock and roll history. In addition to Springsteen, artists like Southside Johnny, Bill Chinnock, David Sancious, Garry Tallent, Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez, Sonny Kenn, Billy Hector, Little Steven, Danny Federici, Kevin Kavanaugh, John Luraschi, and Ricky DiSarno were among those who honed their craft at the club as teenagers or young adults. The combination of talented young musicians and a club that stayed open until five in the morning led these artists to reach levels they may never have reached elsewhere.
And it's coming back...
Rich Yorkowitz, a successful antiques dealer, purchased the building last year with the intention of restoring and reopening the club. The first floor will contain a restaurant, bar, entertainment area, and a gift shop; the second floor will be a continuation of the restaurant and entertainment venue, which will be open to the public as well as available for private functions; and the third floor will be updated and restored to its original look, house a museum, and be available for audio/visual recordings and private functions. The third floor will also have entertainment, but on a more limited schedule. Due to the amount of construction and preservation work involved, the owners expect the new club to open sometime in the next two years after all three floors have been restored.
Yorkowitz was drawn to the club's music history. After contacting the Asbury Park Historical Society and reaching out to members of the music community that were personally involved with the original club, it became apparent that the building was the perfect place to combine music and history in a museum-like setting much like Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee.
Restoration is expected to bring back the original look and feel of the club from its Day-Glo paintings on the walls to the giant wall of speakers that stood behind the musicians and the amplifiers that were built into the stage. It's unclear if the new Upstage will let musicians simply plug their instruments directly into the stage as the original club did, but the creative vibe will surely still be there. In fact, most music fans lucky enough to step inside the Upstage in recent years say its hard not to get goosebumps on their arms just thinking about the legendary artists who walked up the same stairs decades earlier.
The artists that were part of the original Upstage have vivid memories of their days there. It was not just a club to them, it was a home; a community comprised of artists and fans coming of age together. It's rare for any artist to reach the level of world-wide appeal that Bruce Springsteen has, but the careers of fellow Upstage alumni aren't too shabby either. Little Steven (Steven Van Zandt) has had a successful career as a member of the E Street Band, solo performer, producer, disc jockey, and was a cast member of the hit television series "The Sopranos;" Southside Johnny is known throughout the world and his band (the Asbury Jukes) is often lovingly referred to as the "world's greatest bar band"; Bill Chinnock was an Emmy-Award winning songwriter that was once dubbed "the real essence of American music" by John Hammond, Sr., the man responsible for discovering artists such as Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and Bruce Springsteen; and David Sancious, an original member of the E Street Band who left for a solo career, wound up recording and playing with the likes of Stanley Clarke, Peter Gabriel, Aretha Franklin, Sting, Santana, and Eric Clapton.
Southside Johnny grew up in Ocean Grove, the town that borders Asbury Park, and was a regular member of the Upstage jams. "I would go over there just about every night," he said. "We used to do eight shows a night -- eight sets, 40-45 minutes each. We were making up songs because we'd run out of material. No matter how many songs you knew, you'd do a week's worth of eight shows a night and you didn't want to repeat yourself and do the same songs over and over again -- screw that! So we would make stuff up."
David Sancious wishes there were more places like the Upstage where young musicians could get a chance to work on their music. "It was great to have a place like that to play and to have the challenge of being good enough to be asked in a jam," said Sancious. "What I remember about back then was that we were all very serious about the music, about wanting to be good and wanting to get better and do it for real. There was a lot of work that went on alone at home and then you'd come out and want to develop that with somebody. You always wanted to be in a band or forming a band or jamming. It helped me tremendously. It all helps. I mean, that's part of your history."
"It was college for us," added Southside Johnny.
While the days of jamming until dawn may be gone, the new Upstage hopes to foster a similar generation of Jersey artists. It won't be easy, but history is on their side.
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.