60 miles south of the hustle and bustle of Manhattan lies an unassuming white building across the street from the Asbury Park boardwalk. This is the Stone Pony, one of the greatest venues in rock ‘n roll music history. I came to see a concert, but I left with a history lesson.
Goosebumps popped up on my arms as I walked into The Stone Pony. Adoring the walls are at least sixty guitars and even more event posters, all signed by legendary bands that graced the stage:
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street band, Jon Bon Jovi, The Ramones, Kiss, Johnny Winter, Billy Idol, Twisted Sister, Joan Jett, Patti Smith, Lenny Kravitz, Leon Russell, White Snake, South Side Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Blondie and Meatloaf, have all made appearances at the Stony Pony. Van Morrison once used the club to shoot a music video because of its “cool atmosphere.” Other artists who took the stage at The Pony include Sean Lennon, Rick Springfield, Ziggy Marley, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Elvis Costello, Cheap Trick, Skid Row, Jimmy Eat World, Courtney Love, Lisa Marie Presley and many, many more. A shrine in the corner continues to honor the musical greatness and passing of Clarence Clemons.
As I am soaking in the history between the opening act and my reason for going to The Stone Pony that night, Jack’s Mannequin, a bartender asks if I need anything. I tell her I am just looking at the guitars hanging behind the bar. She smiles and mentions Bruce Springsteen comes in quite often and has a shot of Patron as she motions to “his bottle” in the corner. Tequila shots for Bruce, how rock and roll! I express my amazement and step outside to the summer stage as Jack’s Mannequin begins their set.
During the show I don’t think of much else other than my affinity for every word that Andrew McMahon has written and is currently singing. I can’t wait for Jack’s Mannequin’s new album in October, but I am also looking forward to the break before the headliner… I have to talk to Joannie the bartender again.
I have to wait for the break to be over and Guster to take the stage outside before I can get anywhere near Joannie’s bar inside. But once I start talking to her again, I can see why her bar is busier than the five others. She’s obviously good at what she does, a nice too Joannie admits to meeting Frankie Valli, Tony Bennett, Debbie Gibson, and other interesting (sometimes crazy) people during her years at The Stone Pony.
Joannie flags down Greg Schwartz and tells me I have to talk to him. Greg has been working at The Stone Pony for Live Nation on and off since 1998? 1993? Even he can’t remember. I decide to go in a High Fidelity direction:
Me: Top performances at The Pony, go!
Greg: Patty Smith, River City Extension and Nils Hilmer Lofgren. Number one, would obviously be Bruce Springsteen who I’ve met multiple times. The first time I freaked out, the next few times were outrageous and wild, then you settle into a happy excitement that you are in his presence again.
Me: What makes The Stone Pony different?
Greg: It’s different because of all the different generations and genres that come together here. There are generation rules that rule everyone, Jerry Garcia, Bruce, South Side [Johnny and the Asbury Jukes]. You learned what you wanted to be wasn’t instantaneous. If you wanted to play hybrid music you could, you had to embrace what you sounded like, but the elders had to approve. People make it here by being good and not being cookie cutter. I guess there aren’t many rules anymore though. The youth is too quick. Nothing will stop, there are no limitations. If you aren’t sure how to be original, you are going to meet a lot of failure. You have to rebel against the limitations to make it. It is an ugly journey, it’s murky, which is too bad.
Me: Why has the Stone Pony lasted so long?
Greg: It’s a living entity. Wait, why or how?
Greg: How? That’s unanswerable. Why? Because business is business. Oreos are still around because they are good. Things that aren’t good aren’t around because they aren’t, like that drink…
Greg: Yes! The young like The Stone Pony because it’s institution they can’t destroy and they can look up at their elders, the musicians that came before them.
Greg then spots John, a sound guy who has worked at The Stone Pony for eleven years and asks him why he thinks this place has lasted so long. Greg and John weave a story of the Asbury Park of years past, when if someone asked you for a light, they weren’t planning on lighting up a cigarette. Asbury Park was meant to be an entertainment community, no boardwalk games, no condos, it was the place to be up until the race riots in the 70s. But they are amazed at how over the past ten years the town has really changed for the better. Like Austin and San Francisco, music has kept the town culturally tolerant, Cuban bands, rappers and rockers can all co-exist and be original here in Asbury Park.
I ask my final two questions. One, who would you like to see play here that hasn’t already? Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are quickly brought up, and I have to agree. George Harrison’s son would round out the Fab Four (Sean Lennon has already graced the stage). Greg is also quick to rattle off Robert Hunter and Bob Weir.
Second, and most importantly, if you could go back to experience one musical event in history, what would it be? A great debate breaks out and Greg can’t decide. ‘69 Rolling Stones at MSG? OzzFest ‘83? The day Mozart’s 5th was debuted? Miles Davis and Gil Evans performing live on PBS? Joe Cocker on the Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour?
I bow out of the debate, expressing my gratitude for the time they spent with me, and head outside to finish the concert with my sister. All the time wishing I could be a fly on the stage of a few Beatles concerts in the 60s.
If the walls of The Stone Pony could talk, oh the stories they would tell…
Thank you to Joannie the bartender for humoring me with my on the spot questions. Greg Schwartz for his incredible insight to how music has changed over the generations. John who knew a lot about Asbury Park’s history. Last but not least, my wonderful sister, Sara Beth, who waited by my side while I “got my story.”