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By: Jarrod Dicker
New Brunswick, NJ, USA

The journey to the Stone Pony is rather habitual for any New Jersey music enthusiast.  Route 18 highway lies between the bosom of beautiful pine and evergreen trees once unregulated and free, now serving as a canvas to one of the grandest highways painted through the State.  Its body runs long and far, from the banks of the Raritan in Piscataway, to the moist and salty air inhaled at Belmar Beach.  Though its harbored a ghastly reputation for unfavorable odors often labeled by blinded, inexperienced eyes, New Jersey does in fact live up to its alter alias “the Garden State,” with beautiful mountains and green lands, most auspiciously the coastal attraction known as The Jersey Shore.  Asbury Park is a coastal town, with fluctuating history revealing the austere and benevolent impact modernization can have on a region.  Here is where the Stone Pony has ridden for the past 35 years, and continues to do so, on the saddle of the world renowned, historic shore town Asbury Park, New Jersey. 

A brief history of Asbury Park will ease the ambiguity any outsider might have of the legendary music town.  A once flourishing, hip city had since become a graveyard for blissful memories of past.  The salty sweet air that once was desired by tourists in the 1970’s and 1980’s had since been spit out and rejected by the intruding generation.  Though not for long, there was a time when it seemed the Asbury Park scene would be lost and gone forever.

It was a different landscape back then, and has become another now.  The once beach and resort town has evolved into more desolate.  As I approach my destination, I look out the side windows and see visions of poverty and objectionable living.  The transformation seems at a stand still, yet as we progress towards the coastline a brighter light shines on the upcoming streets.  The ocean whiff reveals itself and becomes more concentrated, as the Stone Pony is in sight.  I park the car and hustle in to make my 1 p.m. photography appointment with house manager Caroline O’Toole and this is where it hit me...Asbury has been a changing scene throughout the decades, and the history of the Stone Pony has paralleled it well.  However, once I entered the venue everything seems to be at a virtual stand-still.  The walls are decorated with various guitars signed by all who have stepped onto the infamous stage. As I walk around with my camera, I begin to envision what it was like during the inaugural years.  I sit at the bar, and watch as the engineers do a sound check for the later Battle of the Bands concert...the tabletop of the bar is a collage of pictures of artists past and present.  I see one of Bruce Springsteen, an uncontrollable smile comes to my face and I sit back, listening to the sound check and close my eyes...I imagine the beginning years, the winter months of 1974...and fade into a dream...

Opening night at “The Pony” was disastrous.  Snow blanketed the sandy beach and the roads were nearly impossible to drive on.  There was a calculated 7 inches of snow and nobody seemed to be showing up for the late night festivities.  It took little to no effort to do the accounting at the end of the night, as the receipts totaled a measly one dollar...It seemed this would be the beginning of the end.

The Stone Pony was founded by John P. Roig (Jack) and Robert Pielka (Butch) in February of 1974.  The Stone Pony website reveals that, “Jack purchased the building which then housed an abandoned disco called The Magic Touch, and enlisted the managerial skills of Butch, appointing him general manager and minority partner.”  Breaking into the club business was difficult at the time, especially as Jack and Butch were pursuing a Rock and Roll theme rather than the incoming disco revolution.  They threw their luck into the well, to see whether it’d sink or float.

By December of 1974, after a long and unfavorable nine months in business it seemed that The Stone Pony was soon to become a victim of the times.  The disastrous opening night still lingered throughout the year and foreclosure was at their doorstep.  The clubs creditors were rallying their pitchforks, and all seemed but over for the young Pony.  Alas, a prince was to arrive and save the city...not the Boss, which is frequently rumored but a young group of musicians with a new funky, “jersey sound” to pump the life back into the stallion.  These knights in shining armor were the up and coming Blackberry Booze Band.

The Blackberry Booze Band arrived at the Pony when all seemed but over for Jack and Butch.  Comprised of local Ocean Grove resident Johnny “Southside” Lyon and now E Street guitarist Steven Van Zandt, the band became a three night a week regular at the club, drawing large and even sold out crowds to the newly born venue.  The Blackberry Booze band had something that wasn’t ordinarily heard in the Jersey Rock and Roll circuit.  Complimented by a funky soulful horn section, the band produced fun, party music that allowed the audience to become involved with the movement.  Once they started, the fun never stopped, as they eventually changed their soulful bands name to Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and invented the true sound of the Jersey Shore. 

But it didn’t end there...

Van Zandt eventually left and tagged up with local buddy Bruce Springsteen in the renovated, new edition of the E street band and continued as the manager and producer of the Jukes.  Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes are responsible for, what the Stone Pony calls, “The Jersey Attitude;” Cold beer, dancing til’ you sweat, and good music.

I come back to, and notice that my time allotted for pictures is running out.  I get off the bar stool and take some final shots before my departure.  A picture of Southside Johnny and Bruce Springsteen is on the wall.  Vintage flyers of the Memorial Day concert, which nationalized the Stone Pony are pasted there as a remembrance, and a thank you to those musicians who made it happen.

It was a grand occasion for the young and fighting bar.  On Memorial Day of 1976 a concert took place that would forever be a landmark moment in the Jersey Rock and Roll community.  Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes performed live at The Stone Pony which was radio broadcasted by local news station WJLK.  The performance was also syndicated to many other stations throughout the east coast and Midwest.  Not only were the Jukes present, but the Boss himself, “Bruce Springsteen,” members of the E Street Band and legends Ronnie Spector and Lee Dorsey.  This moment alone brought Asbury Park, The Stone Pony and the Jukes to a national level.  It is most remembered by the collaboration of Southside Johnny and Bruce Springsteen singing the Sam Cooke hit, “Havin’ a Party.”  It has since become the unofficial theme song of Asbury Park and The Pony.

After the Memorial Day radio broadcast things really seemed to take off quite rapidly.  Legendary performers such as Sam Moore and Dave Prater of “Sam & Dave” frequently attended as well as Britain’s infamous Graham Parker.  Local bands such as Salty Dog, Holme and Mad Dog and the Shakes were celebrated there throughout the 1970’s.  National acts, as referenced to in their history on the official website, included rock God Stevie Ray Vaughn, The Ramones, Blondie, Gregg Allman, Dickie Bettes, Levon Helm, Johnny Winter and Joan Jett to name a few.  It also began expanding its music repertoire, offering popular 80’s dance parties and reggae shows. 

I leave the venue so that they can properly prepare for this evenings festivities.  The weather is beautiful so I decide to sit with my notepad on a bench on the boardwalk.  The waves ripple so beautifully and tranquil, and I just sit and watch...  It’s quite relaxing the whole beach thing, even though I absolutely despise sand.  The beauty in Asbury Park is a reminder of how quick some things can go away.  As beautiful as it was from the mid ‘70s to mid ‘80s, Asbury soon became a very unsightly place.  Speaking with legendary House Promoter Kyle Brendle, he reiterates how the Pony has been altered by the times; “Somehow, someway the Pony has rocked on...In the mid 80’s the whole Asbury Circuit started to disappear...for a while it was just me and the Tumbleweeds...”

The beach is now occupied with numerous people and families.  It’s hard to imagine how such destruction could have taken place at such a beautiful destination.  But history tells its own story.

The late 1980’s were a time of rising costs and insurance expenses.  It was difficult for any venues offering live music to survive during such drastic inflation.  As Bruce says in his song Atlantic City, “Everything Dies, Baby That’s a Fact.”  And so seemed true, as Jack and Butch were forced to sell the Stone Pony in bankruptcy court in order to obtain protection from creditors.  Through all the history and unforgettable moments, it all came down to money at the the Atlantic City lyric continues it unveils that maybe, “Everything that dies, someday comes back.”

The Stone Pony was reopened by local resident Steven Nasar who purchased it in bankruptcy court.  With the help of prior employees, he was able to put the Stone Pony back on its feet again.  Eventually however, like so many venues do, it seemed that the Stone Pony was going to sell out to the desires of popular culture.  In 1998, Steven Nasar chose to make the Pony a dance club called Vinyl.  Upon the closing week of the Stone Pony, there were to be a string of shows, one featuring Southside Johnny.   “The Pony’s Last Ride” took place and thus buried the venue.

Everything dies baby that’s a fact, but MAYBE everything that dies, some day comes back?

People have been anticipating the Messiah for thousands of years. Well folks, in February of the year 2000, the Messiah graced the Earth...but to the shock of many, it wasn’t Jesus.  The Jersey messiah was a Cuban native, a restaurateur who helped Asbury Park overcome the intruding techno fighting regime.  Dominic Santana was told about the Stone Pony through a friend.  Santana realized the importance of the Stone Pony in the Asbury Park community, and in February of 2000, he purchased the building, vowing to reopen by Memorial Day Weekend.  Caroline O’Toole, Manager of the Stone Pony, credits Santana with generously saving and promoting Asbury Park, most notably, the Stone Pony.

“I would think the person who took the biggest risk after the 90’s was Dominic Santana.  Being from Cuba and knowing little about Rock and Roll history, he decided to become a part of it.  He used his gift of gab to get every media outlet possible to start covering what was going on not only at the new reopened Stone Pony but the beginnings of the revitalization of Asbury Park.”

Santana brought the Stone Pony back to what it once was.  He reinstalled classic memorabilia, arts and artifacts from “the history of the city and the venue itself.” he promised...the Stone Pony did reopen on Memorial day with classic performances by the Smithereens, Gary U.S. Bonds and Lance Larson. 

Maybe everything that dies, SOMEDAY COMES BACK...

Not only was the Stone Pony up and running again, but “the club also made a commitment to become involved in the Asbury Park community.”  Previously housing charitable functions such as “The Shore-based Jersey Artists for Mankind,” the Stone Pony vowed to continue their involvement in the district and sponsored even more events.  The “Remembering Harry Chapin” concert took place and went to support groups involved with fighting hunger.  Post 9/11, after the tragic attack in New York City, Jon Bon Jovi and various other acts took the Stone Pony stage to honor the “fallen heroes” and donated the proceeds to the victim’s families. 

The redevelopment of Asbury Park has also run parallel with the revitalization of The Stone Pony.  O’Toole states “our [Stone Pony] surroundings in Asbury Park have changed.  A once desolate and abandoned beach area has been replaced by a beautiful boardwalk, new pavilions, lots of new businesses and a record number of visitors.”  The arrival of national retail development company, Madison Marquette has also been a blessing for the city of Asbury Park.  Performing a joint venture operation with Asbury Partners, Madison Marquette has made it their primary agenda to preserve and keep Asbury Park alive.  “The venue is currently operated by Madison Marquette.  They have not only been the key in the preservation of what makes Asbury Park unique, but the visionary of what the city has become.”

So now, as the Stone Pony prepares to celebrate its ten year anniversary since the reopening in 2000 (35 years since opening in 1974) I ask Kyle Brendle, the legendary house promoter what makes the Stone Pony historic, and a landmark in the Asbury Park community. “First off, the Pony still rocks, that alone is amazing.  Ten years is a long time for a venue. Then you add the biggest Jersey rockers coming through here, it is a special place, and a special place to play. You can feel it when artists hit the stage.  And all the people that work here, and have worked here really love the shows.  And the artists love coming here for that warm comfortable feeling.”

Upon asking Caroline O’Toole, she answers confidently, “I think what makes the Pony historic is that it has always been a musicians club.  This is the place where artists have always gotten together to talk music, and then perform it.  It was that way 35 years ago, and is still the same today.  This is the place for original music.  Not just The Stone Pony, but most of the Asbury Park music scene.  There are many great clubs and venues here, and the music is our bond.”

So, as the years pile on, and the times mature inevitably, the Stone Pony seems to age with increasing wisdom.  Falling victim financially in the late 1980’s just made this club stronger, running off the reminiscent fuel that Bruce, Southside and Patti Smith left in decades past.  And now, reincarnated as its former self the Stone Pony is up on its feet again and has provided Asbury Park with unbelievable music for the past ten years.  As the times do tell, even the hardest of races cannot put down the Pony.  He trots on and fights through modern times, in order to provide the city “it” loves with the music and stability necessary to survive in this wild and crazy world. 

This article is dedicated to the great Daniel Paul "Danny" Federici who was the longtime organ player for the E Street Band.  His beautiful style and love for music will never be forgotten.  (January 23, 1950April 17, 2008)

Wikipedia - The Stone Pony

All opinions expressed by Jarrod Dicker are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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