In the beachfront ghetto of Asbury Park, New Jersey, a dank, dirty dive bar called The Stone Pony slouches between a weedy parking lot and worn boardwalk, the last defiant sentinel of a bygone era when the sweaty heroes of rock and roll called its sooty sleaze their home.
Like everything in Asbury Park, the Pony has seen better days. No longer do the leather-jacketed bards of the boardwalk stomp its stage. But once upon a time the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny launched their careers here, and one clear Sunday afternoon five years ago a group of unshaven suburban kids made their debut at this lead-painted cradle of rock.
We clearly had no idea what the hell we were doing.
“Excuse me, do you have a riser I can put my keyboard on?” I asked the stage manager.
“You want a riser? Who the f___ do you think you are, Britney Spears?”
Greetings from Asbury Park.
It was the summer of 2007, and my high-school band had finally landed a gig at the biggest banner in the local rock band circuit. A good Stone Pony gig was immediate street cred, but we got even luckier: We were opening for the Jonas Brothers, a bubble-gum pop band that was clearly on its way, getting scooped up by the Disney machine a few months later. So lots of girls were showing up to this gig, and, sure, the venue meant getting our name out there — but hordes of screaming girls was another matter entirely. We knew the real reason we had joined the band.
We practiced about six hours a week, which put us way above most of the other bands on the circuit. We were pretty good, by local band standards, but the rock gods would not bear such hubris, as we were about to find out.
To the Stone Pony’s management and the crowd, we were about as meaningless as a Catholic classical pianist playing keyboards in a guitar-driven rock band — which, of course, I was. I had spent the morning lectoring Sunday Mass for the old ladies at St. Dorothea’s, looking polished in my Catholic-school uniform of jacket and tie, desperately pretending I was not going to spend my afternoon inhaling secondhand smoke at a dive bar in Asbury Park — which, of course, I was.
The band arrived early to load in at the Stone Pony, where my request for a riser as a pianist with a local band earned us a spot on the afternoon’s food chain somewhere between small rodents and whatever small rodents eat. We weren’t a “national act” like the professional punks who toured the country playing bars like the Pony. Those guys knew they were cool. They had the expensive gear, the nicotine-stained fingernails and all the street cred. One national act’s guitarist kept referring to the head stage manager as “that funny cat,” but he got away with it.
We had spent the past few weeks desperately promoting our gig to all our friends on MySpace (MySpace!), and between our friends and grandmothers we had sold about 30 tickets. The stage manager smiled, collected all the ticket money we had made and gave us 10 percent — which we immediately decided to save for recording-studio rent (although we did buy a monster basket of fries from the bar’s grill, whose chef looked like a toad, though a cheery toad, and whose fries were damn good, particularly with the house-blend BBQ sauce, although I was afraid to ask The Toad what was in the sauce).
We hauled our amplifiers and instrument cases from my dad’s aging Suburban to the back stage, my eyes struggling to adjust from the wholesome clear of that Atlantic afternoon to the dive’s grimy dim. The Pony was a weary madam, her chipping paint and sticky floors lit by the purple-green glow of the arcade games. The bathroom walls bore the words of the prophets before us, the disaffected youth of that benighted decade — the ’90s.
The female bartenders wore cowboy hats and ripped, skintight jeans. I imagined they were husky-voiced ex-strippers from the seedy club down the block, and their lives of cigarettes and late nights had dragged them well past their prime. (Not that our drummer didn’t occasionally skip a beat when one of those pairs of jeans walked by.)
The Sound Guy, a bearded barbarian in the back booth, was the ultimate power in our minds. At his array of dials and buttons, he wielded the ability to take any band from mediocre to great. Or, more usually, from bad to worse. Above the sound board, Sound Guy had taped his own Dantean warning:
Sorry, I can’t un-suck the band.
We had some time to kill before we played, so we sat around and tried unsuccessfully to look very tough in front of the other bands. The staging area looked like a garbage-man convention in the hold of a pirate ship. Dirty Converses, ripped jeans. Flannel shirts over yellowing Ramones tees and stained wifebeaters. I glanced over my own costume of choice. My shoes were a little too clean, my plain white shirt a little too bleached, my scruff a little too even. My Catholic high school had a dress code, man, and I had been to Mass.
I took stock of my band. Jimmy, the guitarist, was only 15, but he looked and played like he was born with a Fender in one hand and a pack of Marlboro Reds in the other. He was a lousy student — I did his English homework in middle school — but a fearsome lead guitar. His full beard, mane of long hair and constant don’t-worry-be-happy grin gave the impression of a shaggy mutt playing a Gibson, which might be my favorite image of all time. Also: he could play a Les Paul behind his head.
Our drummer was Jeff. If the Scooby-Doo characters Daphne and Shaggy had a kid, that kid would have been Jeff. A pale, weedy ginger with a scrubby red goatee, Jeff worked landscaping, so he was always showing up to gigs in a rusting ’87 Chevy loaded with grass clippings or Mexican farmhands. Jeff had a penchant for gray wifebeaters, menthol cigs and mumbling. He was also damn good at the drums.
Chris, our bassist, was a phenomenally talented musician who made up for his technical ferocity on the bass with a complete lack of social charm, particularly via ripping his shirt off at shows. Chris once asked out a girl he knew via text message. She presumably had replied, “Thanks, honey, but to me you’re like a brother.” Poor Chris. Friend zoned. (He actually quit the band not long after the Pony show. His replacement, Sean, had a charming habit of forcefully hiccuping during awkward silences.)
Our fearless leader was Cam, a guitarist with an imposing Napoleon complex to compensate for his distinctly nasally voice — and, you know, his height. This was Cam’s band. Cam wanted us to sound like the Dave Matthews Band, but Cam sang nothing like Dave Matthews. We sounded like Oasis with a better guitarist. And when you are sitting in the staging area of the Stone Pony, you do not want to be anything close to Oasis. Oasis is fungus on the food chain of rock ’n’ roll.
The band before us, aptly named something like Nine Reasons to Die, had apparently finished early, because the head stage manager suddenly shouted for us to load our gear onstage. At least, that’s what I think he said. He really said something like: “WHOEVEA THE F___IN’ NEX’ BAND IS BETTA F___IN’ GET DEH S__T ONSTAGE IN LIKE TREE MINITES O’ I’M’A PUNCH YAS.”
The Pony’s stage manager had the cheerful disposition of a hung-over Oscar the Grouch and the beady-eyed appearance of an overfed gutter rat. His name was Elmo. Elmo was 5 feet tall. Elmo had a ponytail. And I was dead certain Elmo’s enormous bushy eyebrows were carnivorous.
Stage hands are a funny breed, because they are perpetually smoking, cursing angrily or both. Asking them for anything out of the ordinary will probably just earn you an insult to your manhood. The Pony’s knuckle-dragging cave dwellers were pale-faced, flippant toward authority figures and deeply suspicious of the new brand of BBQ sauce at The Toad’s grill. So go ahead, tell a stage hand that your band’s keyboard player needs a specialized input jack for the PA system. No? Didn’t think so.
We scrambled to get our gear on stage. The guitarists needed to tune, so I was left to carry my instrument up to the stage by myself. My weapon of choice was a Yamaha S90, a not-quite-top-of-the-line keyboard that weighed in at a literally staggering 52 pounds. We sound checked. I wiped the sweat from my forehead, suddenly nervous and self-aware. Sound Guy did his best to un-suck our sound, then gave us the thumbs up. Fans of the Jonas Brothers were nowhere near the stage. Chris scanned the audience, preparing to once again rip off his shirt.
Cam launched into his usual pre-show introduction of the band. His introduction sounded something like this: “Hiiieveryone, we’re Hollander an’ we’regonnasing asong feryou now, we reallyhopeyoulike it.”
Um, yeah. Let’s rock?
The entire concert was a sweaty haze of green and orange, courtesy of the colored stage lights that blinded us from seeing the audience. At one point, however, I did notice that most of our grandmothers had shown up to watch us play: a clutch of marmalade-haired ladies in floral sweaters, smiling proudly and doing their best to blend in with the Pony’s home crowd of barflies, bartenders and bouncers. Nice, too, to see strong representation from the church.
The undisputed highlight of the show? One of the speakers caught fire, a sacrifice to the rock gods. Elmo, cursing mightily, clawed his way up the stage and unplugged it, but not before everyone in the bar started cheering for our accidental pyrotechnics display. (To be honest, it had a much better tone when engulfed in flames.) Jimmy, ever the entertainer, started playing his Flying V so fiercely that I can only assume he was trying to ignite the rest of the amplifiers. Chris ripped his shirt off. No one noticed.
We finished the last song in our half-hour set to a roar of applause from our handful of friends. It sounded like we had won a few new fans. Our grandmothers cheered, and Elmo, scowling, roared for the next band to get onstage before he ripped off deh heads an’ fed ’em to the bouncers.
We had finally played a concert at the Stone Pony, the fiery crucible of rock royalty. We survived.
“Not bad, right Cam?” I said, trying to goad our Negative Napoleon into a positive mood.
“Dude, we sounded like ass. I couldn’t even hear myself think, your keyboard was so loud.”
Huh. I couldn’t hear my keyboard. Thanks, Cam. Sound Guy, who was finally unplugging the last of our gear, was surprised, however. “Dude,” he said, “little man over there is harsh.”
I shrugged. The smoke from the amplifier — or was it something else? — hung in the air.
“Sorry,” I laughed. “I can’t un-suck the band.”
Michael Rodio, a music major from Oceanport, New Jersey, is a senior in Notre Dame’s Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy and this magazine’s spring 2012 semester intern.