Bruce Springsteen almost single-handedly emblazoned Asbury Park on America’s musical map. But while Asbury Park may translate as “Springsteen country” in the minds of pop fans, the Boss was drawing from his hometown’s musical heritage and history when forging his sound, as he readily explains in the documentary “Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock N Roll.”
“We took a little bit from here, a little bit from there, a little bit from soul, a little bit from pop, a little bit from the sound on the west side of the tracks,” Springsteen says. “And we kinda combined it all into the sound that this town, this little part of the Jersey Shore became known for.”
Much of that combining occurred at the Upstage, the after-hours club where blues, folk, funk, gospel, jazz, R&B, rock and soul artists from across the racially segmented town experimented with different styles; their democratic spirit animates the film. As Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt and Southside Johnny Lyon explain onscreen, the Upstage is where they started to find themselves as musicians, just as Asbury Park was on the verge of losing itself.
Relying on 76 interviews, previously unpublished photos and vintage video footage, the documentary presents the Atlantic-hugging enclave as a musical and sociopolitical microcosm of America. Founded in 1871 by a religious cannon brush manufacturer and segregationist, Asbury Park became a seaside playground and was legally segregated into the early 1950s; African American, Italian and Jewish residents were unwelcome in white neighborhoods east of the tracks. But nightclubs clustered along the predominantly African-American westside’s vibrant Springwood Avenue attracted people from everywhere, becoming a midcentury jazz mecca for musicians seeking gigs en route to New York, including blues and jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, Kenny Burrell, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Lightnin’ Hopkins, B.B. King, and Jimmy Smith.
A variety of live music could be heard in clubs, hotels, bars, ballrooms and restaurants within the town’s one-square-mile limits. By 1968, it was home to 73 venues hosting bar bands, crooners, and headliners like Ray Charles, the Doors and the Rolling Stones. Larger-than-life beautician Tom Potter opened the Upstage on Cookman Avenue, adorning its black walls with psychedelic Day-Glo paint, installing a wall of speakers behind the stage, and insisting on creative originality. “A Liverpool of America,” per bassist Gerry Carboy, a “sanctuary for the freaks,” per Van Zandt, the after-hours club was dedicated to music and young people; musicians, including teenagers, could jam until five in the morning in front of a packed house. It’s where Springsteen would wrap sets with lengthy jams on Ten Years After’s “I’m Going Home,” and where he checked out Garry Tallent, Ernest “Boom” Carter, Clarence Clemons, Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez and David Sancious before inviting them to join his new E Street Band. He eventually composed songs for his first album, “Greetings From Asbury Park,” in the back of a beauty salon next door.
Sancious recalls other club owners demanding a Top 40 “jukebox situation” for tourist patrons, but the charismatic Springsteen insisted on performing his original material. That alone made him inspirational in the Jersey Shore bar band scene for decades.
“We lead with our musicianship,” Sancious says. “That’s where the power was, in the expression itself.”
In a phone interview, director Tom Jones, a Malibu resident who grew up just north of Asbury Park, recounts traveling back East to climb “the endless flight of stairs” to the Upstage’s long-shuttered space above a Thom McAn’s shoe store.
“It was [still] 1970. The stage was there, the Day-Glo paint was still on the walls, ‘Steel Mill rules’ was still gauged into the wall — that was the name of Bruce’s band back then. Literally, four decades hadn’t happened. So we dug in to do a story about that,” Jones explains.
“But the more I learned, the more I got interested in the riot and the history of the town, which was split by the railroad tracks, with the haves on one side, the have-nots on the other. It’s kind of a metaphor for what’s going on now; music is a connector — it brings together [what’s] being torn asunder.”
When Jones initially pitched a reel of the film to Springsteen’s management, they declined to be involved, so he shelved it. He didn’t retrieve it until the Asbury Park Music and Film Festival asked to see clips, a decade later; that reawakened his interest in Asbury Park’s 1970 riot. He reshaped the film as “a broader story” around that cataclysmic event, a weeklong explosion of long-simmering racial tensions that permanently destroyed 75 percent of the businesses on Springwood Avenue.
But it was still a film about Asbury Park lacking input from its favorite son — until Jones recut the film for the 2017 festival (for which he’s now a board member), and Springsteen saw it. He promptly asked to participate, so Jones “threw out the whole film and started again.”
Performance footage from a sold-out 2017 concert at the Paramount Theater shows 11-year-old students from the progressive Lakehouse Music Academy holding their own onstage alongside a house band of joyfully reunited Upstage veterans backing Van Zandt, Lyon, and Springsteen; those scenes are more meaningful framed by the town’s painful local history. While its beleaguered westside still needs rehabilitation, artists and civic boosters are striving to rebuild Asbury Park using live music as a binding agent of community. It’s hopeful validation of music’s value, and Springsteen’s onscreen observation that “local bands remain important, because it’s a huge part of the thing that threads people together. … Everybody’s broken, so we are the fixers of broken things.”
“Asbury Park: Riot Redemption Rock N Roll” screens Wednesday, May 22, at Laemmle Playhouse 7 (673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena), iPic (42 Miller Alley, Pasadena), AMC Santa Anita (400 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia), and Regal Edwards Alhambra Renaissance (1 E. Main St., Alhambra); and Wednesday, May 29, at Playhouse 7, iPic, AMC Santa Anita, and Laemmle Glendale (207 N. Maryland Ave., Glendale). See listings for showtimes and ticket info. asburyparkmovietickets.com, Laemmle.com, ipic.com, amctheatres.com, regmovies.com