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Springsteen secured Asbury Park’s place in music legend with the release of his first album “Greetings from Asbury Park” in 1973. What Memphis was to rock and roll, and Nashville was to country music, Asbury Park became to classic American rock. But for us, this weekend trip out of Penn Station down the North Jersey Coast Line, is more than just a musical pilgrimage.

My girlfriend, she’s always told the story of this place, founded by some puritanical Christian New York millionaire, to escape the decadence of the city. On the other side of the train tracks another settlement grew, as post-slavery blacks started to move north in search of work. With them they brought jazz. So Rachel’s story goes. A music mecca was born. The puritans left and the mafia arrived. New Yorkers flocked until a medical tanker sank off shore, and syringes began washing up on the shore. In the 1970s riots broke out and Asbury Park was destroyed. At least, that’s how Rachel’s story goes. Who could resist that?

Another New York millionaire owns most the real estate in Asbury Park now. Drinking coffee in a café that spills out on to Main Street, we’re looking on to a perfectly renovated parade of wooden fronted, brightly painted, antique stores, art shops and bistros. People walk dogs and smile.

Drinking a beer down on the boardwalk, a sandcastle sculptor is entertaining the children as they take a break from the water guns. Dads compete at crazy golf. A Victorian styled pavilion is still under repair, temporarily masked behind a painted mermaid, beautifully naked. Tonight the roller derby is in town, and the girls skate up and down the boardwalk in stockings and shoulder pads. Manhattan Mayhem vs The Jersey Girls.

We’re not here for the roller derby. Our tickets are for James at The Stone Pony, where the locals swear Springsteen will still come by and sit in, seeking respite from screaming people and football arenas. Beers are 3 bucks. Guitars line the walls, signed by Bon Jovi and The E-Street Band. Glory days decorating the dive bar. James rock, cleansing themselves of their show the night before at Radio City Music Hall, where for $80 you could sit 100 metres back and 100 metres up, marveling at the lack of atmosphere. Tonight for $30 we’re within sweat and spittle range. They play like Manchester in the 90s.

Midnight, we get chatting to a lone smoker outside a seductive bar. His story of Asbury Park ends next year when he will open his own real-life candy store in the pavilion.

At 2am he invites us on to his next haunt. He’s hoping to bump into a younger guy who might have given him a suggestive look from across the bar five hours earlier. Neon letters light up the sky from the roof of The Empress Hotel. Dance music is inside. When the only other straight man in there, the stripper, hits on my girlfriend, I can’t even be angry.


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Publication Date: 12-09-2009

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