It’s official, the New York Times carried the story this morning: Asbury Park is coming back. There are new jazz clubs, new restaurants, plans for more restaurants and galleries and reasons for people to come to Asbury again. And this is all going on west of the boardwalk, inland a few blocks, not tied to the surf and sand and the legend of Madam Marie. Somebody in the Times piece mentioned that there had been a music scene in Asbury Park “before Bruce,” and it reminded me that my own Asbury music scene started in the pre-Springsteen days, too.
There was a bar on Kingsley Avenue called The Student Prince. Kingsley was the circuit, the loop, the way we rolled around and around, past the bars and a mini-golf place, back along the ocean side, the boardwalk up to our right, then left and back down again. Anyway, the Prince was along that strip, a block inland from the ocean, a little past the Wonder Bar. Nothing special, a plain room, the bar to the left as you entered, a pool table in the middle of the floor, some chairs and a few tables, a bulb and hood over the pool table, a new neon beer signs. What made it more than just a little seaside bar was Joe Finn, a singer of Irish tunes, some Neil Diamond, and a guy with a loyal following. He played the Prince, and some other clubs and bars farther down the Shore. Joe Finn was a regular fixture at the Prince, and when he was there, the place had a nice crowd, better than some of the other bars on the loop.
But even Joe Finn had to take some nights off. During the week, during what was probably my sophomore year in college, I was invited to play some dates at the Prince.
My “book” consisted of some Ian and Sylvia, a Beatles tune or two, probably folk songs from the Kingston Trio / Highwaymen / Limeliters bag of tricks. I had a Guild guitar (still have it, in fact), all of 25 songs down and rehearsed, and not much stage experience. I don’t remember how I got the gig, but there I was, the Joe Finn off-night replacement, ready to make my bones in Asbury Park.
My stage: a piece of plywood they put on top of the pool table, so when I sat up there, the overhead bulb and hood swung pretty damn close to my head. My audience: the backs of eight or more guys sitting at the bar, facing the bottles and a mirror, and since I was elevated and somewhat illuminated, they could see me in the mirror’s reflection but I couldn’t see their faces, and not even the shadows of their eyes. Just the backs of their heads. Buzzcut, buzzcut, mullet, bald, shaggy, buzzcut, shaggy, and on it went. My Uncle Bob was in the audience for my opening night – actually, I think he was the audience, not counting the eight guys at the bar.
I didn’t know enough to try to sing Joe Finn’s Irish songs, something the regular drinkers might have related to. I gave ‘em my best Ian and Sylvia, an acoustic version of the Beatles tune they had probably been listening to on the radio that afternoon, a ripping version of “Charlie on the MTA.” Nobody turned around to watch, nobody sang along, nobody acted like they heard anything at all. This just made me sing louder and faster and miss the chords and louse up the words. I hadn’t heard the expression yet, but I was covered in flop sweat, hanging on for dear life.
That gig lasted maybe a month of off-and-on appearances at The Student Prince. I pocketed about $15 a night when I played, which was significant college spending money in 1962. And in spite of the shakes and slips and screw-ups, I didn’t stop playing, but went on to birthday parties and fraternity bonfire beer blasts on the beach, and even a scaled-down “hootnanny” on campus. The Student Prince, however, did go on to bigger and better things. It’s one of the places where Bruce played, and where he was playing when Clarence Clemons walked in and asked to play with the band. After Bruce, it’s pretty likely that the Prince never grooved to “Kumbaya” again.
Joe Finn has been gone for a few years now, so has Madam Marie. Asbury Park had its dark period, its rundown shabby miserable tumble-down stretch of years. I’m glad it’s coming back, but it would be sweet to imagine going back, to the Taylor Pork Roll and saltwater taffy and bars full of music and boys from the casino dancing with their shirts open. Glory days.