There are many heroes in Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock & Roll, a documentary film in which the writer/director Tom Jones explores the musical history of the New Jersey beach resort. Bruce Springsteen, Steve Van Zandt and Southside Johnny Lyon top the bill, but the list also includes David Sancious and Ernest “Boom” Carter, respectively the organist and drummer with early editions of the E Street Band, who provide eloquent accounts of the music to be heard in the clubs and bars of the town’s West Side, where the black population lived.
Springwood Avenue was the West Side’s main stem, and the Orchid Lounge was where great music was heard (Carter mentions Grant Green, Jimmy McGriff, and many others). The cross-community synergy between West and East was important in the development of the music for which, in the wake of Springsteen’s success, Asbury Park eventually became internationally famous, but it had come to an end in 1970, when a riot over the Fourth of July weekend saw 75 per cent of the businesses on Springwood Avenue burned to the ground, never to be rebuilt.
The riot — eventually suppressed by the arrival of state troopers — expressed the desperation of people who felt they had nothing. Tragically, and as is so often the way, the principal victim of their demonstration was their own community. The film ends on an upbeat note, looking at the current activities of the Lakehouse music academy and studio, where very young musicians are given a chance to learn, to play and to perform, but it cannot pretend that the grievances which erupted almost 50 years ago have been properly addressed.
Springsteen, Van Zandt and Lyon speak with great fondness about what the place gave them, by enabling them to immerse themselves in the world of music. Unlike Dylan and the Beatles, Springsteen says, those who learnt their trade in the Asbury Park bar bands were not musical revolutionaries: they were alchemists, he says, taking bits from all over the place — soul, R&B, Elvis and Little Richard, the British Invasion — and turning it into something of their own. He and his old friends speak with a warmth that is as powerful a defining characteristic of their music as any stylistic element.
The film shows us important venues including the Convention Hall (where the Who shared a bill with Herman’s Hermits and the Blues Magoos), the Upstage Club (where, because it lacked a liquor licence, teenagers could congregate to play and listen) and the Stone Pony (made famous by Southside Johnny and Miami Steve). At the screening I went to, it finished with 20 minutes of a recent fund-raising concert at which practically everybody who ever played in an Asbury Park bar band gathered on stage to run through cheerfully chaotic versions of “Johnny B. Goode”, “Bye Bye Johnny”, and — at Springsteen’s behest — “Lucille”, in the great Everly Brothers arrangement.
The director both excavates the Asbury Park legend and polishes it up a bit. And why not? As Springsteen remarks: “Everything’s broken. We are the fixers of broken dreams.”
* The film was shown on Wednesday of this week at various cinemas in London. There seems to be a screening on May 25 in Liverpool, and there may be others.