Asbury Park was synonymous with rock ’n’ roll even before New Jersey native son Bruce Springsteen first picked up a guitar at age 14. But for the better part of the past 30 years, the New Jersey Shore town suffered neglect and a series of lofty but ill-fated entrepreneurial stop-starts. By the early 2000s, its boardwalk was splintering, Palace Amusements, with the iconic, smiling Tillie, was a memory, and weeds were sprouting in pavement cracks throughout its 1.6 square miles.
So when, over Labor Day weekend, former Beatle Paul McCartney was spotted dining at Jimmy’s Italian Restaurant — a mile away from a renovated Convention Hall, scores of art galleries, a brand-new hotel and, yes, old rock stalwart The Stone Pony — it signaled a major moment for the community of not quite 16,000. Asbury Park had truly, finally, returned.
“It’s such an interesting town, and it’s so close to New York City [55 miles], but it seems to be almost a little lost in time,” says David Bowd, a U.K. native who opened the Asbury Hotel in May 2016. Bowd partnered with New York-based iStar, the leading developer in Asbury Park, where a construction spree has resulted in new waterfront condos, restaurants and shops. “I felt that Asbury was so authentic and gritty. I walked around and saw that there were obviously lots of musicians and a vibrant art scene; there was a great gay community of young couples. I thought, ‘My goodness, this place really has it all.’”
Ghosts of long abandoned construction projects loomed large against the picturesque backdrop of the Atlantic, but Bowd, along with iStar CEO Jay Sugarman and senior VP Brian Cheripka, who spent five years acquiring most of the property they’ve since rehabbed, theorized that previous developers didn’t go “big enough.”
The 110-room boutique property The Asbury, located in a former Salvation Army building, is the first hotel to open in the city in more than 50 years. Like the new eateries and bars that have popped up in the vicinity in the past decade (among them the Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten, Little Buddy Hideaway, Asbury Park Brewery and the popular Langosta Lounge), and attractions like the Silverball Museum, showcasing pinball machines from the Shore’s early years, the idea, says Sugarman, was “not to tear something down but to reinvent it.”
To that end, the connection to music is a through-line for businesses of every ilk. At the Asbury, the lobby features a “wall of vinyl,” each LP selected individually from a stack of 3,000. In May, the hotel hosted an exhibit by photographer Danny Clinch (Springsteen was spotted in the gallery, surveying images of Tupac Shakur, Johnny Cash and himself). This summer, the Asbury Park Music Foundation began selling shirts that read, “Music Saved Asbury Park.”
Radio personality and record executive Tom Cunningham, who hosts the weekly “Bruce Brunch” show on WCHR, says there’s a lot of truth in that statement. “The Stone Pony continues to be one of the most recognized clubs in the world,” says Cunningham of the venue, which recently hosted two shows by E Street Band members — bassist Garry Tallent and drummer Max Weinberg’s Jukebox — backed by North Brunswick native and former Styx member Glen Burtnik and his new band, the Weeklings. “The Light of Day festival has grown into an international success story, delivering both funding for Parkinson’s research and amazing music,” adds Cunningham. “There’s now an extra spotlight on a thriving restaurant scene, as well as the always evolving LGBT community. But it’s music that has always been the brightest beacon of light.”
Jersey native Matt Pinfield, a veteran of MTV’s “120 Minutes” and author of “All These Things That I’ve Done — My Insane, Improbable Rock Life,” credits the Asbury music scene’s long history to the now legendary appearance of U2 at defunct club the Fastlane, also known as the spot where a young Jon Bon Jovi cut his teeth as a musician before hitting it big. “Asbury Park is one of the most vital scenes in the United States, because it’s very magical,” Pinfield tells Variety. “I credit the people in New Jersey who support the music. There’s always something new, exciting and creative coming out, be it Bleachers or Gaslight Anthem. Asbury is where artists build a fan base. In that sense, it’s never changed.”
Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff, who grew up in Bergenfield, N.J., and moonlights as a top pop producer, working with Taylor Swift, Lorde and St. Vincent, recently taped an episode of “MTV Unplugged” at The Stone Pony. He echoed that sense of the area’s special bond with music at his annual Shadow of the City festival last month. “You spend your whole life wanting to leave New Jersey, and then you leave and realize there’s nothing better,” he told the 3,000 in attendance outside the venue’s Summer Stage.
Rap-rock supergroup Prophets of Rage, featuring members of Rage Against the Machine, Cypress Hill and Public Enemy, also chose The Stone Pony for a major TV taping: the series “Landmarks Live in Concert,” which debuts a new season on PBS. The Prophets of Rage show will air on a different network in 2018, says Daniel Catullo, a resident of Monmouth County and president and CEO of City Drive Group, which created the show. The band chose the venue because of its history as well as its affiliation with Springsteen, who has played there countless times going back to 1974.
“[Rage Against the Machine]’s Tom Morello and Springsteen are close,” adds Pinfield. “Tom, Chuck D and B-Real always loved that proactive audience from Jersey and the Shore. And the Pony has had so many legendary shows over the years.”
Catullo calls the venue one of his favorites. “I have been a musician my whole life, and when I think of The Stone Pony, it feels like home,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to do a show there. I wanted to represent New Jersey on ‘Landmarks.’ That’s the nucleus of the music scene in my opinion.”
New beach revelers notwithstanding, touring musicians who come through town for gigs at venues like the Pony, Convention Hall, the Paramount Theatre and smaller but no less significant watering holes like the Wonder Bar and The Saint, continue to play an important role in the town’s economy, and local business owners would like to keep Asbury affordable for those artists. It’s why this summer, iStar and New York-based firm The Participation Agency opened Outpost, an immersive rest stop for touring artists, just one block from the boardwalk. Paying homage to the town’s reputation as a musical epicenter, the 1,800-square-foot space features a Gibson-sponsored recording studio, a yoga/meditation area, laundry facilities, outdoor hammocks, a grill and showers, as well as a general store — all for use free of charge. (Springsteen fans can complete the experience via Stan Goldstein and Jean Mikle’s “Rock & Roll Tour of the Jersey Shore.”)
It’s important to “have musicians understand the care and the attention that this town gives to artists, creators and innovators,” Cheripka says. “We want to welcome them with open arms.”
That inclusiveness is an important distinction for Asbury, which in the 1960s and 1970s contended with racial tensions that divided the city. It ultimately came together to become a “town of acceptance,” says Tony Pallagrosi, a former member of Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, a local promoter and co-founder of The Light of Day Foundation. “People are coming to Asbury Park for the same reason I came back in 1975,” he says. “I found a place that accepted people like me, who lived our particular lifestyles that didn’t really jibe with the rest of Monmouth and Ocean counties at the time. And it probably doesn’t jibe with them now either. In Asbury Park, if you were not a nine-to-fiver, if you were part of a multiracial couple or a multinational or a gay couple, you were accepted. Bruce said the same thing: that he found in Asbury a place where he was comfortable.”