Director Tom Jones’ documentary, Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock ‘n’ Roll is a fascinating tale of how the seaside town made famous by Bruce Springsteen‘s debut album was ripped apart by riots and rebuilt though the healing power and redemptive nature of music. It’s a must-see piece, rich in stories told by Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt and Southside Johnny – the holy trinity of the New Jersey Sound (read the Movies In Focus review).
I caught-up with Tom Jones to talk about the film, the power of Asbury Park’s musical history and how he was able to get New Jersey’s most famous son involved in the project.
How did Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock n’ Roll come about?
It all started with a photograph. The chairman of the Gibson guitar company got a photograph in the mail of Bruce Springsteen playing a Gibson – and he’s very famous for playing a Fender guitar and it had a little hand-written note saying, ‘Wouldn’t this make a great ad? You should call me”. And the note was from a woman in Woodrow, Texas named Kerry Potter, whose grandfather owned a place in Asbury Park called The Upstage Club that closed in 1970. It’s where Bruce met his band and all the guys he’s still close with today and he worked out that Jersey Sound. He had a group of photographs that no one had seen.
So we scanned the photos and set on our way and the next thing I was in Asbury Park. I went to where The Upstage had been and there was a guy loading lumber and he said, without even asking, ‘I know this was a big music club, it’s going to be condos and it’s been closed my whole life’. He let us upstairs – and it was a big time capsule. Asbury Park had a race riot in 1970 that closed the whole town down – and nothing had happened in this place since 1970. Decades – 40/50 years had passed. The stage was still in place, the paint was still on the wall, in the men’s room there was graffiti on the walls that said ‘ Steel Mill Rules’ – and that was the name of Bruce’s band in 1970. So we launched into shooting that stuff based on that picture and it turned out to be a fantastic story about music as a connector and bringing people together and overcoming adversity. Asbury Park is coming back after literally, 50 years of being down on its luck. So, we’re happy with it and we think it has a lot to say.
It really is a story of redemption. You go into the past and the present. It’s getting to the point where it really is almost a thriving city again.
It is. The interesting thing is that it’s going to be better than it ever was. In our country, and maybe in yours, there’s a wistful looking back towards a better time and at one point Asbury Park was a real aspirational destination, it was like Brighton, a city on the shore that was pretty close to New York. It was a place where people went to summer – and it fell apart. It got to the point where there was one light left on in town and that was the Stone Pony, and that was it. It’s coming back but the good old days were only good for a select people, but not for everyone else. This time around it’s got the opportunity of coming back and being great for everyone and that’s what’s super exciting about what’s going on and I think that’s the intent of the town to take that path going forward. You know, redemption in a real way. Not coming back, but coming back better than ever.
And it still has music helping it do that. What is it about Asbury Park and music in the DNA?
It’s always been a music town. When it was first founded there was a famous composer named John Philip Sousa, the band leader and his number one guy was the bandmaster in Asbury Park. It’s always been a place where people go to listen to music. In 1970, when the riot happened there were 73 music venues in a town of one square mile and The Upstage is the place where everyone went when their paying gigs closed. The best ones used to go in there, plug in and play – and play till the sun came up. They’d play their original music and that’s how Bruce worked out that Jersey Sound with Steve and Southside Johnny and something very expansive came out of that unique little moment, that little wrinkle in time. So Asbury Park has always had music by its side and that’s what’s bringing it back now.
You’ve just mentioned Bruce Springsteen, Steve Van Zandt and Southside Johnny. Presumably getting Springsteen was integral to the film? How did that come about?
It was. Not easily. I’m sure Bruce gets asked a million things everyday, he’s a busy guy and everyone wants to talk to him about projects – and we didn’t get him. We finished a version of the film without him and I had committed to opening a film festival with the film. We shot this film a long time ago and we shot a couple of days and Bruce declined and we didn’t want to do it without him, so we put it away for a decade.
They started up a festival in Asbury Park and asked us and I didn’t even know where the box was, so I had to go find the material and someone said ‘We can book Bruce’. I said, ‘Great, we’d love to finish the film.’ We kind of leaned into it but that person couldn’t deliver Bruce, so we finished the film and it was really good and it had a great audience at the screening and we filled a 1600 seater theatre for the screening – and Bruce came. He surprised us, he came unannounced and watched the film and then he got up after the film and played a two-hour show. He played with Little Steven for a couple of songs, Southside for a couple of songs and guys from The Upstage who hadn’t seen him in 40 years, they played together. He even played with a group of eleven year-old kids, kind of the future of Asbury Park. It was an extraordinary night and then he gracefully called the next day and said, ‘Great film – I’d like to be in it’, so we threw that one out, we shot his interview, included his performance and cut a whole new film and here we are. We’re excited. It gave us the opportunity to tell a really unique story.
Springsteen seems to be doing a lot of looking back at the minute, with his autobiography and Broadway show. Do you think that your film was another way for him to bring that past into the present?
I don’t know. That would be presumptuous of me. There’s one reason that Asbury Park means Bruce Springsteen – he’s been very loyal to the town and in a very quiet way he’s done immense amounts of things to help the place. We’re taking all the proceeds from the film and we’re investing into music education, so we’re going to support the music education programs we have going in Asbury Park and Steven Van Zandt has a really fantastic foundation called TeachRock. He’s out on tour this summer and he’s coming your way and he’s taking all the proceeds from his tour and doing the same thing. So I think Bruce saw a good opportunity to do something for Asbury Park and he helped us out.
I don’t know if you saw the Broadway show or read the book, but it’s an extraordinary work. Completely, introspective and very open and I think he moved a lot of people and he’s got a new album coming out in June and it looks like they’re going out on tour again. In our case, I think he was doing us and the town a favour – and with the Broadway show and the book, if the story is true then he came up with that very organically, he played a gig at the White House and and said ‘It was really interesting talking about some of that stuff’’ and one thing led to another and out it came. He’s a great artist and I think he adds a great amount to our film, as does Steven and Southside. Those three interviews really give us a great spine to tell a really interesting story.
It really is. I went in knowing the Springsteen background but the race riots and everything else, was an incredible history of something that I never knew. Did you know a lot about that going in or did you have to do a lot of research?
I did a lot of research. I knew about it, I grew up in the area and as a kid a couple of times a summer you’d go to Asbury Park and walk the boardwalk, getting a fistful of tickets and ride the rides and then after the riots that all stopped. My job when I was at university was a Pepsi truck driver and I delivered in Asbury Park and I’d walk around and go ‘How can this place be so down, it’s an hour from New York City? It’s got this beautiful architecture’, but it really just fell on hard times.
As we started telling the story we dug into the riots and the historical aspects of what happened, that kind of overtook the story. It’s fascinating. It became a story more than just about Asbury Park but we tried to focus on just the music and the power of music as a connector.
The power of music is what seems to have kept the city going through the last 50 years.
No doubt. Literally, at one point there was one light left on the boardwalk and it was The Stone Pony. People still came to The Stone Pony, but it was really Southside and Steven who became the house-band. It was just another local bar and it was on its way to closing. They say in the film, ‘They gave us Monday night, then they gave us Tuesday night and then they fixed the roof’ and it went from an almost closed bar to a place that even people in England have heard of and come to see. Music has been very good to Asbury Park and vice versa because the city has given birth to one of the great sounds. That New Jersey Sound is really distinct and rather great.
It is such a distinctive sound, that jazz and rock fusion. What do the people of Asbury Park think of the music and the sound associated with it?
The great thing about Asbury Park, when you walk around, it’s back. Everyone open door you go past there’s music coming out. There’s live music in all the restaurants and all the rooms and then late at night you can hear people practising in their apartments above the store fronts. So it’s got a dreaming the dream vibe to it as well. The people of Asbury Park are drawn there because of music and you’re sort of stacking the deck because people are going there because of music, because of the stories and because there’s live music happening.
Going back to The Upstage, what was it about that venue that caught lightning in a bottle?
That’s what it was lightning in a bottle. Tom Potter was a hairdresser and his store was two doors down. He’d just walk down the block and he rented space and just said ‘Lets play music!’. it just caught fire. He didn’t have a liquor licence, it was just for kids and there were a lot of musicians rolling around who were forced to do The Top 40 for paying gigs on the east-side of the tracks and they were allowed to go there and play their own music. It just caught – like lightning in a bottle. You can catch it once and never catch it again and there was a tremendous amount of talent in town – Bruce and Steven and Southside and they all cut their teeth there and they worked it out. It was exciting and I think that it was only open two years but when we did our first shoot there, we opened the door and by the time we had done, 50 people had come by because the heard the door was open and they just wanted see the place one more time. For a place that was only open two years, a half a century ago, it still kind of rings-out across the decades. It’s amazing.