Scene and Herd by Doug “Igoto” Dresher
The Asbury Park Music and Film Festival, 2017
There is power in music.
If we are to believe that words have meaning, and actions have consequences, then we must then conclude that music holds the power.
I recently had the opportunity to be one of the photographers for the third annual Asbury Park Music and Film Festival. Asbury Park, if you were unaware, is enjoying a resurgence. Asbury Park is slowly moving from a once-was to a now-is. Granted, the artists and musicians who were the first to re-restart the re-resurgence may be feeling the push out of town thus being replaced by posh establishments, new construction, and a general youngness that says it understands the traditions of the space, but still wants micro brewed coffee and beer. But, the town still has a great history and stories to tell. Asbury Park is deserving of anything new and most hope it will keep enough historians to attract those who respect and promote the things that make Asbury Park special.
There were three events that took place during the APMFF about which I would like to write. The first is about the power of a movement, the second is about the power of a moment, and the third is about the power of a memory.
The power of a movement.
The “Asbury Sound” is also known as the “Jersey Shore Sound.” The Asbury Sound, borne from Four Seasons, lived its teen years in a spot called “The Upstage Club” and matured with the fame of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Essentially, the Asbury Sound mixes a heavy guitar with piano, organ, and glockenspiel playing notes an octave or two above the main melody. Often compared to traditional accordion music and the sounds of the Jersey shore calliope, these upper notes are easily heard in much of Springsteen’s and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes’ music.
That is a very simplistic overview of the sound, but not of the movement. The Asbury Park Music and Film Festival featured a film named, “Just Before the Dawn: Riot. Redemption. Rock ‘n’ Roll,” by filmmaker Tom Jones.
One of the featured events of the festival was a reunion of the many musicians who played at the Upstage Club. These musicians played together in the late 1960s and from there came the E Street Band as well as the Asbury Jukes. These musicians enjoy varying amounts of fame. Bruce Springsteen tops the list along with Little Steven. After that comes Southside Johnny. From there we have names such as, Bill Chinnock, David Sancious, Ernest Carter, Vini Lopez, Garry Tallent, Danny Federici, Sonny Kenn, Ricky DeSarno, Joe Petillo, Richard Blackwell, Albee Tellone, Chris Plunkett, Paul Whistler, Billy Ryan, Gerry Carboy, and Tommy Labella. Many of those musicians are known for playing in the E Street Band as well as the Asbury Jukes.
They all started out together and formed a sound. That sound was built on the sound of the calm of Jersey waves and turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement and the war in Vietnam.
Truth be told, I knew nothing about the Upstage Club until I saw the movie and then photographed the jam session. I couldn’t help thinking – do these people understand the immense influence their late-night jams had on the culture of this country? I wondered – what combination of luck and talent made one an international star another someone who had only the stories of what was and what could have been. Isn’t every teenager jamming in someone’s garage dreaming of the big-time? What does it take and who decides? Do the efforts of the thousands of garage bands eventually make the change we wish to see in the world? – And how long, after something is new, does it take to get coopted by the corporate forces, and when does it then become the rule in opposition to the exception? Does success necessarily destroy the message?
I hope not. I was trying to be successful at this, but remain true to myself. That may be a topic for a different article.
It was most interesting that during the jam session Springsteen took a very laid-back role in the performances. He let the others shine. When it was his turn at the main mic, he awoke and took a commanding role, but then when his turn was over he drifted back and let the others enjoy the spotlight. That was classy.
And there was the Asbury sound, by the very musicians who absorbed all the other sounds around them and helped create a new voice. The Asbury sound is more than the octaves of the organ. The Asbury sound is the sound of the workin’ man. It’s the sound of the men and women who worked in the Ford factory and crafted the cables that hold up bridges. It is the sound of the dock workers pulling goods off the transport ships and the crews of the NIKE missile bases at the center of the American strategic defense system of the Cold War. The music they made incorporated the sickening feelings of disenfranchised which lead to the riots in Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Elizabeth, Trenton, Camden, and Asbury Park.
Read the lyrics of “Born in the USA.”
Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up
Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A.
These lyrics are much more critical of the America way than most seem to realize.
The musicians of the Upstage Club gathered on stage perhaps one last time. Their performance was a celebration not just of the music and of their friendship nearly 50 years ago, but of the fact that those standing have survived. Their performances and their songs were a testament to the spirit of longevity as well as creativity. It was their reflection of times past and the hard times they lived through. In many ways, their performance was a call to the younger generation: it is now time for the next group to stand up and create their sound. It is time to push back against the status-quo and set this community right again. Most of us have chosen the longer life without the promise of fame and fortune. Yet, some may have chosen the life from which stories and tales are woven. The myth of fame. The weight of genius. The devil’s bargain. Which one of us are standing at the crossroad? What say you?
The power of a moment
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band closed the three-day festival. They did so with spirit and soul. Their music, the music of New Orleans, is one of the few voices God (himself/herself/itself) has chosen with which to speak to us.
There are other voices that God uses as well. For me these include: Ladysmith Black Mambazo, The Choral of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Jess Stacy’s solo during the performance of Sing, Sing, Sing at Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall concert of 1938, the instrumental that closed out Jimi Hendrix’ performance at Woodstock, Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind, Billie Holiday’s version of Strange Fruit, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Pt. 1, Jascha Heifetz’ October 23rd live performance of Claude Debussy’s La plus que lenta – these are the few things outside of my wife and children that give me a reason to believe in an ordered and purposeful universe.
Listening to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is like being bathed in the purest water of redemption. Listen to their version of St. James Infirmary or Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. They speak the voice of the truth. Dixie Land, Jazz, Blues – what part of America cannot find a kinship in their music? And if they couldn’t then they have no soul. No note is wasted, no note is left out. These musicians have risen from the dreadful way New Orleans was treated, post hurricane Katrina and they have thrived. New Orleans may never be what it once was, but it shouldn’t. It is a new New Orleans. Don’t let anyone ever forget how the citizens were treated as we were able to get cameras and news teams to the city well before we could get food and shelter. New Orleans may be able to forgive, but no one should ever forget.
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band offers a forgiving baptism. Let yourself admit your sins in the confessional of your personal church. It’s much harder to forgive yourself than to have others forgive you, isn’t it? To forgive yourself is to take ownership of your sins and admit your own short comings. And once you’re done with your baptismal introspection, let the music wash over your soul. Let it carry you to a better place.
Let Us Pray
Our Father, Who art in rhythm
Hallowed be Thy beat;
Thy kingdom come,
Thy jam will be done,
In practice, as in performance.
Give us this day our daily song,
and forgive us our bad taste,
as we forgive those who can’t make the show;
and lead us perhaps in the Temptations,
but deliver us from disco. Amen.
The power of a memory
During the APMFF, I took the photographs of the VIPs who got to meet Max Weinberg. Let me proffer that he is a gentle and friendly fellow. He stood for quite some time and shook the hands of a long line of people. He sincerely seemed to remember those who said they had met him some time ago. That, or he is great at convincing people he remembers them, their neighbors, their college roommates, their parents, and that time, and so on.
I listened to the people, who after introductions, offered Weinberg a story. And the stories all followed a similar theme. The people thanked him. Almost every person told Weinberg that they just wanted to thank him and the band for helping. The people wanted to thank Weinberg for making the music that got them through hard times; their divorce, 9/11, their parents splitting, the death of a friend. Others commented about how the music has been part of their lives from as long as they could remember – the song playing when they met their husbands and wives, the song that was playing when their first child was born, the last song they heard with a friend before he or she was shipped off. Life, death, birth, weddings, funerals, graduations, car accidents, illness, recovery, relapse, and recover again; epiphanies, heartbreak, heartache, hearts filled with love. This man, Max Weinberg, a guy who by his own admission, was the luckiest man to have had such opportunities to fulfill his own dreams, this man’s music was the soundtrack to these peoples’ lives.
I was struck hard and could have been knocked over with a whisper. These people all paid and waited on line not just to meet Max Weinberg, but to thank him. These people needed to tell the drummer from Springsteen’s band how his drumming saved their lives. This was a pilgrimage, an opportunity to pay respect, perhaps the opportunity to bring closure to their own admission of sin and redemption.
Sin and redemption – the power of music – falling on your knees at the crossroads – standing next to Robert Johnson.
The devil’s bargain. Which one of us are standing at the crossroad? Are you ready to give yourself over to the power of music?
What say you?
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The Asbury Park Film and Music Festival by Douglass Dresher
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