(Note: The following story originally appeared in the St. Petersburg Times, where I was a correspondent for many years. It was fun for my then-fiancee (now wife) and I to ask everybody we met, ‘Is Bruce Springsteen coming tonight?’)
By Bob Andelman
November 3, 1987
ASBURY PARK, N.J. – One well-placed rumor swells attendance at the Stone Pony on Sundays. And there is only one rumor that matters: Bruce Springsteen is coming. Although for the past decade Sunday has been the night reserved for the popular local band, Cats on a Smooth Surface, it is also the night New Jersey’s favorite rock ‘n’ roll son has been known to make surprise appearances: whether it’s to catch a new act, maybe sing a song with Bon Jovi or Marshall Crenshaw – or shuffle in with his entire E Street Band.
“Tell you the truth – we never know ’til he walks in the door,” says disc jockey Lee Mrowicki, who acts as spokesman for the Stone Pony. He has seen every announced and unannounced Springsteen appearance in the nightclub since it opened 13 years ago. That was before Springsteen was on the covers of both Time and Newsweek, heralded as the future of rock ‘n’ roll.
“Before Bruce went on tour in ’85, he was here every Sunday. It was a regular thing. If he wasn’t here, you were worried,” he says.
The club is convenient for Springsteen to drop into from his home in nearby Rumson, N.J. And amid life here in this tired old beach town, the bulky warehouse of a building has become the beacon of the Boss’ mystique, an unassuming landmark in the world of a rock ‘n’ roll legend.
A few blocks away from the Pony, on a recent Sunday inside the Asbury Park Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum (Please see related story, below), curators Billy Smith and Steve Bumball think tonight may be one of those impromptu visits.
Smith has heard that Springsteen and the E Street Band have been practicing songs from the new Tunnel of Love album and may try out material around 1 a.m. “We have good vibes,” says Smith. “It’s a good night.
Something’s going to happen. The band’s been rehearsing new songs all week. I heard they’re going to bump Cats tonight.”
Because the word is out, Smith and Bumball arrive early at the club to stake out positions along the edge of the small stage.
Backstage at the Pony, guitarist Ray Anderson has heard the rumors and is becoming convinced Springsteen will join Cats on stage later in the evening.
“It’s awfully crowded tonight,” he says. “The buzz is around town about the Boss. Who knows?”
While fans look for signs of Springsteen, one surprise guest does arrive. Guitarist Bobby Bandiera of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes joins the band during Cats’ second set. And John Eddie, another local favorite who released his debut album on CBS last year, is roaming the Pony.
Surveying the growing crowd, Mrowicki points out fans who have come from as far as Washington, D.C., on the remote chance they’ll catch a glimpse of Springsteen in his “home” club. “The problem is, a lot of the time, if (Springsteen) doesn’t show, somebody takes the blame,” he says. “We got a letter last week from an irate customer.”
Whether Springsteen shows up, of course, is beyond Mrowicki’s control. He just serves up a steady diet of Bruce tunes, which helps to whip up the hopes of the rumormongers.
The Stone Pony is truly unspectacular, inside and out.
Just a stone’s throw from the aging Asbury Park boardwalk and Atlantic Ocean, the long white building will never win any awards for architecture. Although the fire marshal limits crowds to 554 people, the club feels roomy, with a square, walkaround bar near the entrance, another one at the rear, two smaller bars in-between and a stage and dance floor. The difference between the Pony and any other nightclub in the world is that no matter how ordinary, this is the one Bruce Springsteen calls home.
“Everybody likes to have a place they can go and see familiar faces,” says Billy Smith. The Stone Pony, he adds, is a place Springsteen “can go and, to a certain extent, be treated like a normal person.”
Bruce Pielka, owner/manager of the club, and his partner Jack Roig, aren’t as sentimental about the things that happen at the Pony as the fans are, so the place isn’t overwhelmed with memorabilia. They also are cautious not to commercialize the visits of their famous guest for fear of frightening off the Boss.
“You don’t see a whole wall of Bruce,” says Mrowicki. “We just don’t want to play it up. If you were coming just to hang out, you wouldn’t want to see your face all over, either.
“We never advertise that he comes here,” the DJ continues. “It’s a word-of-mouth thing. We’ve never sold tickets … We have gotten strange letters. We got one from someone in Staten Island who thought he could get tickets by clandestinely sending us $100 a ticket.”
The cover charge on Sundays is actually $4 whether Bruce plays or not. Stone Pony T-shirts are sold, but nothing that even refers to Springsteen appearances is available. There are collections of snapshots on a few walls from special nights when Springsteen and other locals – Southside Johnny, Bon Jovi, John Eddie, Glen Burtnick – have shown up to play together or separately. A Born in the U.S.A. poster at the door congratulates “Bruce” on reaching the top of the Billboard charts in 1984.
The Stone Pony has become as special a club as any in New York City, including the old Max’s Kansas City – which launched Springsteen almost 15 years ago – The Bottom Line, CBGBs or the Roxy. It is as revered and as identified with Springsteen as Liverpool’s Cavern was to the Beatles in the early 1960s.
“You get a feeling when you’re in there,” says Bumball. “You know it’s special.”
Ray Anderson, the Cats guitarist, is a Bruce fanatic.
“Born to Run – that’s my bible,” says the musician shortly before going on stage. “The first time he asked me to sing a song with him, I felt thrilled. He knows my name! That’s warmth. I’m a fanatic about him. I can’t put it into words.
“A couple of times, he’s just come up alone and we’re his backup band. We’ll huddle and he’ll teach us a song on the spur of the moment.
“I’m gonna feel strange doing one of his new songs, Brilliant
Disguise, tonight,” adds Anderson.
Hans-Peter Schulle, who has been Cats’ on-again, off-again keyboardist for 10 years, tries to reassure Anderson.
“One of the things Bruce said to me before he started joining us,” says Schulle, “was ‘I like the way you guys do my stuff.”‘ “Really?” says Anderson. “Wow.”
Depending upon whom you talk or listen to, the Stone Pony may not offer the Boss a home away from home much longer.
Bruce Springsteen performing with Cats on a Smooth Surface at The Stone Pony, Asbury Park, NJ (1982)
Plans are being explored to pull the land at Ocean & Second Avenue out from under the club as part of Asbury Park’s overall redevelopment efforts. Developers have told the Pony’s owners they have between two and five years before the land will be needed.
“We don’t know what our reality is,” says Mrowicki. “I’ve said I’d stand in front of the wrecking ball. They’ll have to go through me.”
No one involved financially or emotionally wants to see the place come down.
“It’s certainly a bit of history now because of Mr. Springsteen,” says Anderson.
Steve Bumball and Billy Smith of the rock museum hope the end never comes.
“It’s sort of an institution,” says Bumball, “a major tourist attraction. It’s really helped this town stay alive. People hear about Asbury Park through Bruce. They go to the Stone Pony and Madame Marie’s. If not for Bruce Springsteen and the Stone Pony, this town – as you can see, it’s not very alive.”
“We consider ourselves real spoiled because we’re minutes away from a club where things are constantly happening,” says Smith. “There’s Bruce fans all over the world that would kill to see him there once.”
“It’s the kind of club people go to to hear the music, see the band,” adds Bumball. “It’s not the kind of club people go to to pick up girls or even to drink. There’s nothing pretentious about the Pony.
It’s nothing fancy. I think that’s what I like about it; you feel that it’s real.”
Springsteen never does put in an appearance. Bobby Bandiera joins Cats at 1 a.m. for their second set, but with hope of seeing Bruce extinguished, many in the crowd go home.
Maybe Bruce changed his mind, maybe he was never coming in the first place. Maybe the club just generates rumors each week to keep people coming to this otherwise desolate, deserted seaside resort, where most businesses have long since closed up for the season or for good.
Maybe Bruce will never come back again. He has been known to make bunches of appearances and then disappear for long stretches of time.
No matter, say the fans.
“People will keep coming,” says Smith, “hoping he will.”
Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum in Asbury is a Springsteen fan’s wild circus
As museums go, the Asbury Park Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum is tiny. The Museum of Modern Art it is not. Even the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas is many times its size. But few treasure troves of trivia could match this celebration for fans of New Jersey rock ‘n’ roll. Outside of private collections, it would be difficult to find posters touting a concert featuring “Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom with Bruce Springsteen” circa 1971. Ditto the long-haired, baby-faced pictures of Springsteen in his earliest bands, Child, Steel Mill and the Castiles. One of his guitars from that period is housed in a glass display case.
There are handwritten lyrics to two Springsteen classics, Backstreets and Meeting Across the River. His 1974 California driver’s license is here, too.
The Asbury Park Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum opened its doors a year and a half ago on July 4th – Independence Day to some, a Springsteen song title to others. Billy Smith and Steve Bumball, diehard local music fans, founded the facility to “completely and accurately portray the development of the Asbury Park (music) scene.”
Besides an inordinate amount of Springsteen memorabilia, the small room just inside the Palace amusement center – and just two blocks from the Stone Pony – pays homage to other local legends, including Southside Johnny, Little Steven and Bon Jovi.
“We don’t want to be just a Bruce Springsteen museum,” says Bumball. “The people that come in have a genuine interest, not just in Bruce but in all the bands from the area.”
Jon Bon Jovi has patronized the facility. Southside Johnny autographed a wall devoted to his work. But, so far, no Bruce.
“He has no objections, from what we understand,” says Smith. “The whole thing with him is he’s not interested in looking back. I’ve told him I’ve got an old Steel Mill poster and he says, ‘What do you want that for?”‘
Copyright 2014 Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman