Sea.Hear.Now and the Ascent of Asbury Park

The first time I saw Social Distortion was right here in Asbury Park, New Jersey, over 20 years ago. Back then, you didn’t just cruise into town, park the car and stroll up to the show. Back then, you drove with the doors locked, you hid your money in your sock, and you only traveled with a large group of friends.

For a brief history of Asbury Park’s economic status in the ’90s and early ’00s, check out Bruce Springsteen’s song My City of Ruins. It’s a tale of “boarded up windows,” “empty streets,” and “young men on the corner like scattered leaves.” And it’s not an exaggeration. When that song was written back in 2000, over 80 percent of the town’s central business district was vacant.

But even during long years of economic gloom, Asbury Park has always been a haven for artists and musicians, as well as a tight-knit gay community. That sense of community has always been powerful, even when commerce was not. And now, on a perfectly sunny weekend in late September 2018, it’s hard to imagine even one empty street in this town.

Tonight, Social Distortion is putting on their usual rollicking good time. They’re playing to a crowded beach, just around the corner from legendary venues like The Stone Pony, Convention Hall and The Paramount Theater. The crowd totals about 25,000- plenty of old-school punk fans, but also millennials, couples, families, artists, activists and professional surfers. From where I’m standing, about 20 yards from the stage, I see one guy wearing lots of safety pins and a tall purple mohawk. I also see a good variety of 40ish dads with little kids on their shoulders.

The occasion is Sea Hear Now, a two-day festival of live music, professional surfing and local art. And this isn’t just another upstart in the crowded music festival market. This might as well be the Official Comeback Party of Asbury Park, after years of painstaking restoration. It’s ambitious for a first-year festival, easily the town’s biggest concert since the far-sketchier Warped Tour/Bamboozled days- and it’s a resounding success. The crowd runs on good vibes, and the weather is indian-summer perfect.

Above all, Sea Hear Now represents the longtime devotion of many locals, including producers Tim Donnelly, HM Wollman, Tim Sweetwood, and Danny Clinch, to the artistic community. Clinch is probably the most recognizable of the four producers; he’s become something of a rock star in his own right over a long storied career as a music photographer. I had a chance to interview Clinch- you can check out that story right here– but the short version is, there’s an amazing amount of good will behind the production. Ticket sales benefit great causes like The Surfrider Foundation and Operation Beachhead. A pop-up gallery inside festival grounds features original art by some of the bill’s musicians, with half of the proceeds benefiting Save Barnegat Bay. “We’re taking a page from Jack and Kim Johnson’s playbook,” says Clinch. “The most important part of the show is giving back to this community.”

The musical lineup is eclectic, but with a strong emphasis on rootsy rock artists. On Saturday night, Incubus delivers a lively headlining set, covering INXS, Ginuwine and Pink Floyd in between all of their radio hits. On Sunday afternoon, Kaleo blasts through Icelandic blues anthems while some of the world’s best surfers tackle shoulder-high waves just a stone’s throw away. I meet baby boomers who are here to see Blondie. I meet headbangers who are here for Highly Suspect. But you won’t find any DJs pressing buttons or pop stars singing along to their own backing tracks. If there’s one common thread to the lineup, it’s genuine musicianship.

And that includes some of the best local acts from a scene that’s exploding with talent. Deal Casino, The Parlor Mob and The Battery Electric are three of Asbury Park’s homegrown rock bands. Singer/songwriter Nicole Atkins is originally from Neptune, just a few miles away. All four artists have garnered national exposure, and they’re all on the bill this weekend. You could probably bounce around Sea Hear Now only watching the artists who have lived in a 10-mile radius, and still hear more great songs than at last year’s Coachella.

“It’s a great opportunity not just to be seen, but to meet other bands that you wanna check out,” says Mark Melicia, lead singer for The Parlor Mob. “The best part about playing the big festivals is, we get to play to people who might be there to see somebody else and turn them on to our band,”

The Parlor Mob originated in Red Bank, but moved down to Asbury Park in the early ’00s. So basically, they’ve been playing these parts since long before Cookman Avenue was the hot place for the dinner crowd. “The progress is inevitable,” says Melicia. “They’re bringing new shows, new venues, they’re bringing national touring acts… but the music has always been consistent. A lot of the same people are still working at the clubs. The Pony is still The Pony. The Saint is still exactly the same, and I love that place.”

So rest assured, even as the upscale sushi restaurants move in, this is still a town where real, sweaty, unbridled musical magic can happen at any time. And that brings me back to Sunday night, standing on the beach watching Social Distortion: About 45 minutes into their hourlong set, the stage goes dark and roadies set up an additional mic stand. Keep in mind that all weekend long, the crowd has been buzzing with rumors of a surprise Springsteen appearance.

And that’s nothing new. In fact, that’s the one thing Asbury Park might be most famous for: In this town, just about every show played in every venue since 1973 has been accompanied by Springsteen rumors. Ricky Martin could play a Spanish-language set at the Paradise Halloween party, and you’re still going to hear at least one guy in the crowd whisper, “I heard The Boss might show up.”

And tonight, he does. When the stage lights rekindle, Bruce Springsteen joins Social Distortion for three numbers, closing their set with a joint cover of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire. The crowd goes wild, and the scene is surreal: The same hometown icon who wrote My City of Ruins is on hand to serenade the city’s triumphant return.

That song, now almost 20 years old, ends with a stirring choir refrain of “Come on, rise up…” Back then, Bruce was singing to a town fallen on dark times. It took a while, and it’s still very much underway, but look around the faces of Sea Hear Now, and that old song sounds very much like a wish that came true.

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