The calendar says it’s spring, even though the weather doesn’t. But it was time to hit the beach anyway. That is, the Jersey Shore. We spent four days last week in the Jersey Shore towns of West Long Branch and Asbury Park. The weather was very Chicagoish but the company and the content were top notch.
Chicago author June Sawyers and I attended the fourth Springsteen symposium, titled Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town: An International Symposium. The four-day event at Monmouth University in West Long Branch was made up of noted keynote speakers on Bossism plus many presentations on arcane aspects of Springsteen’s music. Oh, and there was music. A night at the famous Wonder Bar in Asbury Park and music by Jersey Shore singer/songwriters and Monmouth students.
Afternoon on the Boardwalk
The program allowed us a free afternoon so we headed for Asbury Park to check out the boardwalk and our other favorite Jersey Shore landmarks—to see how they survived recent storms. (The last time I was at the Shore was in late September 2012, a month before Hurricane Sandy demolished many of the famous shore towns and landmarks.)
Madame Marie’s colorful fortune-telling booth is still on the boardwalk. It survived the storm with some damage and is now restored. Tourist tip: There’s a Madame Marie storefront in downtown Asbury Park too; both locations are staffed by her granddaughters, since Marie died in 2008. Madame Marie has been telling fortunes on the boardwalk since 1932, and Springsteen made her famous in these lyrics: “Did you hear the cops finally busted Madame Marie for telling fortunes better than they do?” from his 1973 ballad “Fourth of July, Asbury Park.”
The Convention Center is looking prosperous with business storefronts lining its inside promenade. We had excellent coffee at the Asbury Park Roastery and were happy to sit inside where it was warm. The boardwalk was windy and cold, sort of like walking along our own lakefront. (I’ve always wondered why we don’t we have a boardwalk in Chicago. It would be an atmospheric addition to the lakefront beach walk, especially from Oak Street to Fullerton.) The Convention Center houses the Paramount Theatre, an active music venue, where Springsteen and the E Street Band still rehearse and perform.
The Casino is just about gone. Only a partial façade remains. In 2005 and 2012, it was still a semblance of a building with some hope of restoration.
Palace Amusements, an indoor amusement park opened in 1888, was demolished in 2004. Like many other locations in the area, it’s famous in Springsteen lyrics. “Beyond the Palace hemi-powered drones scream down the boulevard / The girls comb their hair in rear-view mirrors / And the boys try to look so hard.” (From “Born to Run.”)
When the Palace was demolished, some of its decorations and artifacts were preserved (or not–that’s another story). The most valued artifact is the beloved image of Tillie, which has become a symbol of Asbury Park and the boardwalk and appears on every conceivable type of merch.
The former Howard Johnson Motor Lodge, with its distinctive architecture, is no longer a motel. We had an excellent dinner at Tim McLoone’s Supper Club before heading across Ocean Avenue to the Wonder Bar.
The Wonder Bar is one of the two world-famous AP music venues, along with the Stone Pony a few blocks up Ocean Avenue. Music at the Wonder Bar featured local musicians, including Joe Rapallo (more on him later) and Vini Lopez, drummer with Steel Mill and Springsteen’s earlier bands; he’s the drummer on the first two E Street Band albums, known to fans as GFAP and TWTIATESS. (Translation available on request.)
Mr. Springsteen, who lives in the area, occasionally drops in to play at both clubs. In fact, he was at the Wonder Bar two nights later to dance with his mother Adele and celebrate her 92nd birthday.
More Jersey Shore Music
On two nights, dinner and evening entertainment were at Woodrow Wilson Hall, an architectural landmark on campus. Music on the first night was by local singer-songwriters performing their own compositions. Joe Rapallo, a Monmouth music faculty member, played a hot guitar and harmonica. Williams Honor, featuring guitarist Gordon Brown and vocalist Reagan Harris, played several of their high-powered country rock songs. Matt Koma, a musician and record producer, performed some acoustic ballads with soulful lyrics.
On another night, we were treated to Springsteen covers from the Darkness album by the Blue Hawks, the university string band, featuring lyrics by two talented vocalists. The band was led by guitarist and faculty member Jay Sweet.
Celebrating Darkness on the Edge of Town
The symposium focused on the Darkness album, Springsteen’s fourth, in the year of its 40th anniversary. The program included 33 breakout sessions with 90 presentations and 114 presenters. It was painful to choose among the six or eight interesting topics offered for each breakout session. They included serious academic papers analyzing Springsteen songs based on religion and spirituality, political and social impact, economics, audience reaction, gender—and the use of Springsteen music in teaching at both the high school and university level. These were the most memorable sessions I attended:
Springsteen as Narrative Poet, a rich discussion by four speakers of the poetry in Springsteen lyrics, including use of metaphor, storytelling techniques, story arcs, and literary aspects.
Springsteen and the Promised Land was a deep dive into the lyrics of “The Promised Land” from the Darkness album. Presenters discussed the deindustrialization of the U.S. as represented in songs such as “Badlands,” “Factory” and “Something in the Night”; capitalist dystopias and utopias; aging and recognizing the darkness in your soul; and recordings of songs with the same title by Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry.
Springsteen and Film was a discussion of the use of Springsteen lyrics in the 1985 Peter Bogdanovich film, Mask, and of the influence of David Lynch and film noir on his lyrics. Other films discussed: No Looking Back; Baby, It’s You; Philadelphia; The Wrestler; Lynch’s Lost Highway and Blue Velvet; and films starring Robert Mitchum, such as Out of the Past and Thunder Road.
When the Promise Was Broken: Plays Inspired by Bruce Springsteen. I confess this was my favorite session because I got to perform! The presenters were two playwrights who had written short plays inspired by Springsteen songs. They’re being published in a book, When the Promise Was Broken: Short Plays Inspired by the Songs of Bruce Springsteen, to be published by Smith & Kraus Publishers this May. (I’ve already pre-ordered my copy. See Comments below about how to buy the book.)
The two playwrights read their plays during the session—10 to 12 minutes each. Steve Feffer’s play, Growin’ Up, was read by four session participants. When Peter Ullian asked for a volunteer to read the female part in his play, Valhalla Correctional, my hand shot up. The two roles are Lev and Jess, husband and wife, talking to each other and to the audience, about their lives as failed author and fired accountant, trying to make their way in the world. The dialogue was fast, funny, vulgar and sad and Peter and I had fun with it. It reminded me of the days long ago when I acted in college and community theater productions.
Some of the keynote speakers at luncheons and an evening session were:
Thom Zimny, director of many Springsteen documentaries and music films, and director of the new film, Elvis Presley: The Searcher, which premiered last weekend on HBO. Some insightful comments by Springsteen, Tom Petty and Jon Landau (Springsteen’s manager) are featured.
Frank Stefanko, one of the famous music photographers notable for his photos for the Springsteen albums, Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River (1980), and for Patti Smith’s 1975/2000 boxed set, The Arista Years.
Peter Ames Carlin, author of Bruce, the acclaimed 2016 biography, and the new biography, Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon.
Zimny’s film, The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, was shown on the final night of the symposium.
And finally ….
Monmouth University is now the home of the Bruce Springsteen Archives and Center for American Music, the official repository for Springsteen’s written works, photos, periodicals and artifacts. It incorporates the Bruce Springsteen Collection, formerly held at the AP public library, made up of about 35,000 items ranging from books and concert memorabilia to articles and promotional material. The archives now are housed in a small house just off campus, which we had a chance to visit after the conference ended.
Previous Springsteen symposiums (held in West Long Branch and at Monmouth but with other university sponsors) have been held in 2005, 2009 and 2012. Since the Springsteen archives are now housed at Monmouth and Ken Womack, dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, is an enthusiastic supporter of Jersey Shore musicians, I think we can expect the next symposium to come to order in less than six years. Coming up next is a conference on the Beatles’ White Album: An International Symposium this November at Monmouth. Abstracts are now being accepted.
If Monmouth is a familiar name, it’s because the school has become well-known for its political polling.
All photos by Nancy Bishop, except as noted.