Monday

Greetings from Asbury Park: A Bruce Springsteen fan's Rock & Roll Tour of the Jersey Shore

As far as boardwalks go, this is a pretty good one.

In fact, in my experience of boardwalks, I'd say it's the best.

This is the boardwalk in Asbury Park, New Jersey.

Bruce Springsteen describes it as his "adopted hometown", the town that has inspired lyric after lyric - songs laced with stories of the girls, greasers, cars and arcades of this beaten up beach resort.

I'm no expert of the seafront promenade world, but it does look good, doesn't it?


If you're anything like me, you'll have pictured Asbury every time you listen to 'Spirit in the Night', 'Sandy', 'Born to Run' or 'Something in the Night' - those are just the start. You'll have heard him sing about Madame Marie's Temple of Knowledge, the Palace amusements (beyond the Palace etc), the Kingsley Street circuit.

It's a place that loads of Americans will have visited - friends from Philadelphia go there for the weekend, and Manhattanites day trip from New York city. To many it's nothing more than a beach town, a good place to escape the city heat, have a beer and an ice cream.

But if you're a Springsteen fan, no matter how far you've travel, it's a much bigger journey. Mine is from my home in London, and I've daydreamed about visiting this American seaside town for years.

If you're a Bruce Springsteen, fan this is your pilgrimage. And in December it was mine.

Of course I picked the worst time of year to visit the Jersey Shore: mid-winter, ridiculously cold, blow-you-over windy. It should have been grim - grey and bleak. But I got lucky - the sky a vivid blue, not a single cloud to be seen. Fresh. An Atlantic Ocean kind of breezy.

And completely f*cking brilliant. 


Some visitors may head straight to the legendary Stone Pony, or the Asbury Park Convention Hall. But pilgrimages of such epic proportions require some serious fuel, and I never skip breakfast.

Toast is a little local spot in the town - friendly vibe, smiley waiters, and buff pancakes and bacon (US folk this may be a standard thing for you, but pancakes are not that accessible in London - so I feel obliged to order them whenever I see them). But you need to try the corned beef hash and biscuit too.



Full? Never.

A few blocks from the sea is Frank's Deli - a retro American diner that makes an appearance in the Rocky Ground video, but is more famous as a local food lovers' institution. 

Walking down to Frank's from the Asbury Park boardwalk

Sitting at the counter here is an insight into the every day life in the town - families catching up over mammoth breakfasts, an old dear taking payment at the counter, Jersey girl waitresses topping up mugs with filter coffee. There's a proper 70s vibe going on - not because that's a trendy way to do interiors, but it just hasn't been updated. It's fuss free in all senses: the counters are sticky, the walls tinged yellow with a permanent layer of grease. I *love* it.



I went for the pork roll, a New Jersey staple. I didn't really understand what it was until I saw a massive sausage-shaped piece of meat being sliced up and fried, before it was stuffed into a bread roll and topped with cheese and egg. Dunked in a bit of chili sauce it's a warm, comforting little breakfast package.


Fed and watered, I could now get down to Springsteen business, and I headed off to meet a local guy called Stan Goldstein. I know I always bang on about how I love meeting other Springsteen fans, and Stan's another to add to the list. He's a local NJ journalist who runs a Rock & Roll tour of the Jersey Shore - his knowledge is off the scale and he delivers it in the kindest, most enthusiastic way, driving you around the NJ spots that have influenced Springsteen's writing and career. If you're looking to see more of Monmouth County then Stan is your man, with an answer to every music related question you may have.

From E Street, to the tree on Parker Street (where Bruce posed for the BITUSA album lyric sheet), to his homes in Freehold, his knowledge of the area is unrivalled. I can't even begin to go into the detail here - Stan's written a whole book on it, that's how much there is to say. 

But oh my - E Street! I'm sure loads of you know this story, recounted in Clarence's book Big Man. The reason the band is called the E Street Band is when they went to pick up the group's original keyboard player (David Sancious) for rehearsals, they'd park up outside his house on E Street and sit in the car waiting for him for ages. He was always always running late, leading Bruce to say "we're on this street so much, we might as well be known as the f*cking E Street Band". 

"There you go," replied Clarence. 


With Stan at the corner of E Street and 10th Avenue in Belmar


The rock & roll tour takes you to some of Bruce's first homes, his schools and places that inspired many of his songs. We passed a factory near Freehold, which Stan mentioned might be the factory mentioned in the song 'Factory'. I'd always pictured a car factory, but the one we passed in Freehold is actually a huge Nestle building, plumes of chocolatey smoke wafting out over the surrounding streets. 

We saw the house where Bruce home-recorded Nebraska, the place where he wrote much of the Darkness album, and we drove over the bridge that once had views of the Twin Towers, the 9/11 attacks provoking much for the content of The Rising

You may have seen me say it on here before, but Born to Run is the album that got me into Bruce, via my dad, who is a big, although slightly more sane, Springsteen fan. I'd seen pictures on the internet when the house was for sale, but nothing could really prepare me for how I felt outside number 7.5 West End Court, Long Branch, New Jersey.

It's modest. Sitting between two big houses on either side you realise how tiny it is - one room at the front (although a second has been added at the back more recently), small porch, battered, damp roof. But obviously, it's perfect. 

The Born to Run house

I stood there for a few minutes, taking pictures, and ya know, *thinking*.

Just....thinking.

Long Branch is near the water, and we spent a bit of time driving along the coast to see the other seaside towns, many of which were completely ruined by hurricane Sandy (remarkably Asbury survived relatively unscathed). Stan tells me in July the beaches are packed, the promenades swarming with locals.

Today it's blissfully peaceful.

After the tour Stan left us to explore Asbury Park on our own. This place is seriously interesting, and honestly, not just for Springsteen fans. I get that it's not everyone's bag, but there's something about a town going through a regeneration process that fascinates me. 

The casino is an empty shell on the south of the boardwalk.


And the town is dotted with buildings looking for some TLC - blocks of flats left abandoned since the July 1970 riots, apartments half-finished after investment money has run out...iconic venues demolished (the Palace Amusements referenced in Born to Run are long gone).

The Fast Lane is another example. Formerly the second-most-famous nightclub in Asbury Park, in the 70s and 80s the Fast Lane was the place to hang, played by bands including U2, Jon Bon Jovi and the Ramones.

It’s now been knocked down, but luckily the neighbouring Asbury Lanes is still there (although sadly closed when I visited - oh I'll just have to go back). 


A vintage bowling alley and live music venue, this little institution has been rocking Asbury Park since the 60s. Shore residents in their 20s and 30s go for the psycho, rockabilly, outlaw country and garage rock, attempting a bowling session while also watching a band play in the middle of the lanes. Effing cool. 

Madame Marie's Temple of Knowledge is still there, a little concrete square on the edge of the boardwalk (did you hear the cops finally busted Madame Marie for tellin' fortunes better than they do...). It's now run by her family after she passed away a few years back.


Sitting proudly at the northern end of the boardwalk since 1930, the Convention Hall is one of the biggest music venues in Asbury Park - the Clash and Bob Dylan have played there over the years. 

Me again

It’s still used for performances today, but during the daytime (and when I visited) it was crammed with little market stalls and artisan coffee shops.

Attached is the Paramount Theatre, one of the most dramatic examples of seaside architecture on the east coast of the US, and a 1,600 capacity venue with stellar sound attracting gigs from Lou Reed, and obviously Springsteen. 

As far as I can understand there's a slightly controversial redevelopment process going on here: the buildings are owned by one central body who control much of the town's future. As much as I loved seeing the regeneration of a potentially fading town, it unnerved me a little that buildings so important to Asbury Park's identity have been bulldozed over the years, in favour of an upscale waterfront that could, in theory, be anywhere (apparently there were/are plans to make it into a Miami-esque resort town, which, as much as I had fun in Miami, fills me with horror).

I kept being told I was visiting at a bad time of year, but even in the slow off-season, when the boardwalk was quiet, and the beach empty, I loved it.


Particularly the museum - aka the Pinball 'museum', where we found sanctuary from the cold and played on refurbished pinball machines from the 70s and 80s, competing against the Jersey Shore's oldest and youngest residents (and losing, natch). 



And the Stone Pony! An unassuming low-rise concrete building, and arguably the most important building in the town, for Springsteen fans anyway. 

From one side of Ocean Avenue, looking at the Stone Pony


I stood outside trying to 'find my angle' before I gave up, accepting that my face probably looks fat not because of the camera, but because I eat too many burgers.

Bloody bin ruining my picture!

Erm, speaking of burgers, I couldn't come all the way to Asbury Park and not have one - so we headed to Bond Street Bar, which was recommend by locals as *the* spot for patty and bun combos, patty melts and fried pork roll (yep, fried pork roll, because fried potato is old news). 

DELICIOUS

This doesn't look grrrreat but that was a light/camera issue. Honestly, it's fit.

The sauce? No idea. Not a clue.

Stomach lined, it was time to take on the Wonder Bar, one of Asbury's most famous music and drinking venues. 


Come in the summer and the back yard is filled with live music and a 'yappy hour' hot spot - sociable dogs in Monmouth County gather here for a pint and a bum sniff.


As it was mid-December we stuck to the inside, mingling with a boozed up Santa Convention, drinking pints of NJ pale ale, and watching a local band jam. The stage is backed by the iconic Asbury Park smile of Tillie - whose face was once the emblem of the now non-existent Palace amusements. Tille's face also graces the walls of the exterior of Wonder Bar, wide eyes following you down Ocean Avenue as you leave.



Of course the final stop of the day had to be a gig at the Stone Pony. It was a night of White Tiger - a revived 80s glam-rock band, playing together for the first time in 32 years. We filed in behind a group of leather-clad, long-haired men holding A4 posters scrawled with the bands' name. "It's in case they forget who they are," one guy told me. I don't think he was joking.

Inside it's dark and dingy, but the walls sparkle with colourful electric guitars, lining the perimeter like art work. The side rooms are covered with black and white photos of rock legends who've played here over the years - Billy Idol (yes, a legend) Southside Johnny (probably one of the most famous NJ bands - and Stone Pony regulars since the 70s), and the Gaslight Anthem, etc. Springsteen has played in the venue on more than 80 occasions, his pictures scattered through the different rooms.

Nice jacket

Obviously I would have been happy moshing with these aging rockers all night, but we had to make the last train back to New York. 

There is so so much I could say about Asbury Park and the towns along the Jersey Shore. I could ramble on for hours on here, going on about the buildings, the history, the different parts referenced in Springsteen's music. But really I just want you to see it for yourself.

I know I'll be back one day. For a swim in the sea, and an ice cream on the beach.

New Jersey, I'll be seeing ya.




Essential info:
Stan Goldstein offers a Rock & Roll tour of the Jersey Shore. It's not intrusive, only informative, and a really incredible way to see the inspiration behind Springsteen's music. If you can't make a tour, his book is brilliant - and covers the history of Asbury Park, and the top sites, with loads of incredible pictures. njrockmap.com

The best way to get to Asbury Park is on the NJ Transit Train. It's a 90-minute journey from NYC, with a quick change in Long Branch (tickets are around US$20). Virgin Atlantic (virgin-atlantic.com) has flights to New York from approx. £600 return. It's the price you pay. 





Sunday

Beers and Bruce: The best bars in New York, with a bit of Bruce Springsteen

Some of you may have seen from my incessant and irritating Instagram pictures that I was in New York in December. I spent a few days eating my way around the city, before a little pilgrimage to Asbury Park for religious purposes (more on that soon).

Beers and cocktails featured heavily in the trip, so I thought I've share a few of my favourites. Places with great tunes, stories, and music (not just Bruce Springsteen, but yeah, there is a bit of him too). 

Yes that's two words merged together to form one new word. Now normally I'm not a fan of this type of behaviour, but when it produces results like this? Well, they are forgiven. It may be located in Hipsterville (Willamsburg), but this bar/arcade has great tunes, a hefty and impressive beer selection, and some top arcade games (Double Dragon, MBA Jam, and the more usual Tetris etc). 

They swap the beers on tap every few weeks, and during our visit I tried the 21% (yeah, 21!) Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA (*acting like I know what that means*).

Doink! 21 %



Who is this hunk of a man standing in candlelight with a shrine to Bruce Springsteen? He's not as weird as he looks. In fact, he's great, and new friend in the Bruce Springsteen community (not all Springsteen fans are old, balding men FYI). Steve works at a chilled neighbourhood bar called the Achilles Heel in Green Point (near Williamsburg). A local kind of place, with Springsteen regularly played, especially on Sundays. If you go - and I really think you should - say hello to him. Also, go to Paulie Gee's for pizzas before, because it's nearby, and it's some of the best I've had (and toppings include spicy honey).


Apparently in the US people visit bars based mainly on the bartender's good chat (I worked behind a bar once and the customers hated me because all I played was Bruce, and they said there was 'too saxophone' - turds). Anyway, during our visit we met loads of great people working the bars, including Steve (at the Achille's Heel above) and Jen, who works at The Shanty. The Shanty is a little bar linked to the New York Distilling Company (they offer great  tours if you like that kind of stuff). The cocktail menu is extensive, and lets be honest, way beyond my knowledge - the kind where you read the ingredients and the only thing you recognise is the word "butter" - yeah there was butter in my cocktail. I tried it, because I love butter. It was very nice.


The tunes are excellent, including Nick Cave, Bruce, Leonard Cohen and Iggy Pop, but on Saturdays and Sundays they get bands in for some live music. They say these are the nights to visit, but the night I went - a Tuesday - was also great, if a little more chilled. The peppers stuffed with prosciutto and provolone are bought in from a local Italian deli, and they are niiiice. 

DA BRONX! That's how you have to say it according to people there. It's a bit of a schlep to get over to da Bronx where the the Bronx Beer Hall is, but if you like craft beer, a bit of local, history, and great food, then you must go. The Bronx Beer Hall is set in the middle of Arthur Avenue market, a historical market (it's been there since 1940) full of local vendors selling anything from fit Italian food to cigars. There are around 15 beers on tap at all times, and the blood orange pale ale I tried was a zesty little thing. You can get food from the surrounding stalls (meaning anything from pizza, to antipasti to Italian style burgers), and when it gets late (and you've had more to drink) they'll call in food for you. Takeaway food delivered to your table as you drink beer. Does it get better than that? Nope.


Ooh a dive bar! It's in Williamsburg, and the walls are decorated with vinyl covers (including The River and Born to Run). It's retro, a bit grimy, and the drinks are served in schooners (that means they are large).


It may seem like a cop out to order a margarita in a city of crazy cocktail creations, but tequila is my tipple. This shiny retro style diner is a good place to go, and if you're adventurous, the darling of a bartender can put his own little spin on your marg. There's good Mexican food and a jukebox in the corner.



That's it, for now.



Tuesday

Airbnb: Travelling on a budget, meeting great people and cuddling fluffy dogs - obvs

I am a strong-willed woman with a kind face. I'm not just bigging myself up, this is what Eirini told me when I was staying with her in Kos, Greece, last summer. Eirini likes reading about star signs, and she said that I display the typical characteristics of an Aquarius (this is my star sign, so this good). According to Eirini, Aquarians can be contrary and impatient (she had me pegged), but they also have great taste in music. So I'm just going to go with it.

You may have seen from my Instagram, Twitter and just general ramblings on this blog that I love to travel. I probably take it to slightly obsessive levels - I'm constantly researching my next trip, updating my list of where I want to go. My travel philosophy is travel more by spending less. So as much as I like nice hotels (and you'll see some on here), I also love a little bed and breakfast, cheap and cheerful. Oh, and clean. If it means I can save money for another flight, I'm all for it.

And that's why I love Airbnb. Airbnb isn't a new site, but a lot of people haven't used it yet - but you should. It's basically a website showcasing spare rooms and flats around the world, so you can rent an apartment in Rome, a villa in Portugal or a bedroom in San Diego. It has totally changed the way I travel (especially useful on a Springsteen tour), and it helps me take less expensive trips more often.

Most importantly though, I have met some effing great people along the way. There's been Eirini mentioned above, and the sweetest lady called Rachel in Sorrento, who still emails me when she hears Bruce Springsteen on the radio. There was Jagath in Sri Lanka, who opened up his new house to guests to make money after his home was destroyed in the tsunami. And there was Pedro in Porto, who knew all the best bars and burgers in the city. Airbnb has given me the chance to meet incredible people, getting a local perspective on the city and country I'm visiting - and I bl**dy love that.

Most people might choose their Airbnb based how quirky it is - you can stay in a castle, on a boat, or on a farm. I've spent hours searching all the incredible places out there. Lighthouse? Why not. Converted brewery? OK then. Some people make decisions based on convenience, or price, or transport links. That would be the normal thing to do.

Or you could book a stay book somewhere because the Airbnb host owns two little fluffy dogs. That's what I did in New York, one of the most cost effective cities for Airbnb because of the crazy expensive hotel costs.

Meet Rigby.



And Penny.


I was obviously excited about visiting New York - the food, the nightlife. But honestly? I was most excited about getting the chance to stay with these two little fluff balls.

Their owner is pretty great too. Brooke is a young cool New York resident who moved to the city a few years back. Their penthouse apartment is located in Williamsburg, it's so handy for great bars, good food and subway links.

The only problem? Getting me out the door.


You can plan your next trip with Airbnb here. I am, natch.


About Airbnb
Airbnb is the world’s largest community-driven hospitality company, which connects thousands of guests and hosts online every day. To date, over 26 million guests have stayed with Airbnb and the online marketplace now has over 800,000 listings in 34,000 cities across the world; including 80,000 villas, 4,000 castles, 9,000 boats and 2,800 tree houses. For more details see www.airbnb.com



Thursday

Badly Drawn Boy, Bruce Springsteen and Classic Album Sundays

Oh Bruce Springsteen fans - a great bunch of people. No need to talk about things like the weather when you realise you're in the company of another Bruce fan.

So a few weeks back I was sitting in a room full of fans as part of Classic Album Sundays, a series of events celebrating the greats of the music world. One of those Bruce Springsteen fans was Damon Gough, more often known as the musician Badly Drawn Boy.  This witty Bolton lad is a massive, MASSIVE fanboy of Bruce, so as part of Classic Album Sundays we spent the evening having a little listen to some of the tracks on the new remastered box set of albums, while Damon tried to narrow down his favourites. 

Honesty is the best policy, especially after a few drinks (yes I realise we both look hammered in this picture, we potentially were).


I've added in links to each song, because it seems like a good opportunity to...listen to Bruce. Anyway, here's what Badly Drawn Boy had to say:

It was Christmas 1984, around the time of the Born In The USA success. I was flicking through the channels on the TV and I saw some 70s footage on a documentary. I heard the opening bars of Thunder Road. And that was it.

Bruce made me feel empowered. I was inspired by his path. I should have been out sniffing glue with my mates, but instead I was in the house discovering Bruce Springsteen. 

With every album I couldn't believe he was writing that many quality song songs. It was the best years of my life. Every night I'd listen to him telling me stories. For three years I went to sleep listening to Bruce Springsteen, lying in my bed in the shit hole of Bolton. He made me feel like the world was a bigger a place, a big romantic place. Bruce, he was always chasing the girls. Always making life better than it is. 

His music, it's like escapism.

Greetings from Asbury Park
The Angel
In the early albums this is one of the best songs I've heard. Even I fancy Bruce. He's so beautiful. His voice, it's just amazing. Talking about Bruce, listening to Bruce. It's like therapy.


The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle
Incident on 57th Street
That intro. There's something magical about this song. The middle eight is one of the most sublime breakdowns ever written... Johnny was sitting on the fire escape, watching the kids playing down the street. I taught myself to play piano listening to Springsteen. The beginning of Incident was the first bit I learned.


Born To Run
Born To Run
Bruce, he's a victim of his own brilliance. I had the chance to meet him a few years back. He's dead normal, has time for everyone. He's as nice as me.


Darkness on the Edge of Town
Streets of Fire
The Darkness bootlegs are some of the best you can get, Prove It '78 with the 10 minute intros.  And that guitar solo in Streets of Fire is one of the best guitar solos ever recorded. Racing in the Street is another favourite of mine from the album.


The River
The River 
The River for me means the river of life. Getting from A to B and surviving and doing well in the world. It's eclectic, but a fascinating album and full of different ideas.


Nebraska
Used Cars
If I'm honest I think people give the album too much reference. The purists love it. It's important because of where it sits, but it's the album people like to like as it shows Bruce in a raw state. Used Cars is the best song on it by a long way, it's melodic. The rest of it's shit, and bores me to be honest. Ask people how many times they've listened to Nebraska and I bet they've fallen asleep half way through each time.  It's bleak, it can be beautiful. But it's most important because of what followed it, Born in the USA. For me, Tunnel of Love shits all over Nebraska.



Born in the USA
I'm On Fire
Dancing in the Dark - it's one of the best pop songs ever written. A three chord song about searching for something. Can't start a fire without a spark - that' what he's looking for. I'm on Fire has to be up there in the top ten Springsteen songs though. It's a song that's really classic. Just so sublime. A wonderful song.


I just love his romance, his lyrics, his poetry. He's funny too - he has a sense of humour and doesn't take himself too seriously. He's passionate and he's got a voice. I had a career in music and I owe it all to Bruce. He gave me everything, and the chance to step out.

Amen to that. 


I just thought I'd add a link to Badly Drawn Boy's version of Thunder Road. He describes it as the "song that changed my life" and when someone compliments his version, his face lights up. It clearly means a huge amount to him. Here it is.



But back to Tunnel of Love shitting all over Nebraska. Do I agree? I do actually. And it's definitely the the kind of language I'd use too.





Sunday

Local dishes: a BIG sandwich at Melo's bar and restaurant, Madrid, Spain

Here I am holding a massive F Off  sandwich in Madrid. Apparently it's one of the biggest in Spain, and it's a weighty, glistening, 8 inch heap Galician bread, ham and molten cheese.


You know what's coming. Yes, I recommend you try it.

The zapatilla (meaning sneaker, because it resembles one in size) is *the* dish to order at Melo's Bar in Madrid.

Now I know it looks a bit overwhelming, but share it and it's fiiiiiiine

It's a local kind of place - 1970s decor, old men in flat caps sipping beer, rowdy students, and tables littered with plates and glasses. When I say littered, I mean completely covered in shite. It was hard to resist tidying up.


Still, it all adds to the charm of the place. As does the surly owner, who tossed the sandwich at us when it was ready. Undeterred, as big fans of beer, cheese, bread and a "bit of local", we loved it here. 

As you can see, the sandwich is hefty, so it's best to share, leaving some space for pimentos on the side - fried (obviously, I think everything here is) peppers, heaped with salt.


All that salt and cheese will leave you parched, so head round the corner to the dimly lit Plaza Lavapies for a bucket of beer (small stubbies in a bucket, not a bucket and straw - the Madrilenos are far too sophisticated for that stuff). Or you can have a gin and tonic in a glass the size of your head (maybe they aren't that sophisticated after all).

Grannies knit and natter, and youths dance provocatively to hip hop, asking if you want to buy weed...

Is there a better way to start your Saturday night in Madrid? Nope, I don't think so.



Calle del Ave Maria 44
28012 Madrid 




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