The Friday before the Born in the U.S.A. Tour started last summer, Springsteen wanted to rehearse before a live audience, and so the E Street Band went on at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park sometime just after midnight on a hot night. This is Bruce country, a fading shore town where they know their rock & roll, and four hours later, they knew it better. The band was sweating, exhausted, and dragging out the door when Springsteen began yelling at them to come back. They did, and he launched into "Born to Run," and when it was over, they had to carry him outside and drape him over the hood of a car so they could throw buckets of ice water over him.
The Stone Pony is just about the last vestige of the once exploding Asbury Park music scene. The Pandemonium, the Student Prince, the Sunshine Inn — clubs where you heard Top Forty cover bands all summer long, and whatever was happening all winter — they're all gone, victims of Asbury Park's downslide after the riots in 1971. It was always a town for music — Lester Lanin's big band in the Forties, jazz and rhythm & blues clubs on the edge of Asbury's black sections through the middle Sixties, rock & roll after that. The list of people who played standing gigs in Asbury Park includes names as diverse as James Brown, George Benson and Eddie Arnold.
But they're cleaning up the boardwalk now; at one end, the once elegant Berkeley Carteret hotel is being made that way again by a consortium of partners that includes Johnny Cash. Coming down the boardwalk, past Madame Marie's (palms read, fortunes told, see "Sandy," on The Wild, the Innocent), you wonder how long the arcades and miniature-golf courses can hold up in the face of gentrification. There may no longer be any room on Ocean Avenue for a mere rock & roll club like the Stone Pony, and although it can resettle inland, it just wouldn't be the same.
But who knows? They probably said the same thing when the Upstage closed. The Upstage was another teen club, a juice bar without a liquor license, open till five on the weekends, started by Margaret Potter and her then-husband, Tom, in 1968. Before that, the Potters ran a hairdressing salon on Cookman Avenue, Studio Six, and spent weekends in clubs, and when the clubs closed, musicians came back to the Potters' apartment for breakfast and to teach Margaret how to play guitar. It evolved into a hangout for musicians and might have gone on like that indefinitely, except that Tom Potter became allergic to hair dye. Two doors down on Cookman Avenue, the Potters found a lease, the second floor over a Thom McAn shoe store, and opened the Upstage. It turned into a folkie coffeehouse, and when the third floor came open, they took that, too. On the third floor, the back wall was covered with tiny speakers — the largest was fifteen inches — and it was there the prototypical Asbury band was born, blaring out of the wall — a big, flathead rhythm section, drums and bass. A saxophone, to blow response to the singer. Keyboards, or an electric piano, or better yet, an organ player on a big B-3, like Booker T. And finally, a funky chunky guitar player for Steve Cropper leads on Strat. After that it was what you could carry — harmonica, another guitar, a horn section. The Upstage became a drop-in, hang-out club for musicians up and down the shore. You paid twenty-five dollars for the year in order to duck the two-dollar cover, and because there was a wall full of speakers, all you had to bring was your guitar.
Margaret Potter remembers the first night Springsteen walked in: "He came up very politely and said, 'Excuse me, but would you mind very much if I borrowed your guitar? The gentleman downstairs said it would probably be okay.' I said sure and stuck around awhile while he plugged in, to make sure he understood the system. He played some blues thing, and I said, 'Oh, Lord,' and went back down to the second floor. Vini Lopez, the first drummer in the E Street Band, was sitting down there, and Miami Steve, and Southside Johnny, all playing Monopoly, which is what you did while you waited to get up, and I told them they had better get upstairs. They were involved in the game, and asked why. I said, 'Hey guys, there's some kid up there who can really play.' " Then, as she turned to leave: "They said, 'Where are you going?' I said, 'Where do you think? Upstairs.' "
At the time, Springsteen was doing his power-trio thing in a band called Earth to get the hard edges out of his system. But that was over soon enough, and his first real band in Asbury Park was something called Child, a band that grew out of the Upstage and the hot players there. Soon enough, they found out there was another band called Child, and they were sitting around the Ink Well coffeehouse in Long Branch, depressed, trying to come up with another name, when an acquaintance came in and asked who died. They stole our name, and we're trying to come up with another one, was the reply. What's the band like? he asked. It's sort of hard, and fast, and . . . heavy. Call it Steel Mill, the friend said. Why? they asked. Well, they're sort of heavy, aren't they? So Steel Mill got a winter rental in Bradley Beach for $125 a month, including a snooker table, which they wore out, since nobody had any money to do anything else, and when they weren't playing snooker, they practiced.
These were serious working musicians, not high-school kids, and Springsteen exhausted them practicing. "He just had this enormous appetite to play," says Vinnie Roslin, the bass player and former member of the Motifs. "He'd play anytime, anywhere, for anybody. He was like a television set with one channel, and on the set was 'practice music.'"
Their manager was a man named Carl West, who ran Challenger Eastern Surfboards. They would surf all summer and then play all winter in the office of West's deserted surfboard factory. But nothing really came of Steel Mill either. West took the band to California to see his old haunts and get rich, but it didn't happen. They got incredible reviews, including a gig at the Fillmore West that caused a San Francisco Examiner writer to gush, "I have never been so overwhelmed by totally unknown talent." They tried to get something going with Bill Graham's Fillmore Records, but couldn't, and came home in March, wondering. There were other missteps along the way — they had a chance to play Woodstock, but West blew it off, believing too many people would show up and their equipment would be stolen or damaged. Instead, they played to a handful of people in the Student Prince in Asbury Park. Soon enough, they split up. Some of Steel Mill ended up in the E Street Band — Vini Lopez, the first drummer, and keyboardist Danny Federici. "I've never played in a band so tight," says Roslin. "You could tell when the next guy was going to breathe." Springsteen, he remembers, was completely calm, through all the money troubles and missed opportunities, and one night Roslin asked why. "He just turned to me and said, 'Well. It's like looking up at a light at the end of the tunnel, and what can you do? You just keep walking. And you get there.' " Roslin shakes his head. He's playing bass, here and there, working a day job to keep together and play music at night.
"You just keep walking, and that's what he did," Roslin says. "Remember, one channel."
This story is from the October 10th, 1985 issue of Rolling Stone.
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