July 4 1970, 50 years ago, Asbury Park erupted in riots in a summer of civil unrest. But music --- especially the music of Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny --- has helped bring it back.
The story of Asbury Park is the subject of a documentary that will be televised this weekend. Tom Jones, the director, said the film is timely. “A lot of things that were being talked about then are being talked about now with the George Floyd incident and Black Lives Matter movement,” he said, “so it’s a good time to put the film on TV and let people see it and hopefully spark a positive conversation.”
Asbury Park had a vibrant music scene, before the riots ushered in decades of decline. There was a club called the Upstage … where Springsteen, Southside Johnny and others got their start. Jones described what things were like back then. “When the Upstage was open, Southside Johnny worked at the post office and Steven (Van Zandt) worked on the Parkway, he ran a jackhammer,” said Jones. “And it was their spot. They would go to their paying gigs and they were kind of forced to play Top 40 music in the tourist venues on the East Side of Asbury Park, and at 2 o clock (in the morning) they’d get on the Upstage and they got to play their original music.”
Jones got Springsteen to come back to what was the Upstage to be interviewed for the film. He said after that interview, the space was demolished. “In a lot of ways,” said Jones, “Bruce kept the town alive all those years with bringing the focus to it and his music and music’s what brought it back, so it was fitting that he be the last person down those stairs.”
The Upstage is now condos. The film, Asbury Park: Riot Redemption Rock & Roll, had a worldwide theatrical release in 2019 and was featured in the 2019 Asbury Park Music and Film Festival, among others. It will be on Sunday night at 10 on NJTV.