I Don’t Want to Go Home: The Oral History of the Stone Pony

  • By Nick Corasaniti
  • Harper
  • 320 pp.

Greetings from Asbury Park!

I Don’t Want to Go Home: The Oral History of the Stone Pony

“Bruce might show up.”

That’s often the rumor at the Stone Pony club in Asbury Park, New Jersey, no matter who’s on the marquee. It’s been that way for half a century. Sometimes, the rumor turns out to be true. Sometimes, that outside door right next to the stage opens, and Bruce Springsteen comes in, bounds up the stairs, straps on a guitar, and joins whoever’s onstage — delighting the band, as he plays their songs and they play his, and the crowd.

Springsteen’s songs tend to be populated by colorful characters, some surely inspired by at least a few of the more than 200 people interviewed for I Don’t Want to Go Home by Nick Corasaniti, a national politics reporter for the New York Times.

The book — ideal reading while relaxing on a Jersey Shore beach — begins with a 10-page Who’s Who of participants, including a host of rock stars, no fewer than four New Jersey governors, and a bunch of bartenders and bouncers. Collectively, they explain the tangled ups and downs of the iconic club and of Asbury Park itself, while offering more than a few early stories about Springsteen, who’s among those interviewed. (Fans of the Boss — who says he got that nickname simply because he was the guy who paid the band members — will love this book.)

Not surprisingly, given how many years are covered, recollections vary. One person says Springsteen’s bandmate “Little Stevie” Van Zandt drove a white Cadillac, while another says it was red. The E Street Band’s first drummer, Vini Lopez, says one of the club’s owners once threw him through a wall; the owner says it didn’t happen that way. Max Weinberg, the band’s next drummer, says he was Springsteen’s ride in the early days because the latter didn’t own a car, while others talk about Springsteen driving a beat-up Chevy pickup. Even Patti Scialfa, Springsteen’s wife, debunks his tale of first meeting her at the Stone Pony:

“Do you know how many times I have corrected that?”

It’s only rock ‘n’ roll, so no harm done, and the larger story is somehow well served.

Music was a big deal in Asbury Park years before the Stone Pony came along. A railroad line more or less segregated the town, but many musicians didn’t let that get in the way. In the late 1960s, one of the most popular places to jam was the Upstage, a big room on the third floor over a Thom McAn shoe store. It was there that Springsteen first wowed everyone with his guitar skills and crossed paths with several others who eventually became part of his E Street Band (including Scialfa).

Riots in summer 1970 left much of Asbury Park in ruins. Three years later, a real-estate broker who’d promised to show an aspiring bar owner a property in Deal (a wealthier town a bit further north) asked if it’d be okay to make a quick stop at a new listing — an abandoned Asbury Park bar called the Magic Touch. The client bought the place without even going inside and renamed it the Stone Pony.

It was a dump, and attempts to lure customers with ping-pong, hypnotists, cabarets, and disco were less than successful. What did seem to work was music, and the 1971 closure of the Upstage meant that many of the people who’d played there were looking for a new venue. By the end of 1974, the Pony was rocking to a powerful R&B house band inspired by soul singers Sam & Dave and fronted by “Southside” Johnny Lyon. It became the new hangout for many of their friends, including Springsteen, who sometimes joined his pals onstage.

Within months, his breakout Born to Run album made Springsteen world famous, but he continued to frequent and support Asbury Park and the Pony. He and the E Street Band even played baseball against a team of Stone Pony staffers; sax player Clarence Clemons proved to be as powerful with a bat as with his saxophone.

The club’s footprint expanded, but the neighborhood continued to decline. The Stone Pony was one of the only reasons anyone came to Asbury Park. It hosted some big outdoor parties and booked some major acts: Joan Jett, Kiss, Oasis, Green Day, Sublime, Cyndi Lauper, Cheech & Chong, Warren Zevon, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Levon Helm, and Huey Lewis & the News (billed as Sports Section to try out new material).

It wasn’t enough, and the owners filed for bankruptcy. Just after Labor Day in 1991, the doors were locked. Springsteen said he wasn’t surprised:

“All things must pass. It was sort of the end of an era and all that.”

But it wasn’t. Several other owners reopened the doors and then closed them again, and Corasaniti smoothly stitches together the various accounts of the club’s economic trials and tribulations.

In 2008, a major real-estate developer, Madison Marquette, bought the Stone Pony (and other businesses along the Asbury Park boardwalk) and put the club on a solid financial footing for perhaps the first time ever. The town is now a popular place to be, with many new ocean-facing condos and lots of trendy restaurants and shops.

Springsteen lives not far away and is proud of Asbury Park’s recent success. “It’s amazing to go down there and see everything thriving,” he says. “I’m kind of the Ghost of Christmas Past. I can invisibly walk down the boardwalk and everybody is busy going about their current business.”

These days, there are dozens of outdoor events on the Stone Pony Summer Stage, with Fourth of July shows featuring Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes often the highlight.

Inside the club, they still get mail for Springsteen and always make it a point to have a guitar set aside for him — because you never know.

Randy Cepuch, a member of the Independent’s board of directors, was at an Alejandro Escovedo show at the Stone Pony one night in 2010 when the rumors turned out to be true.

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