by Carrie Potter Devening
To order: http://www.authorhouse.com/Bookstore/BookDetail.aspx?BookId=SKU-000411026
Part One – A Review
“There once was a place and time that contributed to a generation in a most beautiful way. This place and the characters accomplished many things…In a bustling tourist town saturated with entertainment and intense nightlife, Asbury Park, like much of the East Coast, offered little to people under 21. When there was nowhere to go, the Green Mermaid Cafe and Upstage Club offered them a home.” – Carrie Potter Devening, Introduction
If you ask most rock and roll fans to name the club where Bruce Springsteen got his start in Asbury Park, chances are pretty good they’ll say it was The Stone Pony. But they’d be wrong.
Because it was actually inside another club, up the road from The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, where for three extraordinary years (1968-1971) Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt, Southside Johnny and many others made their musical mark and met most of the other musicians who would become part of the Sound of Asbury Park (or S.O.A.P) and in many cases band mates for life. Fifty-two steps straight up a steep, narrow stairway, on the third floor of the old Thom McCan shoe store in downtown Asbury Park sat The Upstage Club, where the greatest musicians from all over New Jersey would converge “after hours” from between 1 and 5 in the morning to jam and compete for a chance to play rock and roll. The stage sat at the far end of a long narrow room. The stage had its own amplifiers and behind that stage was a wall of speakers where loud, raucous music would emanate.
To those musicians, it was the highest honor to get a chance to jam, and they played their hearts out till the sun came up.
But in 1971, civil rights unrest and race riots hit across the nation in cities like Asbury Park. The unrest brought about the demise of most of the businesses in downtown Asbury. As if that wasn’t enough, Tom and Margaret Potter, the artistic, bohemian lovebirds who had created this haven for young people were splitting up. The beloved, mercurial, iron-fisted operator of The Upstage, Tom Potter, suddenly found himself alone in Asbury, facing retirement and suffering from increasing health problems. Seeing the writing on the walls of his once-great club, Tom Potter cashed in his chips and moved away from the cold, sea storms of the Northeast to the warm beaches of Florida.
For the next 40-plus years, the legendary Green Mermaid and Upstage Club remained locked up and abandoned. While biographies of Bruce Springsteen and other histories of the Asbury music scene gave The Upstage its due respect, each year the “glory days” of The Upstage began to fade more and more. Springsteen fans and local musicians would always pay homage to the old brick triple-deck structure, but the building remained closed and off limits.
But deep in the heart of Texas, Tom Potter’s granddaughter Carrie was growing up and learning about “Grandpa’s” legendary past and amazing accomplishments. In his final years, the old man moved in with Carrie’s family in Texas and he would tell her stories of his fascinating past. Finally, several years ago, armed with her grandfather’s stories as well as a huge collection of photographs documenting the history of The Green Mermaid and The Upstage, Carrie set out to document the history of those clubs. She went online and asked for stories from anybody who had ever set foot inside The Upstage. And she was flooded with more stories. Eventually, Carrie made the pilgrimage to Asbury Park, several times actually, and met a number of people who were more than happy to help her with her project. She got a chance to go inside the shell of that building several times. And she started putting on slide shows featuring her “grampa’s” photographs.
And all of a sudden, there was a whole lot of interest in The Upstage Club.
With some help from her new friends, Carrie Potter Devening has published a new history of The Green Mermaid and The Upstage Club that is as much a work of art as the club itself. It contains more than 1,000 photos from Tom Potter’s collection and text made up of the memories and recollections of those who went there. The stories are supplied by Upstage notables like Albee Tellone, Joe Petillo, Tinker West, Billy Ryan and many others. This illuminating coffee table book transports you back in time to the place where so many young musicians, artists and fans spent their long evening journeys into daylight.
Carrie begins her “scrapbook” by giving a brief history of her family, including newspaper clippings, portraits of relatives and stories of Tom’s wild years. Tom Potter was an eccentric artist whose main job for years was as a hair stylist (a career which ended after Tom developed allergies to hair products). The future manager at The Upstage also had quite a talent for art and photography (not to mention short story writing), and examples of all are included. Carrie finally introduces the reader to Tom’s partner-in-crime at The Upstage, the tomboyish, horse-ridin’ Margaret Romeo, who eventually would become Tom’s third wife and was, according to Carrie, “the first lady of Asbury Park’s music scene.”
Tom and Margaret’s love affair is described by Carrie as “fast, tumultuous, imaginative and non-stop.” Margaret was 20 years Tom’s junior, so despite “stiff opposition” from Margaret’s family, the two were married in 1961. They settled into a “swinging” apartment above their beauty shop on Cookman Avenue in Asbury Park, just two doors down from the Thom McCan store. It was apparently quite a pad, complete with a rooftop garden. (Years later, Bruce Springsteen would live in this very same apartment and wrote some of his first album there.)
Soon after they married, Margaret learned to play guitar; she would later be a fixture onstage at both the Green Mermaid and The Upstage. The reader is also treated throughout Carrie’s “scrapbook” to some tasty samplings of Tom’s funky photography and art, which were featured on the walls on The Upstage.
Tom and Margaret’s place on Cookman was the scene for many years of huge parties and jam sessions for Margaret’s band, The Distractions, and soon it became obvious that more room was needed, especially since Tom and Margaret wanted to have a place for the underage musicians to “kick out the jams.” So they rented the two floors above the Tom McCan store; two floors which would become home to the Green Mermaid and The Upstage. As Joe Petillo remembers in one of dozens of stories, “50 gallons of paint, a few dozen mannequins painted day-glow, several dozen backlights later, we were open for business.”
Petillo adds that Margaret Potter and The Distractions soon became the “premiere Jersey shore band,” as well as the house band at The Upstage. Petillo says Margaret’s band would start off the night with other musicians joining in as the evening progressed. As time wore on, the big difference was that the music on the second floor tended to be more mellow and the tunes played at The Upstage on the third floor more rockin’. There was always food served in both clubs. One full page is dedicated to a full menu, featuring Ham or Roast Beef sandwiches for $1, Pepsi for a quarter, and the big treat, a full half-gallon ice cream sundae, which was free if you could finish it.
However, the meat and potatoes of this scrapbook are the many stories and the colorful photos of young musicians at play: Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt (always hatless), both with hair to their shoulders, chests bare except for suspenders; a 15-year-old David Sancious; an equally fresh-faced Danny Federici; Garry Tallent; Vini “Maddog” Lopez; Upstage favorite Bobby Williams on drums; lefty guitarist Rick Desarno, Bill Chinnock – all legends around the Jersey Shore, even if you don’t recognize the names.
Perhaps the highlight of this long overdue history are the wonderful stories: like that of the “Spoon Girls” whose main purpose was to smack “hot guys” like Steve and Bruce on their backsides with spoons as they passed by (fun!); Tony “Boccigalupe” Amato’s own admission of having to hide under Tom Potter’s desk from his father because he was too young to be out so late, and most of all how each of these young, aspiring musicians would creatively try to gain the favor and respect of Tom and Margaret Potter. Through the stories, one can see how each musician tried to outdo or upstage the other and we see how much respect they all had for each other’s talents. Margaret Potter comes off as something like a “den mother,” while Tom Potter is portrayed as a somewhat-irascible, task-master with a real heart of gold. The greatest thrill, according to many, was to be invited into Tom’s office and offered a beer. If that didn’t happen, then you weren’t among his “favorites.”
And then there are the words that Bruce Springsteen wrote for the back of Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes first album, which Carrie included in this scrapbook, mainly because they describe The Upstage so eloquently. After listing a number of musician’s names, Springsteen writes:
“…they’re names that deserve to be spoken in reverence at least once…because they were each in their own way a living spirit of what, to me, rock and roll is all about. It was music as survival and they lived it down in their souls, night after night. These guys were their own heroes and they never forgot.”
Inevitably, there’s a chapter dedicated to stories and photos of the Asbury Park riots that brought chaos, destruction and fires to downtown Asbury Park. It was, after all, these riots and the civil rights unrest that changed the downtown area so dramatically and brought about the demise of Tom and Margaret’s dream.
Carrie wraps up her history lesson with details or her visits to Asbury Park, a “Last Jam Farewell” that took place inside the empty Upstage in 2006 and some thoughts about the future of that building.
This isn’t a slick book. Instead, in the spirit of the Upstage, it’s an artifact. “For Music’s Sake…” is, after all, a tribute by Carrie Potter Devening to her grandfather and what he accomplished. Its a must-have book for anyone who ever gave a damn about the Asbury Park music scene.
The book is just $50.00 and can be ordered directly, here: http://www.authorhouse.com/Bookstore/BookDetail.aspx?BookId=SKU-000411026
Note: In Part II, I’ll feature an interview with the author, Carrie Potter Devening.