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New Jersey Venue Celebrates 50 Years of Rock

Saddle up: There’s a big anniversary in Asbury Park, N.J.

The Stone Pony, birthplace of Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, is celebrating 50 years. In February 1974, New York native Jack Roig opened the Ocean Avenue club, situated across from the Asbury Park boardwalk, and local superstar Bruce Springsteen soon brought it to national fame.

The Jukes started playing regularly at the Pony in 1974 as one of the venue’s first house bands — and early incarnations included future E Street Band member Little Steven Van Zandt. Springsteen began to hang around soon after.

The 1976 record release party for the Jukes’ debut, I Don’t Want To Go Home, helped put the club on the map. Springsteen, members of the E Street Band and legendary singers Ronnie Spector and Lee Dorsey made guest appearances at the concert, which was simulcast across the region including on major Philadelphia rock station WMMR-FM. The sound of Asbury Park — a merging of rock’n’roll and horn-fueled R&B and soul — was a hit.

The venue has had several owners since its ’70s heyday with Roig and his partner, Robert “Butch” Pielka, who sold the venue in 1991 before it became a short-lived dance club called Vinyl from 1998 to 1999. A year later, Domenic Santana reopened the club with a ballyhooed press conference that included an appearance by then-New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, only to move on by 2003 and leave real estate company Asbury Partners in charge. With the future of the Stone Pony in doubt, it hired Asbury Park local Caroline O’Toole, who left a nearby club to manage the venue. O’Toole stayed on when developer Madison Marquette took ownership in 2008. The company brought Live Nation on board that year.

For more than 30 years, the city and oceanfront had been in a downward spiral that included riots in 1970, a desolate downtown and empty beaches on hot summer days. Springsteen spoke of Asbury Park’s “boarded-up windows, the empty streets” in “My City of Ruins.” These days, the city and its famed music venue are choice destinations.

“Shows were sold out at the Stone Pony,” President Barack Obama said on the city’s boardwalk, steps away from the venue, in 2013 after Superstorm Sandy. “I think a friend of mine from here once put it pretty well: ‘Down the shore, everything’s all right.’ ”

The modest- looking venue (shown here in 2005) has helped drive the revitalization of Asbury Park.

John Cavanaugh

The Stone Pony’s 850-capacity indoor stage and 4,500-capacity outdoor Summer Stage have hosted stars from Elvis Costello to Blondie, Green Day to Demi Lovato, as well as local favorites like Springsteen over its 50-year history. The modest building, painted white stucco on the outside with a simple rectangular floor plan, will continue its storied legacy with anniversary shows throughout the year. The Jukes played there Feb. 16 and Feb. 17 (although Southside Johnny left the second show early and was briefly hospitalized for dehydration, according to a band spokesman).

On the boardwalk overlooking the venue, O’Toole — whom Roig has called the Stone Pony’s “best manager” — discusses the venue today, its role in Asbury Park and the magic of a rock’n’roll night on the Jersey Shore.

Founding owner Jack Roig is still a familiar sight at the Stone Pony.

One of the things that makes the venue so special is that we’ve never tried to erase the past. We embrace the past. And Jack, it doesn’t get any earlier than him and Butch [Pielka], and his spirit is always there.

When you’re in the club off-hours, what do the walls talk to you about?

Probably most of the things I can’t tell you. (Laughs.) But I think it speaks volumes about customers’ experiences and band experiences and history that was being made when we didn’t even know it was being made. A lot of E Street members meeting their wives there; Bruce [Springsteen], especially, meeting Patti [Scialfa] there. All of these things were happening in addition to the music being played. It’s amazing to hear those stories and know that the Stone Pony was part of that.

Why do you think people make such a strong connection with the Stone Pony?

People come there for the music and the vibe. It’s like perfect conditions for meeting somebody, and you’re meeting somebody with the same interest, same ideology that you have. That music is a source for the good things in your life.

Players, The Stone Pony,

The Stone Pony Summer Stage, adjacent to the club, has hosted scores of national acts such as Asking Alexandria in 2019.

Chris Spiegel/Blue Revision

What were the venue and the city like when you first started working here?

It was 2003, and the boardwalk was still very much a desolate area. The redevelopment company at the time, Asbury Partners, was here, but everything was still in the very early stages. What I noticed the most [as someone] coming from the Belmar community [where O’Toole lived at the time] was that Memorial Day weekend in Belmar was a big deal. I remember being here in the summer thinking, “This is nothing like Belmar,” and it’s only three towns away. I couldn’t get over that. I just couldn’t believe what Asbury was like [in the midst of its decadeslong economic decline] in the summer. It took every bit of effort on my part, on a couple of other people’s parts, to keep [the Stone Pony] there because there were so many times in that five years [it] could have gone out of business.

What shows does Live Nation book at the Stone Pony? How does that work?

They book 99% of the outside shows [on the Summer Stage, adjacent to the club]. Once in a while, I’ll throw in one, or there will be a special rental or something like that. They book a lot of our inside shows, mostly all the national acts, and it’s probably well over 100 a year inside alone. Outside, we average 35 shows.

What happened in 2008 when the current owner, developer Madison Marquette, came in?

2008 was the turning point. Gary Mottola, who’s with Madison [as president of property investments], just when the real estate market tanked, he said to the company, “Let’s go, let’s do this.” They threw $90 million at the boardwalk [after the crash], and that’s what turned Asbury Park around.

Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes’ 1976 live broadcast really put the Stone Pony on the map.

No doubt about that, and it’s why he gets a lot of credit for the Pony being here. Not only is he a part of the history, but he has created moments for other people to create history. He’s a special guy; they’re a special band.

One thing that people get wrong is Springsteen did not get his start here — though he obviously helped put the Stone Pony on the map, too.

I always say Southside and Bruce made the Pony famous, not the other way around.

Springsteen’s a familiar face, too. He’ll play private benefits from time to time, he danced with Scialfa at a Quincy Mumford sound check in 2019, and he came to the memorial for longtime club fan Kerry Layton, whom many called “the Ambassador of the Stone Pony.”

Every time he’s there, it’s special. Especially when it’s just a regular moment, like him wanting to show Patti the new back bar, and that’s when the dance happened because Quincy Mumford was onstage sound-checking. Something that simple, like him wanting to show his wife how nice it looks in there, that was really cool.

Players, The Stone Pony,

A benefit show in 2003 for the Light of Day Foundation (which raises money to research cures for Parkinson’s disease and related illnesses) that featured (from left) Joe Grushecky, Bob Benjamin, Michael J. Fox and Bruce Springsteen.

John Cavanaugh

What do musicians playing the Stone Pony for the first time say to you or want to know about the venue?

It’s funny. During sound check, I’ll [sometimes] hear them doing a Bruce song that they don’t normally do. There’s nothing else they need or want to know. They’re here because of the history, and they want to be part of it. Every act that comes in here and adds to the history just keeps the legacy going.

The area has experienced two really tough times in recent years: Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and the coronavirus pandemic. The club helped build a sense of community in the aftermath of those two events.

It’s being a beacon of hope, a beacon of light in our town and on our shore. People say, “Is the Pony OK? OK! The Pony’s OK, I’m OK, we’ll get through it OK.” It mattered to a lot of people that it was still here after both terrible events.

What’s the Stone Pony’s role with the big festivals that come through?

We’re glad to be included. Stacie George, vp of Live Nation New York, was determined from the beginning to really make [the annual New Jersey LGBTQ+ Pride Celebration in Asbury Park] something. Up until then, it was maybe a show here or there, but this year we will have three or four solid days of Pride shows, and that has never happened before. Again, it’s history in the making, and I’m very proud that’s what’s happening. I’m glad the community has embraced the acts that have come here. [For] Sea.Hear.Now, we’ve had some legendary aftershows, and I’m glad that a festival like that is here. The people who run it [including Asbury Park-based music photographer Danny Clinch] are friends of ours, and they’re incredible people.

What’s the role of the Stone Pony in Asbury Park in 2024?

The future of the community has gotten so much brighter with new things coming through. The Pony is a symbol that we don’t have to let go of our past to embrace our future. The Pony is a symbol of both those things.

Chris Jordan is the music writer for the Asbury Park Press, which is part of the USA Today Network.

This story will appear in the March 9, 2024, issue of Billboard.

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