OMG, They’ve Renovated Asbury Park!
The Boss is going to have to stop singing “My City of Ruins.” Asbury Park is on the way back. Forget that: ASBURY PARK IS BACK. We’ve been hearing the rumors for years – that a new influx of gay residents had been renovating the housing stock, opening stores and renovating at least one hotel, and we knew that the live scene had never disappeared. But until last weekend, we had no idea just how much damn FUN Asbury Park can now provide.
Usually, when we hit the Jersey shore we stay at my mother in law’s, only a few miles further south from Asbury Park, in a conservative part of the world that I find insanely boring (if mildly beautiful). Unable to do so this past weekend but determined to still make a proper road trip out of seeing James at the Stone Pony (review to follow), tickets for which we bought when they went on sale, we splurged on a room at the Berkeley Carteret, the grand old hotel right on the waterfront that has been through more bad times than good these last few decades.
I’d been to the Berkeley once before: in July 1990, to interview Jon Bon Jovi for Rapido. Jon (that’s Mr. Bon Jovi to you) told me that Johnny Cash was a new part-owner of the hotel and, thanks to the wonders of Google, I’ve just able to confirm some truth to that statement. In fact, last year Universal issued a live album from the concert he recorded at the Paramount Theater in Asbury, that same month.
I can’t remember too much about the Berkeley-Carteret that day, except that it seemed almost desolate, as did the entire town and Boardwalk – and this was either the day before or after the peak summer July 4 holiday. (I know because I always associate that interview with England’s defeat to Germany in the World Cup Semi-Final on July 4. But I digress, as ever…) The Berkeley was probably not at peak capacity last weekend, and maybe it’s too much to expect such a vast old building to ever truly regain its past glories, but we were mightily impressed by the size of the room we got, large enough for the whole family with some space left over. We were also taken by the new, funky décor, both in the room itself and in the downstairs lobbies. At the same time, the Berkeley is still a long way from living up to its potential, and if that’s reflected in broken lifts, non-functioning cable TV, some side rooms that clearly need more than a mere lick of paint, and a breakfast buffet that consisted only of coffee, tea, and a choice of a bagel or roll, then this was also reflected in the asking price of $125, only a few dollars more than the Days Inn several miles further inland. Plus, we had an iPod dock (more opportunity to listen to James!), high-end toiletries, and a 27” TV screen that served Campbell’s Playstation perfectly well.
The Berkeley is but one home run from the Asbury Park Convention Hall, a famous stop on the Who’s tour of 1967, where Keith Moon reputedly jumped off the end of the pier. (If you read my book, there are several explanations offered.) Though the tide at the Jersey shore is certainly strong – there were no shortage of surfers out on Sunday – the pier is not really a pier. In fact, there’s now a tide pool at the end of it for parents to walk with their children, so the chance of Keith ever drowning was probably not that big, but still… it was fun to conjure up the ghost of the image. The Convention Hall still books live music, as you can see from the photo, but what you can’t see is that the Grand Arcade inside is home to an Irish bar, a posh bakery, a couple of cheaper snack bars and a panini place too. Also forming part of this complex is the Paramount Theater, where Johnny Cash played back in 1990, and which is hosting Alison Moyet on October 11. Judging by the size and energy of the local gay population, I imagine Alf’s gig will be near enough sold out – and enormously enjoyable.
The most stunning thing of all about the Convention Hall is the new (open only since May, I was told by my waitress, who confirmed that “You wouldn’t think you were in New Jersey, would you?”) Beach Bar that wraps around two sides of the Hall. Quite literally, it reminded us both (that’s Posie and I, not the waitress and I!) of our hotel in Hawaii on our honeymoon, else of something we experienced beach side in Ibiza – vast couch set-ups overlooking the beach, four-poster beds overlooking the tide pool in the Ocean, a cocktail menu, decent snacks (it took us half an hour to get through a shared plate of hummus) – and house music pumping out of the speakers at 11 in the morning just like a beach-side bar in the Balearics. This provided an almost hilariously incongruous complement to the Sunday-best Greek Orthodox churchgoers, many of whom were availing themselves of an early Sunday cocktail before the Church service on the beach, followed by what looked like an all-afternoon party in the adjoining park. I went to a Greek wedding once; I’ve never seen any people party harder. I’m left with the feeling that the Greek Orthodox could be a pretty good church to join, should you be looking for religion and a place in heaven but don’t like giving up your weekends and find abstinence a little too soul-destroying.
A stroll along the Boardwalk found a former Howard Johnson’s converted into a Supper Club – mis-named, given that it was busy serving brunch – a couple of cool clothing stores, a funky furniture shop, a juice bar, a glass studio, mini golf, and a water park in the midst of construction. Just behind the future water park, the Wonderland Bar was hosting an afternoon concert by 70s cult rocker Commander Cody; one block over from the Wonderland, the Stone Pony was warming up for its own all-afternoon-and-evening metal show, headlined by Motorhead. This same week the Stone Pony was hosting James, Dinosaur Jr. and, so we still thought at the time, From The Jam. A little heavy on the nostalgia, perhaps, but it’s not always so. And with The Saint a little further inland, that’s at least five live rock venues in one supposedly run-down seaside town. How many do they have in yours?
Saturday night, as we hung outdoors in the rear part of the Stone Pony after the James gig, sharing a drink with one of old NJ compadres, we could see lights flashing on the exterior walls of the Empress Hotel, presumably around the swimming pool which, I can only assume having not had the chance to check it out, connects to the Hotel’s infamous nightclub. The Empress has become the hub of the local gay scene, the local headquarters for all things fun and funky and, judging by the rather homophobic reaction of a Mancunian James fan I chatted with at the Beach Bar Sunday morning, a fair bit of public male-on-male behavior that wouldn’t have been out of place in Manhattan’s meatpacking district before they turned it into a meat market. The Empress looks like an absolute riot, and I would love to stay there myself any time we’re not expecting a full night’s sleep. Considering that Noel didn’t go to bed until we got home from the gig, and was up at more or less the crack of dawn, we may as well stay there next time anyway.
As everyone knows, a weekend away is only as good as the weather, and this could not have been a more perfect late summer’s day if we had scripted it. (Just look at the pictures!) I’m sure I wouldn’t have felt quite as impressed on a wet Sunday in February, but then that’s the point of a seaside resort, is it not, to make the most of it when the weather obliges? And so, at lunchtime, we retreated from the Beach Bar and the boardwalk for an hour at the hotel pool – though we’d checked out already, the staff had said it would be fine to come back and use it, and even provided us with towels. I would love nothing more than to have spent the rest of the afternoon window shopping at the stores on the boardwalk, having an(other) cocktail at the Beach Bar, maybe dinner at the former Howard Johnson, and perhaps even taking in Motorhead for old time’s sake, but we needed to pay the mother in law a visit and Monday was to be a school day. Still, driving back into Asbury Park proper, we found that Main Street looked no less fashionable and happening than the Boardwalk, restaurants, bars, cafes, and stores all spilling over onto the sidewalk. No wonder new condos are going up rapidly. No wonder they’re charging $500g a pop.
So, alright, it’s not quite Ibiza. It’s not quite Burning Man. And, I know, it’s not exactly Hawaii. But it’s a damn site closer – and cheaper – than any of those. Looks like we just found ourselves our new weekend destination.